Ask Matt: ABC’s Norman Lear Tribute, Sitcom Life After Finales, ‘Mom,’ an ‘FBI’ Departure, and More

ABC/Eric McCandless

Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic (also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist”) Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on most Tuesdays and Friday.

It’s Not Easy Filling Archie’s Shoes

Question: I mostly enjoyed ABC’s tribute to Norman Lear’s classic comedies of the 1970s, All in the Family and The Jeffersons. What was funny and groundbreaking then still can make us laugh and sometimes even gasp today, and everyone seemed to be having a great time on the set and in the audience. But there was a definite weak link. Woody Harrelson was just not the right choice for Archie Bunker, which kept the All in the Family portion from being as successful as I’d hoped. The Jeffersons section, though, was a hoot. And how about that Marla Gibbs? — Joyce

Matt Roush: All hail Marla Gibbs, whose surprise appearance (because Justina Machado of One Day at a Time had been announced to play the role) in reprising the immortal role of Florence was one of the great surprises of Wednesday’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience special. The spirit and intent of these recreations was so genuine I’m reluctant to emphasize the negative, because I enjoyed it, too — having grown up with these shows when I was in middle and high school in the 1970s, watching TV grow up in the process. But while noting that of all the cast he had the highest degree of difficulty, I’d have to agree that Harrelson was all wrong for playing Archie, physically and temperamentally (and the less said about the accent the better). I was puzzling over what went so badly, and eventually decided that the actor’s biggest mistake was in trying to be funny: in his physical mannerisms, in his jokey delivery, all of which went sideways, because Carroll O’Connor’s masterful performance, while comical, never made you think Archie thought he was being funny. He was always dead serious about his gruff outrageousness, and there was a gravity to his persona and movements altogether lacking in Harrelson’s. Even the way he sat in the iconic chair didn’t feel right. (I wish they’d gone with more of a character actor, someone like Veeps Kevin Dunn, who would not have been as big a name, but might have fit the role better.)

Marisa Tomei, however, was amazing at channeling Edith, not even really breaking when Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson went up on his lines. Because of the imbalance in the Family cast (including Ellie Kemper‘s more strident Gloria, lacking the vulnerably panicked and conflicted daddy’s-little-girl quality of Sally Struthers), that entire episode felt more like an extended sketch. But because The Jeffersons was more overtly joke-driven, it played better. Foxx may have overdone George’s strutting, but he conveyed Sherman Hemsley’s pomposity even though they’re not the same physical type at all. And Wanda Sykes, Jackée Harry, Kerry Washington, Marla Gibbs: perfection. All in all, a noble effort and a worthy tribute to the legendary Norman Lear.

Will the ‘Big Bang’ Finale Live on in Syndication?

Question: I really enjoyed The Big Bang Theorys finale, but this isn’t a question about BBT specifically — rather, it’s what I hope to see in syndication one day. I’ve watched many of my favorite shows in reruns over the years, currently enjoying all-day cable marathons of shows like Friends, The Office, and in particular, M*A*S*H.  I noticed that I never see those shows’ finales in reruns.  I get that with a show like M*A*S*H that had a two-hour movie-like finale in “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” that maybe it’s hard to fit into the schedule, but why have I never seen other popular shows’ finales, Seinfeld‘s for example?  None of the shows that repeat often on cable ever seem to re-air the finale.  Do you know why this is?  Will we see the BBT finale again as part of a weekend marathon one day? — Toni

Matt Roush: An interesting question, and I wish I had a definitive answer. With Seinfeld, that controversial finale’s hourlong length (and backlash about its content) may have inhibited it. Which might not be the case with Big Bang’s happy ending, playing out over two distinct episodes. Caveat: I tend not to cover shows’ afterlife once they’re no longer producing episodes, and I wish I had the luxury of time to re-watch old favorites in syndication or streaming. (The glut of this “peak TV” era pretty much forbids it.) Which is a way of saying I’m not entirely aware of just how rare it is for a long-running sitcom’s finale to be shown in a syndicated package. But I will share the conventional wisdom that I picked up when I started covering this beat, that syndicators preferred not to air or include finales — especially if they were grand finales with life-changing (or ending) storylines — because the whole idea of syndication was to preserve the notion that these shows could just go on forever with infinite replays, never stopping or ending. Whether that’s the case today I’m just not sure, but that was one rationalization for why finales are rarely if ever seen in syndication. In the streaming world, though, watching shows from beginning to actual end is very much a thing, so that may be your best bet for viewing series in their entirety. And, of course, on DVD.

Why Does an Ending Have to Be the End?

Question: Count me among the countless Big Bang Theory fans who very much enjoyed the series finale. But it sparked a question that I think about whenever a beloved series comes to an end. Why don’t the creators of once popular but departed TV shows do occasional follow-up special episodes, miniseries, or TV movies? I mean, wouldn’t you love to know how the Seinfeld gang would relate to the Internet and social media? (Jerry and do-it-yourself YouTube and podcast comedy shows; Elaine and Facebook and Instagram; George and online porn, Kramer and … well, who knows?) All the principle actors could participate if these event shows were scheduled far enough in advance. Media hype and ratings would be guaranteed. Numerous TV series like Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Jericho, have continued to live on through the medium of comic books. But why turn the reins over to fan fiction?

