Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Good Times (1974-1979, CBS), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Good Times stars ESTHER ROLLE as Florida Evans, JOHN AMOS as James Evans, JA’NET DUBOIS as Willona Woods, RALPH CARTER as Michael Evans, BERN NADETTE STANIS as Thelma Evans, and JIMMIE WALKER as J.J.
Good Times is not a show that needs to be discussed here. But, as noted in our preamble to this coverage — under the pretenses of a Maude rerun — I’ve already studied the series in a professional capacity, so including it now both takes advantage of that effort and allows me to share more nuanced commentary on Norman Lear’s ’70s oeuvre. I aim to be brief though, for a lot of what I have to say about Lear’s work was hit upon last week, specifically regarding his three more enjoyable and important classics that we’ve previously highlighted (All In The Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons). All I want to do now is put Good Times, the weakest of these four, in that established context. Let’s recap where we left off… If you’ll recall, these Lear sitcoms exist within that early ’70s trend of low-concept comic realism, with structures that inherently push forward their primary characters. Yet all of his shows are heavily idea-driven, interested only in exploring sociopolitical themes that view the givens of premise and people as tools for a larger conceptual purpose. To that point, success in a Lear comedy is, like all idea-driven shows, predicated on having ideas that satisfy the central objective, which naturally diminishes over time, particularly, in this case, as the flow of once-taboo topics slows. Additionally, Lear’s regulars, despite being more dimensional than other eras’, are merely vessels for macro sociopolitical concepts, which gives them a broadness that aggrandizes both comedy and drama, making it difficult for them to actually inspire believable story in the absence of grounding premise-affirming notions. For that reason, none of these shows can avoid major qualitative declines… although some are able to prolong this drop by more regularly meeting their thesis’ demands, mostly due to strong characters, and strong character-rooted designs. All In The Family is the best of this lot — both because it’s the door-kicker, benefiting the most from its own novelty, and also because it has a smart, simple setup that marries its leads’ pedagogical functions (which all point towards the single goal of ridiculing Nixon era conservatism) to a relatable emotional dynamic that supports validating political conflicts and encourages well-defined characterizations via relationships, fulfilling the premise more readily and doing so with the most comic, believable, and utilizable leads of any Lear endeavor.
Maude is not nearly as well-constructed, lacking characters beyond its dominating central figure who can help the show meet its already difficult political objective (mocking an ideology with which it basically agrees). This forces the series to quickly pivot away from “relevancy” into a more traditional domestic sitcom — a move that allows scripts to continue employing funny ideas (only somewhat driven by its leads, who become moderately defined through cultivated relationships) without having to worry about whether they are addressing a topical premise. Essentially, Maude induces the inevitable transition Lear shows usually seek to prolong, and at a time when it still has the creative juice to set a new baseline of quality. The Jeffersons, meanwhile, has less control over its trajectory, and given that it enjoyed a terribly long run that began at the ’70s’ midpoint — by which time the novelty of political shows had waned and the era’s low-concept realism had started to considerably broaden, inviting a more pronounced comic energy that was often at odds with Lear’s heavy-handed dramatic intentions — its later years offer the best sample of the vacillation between unmotivated tonal extremes, which come once all these series outlive their unsustainable objectives. However, The Jeffersons also boasts a premise — the Black family in a typically white world — that, like All In The Family, smartly uses internal relationships to reinforce its primary social conflict and emphasize comic personas in the process. Accordingly, The Jeffersons remains enjoyable for a surprisingly long time, for regardless of shortcomings in style or story, its characters are better positioned to both confirm Lear’s ethos and earn big hahas, meeting the series’ comedic and dramatic needs, along with its overarching goal of normalizing the Black family on TV. This brings us to Good Times, which premiered a year before The Jeffersons but was similarly designed to normalize, or humanize, Black people to white audiences — through the prism of a family sitcom. To wit, the series was created by Mike Evans, Lionel Jefferson on All In The Family, and playwright Eric Monte, who began developing, in 1971, a spin-off for the Jeffersons. This eventually morphed into a simple domestic show called “The Black Family” that was set in the Chicago projects, the “ghetto,” and concerned the everyday conflicts faced by people in this economically strained existence.
