Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Good Times (1974-1979, CBS), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Good Times stars JA’NET DUBOIS as Willona Woods, RALPH CARTER as Michael Evans, BERN NADETTE STANIS as Thelma Evans, and JIMMIE WALKER as J.J. With JOHNNY BROWN as Nathan Bookman and JANET JACKSON as Penny.
Season Five is Good Times’ worst, defined by the sudden departure of Esther Rolle, whose growing concerns over the series’ inability to satisfy its didactic intentions — with J.J. charged as the cause — finally reached a fever pitch after a year without John Amos as a dramatic ally. Obviously, this is devastating, for, like Amos, she was one of the series’ only crusaders for authenticity, and taking her character out now not only amplifies the falseness, it also destroys the nuclear family unit serving as the premise’s structural framework, leaving only three siblings (two adults), a superintendent, and a neighbor: a ragtag cast that makes it impossible for the show to tell stories about the struggles faced by a typical Black family in the ghetto, for this isn’t a “typical” Black family in the ghetto. Accordingly, Five fails on the simple criteria shared by all idea-led shows, and particularly Lear’s: its stories are unable to address their sociopolitical premise. And indeed, the loss of a positional anchor in Florida — without the kind of circumstantially motivated angst that killing off James offered — unmoors the storytelling, creating an “anything goes” sensibility where there’s even less justification for selected plots, as the characters remain unsupportive, and both the comedy and drama feel even more peripheral to the series’ givens. (For instance, going down to Willona’s work for a topical story about privacy doesn’t honor the premise or the characters; it’s just a topical story about privacy down at Willona’s work.) Additionally, new showrunners Austin & Irma Kalish still see Good Times as a vessel for relevance, so while they don’t have the pall of a death overshadowing their scripts (like Four), and they operate with a more conventional understanding of the sitcom genre that demands laughs from funny stories — which itself can lead to radical swings in tone (see below) — they also view J.J.’s heightened silliness as an obstacle to the show’s larger purpose. Thus, they squeeze him like the last few years have — putting him in more earnest plots than he can ever handle, while also asking him to deliver hahas that are muted now because of his tamped down persona, labeling all of this as alleged “growth” that, naturally, isn’t believably evidenced.
Perhaps as a result, Five spends more time with a lead it views as more malleable: the formerly incidental Willona, heretofore used almost exclusively for easy, disconnected yuks in stories where she was irrelevant. Elevated now to leading lady via a topical idea that finds her character becoming the adopted mom of an abused child (Janet Jackson), Ja’net DuBois proves to be more capable of playing emotional material than Jimmie Walker is, and despite the arc’s self-importance, an interesting character notion emerges that’s ripe for both humor and heart — the free and easy divorcée finally faced with real responsibility. However, the show isn’t capable of this kind of sincere character writing (especially with these showrunners), and Penny, the child — who’s just as cloying as you’d expect (no personality; the Mae West impression gets very old very fast and doesn’t provide definition) — quickly devolves into less of a device for Willona’s growth (or J.J.’s) than a conduit for the socially relevant drama of her introductory four-parter, with little purpose suggested thereafter. Also, though this idea might be sufficiently human, it feels false and emotionally labored, without enough humanizing laughs from either the necessarily serious situation, or heaven forbid, the characters. And, worst of all, because Penny has to be adopted by Willona and not Florida (as I believe was first intended), she actually has nothing to do with The Evanses: the “typical” black family living in the ghetto. So, more than the forced laughs and unearned drama of a year with huge swings in tone and mitigated authenticity due to the absence of people like Rolle and Amos fighting for it, this arc, and the whole season, simply doesn’t feel like Good Times — like Penny, Five’s social relevance, its comedy, and its drama almost entirely bypass the premise and its primary people. Then, as always, it’s hard to enjoy a show when it’s so blatantly unable to be what it’s supposed to be, and for that reason, I’m shocked that there are ten full episodes below. But, you know what? It’s not like any of the prior lists were significantly better, and in merely looking for basic sitcom qualities — like believable conflicts that spotlight the leads and memorable laughs that acquit the genre okay — I was, unlike Good Times’ fifth season, eventually able to make this post be what it’s supposed to be: a rundown of the ten entries that I think exemplify this (inferior) year’s finest.
