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 ESTHER ROLLE as Florida Evans, 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 and MOSES GUNN.
Following years of behind-the-scenes tensions amidst a growing inability to satisfy the premise, Norman Lear made the executive decision to fire John Amos and kill off his character. This is a huge blow; Amos was an ambassador for authenticity, and losing him means the series is also losing an enforcer of truth and a guardrail against increasing falseness (to which, in all fairness, everyone in the cast — including Amos — was contributing, for remember, he was aiding the insincerity by pushing for more drama, despite not having the characterization to support it). Indeed, his exit lets the show be less accountable to honesty and the emotional realism he, and the now-isolated Esther Rolle, at least championed (if not offered), and it’s unfortunate — a loss that’s never not felt. And yet, as we’ve seen, the series had serious problems before he left too, and though Lear decided to remove the loudest force reminding him of said problems, the show’s attitude about itself remains. That is, Good Times may have “chosen” J.J. over James, but it’s not stopped regarding J.J., and his silly comedy, as the biggest threat to its premise-fulfillment. How can we tell? Well, just like Three, Four is tonally imbalanced, focusing almost exclusively on drama to satisfy its didactic mission — exploring the struggles of life in the ghetto for a “typical” Black family that it hopes to personify for white audiences — while undermining the importance of humanizing laughs. Oh, sure, J.J. remains the series’ clown, because no one else in the ensemble is as capable, but scripts simultaneously try to tamp down his goofiness, particularly in story. Theoretically, this is smart: they should be finding ways to make this unbelievable lead more believable. But Walker is basically incapable of playing drama, especially when he’s kneecapped, for J.J.’s thin persona has heretofore been propelled by his goofiness, and if there’s any chance of him being able to inspire plot — of any kind — it’s going to come from a boldly clear characterization, one that’s not restrained. And, ultimately, although Four tries to link its purposeful restraint of J.J. to his “growth” as the new “man of the house,” it doesn’t matter: he’s still not comedically buyable within the established world, and he’s not dramatically buyable within its chosen stories. Thus, as with all the other leads (including Florida), he’s just not built to extend the premise — when the good ideas dry up, so does the show.
That’s right; Four disappoints for the same reason all Lear shows do when on the downturn: it’s running out of the right ideas to propel its idea-driven existence, as it’s always too focused on its didactic aims to cultivate the personified tangibles it needs to achieve them. In fact, compared to Lear’s other hits, Good Times’ leads have always lacked the emotional fortification to justify story, even when thesis-related. It’s no wonder then that it was also primed for tonal extremes: it couldn’t modulate its big ideas by filtering them through reliable vessels. Instead, even its best year (Two) was full of heightened hard-to-buy shows, saved only by whether or not the theme validated our understanding of the series and its dramatic intentions. This is relevant to Four because the show is more serious than ever, creating an added dissonance whenever it attempts to be comic. But in this case, the drama is somewhat earned, for while Three ramped up its tenuously warranted angst and often had to turn to guests and convenient situations, Four has a relatable development — the death of the patriarch — to inspire weekly problems. What’s more, even though scripts are not explicit about it, this new single-parent structure actually feeds the premise, creating a humanizing scenario that Rolle wanted to avoid during development — she demanded a two-parent household for the benefit of positive representation — but one that nonetheless provides another narrative avenue in its low-concept pursuit of sociopolitical truth. Now, this doesn’t do the characters much good — they don’t get added definition, and, obviously, it doesn’t arise out of their depictions, for it’s a circumstance into which they’re placed. Also, it’s not helpful for tonal modulation either — it’s a pungent, unappealing drama that makes the comedy feel extra forced too, because it highlights the leads’ vagueness, rendering a lot of the emotion apparently gratuitous. And yet, it is more personal than any of the situational or guest-led shows — loss is a fundamental human tragedy — and so it therefore feels more warranted than those other kinds of story. In other words, if Four is going to be unideally angsty — and, as expected, the death of a former lead casts a pall over the entire year (not unlike the concurrently tortured Rhoda/Joe separation) — at least plots that mention James’ absence get to exploit the scenario for drama and gain points for honesty.
Or, qualified honesty. Again, without Amos, this is a less honest cast, and to that point, the show is never in a position to truly let James’ death humanize the leads, for they lack personal specifics and they don’t get any from this development, which is outrageously dramatic and only emphasizes just how emotionally limited they all are. Accordingly, the outings that lean into this identifiable ensemble drama are better than the disconnected and totally unwarranted alternative, but they’re still not great, or even good. What’s more, whatever potential existed in this arc for thesis-affirmation doesn’t often show up onscreen — the year produces fewer stories that satisfy its narrative concept than even Three, for despite being interested in premise-related drama, and having a richer source of it, Four is not interested in James-related drama. That is, it does what it must, but it otherwise wants to move on. And, okay, I get why — it’s unpleasant, and while the topic can be used for sociopolitical gain, it’s hard to play with it in the confines of a sitcom. So, it makes sense that, with the dark cloud already hanging over the year, most stories prefer to return to purely episodic notions… well, at least until the end of the season, when the series looks to put all this ick behind it by giving Florida a new love interest — Carl Dixon — and working up to her remarriage. That was the intention anyway, until Rolle unexpectedly walked away from the series at the top of its fifth year, decrying its foolishness — still blaming J.J. for the show’s dramatic failures and insisting that it wasn’t logical for her character to be getting married. She’s not entirely fair about J.J. (again, no one is helpful), but she’s right about Carl Dixon. As you’ll see below, although he actually debuts in an underrated entry that finds character-ish conflict via juxtaposition, his personality quickly fades when the year too-obviously begins positioning him and Florida down the aisle, which doesn’t work because, (a) now his characterization is being diluted for a plot maneuver, (b) he and Rolle have little chemistry, and (c) it’s far too rushed to feel earned. But this is sort of endemic of everything, right? This idea-driven show has never had enough support from its characters. And the more we go on, the clearer that becomes… However, this year is dramatically intriguing (if seldom rewarding) and I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify its finest.
