Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! As expected, I am temporarily unavailable this week, so I have decided to briefly bench our Good Times coverage in favor of a related list that I hope will prove complementary: five episodes from previously featured sitcoms that we’ve recently cited in our larger study of this series, its era, and its corresponding trends. This is not a rerun, but more of a “clip show” — a chance for me to call back on a few segments that I think will rhetorically aid our look at Good Times. And we’ll resume with Season Two soon!
01) ALL IN THE FAMILY (Season Three)
Episode 38: “Archie And The Editorial” (Aired: 09/16/72)
Archie takes his views on gun control to the local news station.
Teleplay by George Bloom and Don Nicholl | Story by George Bloom | Directed by Norman Campbell
As we’ve seen, all of Norman Lear’s “relevant” programming is fundamentally idea-driven, for his shows each aim to reiterate a sociopolitical perspective while viewing their regulars as a means to an end. However, because Lear’s ’70s efforts are premised within a trend towards low-concept realism, their characters are also pushed to the fore for compelling scrutiny, and his flagship entry, All In The Family, is his best and most revealing, with an underlying foundation of strong personalities and conflict-yielding relationships that come courtesy of a structure that helps marry his didactic intentions to relatable emotional support. Thus, while everything — premise, leads, story — is designed solely for the notion of ridiculing Nixon-era conservatism by caricaturing one of its subscribers, there’s more of a natural cohesion between the theoretical intangibles (ideas/politics) and the personified tangibles (characters/relationships), bolstering both of their potencies through a mutually beneficial and symbiotic bond. This, Season Three’s opener, is about mocking Archie’s position on guns, and it’s an ideal example of how Lear funnels his own political thoughts through conflicts buttressed by the leads’ personas and their contentious dynamics — that is, how he uses character to corroborate his guiding idea.
02) THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (Season Three)
Episode 49: “The Good-Time News” (Aired: 09/16/72)
Mary is tasked with developing a new upbeat format for the news.
Written by Allan Burns & James L. Brooks | Directed by Hal Cooper
Mary Tyler Moore’s third season premiere (which first aired an hour after the above) seems to offer a more overtly topical plot than the show’s standard, but its narrative is actually driven by several well-established relationships, including the one between Mary and Lou, two oppositional figures who spend the entire series evolving believably because of their association. In fact, putting their comic personas in conflict is what fuels this excursion’s dramatic engine of furthering Mary’s arc towards self-assuredness — meaning, no, it isn’t most concerned with educating us about the gender pay gap, as a Norman Lear show would be; this is just a way to force a clash — and if there’s any doubt about the brand’s core character interests remaining centralized, just look at where the script finds its laughs: from the ensemble, especially Ted, who contrasts against the recurring Gordy (John Amos) and earns rich, motivated guffaws through his well-defined depiction, which makes this a terrific exhibit for how MTM’s focus is always on its leads, even when big ideas, like socially relevant themes and a spoof of then-contemporary trends, are engaged in support. From this, we can see the key distinction between this and the above: MTM explores characters with help from ideas; Lear explores ideas with help from characters. You can choose either to prefer, but the former is generally more reliable.
03) MAUDE (Season One)
Episode 18: “Florida’s Problem” (Aired: 02/13/73)
Florida’s husband wants her to quit working for Maude.
Teleplay by Budd Grossman | Story by Alan J. Levitt | Directed by Hal Cooper
After singling out this episode in our Maude rerun — due to the fact that it’s the best segment centered around Esther Rolle’s Florida (whose husband, played by John Amos, makes his first of three guest shots here) — I’m citing it again more formally as a relevant sample of the series in relation to Good Times, as aside from being the entry that got the ball rolling on Rolle’s show, it gives us the chance to see how Lear’s related endeavors directly compare. Specifically, it reveals the disparity in how they use their regulars, for on Maude, all figures, including Florida and her husband, are tools to satisfy the series’ primary sociopolitical idea — mocking Maude’s liberality — which means, to fulfill the thesis, these two have to be active agents in relational combat with a particular character. This gives them a comic shape, however one-dimensional, and is unlike their material on Good Times, which also regards Florida and her husband as tools, but instead makes them passively symbolic participants in its primary sociopolitical idea — humanizing the Black family via their struggles in the ghetto — which lacks direct conflict between any regular presence and, partly as a result, suffers from sparser characterizations. Now, they aren’t any better defined on Maude than on Good Times (they’re less so), but the former is simply more character-forward with its idea, and since that’s what is driving plot, this benefits their usage too. (And, incidentally, it also explains why Maude was eventually able to rely more on its leads.)
04) SANFORD AND SON (Season Three)
Episode 52: “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” (Aired: 01/04/74)
A man from St. Louis comes to town and claims to be Lamont’s real father.
Written by Ilunga Adell | Directed by Jack Shea
I avoided a real study of Sanford And Son in this month’s rumination on Lear’s work because of his limited involvement, but given that it’s a contemporary Lear/Tandem show about a Black family in the ghetto that exists within this era’s same low-concept realism, it’s often deservedly compared to Good Times. So, I’m picking a segment that highlights their differences — the main one being that, unlike Good Times, Sanford And Son is far less concerned with how it can deliver didactic sociopolitical drama, for instead it’s, unlike Good Times, singularly focused on emphasizing strong comic personas who can clash in clearly identifiable relationships. And this dynamic — propelled, quite delightfully, by the series’ more exclusive comedic intent — makes everything more rewarding, from the regular humor to the occasional heart, because now scripts are better supported by its personified tangibles and don’t have to rely solely on any guiding, and inevitably limited, theoretical construct. Also, being more fixed around said personified tangibles makes it easier for the audience to both emotionally invest and find the laughs, as it’s always easier to do this with specifics rather than abstracts. As for this offering, it proves all of the above, for it’s about the sincere father/son relationship between Fred and Lamont, and boasts big comic support from the uproariously funny Lawanda Page as Aunt Esther, whose well-defined rapport with Fred is iconic. Good Times is never as personal, or as fun.
05) THE JEFFERSONS (Season One)
Episode 1: “A Friend In Need (01/18/75)
George insists that Louise hire a maid.
Teleplay by Don Nichols, Michael Ross, and Bernie West | Story by Barry Harman & Harve Brosten | Directed by Jack Shea
The first official episode of The Jeffersons, following a backdoor pilot on All In The Family, this installment is an effective display of that new series’ smart construction, which, as we’ve seen, guides its leads into distinct comic personas through conflict-heavy interpersonal relationships that substantiate the primary sociopolitical premise — humanizing Black people by examining the “outsider” tensions of integration: being Black in a traditionally white world — while also showcasing their big haha-inspiring characterizations. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is an additional way of saying that here we have another show more character-rooted than Good Times, for despite also being driven more by its conceptual notions than its leads, these elements are nevertheless paired together better in a structure that encourages mutual success. And while future seasons will struggle to find a tonal balance between big comedy and big drama once they run out of good ideas that work within this framework, these early years are well-modulated, and far more enjoyable than anything delivered by Good Times, which is never as well-supported, even though it shares the basic objective of personifying Black people to white audiences, because, again, even idea-led shows need cultivated givens to help generate comic story.
Come back next week for more Good Times! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!