01) Episode 87: “The Evans Get Involved (II)” (Aired: 09/21/77)
Willona tries to get help for abused Penny.
Written by Sid Dorfman | Directed by Gerren Keith
This ostentatious four-part opener that introduces Penny and turns Willona into a mother remains, like much of the season, unideal, for the topical story not only deemphasizes the nuclear Evans family, it also joneses for social relevancy that feels peripheral to the premise. That said, Part II — which originally aired second in an hour-long block — is the funniest of all four and this helps offset the arc’s heavy, and unearned, child abuse drama. Stymie Beard appears and Chip Fields continues her strong, forceful performance as Penny’s mother.
02) Episode 89: “The Evans Get Involved (III)” (Aired: 09/28/77)
Penny tries to escape her mother.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Gordon Mitchell | Directed by Gerren Keith
If the above entry was the funniest, Part III of this drawn-out saga is the most dramatically straightforward, putting all the leads together for a confrontation between Willona and Penny’s mom, and turning the story so that it can finally build to its inevitable conclusion of Willona taking the girl (where the character value would reside, if better written). Incidentally, this script is one of two by Jeffersons vets Lloyd Turner & Gordon Mitchell, who were on staff in Five.
03) Episode 91: “Willona, The Fuzz” (Aired: 10/19/77)
Willona gets a job at a department store to make more money for Penny.
Teleplay by Richard Freiman and Sid Dorfman | Story by Richard Freiman | Directed by Gerren Keith
Cited above in my introduction as an example of a story that neither honors the premise nor the characters in its crusade for a tangential social statement, this excursion is nevertheless popular, due in large part to the boldness of its comedy and drama. It also memorably guests Gordon Jump and Conchata Ferrell (not to mention the recurring Looting Lenny) and gives Willona the chance to “tell somebody off,” which is an overused climax in this era, given the absence of real character conflict between the regulars. Why do I feature it here? The impression is too strong to ignore — and in being so indicative of the year’s trouble, I can justify its inclusion.
04) Episode 94: “Bye, Bye, Bookman” (Aired: 11/16/77)
Willona and the Evanses inadvertently get Bookman fired.
Written by Robert Wolterstorff & Paul Belous | Directed by Gerren Keith
Five bumps Johnny Brown’s Nathan Bookman up to the regular cast because it needs all the help it can get, and this is the first of two outings this year that feature his wife, played with great theatricality by Marilyn Coleman. “Bye, Bye, Bookman” is the better of the two because the core ensemble (the Evans family) is better involved, and the story, which deals with the crumminess of the projects, guests Albert Reed’s Alderman Davis, and though shmuck bait (asking for emotional investment we know isn’t worth it), has an affiliation with the premise.
05) Episode 96: “Requiem For A Wino” (Aired: 12/14/77)
The Evanses throw a wake for a wino who they falsely think has died.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Gordon Mitchell | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Requiem For A Wino” is another perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with this year, for it has very little to do with Good Times‘ premise or its players, contriving an inherently comic notion that’s built around a guest and requires scant help from the regulars or the central concept. But, in featuring Robert Guillaume (then starring on Soap) as the guest in question, and with a story that’s effortlessly funny in a season that labors on all counts, including with its humor, it stands out as beyond the most enjoyable — in fact, there’s no contest. So, while it’s still an unideal sample of Good Times, it’s a fun half hour and the most favorably honest representation of this intrinsically flawed season. Note: recurring players Weeping Wanda and Looting Lenny appear (and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this narrative was initially conceived for Raymond Allen’s Ned the Wino).
06) Episode 97: “Penny’s Christmas” (Aired: 12/21/77)
Penny gets arrested for shoplifting at Christmas.
