A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre
And will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen
Or Bullwinkle and Julia
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner
Because the revolution will not be televised, brother
It’s all but impossible to write a comprehensive overview of television’s cultural impact without mentioning Julia. One of the first TV shows to feature a black female lead, Julia made history on multiple fronts. Star Diahann Carroll became the first African-American woman to score a major Emmy acting nomination, rather than being recognized just for a supporting role or one-off performance. The show gave its heroine a dating life, depicting her in romantic situations at a time when Southern network affiliates often balked at pictures of darker-skinned couples kissing. While most television dramas and even news programs limited depictions of black life to images of servants, militants, and the desperately poor, Julia cast Carroll as a widowed mother with a good-paying nursing job, dealing with ordinary work and family problems instead of coping with crushing institutional racism. The show provided a bridge between Bill Cosby’s multi-Emmy-winning action-comedy I Spy and the award-winning variety smash The Flip Wilson Show.
So, why can’t you watch Julia right now?
Earlier this year, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a Washington Post column titled, “Why are so many great black TV shows missing from streaming services?” Rosenberg’s piece was inspired by a sudden impulse to rewatch one of her favorite ’90s sitcoms, Living Single, and her disappointment at finding that the series wasn’t readily available online (at least not legally). Further digging led Rosenberg to discover that a significant number of classic black television comedies—everything from Girlfriends to Sanford And Son—were equally impossible to call up digitally at a moment’s notice. She didn’t mention Julia in her article, but that’s an especially egregious case. Julia’s never been released on DVD and isn’t available for streaming or download; and while it does air regularly on cable, your best chance to see it is if you happen to live in a community with a cable system carrying Magic Johnson’s Aspire TV. Julia hasn’t vanished, per se. But with each passing year, it’s becoming a show that’s cited more than it’s watched.
And that’s a shame, because even in 2016, Julia has value as more than just a pivotal social experiment. For one thing, it’s a model of the late 1960s’ well-made sitcom, shot on film, in vivid color, with a tone so gentle as to seem almost weightless. In an era that was dominated by laugh-a-minute shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hogan’s Heroes, the networks also found space for softer efforts like Family Affair, which barely had any jokes, and instead relied on adorably kind characters, mildly amusing observations, and relatably human situations. Smart showrunners—like Room 222’s James L. Brooks—took advantage of the overtly inoffensive qualities of the “classy” sitcom to engage with serious social issues in a way that wouldn’t scare anyone away.
The first-season Julia episode “I’m Dreaming Of A Black Christmas” is a good case in point. In the decades since it went off the air, Julia has developed a reputation as a show that steered clear of controversy, and yet race (or at least cultural displacement) is right at the center of this episode, which is primarily about a young boy’s alienation from the holiday celebrations in his new home. The series’ premise had Julia Baker and her grade-school-aged son, Corey (played by Marc Copage), moving from Kansas to California, where she took a job working for Dr. Morton Chegley (Lloyd Nolan) at an aerospace company. Used to life in a predominately black middle-American community, the Bakers struggle to adjust to a suburban apartment complex with mostly white neighbors. Unexpected problems ensue, such as when Corey is playing with his best friend, Earl J. Waggedorn (Michael Link), and the two start to argue about whether the Santa Claus in their coloring books should be filled in with brown crayon or pink.
For the most part, “I’m Dreaming Of A Black Christmas” is indistinguishable from just about any other “true meaning of the holidays” sitcom episode. The ever-upbeat Julia is beset by grinches and scrooges throughout, including her boss, who gets extra irritable at the yuletide because he feels the season’s been co-opted by the “jackals of merchantdom.” As if to prove his point, the big comic set piece in this episode has comedian Jack Soo playing an irascible tree salesman who snarls at the Bakers’ search for a Walt Disney/Norman Rockwell kind of Christmas tree, and instead persuades them to buy a scraggly pine with a crooked trunk. (“The whole world’s crooked, lady,” he shrugs.) Just when it looks like the holiday will be miserable for Corey, all of the Bakers’ friends and colleagues separately arrange to send black Santas to the apartment, leading to a whimsical montage of dark-skinned Kris Kringles tripping over each other in the hallway while Julia sings a medley of carols to her child in her living room.
The black Santa invasion effectively squelches the beef between Earl and Corey. Yet even before they arrive, Julia’s done her best to calm the boys, by talking about how Santa’s really “the spirit of Christmas giving,” who can be “different colors to different people,” adding, “What difference does it make, so long as he’s a good man?” Privately though, she sighs to her friends, “It’s times like this when I wish everybody was beige… or plaid.”
Those kinds of blandly positive platitudes brought a fair amount of criticism to Julia while the show was on the air. At a time in American history when the pacifist civil rights movement was giving way to revolutionaries and race riots, Julia struck some as insultingly out of touch. The show’s creator, Hal Kanter, wasn’t exactly plugged in politically. He was a veteran Hollywood writer who’d worked a lot with Bob Hope and had penned his share of old-fashioned ethnic humor for radio, TV, and movies. He always said that his goal with Julia was to do something positive for race relations by “normalizing” the African-American experience and making Julia and Corey seem like every other hardworking middle-class family.