01) Episode 62: “The Big Move (I)” (Aired: 09/22/76)
The Evanses prepare to finally move out of the ghetto.
Written by Austin Kalish & Irma Kalish | Directed by Gerren Keith
Whether watching this season premiere for the first time today or when it debuted in 1976, we’re ahead of the action — we know John Amos has left the show and his character is being killed off. Thus, the half hour operates with a sense of foreboding tension underscoring its jovial, pleasant, series-finale like story where the Evanses think they’re finally going to escape the ghetto and achieve their basic objective. Naturally, that doesn’t happen, and the reveal of James’ death is obviously unpleasant, but it’s a tonal dissonance that, for once, is warranted by the identifiable situation. (Incidentally, this is the first script credited to the Kalishes.)
02) Episode 63: “The Big Move (II)” (Aired: 09/29/76)
Florida bottles up her emotions on the day of James’ funeral.
Written by Lou Derman & Bill Davenport | Directed by Gerren Keith
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Big Move (II)” is maybe the most memorable segment of the entire series, crusading, like its predecessor, to a singular moment at the end that seems to be considered an iconic example of Norman Lear’s, and this particular show’s, dramatic interests. Yes, I’m referring to Florida’s “damn, damn, damn,” which occurs when she finally breaks down and lets herself openly grieve her late husband. It’s a powerful beat because of the humanity Esther Rolle brings to it, and although this script suffers — as with everything this year — because its characters lack the personal specifics that would make them feel like real people, the relatability of the situation, and her strong performance, nevertheless renders this an effective, haunting installment. And in being the most famous — and tonally boldest — sample of the season, this is the one that most stands out and therefore deserves to represent it as MVE. (Note: recurring players Helen Martin, Raymond Allen, and Stymie Beard make appearances, as do Irwin C. Watson and Lee Weaver.)
03) Episode 65: “Michael The Warlord” (Aired: 10/13/76)
Michael gets involved with a dangerous street gang.
Written by Bob Peete | Directed by Gerren Keith
J.J. got mixed up with a street gang in a more well-known two-parter from the second year, and this entry, in turning back to that thesis-related “life in the ghetto” story, feels like an inferior retread. But it acknowledges its familiarity, and by using Michael instead of J.J., it attempts to suggest some character growth for both. Also, beggars can’t be choosers in Four when finding stories that relate to the premise, and while I think this one’s appeal is overinflated by the final scene — the series becomes overly reliant in this era on physical confrontations as a means of catharsis — it makes sense for the scenario. What’s Happening!!‘s Earl Billings appears.
04) Episode 69: “J.J.’s New Career (II)” (Aired: 11/17/76)
Florida refuses to accept the money J.J. makes from his gambling operation.
Written by Roger Shulman & John Baskin | Directed by Gerren Keith
This two-parter acknowledges the family’s economic strain following James’ death, gaining points for addressing the year’s unique emotional reality. It also smartly contrives a way to put J.J. and his mother in conflict, when he becomes involved in a gambling operation that can prevent their eviction but goes against Florida’s strict morals (the only well-established aspect of her characterization). Juxtaposing the two’s values emphasizes personalities, and while this offering (and even its more lighthearted first half) isn’t as funny as I’d like, it’s the kind of dramatic story this season should be telling. Also, even though he’s only in Part I, I’ll take this space to mention Nathan Bookman (Johnny Brown), who recurs this year — he’s a shallow, jokey figure, but as Part I indicates, he can also be used as a force of opposition, which is good for plot.
05) Episode 70: “Grandpa’s Visit” (Aired: 11/24/76)
Florida is shocked when James’ father shows up for Thanksgiving with his live-in girlfriend.
Teleplay by Roger Shulman & John Baskin | Story by Kurt Taylor & Booker Bradshaw | Directed by Gerren Keith
Richard Ward, from last year’s MVE, returns as James’ dad in this underrated excursion that, like the above, creates a conflict out of the only truly well-established aspect of Florida’s characterization: her traditional morality, which, in this case, refuses to permit an unmarried couple to sleep together under her roof. Yet beyond just finding a dramatic situation that’s justified by the character, this entry is also connected to the very obvious fact that James is dead, which, again, supports the drama and has tangential relevance to the premise.