By March 1973, Lear decided to attach this concept to one of his popular characters on Maude, housekeeper Florida Evans, played by Esther Rolle. Joining her, at Rolle’s request, would be Florida’s recently cast husband, portrayed in one standout segment from Maude‘s first season by Mary Tyler Moore‘s John Amos. The show was sold immediately with these names now involved and everyone went into Maude‘s sophomore year knowing that they would be leaving at midseason for a guaranteed 13-episode run. (Incidentally, there’s been a lot of internet debate over the years about whether or not to call this show, eventually titled Good Times, a “spin-off” of Maude, for the characters had to be tweaked to make the jump, and Evans and Monte’s format likely would have gotten on the air in some fashion with or without Rolle and Amos. But the paramount fact is, once Lear turned the show into a vehicle for that pair, it was forever going to be linked with Maude, especially with the basic continuity of their characters’ personas intact. So, call it whatever you want, Good Times is affiliated with Maude and legitimately so.) Looping in Rolle and Amos to “The Black Family” gave Lear much more vocal support for his desired relevancy, as both actors were very concerned with the depiction of Black characters on TV and were committed to, in particular, the sociopolitical good that could come from exploring the dramas of living in the ghetto. In fact, it’s their intense conviction to the series’ didactic possibilities that helps enable the show’s famous clash of tonal opposites, the other side of which is embodied by Jimmie Walker, a standup comic cast in the role of J.J., the Evans’ eldest son. A lanky goofball prone to slapstick and, eventually, an iconic but grating catchphrase, Walker represents the polar inverse of relevancy, as his crusade for broad, easy laughs draws natural attention to comic shtick and stands in stark contrast to the seriousness of the series’ premised notions, not to mention the egos that had been congregated to protect it. Indeed, much of the discourse surrounding Good Times today focuses on the expanding gap between the figures who symbolize dramatic topicality, as the show intends, and the deflating comedy encouraged by forces like J.J., who distracts from the series’ regular ability to address its social aims, leading to a notorious combustion (Amos’ firing at the end of Season Three).
Usually such discourse “sides” with one aesthetic — and typically it’s the one the show prefers (social relevancy), despite indulging in the alternative — but I see both modes as indicative of the series’ larger weakness, for its low-concept design requires more support from the characters than either is ever ready to deliver. Comparing this show to those aforementioned is revealing; unlike All In The Family and The Jeffersons — the latter of which shares Good Times’ raison d’être — the series cannot as easily align its dramatic premise with internal relationships: emotional conduits for thesis-affirming plots both rooted in larger human truths and capable of emphasizing comic personas through contrast. And with premised drama stemming from life in the ghetto, instead of oppositional forces that can be reflected within the cast itself (e.g., conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white), Good Times is less able to link its idea-driven goals to its characters, which means both its ideas and its characters remain less supported. Also, unlike Maude, which doesn’t have great character work outside of one similarly dominating presence either, the show never moves away from seeking relevancy, which means its standards for success remain constrained. As a result, Good Times not only is poised to decline faster than the others, it’s poised to never, ever be as reliable, and neither of its two poles — topical or goofy — can be wholly successful. While the issue-based aesthetic represented by Florida and James is bolstered by performances of remarkable depth and integrity, they’re not precise enough to enable conflict; outside of his prideful temper and her devout moralism, there’s little in them that can be regularly exploited for story, so the sociopolitical dramas they want to explore end up too often dissociated from their individualities to feel earned. Thus, their characters let down the premise. At the same time, the comedy-first aesthetic represented by J.J. (and to a lesser extent, Willona, a surface, shallow figure until the ham-fisted Janet Jackson arc), is only half the time built around his unique persona, and when it is, his disorienting bigness in relation to his surroundings, and his gimmicky, overused catchphrase, corrode both the show’s dramatic ambitions, and also the sincerity of his humanity, as he’s so broad as to be false. Thus, his character lets down the premise too. Neither “side” is positioned for triumph.
Naturally, a blending of these two competing interests would have been beneficial, for even putting them in direct conflict — James vs. J.J. (mirroring what was going on behind the scenes) — would have allowed the show to ground the latter and give more definition to the former, creating something more ideal. But this kind of story seldom occurs within this premise’s external and passive “life in the ghetto” construct, and even in the second season, which is the series’ best because it’s the most comedically memorable while dramatically relevant, there’s a widening gulf between these two otherwise mutually character-poor extremes. Interestingly, the closest the series comes to bridging this widening gulf is Michael, the “Militant Midget” (played by Ralph Carter from Raisin), who gets that name for being the Evans’ most politically minded player, attuned to the issues faced by his community. With a clearly delineated characterization that prepares him for comic conflict, Michael has more definition than his parents and is more anchored by truth than his brother, letting him satisfy the premise while also creating laughs. As such, his increased usage in the show’s first two seasons is a direct contributor to their superiority over those that follow. That said, the same structural problem exists — he invites conflict against outside forces, which doesn’t do any good for the other regulars (like his bland sister Thelma), who have to be engaged if they’re going to receive the definition necessary for sparking comic story that’ll sustain the premise once it runs out of issues. And run out of issues it quickly does, leaving Michael no better equipped in its final years than anyone else… As for how I think Good Times would have best functioned, because the simple act of televising a Black family living in the ghetto was revolutionary, the show didn’t need to work as hard to be so narratively relevant, and scripts would have been better served by finding ways to comedically define its characters against one another, like Maude did… but without the catchphrases or goofy shtick that would threaten the sincerity of their depictions, like J.J. did. Of course, with more white writers than Black writers over the course of its run, Good Times’ stars — mainly Rolle and Amos — were always battling a lack of textual authenticity, which this era requires as the foundation for all comedically charged characterizations. So, that’s another hinderance.