His legacy ended up being somewhat mixed. After Kanter died, Aniko Bodroghkozy wrote an obituary for the Antenna blog that pretty well summed up his accomplishments, for better and worse:
That Kanter’s attempt to “help the black people” by creating an innocuous sitcom about successfully achieved integration ended up causing so much controversy must have puzzled the writer greatly. As a graduate student, I came across his collected papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. In files labeled “fan mail,” I found audience letters addressed to Kanter and carbon-copied responses. Kanter could be quite testy about viewer criticism of his show. To one black woman who argued that the show and Julia as a character were unreal and geared only towards white audiences, Kanter grumbled, “I’m glad you think our work is ‘good for an all-white program.’ I’ll pass your praise along to our black writer and black actors.” Kanter could understand how his work on Amos ’N’ Andy and Beulah was problematic. Those shows presented stereotypes—servile or buffoonish imagery. But Julia did nothing of the kind. If Julia and Corey were not stereotypes, but rather paragons of intelligence, style, education, and achievement, how could anybody complain? That they were the creation of a white man who really hadn’t spent much time with black people shouldn’t have mattered either. Kanter—along with much of white America—couldn’t understand how the politics of race relations had changed by the late 1960s. White benevolence on white terms wasn’t going to cut it in 1968. But Hal Kanter was sincere. He really did want to do the right thing.
It’s a mistake though, to think of Julia as a well-meaning failure, or even to presume that it was made for white audiences, not black. The whole reason NBC aired the show in the first place was because in 1968 nobody could beat The Red Skelton Show in that time slot, and the network figured that if it was going to get creamed in the ratings anyway, it may as well generate some positive PR by scheduling a series that intended to do some good. To NBC’s surprise, Julia’s first season landed in the year-end Nielsen Top 10, defying the conventional wisdom that a “black show” couldn’t draw enough viewers—or advertisers—to be profitable.
Fred Williamson, who played Julia’s boyfriend in the third season, spoke to The A.V. Club in 2008:
It holds up pretty well because it was a comedy show but it was not slapstick comedy. It didn’t go overboard. I think Diahann Carroll’s integrity wouldn’t allow her to do anything that was slapstick comedy, and my character certainly would not do that kind of eye-rolling and teeth-grinning kind of comedy, which is where the black infusion into television seemed to go. All that shuffling kind of bullshit. I wasn’t doing that, she wasn’t doing that, so it was a very sophisticated black show.
It’s just that the sophistication was often more subtle than the hip, radicalized audiences of the late ’60s could recognize. “I’m Dreaming Of A Black Christmas” is dotted with moments where ingrained racial attitudes are explored much more slyly—as in a scene where Julia’s white colleague Nurse Yarby casually mentions that they’ve been working “like slaves,” and everyone else in the room can’t do more than just smile awkwardly. The most telling moment in the episode happens so quickly that it’s easy to miss: When Julia’s neighbor Marie Waggedorn starts to comment on the Bakers’ “unusual” Christmas tree, her husband nudges her to be silent, as though presuming that Julia lacks the means to buy something better. And later, when the black Santas converge on the apartment, another neighbor remarks, “You folks sure go all out.” That’s a fair amount of sharp social observation for a sitcom that had a reputation for being toothlessly saccharine.
Even Kanter’s stated goal to treat the Bakers like any other family pays off in one touching monologue for Carroll, whose acting chops didn’t always get the recognition they deserved. (It didn’t help that she was so often playing scenes with the young, inexperienced Copage, who was clearly reading his lines off cue cards.) As mother and son reflect on Christmases past, Julia tells the story of spending the holidays on a German military base with Corey’s father, before he was killed in Vietnam. There’s nothing specifically “black” or “white” about that memory. In December of 1968, that was a situation that too many Americans of many different races would recognize.
Carroll often bristled at the criticism of Julia, saying that activists expected too much of it. Speaking to Ebony a few years ago, she said, “I felt it was a charming little show and I loved the writing… I never thought that it would carry with it the kind of weight that it has, in terms of making a contribution into this country moving along with our acute racial problem.” And in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, she reminded fans that she’s a person first, not a symbol. “I lost two children [to miscarriage],” she said. “That’s why when we talk about racism it will always take third, fourth, fifth place to some of the other things that have happened to me that are much more meaningful than being in a room with an idiot who is going to judge the color of my skin.”
The real shame about Julia back in 1968 wasn’t that it was insufficiently radical, but that it wasn’t surrounded by a half dozen other shows about African-American life, which might’ve allowed a sitcom about a comfortably situated black single mother to be the fine piece of family entertainment it was always meant to be. Maybe then it would’ve joined the likes of The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, That Girl, and every other show from its era that still survives in syndication and on DVD box sets. Sanitized or not, these series form a mosaic of American life from the times they were made. And right now, that picture’s awfully monochrome.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Party Down, “California College Conservative Union Caucus”