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, 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.
Much of the discourse surrounding Good Times takes a simplistic stance on its quality: it’s good with John Amos and bad without him. Now, there will be plenty to say about his departure — next week — but a study like this reveals that Season Three, prior to that huge loss (and natural demarcation), is already unideal, particularly in comparison to its predecessor. And, quite frankly, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, for as an idea-driven enterprise that, I said it well last week, “aims to explore the sociopolitical struggle of life in the ghetto — through a domestic sitcom format that can personify a Black family for mostly white audiences — Good Times finds success in episodic notions that most accomplish this goal,” and it thus adheres to the same trajectory as all idea-driven enterprises, including those by the politically fixated Norman Lear. That is, it has to have the right episodic notions to work, and though the novelty of its conceptual intentions can sustain premise-affirming story for a bit, it’ll eventually become incumbent on the show’s personified tangibles, its characters, to aid the generation of plot and continue the weekly validation of its thesis. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, Good Times is not designed for sustainability, lacking the internally positioned conflict that can force strong characterizations and emotionally buttress sociopolitical story. This renders both its leads and its premise not well-supported. Fortunately, Two still had the capacity to produce concept-led narrative victories, and in being able to fulfill the premise almost every week, it modulated the two tonal extremes developing in its ensemble: the comedic but inauthentic J.J., and the authentic but undefined Florida and James, for while J.J.’s shtick was becoming so exaggerated it was false, stories starring him that honored the premise provided a counterbalancing weight that kept him from rejecting the premise’s realism, and actually allowed him to participate in its dramatic pursuits. And while Florida and James were just as unworkably vague and comedically amorphous as ever, the right ideas at least gave them a purpose that channeled their intended dramas and made them feel, if not earned, then at least warranted. But, again, that was because the show was still new enough to not need help in finding these “right ideas.”
By Three, it’s clear the show is needing some assistance, and one of the main indications that it’s having difficulty using its leads is the year’s increasing turn to guest stars. We began to see this at the end of Two — even in my MVE, “The Dinner Party,” which I cited as the most exceptional entry of the series in spite of its design, purely because its strong ideas were of superseding relevance — yet this year is now less novel, so it’s forced to depend more on non-premised hooks, like guests, for weekly premise-fulfillment. And of course, this kind of fulfillment is inherently qualified, because it’s without the emotional continuity that regulars typically provide. What’s more, it’s also sans the tonal balance of equally supportive comedy, which at least made earlier outings, like my previous MVE, so enjoyable, for now that the show is struggling to be what it wants, it’s becoming more fixated than ever on the drama that’s supposed to deliver its didactic goals, giving short shrift to the comedy that it views as secondary or supportive. This is a mistake, for if led by character, laughs could humanize the leads and satisfy its overall objective in a much more reliably rewarding way. However, as usual, that’s dependent on well-defined characterizations, and this show isn’t built for those — it’s too focused on its didactic goals to cultivate what would actually achieve them. This is the great irony of Good Times and many of Lear’s substandard efforts. Indeed, if that’s the problem with the show in a nutshell, then the extra fixation on conjuring up drama to satisfy a thesis that’s already straining because it doesn’t have help from its regulars is the problem with Season Three in a nutshell, extending beyond the offerings focused on guests and addressing, more directly, these tonally opposed leads and the trouble mounting since they no longer have the “right ideas” mitigating their liabilities and tethering them to basic episodic success. But it’s even worse than anticipated, for not only does J.J. become less believable while the dramas anchored by Florida and/or James become less warranted, the show’s anxiety about not reaching its desired sociopolitical relevance also, as suggested, convinces it to sideline its comedy, and more specifically, make a scapegoat of J.J. and the tonal modality he represents, publicly charging — see the article below — the threat he poses to the show as the sole reason for its issues. This is convenient, but false.
Yes, J.J. (and his gimmicky catchphrase) is lethal to the series’ low-concept realism — and to Rolle and Amos, their quest for positive representation — but, as explored, nobody here is built to reliably support the premise (even Michael, a bullhorn for topical story, runs out of juice when the show runs out of self-generated topical story), and doubling down on the Florida/James aesthetic for the purpose of maximizing drama exacerbates all these aforementioned concerns. To wit, ratcheting up the agita with Florida and James doesn’t give them definition that would better allow them to assist in premise-led plot — instead, it just yields more unearned handwringing that, because of this aggrandizement, further emphasizes just how unsupported it all is by their individual depictions, whose authenticities naturally take a hit when faced with unwarranted story of this magnitude. In other words, their sincerity is eroded and their lack of definition is magnified. Oh, and, more to the point, this outsized drama crowds out a lot of their laughs, reducing the possibility for humanizing humor. The same occurs with J.J., who’s put in more serious stories that are neither as thesis-connected as before nor as funny, as the show is trying to tamp down his realism-destroying comedy in the hopes that the right ideas will follow. But they don’t, for the year is essentially forcing him to play to the opposite of his strengths, losing laughs that might humanize him in favor of drama that he can’t handle, especially because all the other non-J.J. stories, including those with Florida/James, are still making him the clown, as he (and to a far more peripheral extent, Willona) is the only persona ready for hahas. Accordingly, this makes him even less realistic than ever before (when he was bigger), highlighting his disconnected comic broadness in dramatic stories with the rest of the ensemble, while also reducing his ability to offer what he genuinely can — yuks — when in the spotlight. So, because of the way the show reacts to its limitations, its limitations are accelerated: J.J. is a bigger threat to truth, Florida and James are more obviously undefined, and the show still can’t use its leads to affirm its premise, having to turn more to outside forces, like guests, for help (and their stories will never be as affirmational as those that better feature the leads). These are big problems — all predating the typical line people draw at Amos’ exit.
