Sherman Hemsley passed away recently. There’s been some great write-ups on his life in various papers and on various blogs, but I think one of the greatest compliments that can be made about him is to put a show like “How I Met Your Mother” on after an old episode of “The Jeffersons” and compare the energy a whole cast brings to what he brought.
“How I Met Your Mother” (HIMYM) is a sitcom with a great concept as a starting point. In the year 2030, a man named Ted tells his children how their parents got together, and those ensuing tales make up the show–twenty-something Ted and his four friends living in New York as Ted stumbles his way to meeting the future mother of his children. It owes a lot to “Friends,” except that when I watched that show as a kid, I did so because–even with a world so completely tailored to its characters–those characters had a vitality that I find lacking in HIMYM. I’ve really liked Allyson Hannigan, Jason Segal and Neil Patrick Harris in some of their other acting gigs, and on “How I Met Your Mother” they have a kind of vitality, but I find the whole thing so bland that such is like air in a vacuum.
HIYM values dramatic elements, but, even when those show up, every time I’ve tried to watch an episode, nothing has jumped out and held my interest. In a 2006 interview with Maureen Ryan that includes a discussion about sitcoms, co-creator of HIMYM Craig Thomas said:
“It was raining here in New York and we were supposed to go out, but we couldn’t, so my wife turned on the TV, and this is going to sound like such a dopey story, but there was an episode of ‘A Different World’ was on TV Land or something. And it was this really moving episode about racism and stereotypes and slavery and all this stuff.’ And I was watching it going, ‘Man, sitcoms used to be about something.’ And I don’t remember ‘A Different World’ being that good [laughs].
“But hopefully if sitcoms can start doing that a little more, people may be more interested in them.”
The only reason that I think that might be considered ‘dopey’ is because of whatever virtues ‘A Different World’ isn’t supposed to have in the mainstream consciousness. But HIYM is a far cry from a show like “A Different World,” and not just because of the obvious differences. Take “Taxi”–a show where many of the characters were on losing streaks or disaffected, and were still both funny and endearing.
A lot of the things that happen in HIMYM simply seem to happen to lackluster, comfortable people because, “Hey, this is what we do.” To some extent, this kind of motivation seemed to be given to the George Jefferson character that Hemsley played.
He didn’t find it easy. Conceived as a counterpart to the bigoted Archie Bunker (of “All in the Family”), the George Jefferson character’s background was that he came from a family of Alabama sharecroppers and worked as a janitor in a rundown section of Harlem until he opened the first of more than a few successful dry cleaning businesses. Like Bunker, George Jefferson was a bigot and, also like Bunker, Jefferson’s portrayal was also controlled by primarily white writers. Instead of giving George Jefferson the kind of dimensions that characters on “Good Times” had before it became “The JJ Show,” it was far less challenging to audiences to give them a dismissive loudmouth. But surely there’s some pain being born in 1929 and seeing your family struggle under someone’s heel as a sharecropper. Pain doesn’t always work itself out in a way that’s ideal.
Hemsley’s own likeability and creative decisions added a great deal to George Jefferson. If that character had been given the kind of dimensions that a character would get on “The Wire,” or if Hemsley had afterwards been given the chance to play a role with more nuances, there’s a good chance that he would have been considered a good actor and not just a character.
Still, best Jefferson in history? Yes, probably. But I’m not sure if even he would have made HIMYM more lively. And certainly not that Thomas one.