I think my idea is a viable way you could keep cancelled series “alive.” And I think The Big Bang Theory would be an excellent test case. Start a year from now with a special episode or TV movie about the birth of Penny’s baby, and (finally) a serious romance for Raj. Then a year later, Raj proposes, Amy announces she’s pregnant, and we learn how the others are handling parenting. A year after that, Raj gets married, and we meet Sheldon and Amy’s quintuplets. (This would necessitate a miniseries, as multiple offspring would require multiple episodes.). Anyway, you get my drift. Any thoughts? — Maurice

Matt Roush: In other words, why need to revive a show if it never really goes away? Some of these ideas sound better than others, and as wish lists go, I’ve heard worse. But much as I’ve had to dash water from time to time over the idea that a canceled series can bring everyone back together for just one more episode to provide closure, the logistics and economics involved in pulling this sort of thing off would no doubt be daunting. It might be worth it for short-term ratings, and I’m all for event television — witness my support above for ABC’s Norman Lear tribute — but the reality of show business is that in many of these cases, the actors and writers would rather move on to new roles and challenges than keep looking back to their past triumphs. On the other hand, many creatives know just how lucky they are to be involved in even a single hit show, so in this age of reboots and revivals, you might eventually get your wish.

Some Grandma Bonnie Is!

Question: I am catching up on Mom, and in the episode where Bonnie is telling her former foster mother about her accomplishments and family, she never mentions her grandchildren. I know the show is getting away from them, but she was so close to both that I found it odd she did not even mention them. What do you think? — Laurie

Matt Roush: I’ve addressed the issue numerous times about how Mom has evolved over the seasons from a domestic comedy (in which Christy’s children are part of the storyline) into an adult comedy about a different sort of family, with Christy and Bonnie’s female support group. I’m at peace with this decision, and love how the ensemble continues to grow with William Fichtner (Adam) and most recently Kristen Johnston (Tammy), but will concede that Mom has a blind spot when it comes to Christy’s absent kids. The writers did a service not long ago with the episode in which Christy tried to reconcile with Violet, and her daughter just wasn’t ready for it yet. But when it comes to little Roscoe, who’s living with his dad (Christy’s ex, Baxter) and well-off stepmom, they should at least pay him some lip service now and then. I felt the same way during this episode, that Bonnie should at least have mentioned her grandkids, and felt it even more strongly in the episode when Bonnie and Adam went to Baxter’s car dealership to get new wheels. To never even bring the kid up ignores the reality in which the show lives, and while I’m OK that they’re no longer a regular part of Mom, it is jarring when this oversight occurs.

FBI‘s Least Wanted

Question: Why is Sela Ward leaving FBI after just one season? She was perfect for the role and has a strong following on TV. I think her departure is a tremendous loss for the show. — J Long

Matt Roush: It was reported that Sela Ward had signed just a one-year deal with the series, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected. Some actors — see Connie Britton, who similarly left 9-1-1 after just one season — opt not to be tied down indefinitely to a show, and these are personal choices. I’m only speculating here, because I’m not aware of any exit interviews or the like, but knowing that Ward spent time in the trenches of CSI: NY, I imagine that while she was grateful for the FBI gig, being part of a procedural ensemble may not always be the most rewarding job for an actor. She did class up the joint, though, so I hope we’ll see her on TV again soon.

A Hairy Puzzlement

Question: Who thought it was a good idea to make Watson a blonde in the new season of Elementary? — Gordon

Matt Roush: By all accounts, that was Lucy Liu‘s call. And while it’s maybe surprising, it’s undeniably striking. (The change of hair color is referenced in the season opener, suggesting that it’s a reaction to Watson wanting to mix things up now that she’s adjusting to life in London.) It’s not like this could do any damage to the show, which knew going in that this would be the final season. Enjoy while you can.

Speaking of Final Seasons…

Question: I completely agree with your analysis of CBS giving Madam Secretary another season and announcing that it would be the last, giving the writers the chance to close out this terrific series in a way that is respectful to the fans who have supported it. After I watched this season’s final episode, I really hoped that it would not be the last we saw of Elizabeth McCord and her presidential campaign. I have always really admired the writing (sometimes seemingly “ripped from the headlines”) and the aspirational tone of this particular Cabinet department. The McCord family scenes were also good, and I look forward to seeing how they all respond to the challenges of a national political campaign. Thank you, CBS, for renewing this show. — Gwen

Matt Roush: Always happy to end the column on a positive note. Especially when I obviously agree. We’ll be there cheering them on in the fall as a welcome respite to the political madness of our so-called real world.

That’s all for now. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below. Please include a first name with your question.