That said, I don’t want to get ahead of myself by placing this year, Amos’ swan song, in relation to those that follow without him, mostly because he’s still here and a discussion about his absence is best saved for when he’s not. But I will say now that the conflict behind the scenes, which caused his firing, can be viewed on screen. Aside from his episode order being reduced (he misses four offerings in Three, following contract negotiations that produced several James-less scripts), the year’s focus on drama and its implicit indictment of Walker is a testament to the force with which Amos — and to be fair, Esther Rolle and Norman Lear, too — pushed for scripts that would honor the sociopolitical premise in the way that they all thought it needed to be done: dramatically. Sadly, the issues with this line of thinking are well-detailed above, and they essentially prove that, although there’s a palpable effort to use Amos for heavier emotional moments that acquit him well and are worth noting, the show is going to be on the descent from here on out unless there’s a radical change in priorities and an understanding that all of the characters need work. Thus, Amos was always set up for disappointment — to be fighting for something that no one was primed to deliver — and it was probably impossible for the tensions to subside, because it was probably impossible to achieve the desired results that would have subsided those tensions. As such, Lear decided that the show had more of a chance to thrive with less of this tension. Did cutting Amos change things for the better though? Well, it’s not a spoiler to say “no,” for the show is built on having good ideas and it has fewer of them with each passing year, primarily because its priorities, again, don’t change, so it’s never going to get the support it needs. However, there’s a little more nuance needed for a look at Season Four, in particular, and we’ll get to that soon. In the meantime, this idea-driven context ensures that Three is a steep decline from Two, even if the more obvious demarcation follows instead of precedes it… and yet, this context also ensures that there are more “right ideas” in Three than any other season ahead, so while I struggle with almost every episode on this list, I can still find plenty to enjoy in terms of Good Times’ own unique and self-contained standards of quality. But, let’s waste no more space; I have picked ten entries that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 39: “The Family Gun” (Aired: 09/16/75)
James gets a gun, to Florida’s chagrin.
Teleplay by Roger Shulman & John Baskin and Hubert Geiger | Story by Hubert Geiger | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
This topical story addresses the high rate of violent crime in the ghetto, so although it contrives a fairly generic sitcom take on what happens when a gun is brought into the home for self-defense, it’s associated with the series’ sociopolitical premise about confronting the harsh realities for Black people who live in an economically tough place. As for the heightened drama, it’s par for the course here in Season Three and a good indication of this era.
02) Episode 46: “The Politicians” (Aired: 11/04/75)
A political divide develops in the Evans household.
Written by Jack Elinson & Norman Paul | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
With the introduction of future recurring character Alderman Davis (Albert Reed), this entry may seem like it’s about its guests, but by putting its leads in conflict over politics and implying that one of the main problems with the ghetto is the inaction of its elected officials, both the premise and the leads are better supported than usual — the latter don’t get more definition, but they’re at least used purposefully. Incidentally, this was restaged on ABC in 2019; I found it an odd choice at the time but now see its pat analysis of voters as the selling point.
03) Episode 48: “Florida’s Protest” (Aired: 11/25/75)
Florida and Willona are arrested for protesting a local market.
Teleplay by Allan Manings | Story by Patricia Edwards | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
This outing’s appeal is its comic centerpieces — Florida and Willona being thrown in jail for protesting, and then Florida and James forcing a crooked supermarket manager to eat his own rotten product — both of which are more laugh-driven than this year’s norm. But the story also has something to say about living conditions in the ghetto and gives its leads a buyable vested interest, using them to validate the premise. (Also, Nedra Volz has a fun moment.)
04) Episode 49: “The Mural” (Aired: 12/02/75)
J.J. gets hired to paint a bank mural.
Teleplay by Dick Bensfield & Perry Grant | Story by Thad Mumford and Dick Bensfield & Perry Grant | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Narratively, this episode uses an established characteristic of J.J.’s — his artistic ambitions — to create a plot in which he’s commissioned for a big project that will pay well and can be used to help Thelma get to college. But the drama itself is most interested in the dynamic between J.J. and James, the latter of whom finds his pride wounded over his son’s ability to better provide for the family. The climax where James stands up to the bank guy is contrived and uncomedic, but the plot finds specifics about its leads’ premise-related objectives and then focuses on their relationship, rendering the entry, as a whole, sincerer than most. An underrated segment.
05) Episode 51: “Cousin Cleatus” (Aired: 12/16/75)
Florida’s nephew is accused of a big bank robbery.
