Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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, JA’NET DUBOIS as Willona Woods, RALPH CARTER as Michael Evans, BERN NADETTE STANIS as Thelma Evans Anderson, BEN POWERS as Keith Anderson, JOHNNY BROWN as Nathan Bookman, JANET JACKSON as Penny Gordon Woods, and JIMMIE WALKER as J.J.
Esther Rolle’s return to Good Times after a year away restores the series’ central focus on a nuclear family and makes it easier for scripts to address the show’s dramatic premise: exploring the struggles of a “typical” Black family living in the ghetto. This renders Season Six an automatic improvement over Five, for even though the run’s downward trajectory is otherwise unstoppable (more below), there’s an inherent reconnection with the series’ intentions. What’s more, Rolle’s restorational play begets improvement in the writers’ room, as showrunners Austin & Irma Kalish are replaced by Norman Paul, a former producer who left at the same time as John Amos. Many involved, including Rolle, counted Amos’ exit as the end of Good Times’ commitment to dramatic integrity, and while our study has revealed the reality to be more complicated, Paul’s conception of the series is more aligned with its origins, and he helps ensure that Good Times feels more like Good Times than it did the year prior. He’s aided here by, among others, Michael G. Moye, the future showrunner of The Jeffersons and eventual co-creator of Married… With Children. Moye joined Good Times at the end of Five, and as one of the show’s few Black scribes with any durability, his presence was a comfort to both factions within the cast, bringing perceived authenticity alongside an innate laugh-driven sensibility… This was beneficial, for, as expected, Rolle’s primary condition upon her return involved the use of J.J. Not only did she want him to grow up, she also wanted another positive role model added to the ensemble as a counterpoint. And seeing as she didn’t think another love interest for her character was believable (see: Carl Dixon), Thelma would get a husband instead — Keith (Ben Powers), a ballplayer laid up with a convenient leg injury. Unfortunately, Keith is never provided much of a personality, and his ability to help reinforce the premise is thus considerably limited. As for J.J., the series has been trying to mature the character every year since Three, and Six’s efforts produce no better results — due to scant definition, he continues to be less funny, with no added dramatic viability to show for it. Accordingly, although this season might be more structurally in tune with the series than its predecessor and therefore more capable of premise-fulfillment, it’s still struggling to do so, in the same ways the last few were.
In other words, because the leads aren’t truly able to inspire believable stories about the series’ central concept, Six is forced to rely too much on gimmicks — like gaudy situations and guests (see: the overused Sweet Daddy Williams) — or even blatant remakes of earlier plots, just to find narrative hooks with exploitable charms, some of which are hardly premise-affiliated. And while there’s often social relevance — as the show’s do-gooding didacticism remains its mission statement — it’s still not well-connected to the regulars in plot, and the swings from genre-based comedy to self-righteous drama seem extra pronounced, without even something circumstantial (like James’ death or Penny’s abuse) to warrant the severity. As such, very little is earned. However, beyond just the series’ mounting idea-led limitations, I also see what happens to Good Times this year as a function of its changing era, for by 1978, the novelty of the sitcom genre being able to embrace Norman Lear’s guiding sociopolitical interests had waned alongside his shows’ inability to remain as relevant with their dramatic ideas, in turn creating a reactionary appetite for intentionally lighter, less serious fare. Yet what came next wasn’t exactly a bounce backwards, for most of the major comedies of the late ’70s and early ’80s reveal an obvious consciousness of Lear’s work (while the best of them offer an equal, if not greater, awareness of MTM’s; we’ll be talking more about this soon) — and not just through narrative realism, or the freedom to speak more candidly about contemporary society. But also in their implicit agreement that this heretofore trivial sitcom format has the capacity, nay the responsibility, to be more than just trivial, at least some of the time. Accordingly, this sparks what I call “the Very Special Episode era,” where shows that aren’t built with the sociopolitical DNA of Lear’s early classics — and are in fact toothless — nevertheless make periodic but notable stabs at social commentary, much of it ham-fisted because these generally lighthearted, simple affairs aren’t strong enough to reckon with such weight. I bring this up in relation to Good Times because it was conceived with the understanding that it would have this so-called “sociopolitical DNA” (heck, its success its predicated on it), and yet, since it lacked support from its characters, it was developmentally impaired — always having difficultly being what it wanted to be.
