Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for January 14 through 20 is Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016), which is available to stream on Netflix or digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.
Last week, the new show One Day at a Time — which is actually a reboot of the 1975 sitcom of the same name — dropped its entire first season on Netflix. The reboot takes the original and resets it among a Cuban-American family, and it’s been getting rave reviews.
The show’s executive producers are Mike Royce, Gloria Calderón Kellett, Michael Garcia, and the great Norman Lear, who produced the original show. Lear is a bona fide TV legend; his earlier show All in the Family, which premiered on CBS in 1971, elevated the TV sitcom from light, skit-influenced storylines to political commentary that still has the potential to make audiences uncomfortable in 2017 — and to leave them roaring.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is a biographical documentary about Lear and his work. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady tell his story through clips from his shows, archival footage, and interviews with actors and other collaborators, as well as Lear himself. Lear was 93 years old when the film premiered at Sundance in 2016 — and, as evidenced by the One Day at a Time reboot, he hasn't slowed down a bit.
As a documentary, Just Another Version of You is conventionally made, and it’s undercut a bit by some baffling omissions of Lear’s family members. These give the doc the air of an homage more than a thorough exploration of its subject.
But it's worth watching anyhow. Lear's accomplishments are unparalleled: At one point he was the producer of seven out of 10 of TV's top-rated shows, and his portfolio boasts Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Diff'rent Strokes, among others. His great contribution — besides making great TV — was recognizing that comedy could be a vehicle for entertainment and also espouse a point of view, just by portraying (and often satirizing) ordinary American families.
Just Another Version of You is also an interesting look at the interaction between art, entertainment, and politics — Lear founded the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way and, in response to the rise of the Religious Right as a political force, has long advocated for the removal of religion from the public political sphere. But even viewers who don't share Lear's politics may appreciate the ways his art and activism informed one another, something that feels uniquely American.
The release of One Day at a Time isn't the only current event that makes the documentary worth revisiting — contemporary family sitcoms have lately been veering back toward the Lear mold, including Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, and especially Black-ish, which has aired several episodes that feel like Lear shows (on police brutality and biracial dating and identity) as well as a whole episode set in the Good Times universe. On Wednesday, the show aired another such episode to grapple with the post-election atmosphere. (Lear has also worked with writing teams on shows like South Park.)
TV comedy keeps morphing to fit the mood of the people who watch it, but it can direct that mood too, and that’s what Lear recognized — most recently by rebooting a 40-year-old sitcom and making it feel fresh. And while peeking into Lear’s world is a fascinating romp through a golden age in TV comedy, if Black-ish and its ilk are any indication, it’s also a glimpse of the future.
Watch the trailer for Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.