Now, there’s more that can be said about what happens later in the run when the show essentially chooses J.J. over James while nevertheless trying to remain dramatically important — thereby extending its own unproductive and uncompromising tonal schism, neither side of which bolsters the show’s viability via its only possible source of viability, its characters — but we’ll get to all that in the weeks ahead. At this juncture, it’s most vital to be aware of the show’s diminished capacity for character in relation to the other Lear classics discussed, because even though Season One is the most able to benefit from “life in the ghetto” stories — since the premise is still novel, and plot, for the time being, can exist more easily without much help from its leads — there’s nothing here that’s on par with the best of what the more supported All In The Family, The Jeffersons, and even the not-yet-ironed-out Maude were producing in their first years. And yet, if you’re — like me — a sucker for the era’s low-concept realism, which instinctively puts character in the fore (for them to either shine or fade), then Good Times can still be an amiable watch, indicative of the Norman Lear style and akin to his other, more genuinely excellent offerings… So, with this introduction out of the way, I have picked five entries that I think exemplify the strongest from this 13-episode first season. My criteria is idea-based — I’m seeking premise-affirming plots that are also supported by laughs and character.
01) Episode 2: “Black Jesus” (Aired: 02/15/74)
A portrait of a Black Jesus seems to bring the family good luck.
Written by Kurt Taylor & John Donley | Directed by Bob LaHendro and John Rich
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Black Jesus” uses J.J.’s artistic talent, Florida’s devout faith, and the family’s economic fortunes to help motivate an otherwise idea-driven (and typical sitcom) story about an object charged with superstitious luck. Yet with support from the leads, the premise, and the thematic notion of Black representation, this is one of the funnier, more memorable samples of how Good Times can deploy comic characterizations to earn some topical relevancy. No other offering from Season One is as well-calibrated.
02) Episode 5: “Michael Gets Suspended” (Aired: 03/08/74)
Michael is suspended for calling a Founding Father racist.
Written by Eric Monte | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
The year’s purest example of Michael’s “radical” characterization, this entry by the series’ co-creator puts the “Militant Midget” in conflict with his parents after he is suspended for calling George Washington racist — a point that rankles his more conservative folks and helps delineate their personas, all within an “issue” related to their identity: Black history.
03) Episode 6 “Sex And The Evans Family” (Aired: 03/15/74)
The Evans panic when they find a book called “Sexual Behavior In The Ghetto.”
Story by Donald L. Stewart | Teleplay by Norman Paul & Jack Elinson | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
An attempt to let Thelma inspire conflict, this outing depicts Florida and James as most concerned about her chastity — a worry that all parents can understand, making this more of a relatable “family” story than something specifically about people in the ghetto, but it’s narratively topical and quite humanizing for the characters. (Philip Michael Thomas guests.)
04) Episode 9: “The Visitor” (Aired: 04/05/74)
Michael’s letter to the newspaper brings a visit from the housing commission.
Story by Bob Wolterstorf, Allessandro R. Veith, and Thad Mumford | Teleplay by Norman Paul & Jack Elinson | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Michael’s outspoken activism leads to a member from the housing commission visiting the Evans’ terrible apartment in this installment that literally does what the series itself does: it brings the white man into the home of a Black family living in the ghetto. This is therefore one of the show’s most earnest explorations of its low-concept dramatic premise.
05) Episode 10: “Springtime In The Ghetto” (Aired: 04/19/74)
Michael brings home Ned the Wino right before a clean apartment contest.
Written by Norman Paul & Jack Elinson | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
One has a lot of familiar sitcom stories (from familiar sitcom writers) and this popular excursion is among them, with a clichéd setup that boasts Raymond Allen (Woody from Sanford And Son) as Ned the Wino, a broad character who gets big laughs but with scant support from the leads or the series’ dramatic goals. But it’s a good show for the year’s sporadic comic boldness, and the extreme that’s developing on the other side of its thesis-affirming outings.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two early entries that hammer home the Evans’ economic hardships, “Too Old Blues,” which aired first and does a great job of introducing the characters right away, and “Getting Up The Rent,” which was produced as the opener; along with two entries focused on J.J., “Junior The Senior,” which treats him more seriously and with a mind for some issue-based drama, and “My Son, The Lover,” which exploits his goofiness in a way that will be commonplace next season; and, lastly, “The Check Up,” a somewhat pedantic show about health risks for Black people.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Good Times goes to…
NOTE: I am moving apartments next week — oh, I’m not going too far, but I’m packing up and shipping out nonetheless — so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to publish the next previously written but-not-yet-copyedited Good Times post. If not, don’t worry, it’ll come the following week and I’ll have something enjoyable for you in the meantime.