Now, okay, Good Times’ drive to be relevant on a weekly basis separates it from its ’80s counterparts (like, say, The Facts Of Life), and its first two seasons are able to reiterate a desired political perception of itself, even with minimal help from the characters. So, I’m not calling it a part of the “Very Special Episode era” (like I would One Day At A Time, a Lear series that lived long enough to more fully embody this post-Lear style, more glaringly than the funnier and better built The Jeffersons), but here at the end of its run, the simple fact is: Good Times wants to offer social commentary and is barely able to do so, rendering its attempts at doing so more gawkily jarring. And though the same can be said for Season Five, it’s clearer by Six that the post-Lear era, perhaps signified by his string of flops, has begun. Indeed, it’s strange to see Good Times start to actively reflect this period where, in essence, topicality is prized, but only in vehicles that aren’t as serious or earnest, for while, no, Good Times never abandons its earnest aims — especially not with Rolle and Paul back on a publicized crusade to restore them — Six simultaneously does mitigate some of the premised characteristics that would make it appear overly serious, instead bolstering the lighter familiarity that typifies this transitional era’s easier, more generic family efforts. That is, there’s a blandification of the series, evidenced though a de-emphasis on the starkness of its setting — the ghetto — and a removal of some of its textual grit. Oh, there’s still premise-related drama about living in the projects, and, yes, the year builds to a finale where the leads finally are able to leave it, but they’re in a more universally recognizable and less severe world than previously depicted. As such, the premise-related drama is not as powerful — nor is the counterbalancing comedy that doesn’t stick because it’s not attached to strong characterizations. This leaves the show feeling, like late All In The Family and Archie Bunker’s Place, tonally inconsistent but typically uncompelling, with an inability to evoke responses as grand as its ideas (where points have to be given to episodes that at least manage to leave their intended impression). Frankly, Good Times has always been (relatively) ineffective to me, but I’ve enjoyed the chance to enhance my appreciation of, if not this series, then the others in Lear’s influential catalogue. I hope this coverage has done the same for you.
01) Episode 111: “Florida’s Homecoming (II)” (Aired: 09/16/78)
Florida returns, just in time for Thelma’s wedding.
Teleplay by Sid Dorfman and Joe Bonaduce | Story by Joe Bonaduce and Norman Paul | Directed by Gerren Keith
Originally airing in the second half of a one-hour block, Part II of the year’s opening tetralogy benefits from the excitement of Florida’s return and the start of the arc’s Sweet Daddy Williams drama, and it doesn’t suffer, like its two surrounding half hours, from predicating too much of its emotional value on the romance between the undefined Keith and Thelma. (Incidentally, this episode is edited on the DVD; stay tuned for tomorrow’s post for a correlated surprise…)
02) Episode 113: “Florida’s Homecoming (IV)” [a.k.a. “Florida’s Homecoming: United We Stand”] (Aired: 09/30/78)
Florida and the family stand up to Sweet Daddy Williams.
Teleplay by Bruce Howard and Joe Bonaduce | Story by Bruce Howard and Joe Bonaduce and Norman Paul | Directed by Gerren Keith
In the final part of the year’s opening arc, the family deals with the aftermath of Keith’s very contrived injury before standing up to Sweet Daddy Williams (and his posse) in a memorable climax that has some laughs and manages to excite, based on drama that’s earned from our knowledge of this amusing recurring player and the thesis-related drama he represents. Also, of note: Bubba Smith has lines here (as he does in the next Sweet Daddy show, “The Witness”).
03) Episode 114: “Florida Gets A Job” (Aired: 10/07/78)
Florida hopes to get a job as a school bus driver.
Written by Michael G. Moye | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode, “Florida Gets A Job” boasts one of the scripts credited to the aforementioned Michael G. Moye, whose future endeavors will prove his capabilities with both character and comedy — strengths that are intermittently on display this season in Good Times, but typically only when the narrative itself already has the right balance of socially tailored drama and affable comedy (which, it must be said, is hard to find, for this year’s output usually tilts quite extremely to one side or the other). Here, the social relevance is mostly implied, via a story about Florida applying to be a bus driver and facing competition from one of Alderman Davis’ snooty relatives, who’s far less attuned than Florida to the needs of kids in the ghetto. The comedy comes not only from Albert Reed’s recurring Alderman Davis (whose very presence indicates the setting and suggests the premise) but also young Gary Coleman, just about to star on the new post-Lear Diff’rent Strokes. His outspoken “out of the mouths of babes” quality is a gimmick, but an effective one in small doses (no pun intend) that earns some of the biggest yuks of the season, and while I’d rather the series use its regulars more than a guest, we’re in Season Six of Good Times, and this constitutes an example of the show operating at the peak of its current ability. (Love Thy Neighbor’s Janet MacLachlan also appears.)
04) Episode 115: “Stomach Mumps” (Aired: 10/14/78)
Florida thinks Willona needs to tell Penny about the facts of life.
Written by Michael G. Moye | Directed by Gerren Keith
Another offering credited to Moye, “Stomach Mumps” verges on Very Special Episode territory as the leads debate whether to teach Penny the facts of life, but its pedagogical interests are channeled through — in a delightful rarity — a conflict between the regulars, as Florida and Willona disagree on the course of action. Giving both a perspective, and allowing them to clash because of it, is more than Good Times usually does, and as a result, the didactic drama feels more individualized and relatable, better supported by the series’ tangibles, if not its premise.
05) Episode 117: “Michael’s Decision” (Aired: 11/08/78)
Michael plans to move in with a white girl.
Teleplay by Gene Farmer | Story by Norman Paul | Directed by Gerren Keith
There’s a broadness to this entry — no surprise, since the teleplay is credited to a former Sanford And Son scribe — that yields bigger laughs than this season’s baseline, which is tonally schizophrenic but relatively muted in terms of actual effectiveness. Accordingly, this isn’t a show with a buyable narrative — Michael, the former radical, being so eager to move in with a bland white woman doesn’t make a lot of sense — but its thematic interests are appropriate, and with a successful boldness about its sense of humor that many outings this year lack, it stands out, however flawed, as more stirring than most of the competition. Howard Morton guests.