06) Episode 71: “Rich Is Better Than Poor… Maybe?” (Aired: 12/08/76)
The Evanses win the lottery… and then are held up by Thelma’s friend.
Written by Allan Manings & Norman Paul | Directed by Gerren Keith
With guest appearances by Tamu and What’s Happening!!’s Shirley Hemphill, this seemingly well-liked installment often finds its value associated with their memorable, but broad, performances. However, while that might be enough to earn my attention, it’s really worth highlighting here because of its story about the regulars thinking they’ve assuaged their economic woes by winning the lottery, which is connected to the dramatic premise — as is the centerpiece where they’re held up at gunpoint for the money, which is gaudier than I’d like (and not motivated by the leads), but deals with the harsh realities of life in an economically depressed place.
07) Episode 72: “Florida’s Night Out” (Aired: 12/15/76)
Florida goes out with Willona to a singles bar.
Written by Norman Belkin & Harriet Belkin | Directed by Gerren Keith
Esther Rolle shines in this unique episode that has Florida joining Willona at a singles bar — the first time she’s going out since her husband died. But aside from making use of the year’s dramatic arc and the emotional support that comes from this relatable tragedy, it also suggests a believable forward evolution for the character; she’s not going to get involved in something serious, but just meeting other people — connecting with them — is a step. Accordingly, this is probably the most human story thrown to Florida this season — free of heavy drama, yet bolstered believably by the year’s underlying dramatic tension, which is surprisingly well-modulated against the broader comedy of Willona and the bar sequence. Julius Harris guests and Dap Sugar Willie makes his debut as Looting Lenny.
08) Episode 77: “Thelma’s African Romance (II)” (Aired: 01/19/77)
Thelma plans to marry and move to Africa with her new boyfriend.
Written by Bob Peete | Directed by Gerren Keith
There haven’t been many outings featuring Thelma on these lists because she’s one of the least defined members of the ensemble, particularly for comedy (the only thing she has is a sibling rivalry with J.J., and even that’s vague), and true to form, I don’t think this — the second half of a two-parter originally broadcast in an hour block — is great because it’s not thesis-connected. But it’s one of her character’s better shows, for the plot puts her in conflict with Florida, and this is an identifiable drama that feels consistent based on the latter’s depiction. It also has a memorable second act climax over a traditional African feast, with elevating laughs.
09) Episode 80: “A Stormy Relationship” (Aired: 02/09/77)
Florida doesn’t like that Michael’s new boss is influencing him towards atheism.
Written by Bruce Kalish & Ron Seliz | Directed by Gerren Keith
Moses Gunn makes his debut as Carl Dixon, in this, the first of an extended arc meant to build to Florida’s engagement and eventual marriage. Of course, Rolle would depart the series before the wedding could occur, so all that’s left is this rushed six-episode stretch of shows designed to replace James once and for all. Now, as discussed above, the Carl/Florida romance ultimately isn’t realistic — he has little character, they have little chemistry, and it all happens too fast. But his introduction is strong, for he’s defined as a straightforward atheist whom Michael admires — a fact that upsets the devout Florida, who doesn’t want her son being influenced by someone “ungodly.” This creates a very exciting, and actually character-rooted clash — it’s based on what we know of her depiction and relies on him being a stark contrast. If only the series kept this understanding of him, took its time, and wasn’t so focused on its idea-led narrative goals.
10) Episode 82: “My Son, The Father” (Aired: 03/02/77)
J.J. feels like he’s being replaced in the family by Carl.
Written by Sid Dorfman | Directed by Gerren Keith
The only other Carl show worthy of noting, this entry puts him in conflict with J.J., who was “the man of the house” in the absence of his dad and now believes he’s being replaced. This is interesting — J.J. doesn’t feel like Carl is replacing James, he feels like Carl is replacing him, and it leads to a climactic scene set in the gym, which punctuates a serious talk with physical gags that earn easy laughs. It’s an old trick — give your characters something amusing to do when they’re having an important moment — but it’s not tonally jarring and feels relatively believable for this era, as, despite its unsubtle aims, it contends with the year’s more supportive drama.
Other notable episodes that merit attention include: “Evans Versus Davis,” which sees the return of Alderman Davis, “J.J.’s New Career (I),” which sets up its more dramatically bold second half, featured above, and “Michael’s Great Romance,” which has no thesis-related drama but puts Michael and J.J. in a lighthearted, situational conflict that has more laughs than this year’s baseline. There are also a lot of inferior outings this season that are worth citing; they are: “Willona’s Surprise,” which once again places its jokey peripheral player in a dramatic story that she doesn’t earn, “The Hustle,” which thinks its comic idea of the kids going into the underwear-selling business is enough on which to hang its figurative hat, “A Friend In Need,” which seeks tonal balance by having a serious topic with a big physical comedy centerpiece but is narratively predicated on a guest, not its leads, and “J.J. In Business,” which I cite here only for the scene with Alice Ghostley (whom we’ll see again).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Good Times goes to…
“The Big Move (II)”
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!