Teleplay by Ron Allen Thompson and Norman Paul & Jack Elinson | Story by Ron Allen Thompson | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
With an ostentatious story sparked by an outside character and therefore dramatically unwarranted by the regulars — even though it tries to give Florida some kind of emotional stake, she provides nothing by way of action — this installment nevertheless benefits from its tight construction, which puts the family together for an extended period of time, with interactions that actually aid their humanity (no matter how situationally sparked the drama). Beeson Carroll and Laurence Haddon of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman appear.
06) Episode 52: “The Family Tree” (Aired: 12/23/75)
James does not want to be reconnected with his estranged father.
Written by Bob Peete | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Family Tree” affords John Amos his best material of the entire series, with an emotional plot about James’ reunion with his estranged father (Richard Ward) that doesn’t necessarily give him the kind of definition needed to help with additional thesis-related story beyond this half hour, but otherwise adds a personal dimension to the character that at least warrants the heavier dramatic moments within it, while also temporarily humanizing him in a way that satisfies the show’s super-objective. Meanwhile, beyond just personalizing James, the entry’s human drama is also relevant to the premise, as the text implies that his unideal upbringing is connected to the struggles faced by the very Black communities that the series aims to personify, which means that the show is marrying a relatable human dynamic to a sociopolitical statement: something that All In The Family fundamentally did with its structure, but which Good Times has typically failed to match. As a result, this is a most satisfying excursion. It’s still comedically muted in comparison to prior seasons’ best, yet it’s easily the most rewarding play to the series’ premise on this list. An easy pick.
07) Episode 55: “J.J.’s Fiancée (II)” (Aired: 01/13/76)
J.J. decides to elope with his girlfriend, not knowing that she’s a drug addict.
Teleplay by Roger Shulman & John Baskin and Norman Paul & Jack Elinson | Story by Roger Shulman & John Baskin | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Truthfully, I find this popular but dreadfully overblown two-parter to be an encapsulation of what’s ailing the series at this moment, but in being so boldly indicative of the year’s trends, it’s worth highlighting for rhetorical purposes. Its story is ostensibly about J.J., but it’s really driven by its guest, played by the great Debbie Allen (in her TV debut), who gets some topical drama that’s perhaps affiliated with the premise, but feels hacky and unearned both because of its dearth of laughs and also because of how unconnected it is to the rest of the series and its givens. Very emblematic of current Good Times! (Also, Philip Baker Hall appears.)
08) Episode 56: “Sweet Daddy Williams” (Aired: 01/20/76)
J.J. gets a commission from a slick numbers runner.
Written by James Ritz | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Theodore Wilson makes his debut here as future recurring player Sweet Daddy Williams, a flashy numbers runner and loan shark who’s comedically large and thus capable of bringing big laughs, but also represents a dangerous, and more sinister side to life in the hood, especially for the moralistic Evanses. So, narratively, the guest drives a lot of this one’s appeal — and that’s not preferred — but it’s tonally well-modulated (humor and drama), and he fits the premise.
09) Episode 58: “J.J. In Trouble” (Aired: 02/03/76)
While his parents are away, J.J. learns that he may have transmitted an STD.
Written by Roger Shulman & John Baskin | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
Neither Rolle nor Amos appear in this J.J.-focused offering, and while that may seem like a foreboding sample of what to expect at the series’ lowest ebb — Season Five — this entry nevertheless grants Walker the freedom to assert his naturally funny persona, and it’s not troubling because the topical story — about STDs — ties the show to reality and what we know of his character, in particular (so it’s not unearned), which means, the premise is invoked, with personal support. Ta-Tanisha guests, and there’s a small appearance from a young Jay Leno.
10) Episode 59: “Florida The Woman” (Aired: 02/17/76)
Florida goes out to lunch with her boss after feeling taken for granted.
Written by Jay Sommers | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
This unique installment is the year’s best showcase for its intended star, Esther Rolle, and although, like everything produced in Three, it doesn’t do much to develop her so she can anchor future story, it’s akin to “The Family Tree” for James in that it does a fine job of humanizing Florida, with a feministic “taken for granted” drama that rings truer than Season Two’s iteration of a similar notion. It also allows Florida the (now rare) chance to be funny, via a “tipsy” shtick that, sure, is gimmicky, but is decently motivated by her perspective. Also, Thalmus Rasulala guests in this oft-overlooked outing, scripted by Green Acres’ Jay Sommers.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Operation Florida,” which also has an incapacitated Florida as its comic centerpiece, but motivates it — and its more didactic “healthcare costs too much!” drama — less through the characters than “Florida The Woman” does. Of lesser quality but equal note is one of several outings with some thesis-related economic angst (that ends up being unenjoyable because of the vagueness of these leads and the year’s downplayed humor), “A Real Cool Job,” along with “Willona’s Dilemma,” which joneses for unearned topicality (Very Special Episode territory) when Willona dates a deaf man, and “J.J.’s Fiancée (I),” which sets up the bolder conclusion featured above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Good Times goes to…
“The Family Tree”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!