06) Episode 119: “The Witness” (Aired: 12/09/78)
J.J. is the only witness of a car accident featuring Sweet Daddy Williams’ girlfriend.
Teleplay by Bruce Howard and Joe Bonaduce | Story by Bruce Howard | Directed by Gerren Keith
The first of two episodes this year that hope to compensate for an absent Florida by distracting with a spotlight on the larger-than-life Sweet Daddy Williams, “The Witness” is the better of this pair, with added support from the regular cast and a narrative that appears less strained. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still situational and dependent on a guest, but it’s an amenable sample of how this year typically earns its hahas: circumventing its leads. William Lanteau appears.
07) Episode 122: “House Hunting” (Aired: 01/03/79)
The Evanses try to get a loan to pay for a house.
Written by Gene Farmer | Directed by Gerren Keith
In any other season, this story about the Evanses seeking a loan because they’re finally ready to escape the ghetto and end the status quo of the series would be “schmuck bait” — an idea that asks for an emotional investment that we know is not worth the effort. But by this point in the final year — and note that this is the last installment broadcast by CBS during the regular season — the show is ramping up to its conclusion, and this seems like motivated growth related to the thesis. Beyond that, the scene at the bank with Charles Siebert is very funny.
08) Episode 126: “Where Have All The Doctors Gone?” (Aired: 06/13/79)
Florida tries to get proper care for a sick Penny.
Teleplay by Mark Fink and J.A. Mason | Story by Carmen Finestra | Directed by Gerren Keith
Paula Kelly guest stars in this inordinately preachy episode that’s punctuated by several pedagogical dialogues between Florida and a condescending Black doctor who is fed up with her difficult work in the ghetto. There’s no subtlety whatsoever and with so much emphasis put on a guest, this is the kind of excursion that would have been Honorably Mentioned on prior lists, where I could credit its premise-related social relevance without having to comment on its unartfulness. But here in Six, it shakes the figurative table, with radical vacillations in tone that make it indicative of the year without being a condemnation of it, for again, it’s got the right narrative idea (much more so than, say, “Florida’s Favorite Passenger”).
09) Episode 129: “A Matter Of Mothers” (Aired: 07/18/79)
Penny’s mother schemes to get her daughter back.
Teleplay by Michael G. Moye | Story by Jacqueline Henken | Directed by Gerren Keith
Speaking of swings in tone, this entry sees the return of Chip Fields as Penny’s birth mother, who schemes to get her daughter back. It’s an ostentatious narrative-driven outing dealing with last year’s only somewhat thesis-connected story, and it doesn’t really do a lot with the Evanses — you know, the characters needed to fulfill the show’s objective. But it’s another example of the boldness that this season, even when it’s being self-important and unhumorous, tends to lack because of its ineffectiveness, and in being so memorable for these extremes, this list would feel missing without it. Rod Perry and John Witherspoon guest.
10) Episode 130: “The End Of The Rainbow” (Aired: 08/01/79)
The Evans family is finally leaving the ghetto.
Written by Wayne Kline & Mark Fink | Directed by Gerren Keith
Although three offerings debuted in syndication and are technically listed after this one in airing order, “The End Of The Rainbow” is Good Times’ obvious series finale, with a string of happy coincidences that finally manage to get the leads out of the ghetto and, by proxy, the economic struggle that the show associates with it. It’s a surprisingly optimistic ending for a series that wallowed in a lot of misery for its own didactic aims, and as regular readers know, I’m typically not a fan of final episodes that focus more on narrative developments instead of character evolution. But this is a Norman Lear series we’re talking about, and Good Times specifically, so this direct acknowledgment of the premise in a script that emphasizes how the regulars’ lives are going to change is therefore much better than expected. And there’s no point in complaining.
Other notable episodes that merit attention include: “The Physical,” which has one memorable scene at the police station that’s worth noting, “The Evans’ Dilemma,” which is the clichéd “Keith is an alcoholic” story — a retread of an earlier offering that now attempts to channel some social relevance though a lead, but doesn’t work because said lead is so impersonalized, and, “Florida’s Homecoming (III),” which includes the ostentatious wedding and injury. Of lesser quality but equal note: “J.J. And The Plumber’s Helper,” a non-topical J.J. entry that guests Sheryl Lee Ralph, “The Snow Storm,” a ham-fisted dramatic outing that guests Kim Fields (she also appears in “The Physical”), “Blood Will Tell,” which is basically just a showcase for Teddy Wilson as Sweet Daddy Williams, “The Art Contest,” which I appreciate for utilizing J.J.’s artistic career (which had been forgotten for a surprisingly long period of time), and “Cousin Raymond,” a not-so-funny thesis-connected show with Calvin Lockhart that’s essentially a mashup of several previously used notions.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Good Times goes to…
“Florida Gets A Job”
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!