Written by Robert Stevenson & Rosalind Stevenson | Directed by Gerren Keith
Although I’m open to this entry’s dramatic idea of Penny turning to shoplifting, as that’s a behavior one can associate with economic struggle, the script goes out of its way to protect her (by having her money stolen first), and the lack of bite defines her unappealing blandness. Frankly, if not for the funny and material-elevating guest work by Alice Ghostley, who returns as the adoption agent ready to make it official, I wouldn’t be including it.
07) Episode 98: “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (Aired: 01/04/78)
J.J. starts to take on the role of disciplinarian for Michael.
Written by Tom Dunsmuir & Dan Wilcox | Directed by Gerren Keith
This oft-overlooked installment claims a relatively quiet story that I feature here because it’s among the few that actually addresses the reality of the Evans kids being without both of their parents, which forces J.J. to step up as protector and provider to a more prominent degree. Now, as always, it’s hard for Walker to totally sell this material, but the plot is warranted by the current situation and uses the core principals, so there’s both an emotional honesty and a sense of premise-fulfillment (however muted) lacking elsewhere in Five. Looting Lenny appears.
08) Episode 101: “Where There’s Smoke” (Aired: 01/25/78)
The Evans kids have different recollections of how the couch burned.
Written by Bruce Kalish & Phillip Wickham Taylor | Directed by Gerren Keith
With a Rashomon story where each of the Evans kids gives an account of how a cigarette burned a hole in the couch, this episode engages with a cliché sitcom construct that illustrates little imagination and exists independently of the series’ characters and its concept. However, this idea requires different perspectives in order to get its laughs, and in doing so, it emphasizes the differences between the leads, which goes a long way in suggesting characterizations. That’s more than we can say for most of Five. Brenda Sykes guests and Looting Lenny appears yet again.
09) Episode 104: “J.J.’s Condition” (Aired: 02/13/78)
J.J. dates a married woman.
Written by Dusty Kay & Bill Nuss | Directed by Gerren Keith
Here’s an example of an outing that’s centered around J.J., but has nothing to do with the premise and isn’t supported by his character, for the plot — about him dating a married woman who promises to get divorced — is a typical sitcom notion that mines light personal drama without having to be personalized. (And needless to say, the struggles of living in the ghetto are irrelevant to it.) In any other season with any other baseline, this type of J.J. segment wouldn’t be here, but for Season Five, it’s actually among this list’s most enjoyable, with big laughs and emotional moments that don’t require too much of Walker.
10) Episode 108: “Write On Thelma” (Aired: 03/27/78)
Thelma writes a play, but has to deal with a lot of mandated edits.
Written by Judi Ann Mason | Directed by Gerren Keith
Good Times goes meta in this bizarre installment that doesn’t really make sense for the characters — Thelma is a playwright now, all of a sudden? — yet it’s memorable not just for the amusing guest appearance by Jane Connell, but also for the very obvious self-aware message that the series is telegraphing about its struggles to maintain authenticity. This is more a comment on the year than a good sample of it, but, hey, this terribly tortured list has room for it.
Other notable episodes that merit attention include: “Willona, The Other Woman,” the second outing with Bookman and his wife — it deploys a sitcom cliché that makes less use of the Evans family than the Bookman entry featured above does, but it’s one of two scripts at the end of this year by Michael G. Moye, whose presence we’ll discuss more next week — along with “Wheels,” which puts J.J. in conflict with Bookman but distracts with a posse of guests and a teleplay that eschews its premise and character value, and “The Evans Get Involved (IV),” which also traffics in a clichéd sitcom story but gains points from its guest work by Alice Ghostley. Of even lesser value but equal note: “Willona’s Mr. Right,” which comes the closest to using the Penny arc for Willona’s growth but is sans the humor and premise-affiliation needed to make it worthwhile, and “Something Old, Something New,” which is a fairly sweet show featuring Grandpa Evans. Also, I have to mention it because it’s such a BOLD misfire — “I Had A Dream,” in which J.J. dreams he’s white. It’s a gimmicky offering with perhaps some thematic relevance, but that’s totally squandered by the lame, cringeworthy execution.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Good Times goes to…
“Requiem For A Wino”
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!