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Long before Bill Cosby started wearing his friendly sweaters, urban middle-class African Americans burst onto television in the form of Louise (better known as "Weezy") and George Jefferson, portrayed by Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley. Spun off from All in the Family, The Jeffersons ran from 1975 to 1985, and it's easy to see what made the show so popular--Sanford and Hemsley were a knockout comic duo, surrounded by a skilled supporting cast that included the interracial couple Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover), British expatriate Harry Bentley (Paul Benedict), as well as George's cantankerous mother Olivia (Zara Cully) and their snappy, cynical maid Florence (Marla Gibbs). Set in a high-rise apartment building in the heart of New York City, the show spun around George, a classic character portrait of vanity, arrogance, and petty prejudice. Balanced by the more level-headed but just as strong-willed Weezy, George's self-serving abrasiveness struck comic gold, particularly in the second season, when the show's style had been set but was still fresh. Episodes tackled subjects trivial (George and Tom wear the same tacky dinner jacket to a party) and trenchant (a country club invites George to join, but only so that a newspaper reporter will think the club is open to minorities). The black and white mix of the cast allowed for a sharply satirical take on race relations, which managed to have a genuine sense of hope while never glossing over the complexity of racial tension--and was consistently funny. In fact, it's striking how well the show's humor holds up; The Jeffersons turned a series of half-hour farces into a sly examination of marriage, race, class, and the battle of the sexes; it's sad that so few contemporary sitcoms have this kind of intelligence, courage, and sheer talent.

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CO01014 Jeffersons Season Two DVD (1976) $19.95