Judge Brett Cullum likes temporary layoffs, easy credit rip-offs, scratching and surviving, and hanging in a chow line.
Our reviews of Good Times: The Complete First Season (published March 21st, 2003), Good Times: The Complete Third Season (published August 30th, 2004), and Good Times: The Complete Fourth Season (published May 4th, 2005) are also available.
"We are poor, and poor is one of three things people don't want to be. Right next to sick, and dead."—James Evans
Norman Lear was king of the '70s situation comedy with All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons, and the subject of this review—Good Times. He was the master of making programs that were the right mix of funny and socially relevant. What made Lear's shows different was they created a unique tension between the situation and the comedy, often allowing these '70s shows to hit serious notes easily while still making us laugh. Good Times—The Complete Series gathers together six seasons or 133 episodes on a whopping 17 DVDs. It's a whole lot of "DY-NO-MITE!" to get through, but it seems to be the best way to make sure you have all your favorite moments of the seminal series.
Facts of the Case
Good Times is a family comedy about the struggling Evans clan fighting to get out of Chicago's ghetto and the infamous Cabrini-Green projects in the mid to late '70s. There's Florida Evans (Esther Rolle, Driving Miss Daisy), the matriarch who keeps everybody together and provides spiritual and emotional guidance. James Evans (John Amos, Die Hard 2) who as the father gets the burden of winning most of the family's money through working several menial jobs at once. Then there are the three kids: James Junior or "J.J." (Jimmie Walker, The Concorde: Airport '79), the oldest son who is an aspiring painter, Thelma (BernNadette Stanis, Land of the Free?), the middle girl with dancing talent, and militant youngest child Michael (Ralph Carter who has numerous stage credits), who aspires to become a lawyer. Along the way we also get the sassy neighbor Wilona (Ja'net Dubois, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle), overweight handyman Bookman (Johnny Brown, Life), and the inevitable "cute kid injection" with a young Janet Jackson playing Penny during the last two seasons.
Good Times started as a 13-episode midseason series in 1974, the spin-off of a spin-off having come from Maude, which itself came from All in the Family. Esther Rolle as Florida Evans appeared as a maid in episodes for Maude during its early seasons, although her character in Good Times bears little resemblance to the incarnation working at Bea Arthur's house. This series gives her a husband and places the family out of the state of New York and in to the Cabrini-Green project on the North side of Chicago, Illinois. The show was one of the earliest depictions of an African American family, and the first to set itself in a poor neighborhood. These weren't people of means, and all they had to get by was each other and their sense of humor and love for each other.
The show ran for six seasons, and went through several cast changes as a result of on-set tension and network tinkering. John Amos was the first to leave for getting in to a disagreement with producers about compensation and how the "J.J." character was playing into stereotypes. Amos was fired after giving an interview where he talked about backstage fights over the content of the series. As a result of the actor's critical statements, the father character was killed off after the third season. This left Florida as a single mom. Esther Rolle shared similar complaints about how the show revolved around comedy bits of the eldest son, and she also came to blows with producers when they wanted her to move on by marrying another man. Rolle felt it was too soon to have Florida find love again. In the fifth year her character is absent, and somehow the kids remain alone in the apartment with more support from Wilona and Bookman. Janet Jackson also debuted on the show as Penny, a cute orphan Wilona adopts in the "parentless year" of Good Times. By the final sixth season, Florida came back without her new husband, or even a mention of why she was gone. The ratings were failing, and the network decided to wrap things up. The finale finds everyone getting out of the ghetto once and for all. It's an interesting run for a sitcom when you look at how the show kept changing, and actually wrapped up the story lines in one season finale where everyone got what they wanted.
The show was always a striking mix of melancholy moments married with simple one-liners, a sometimes tragic drama punctuated with spiffy jokes. You could almost accuse Good Times of being downright gloomy during dire moments like when the family is almost evicted, everything in the apartment breaks down, or characters are beat down and worse. The death of the father was a first for sitcoms, and Good Times often dealt with serious topics mixed in with family humor. Nothing seemed off-limits, and the cast bravely took on a whole laundry list of topics that no other comedy would have dreamed of integrating in to a story.
On a side note, the show introduced America to the art of Ernie Barnes without them even realizing it for the most part. He was the painter who actually executed the works of J.J., and the artist is a major proponent and founder of the neo-mannerist movement. His most famous piece, Sugar Shack, is featured in the opening sequence of the first four years. The show certainly tried its best to showcase African American culture where it could, and it did a nice job considering it was spearheaded often by a bunch of white network people behind the scenes.
This release is nothing more than all of the previous releases combined into a single package. The deal here is that even if you bought each season of Good Times at the low price of $16 a set it would cost you just shy of one hundred dollars to get everything. Hell, that could pay rent for the Evans family! So what this collection offers is all the episodes at about half the price. Good Times—The Complete Series is a nice deal for anybody who hasn't bought the individual season sets, but it offers nothing new other than "space saving" for anyone else.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are some gripes and places where this release could have been better. The packaging of the set is ghetto, and you get 17 discs stacked up in a plastic crate with a piece of cardboard over them to keep them in place. The cover is a thin easily crushable paper which is flimsy enough to crinkle. These are the individual season discs which were released one year at a time, and they have no extras. What a shame that such a pioneering show like Good Times isn't discussed or dissected in any way. We just get the full screen transfers which look fine but unremarkable. It all looks and sounds what you would expect a '70s TV show to be like, complete with aging video masters and some print damage here and there. The show is high quality, but the presentation is simple and bare bones. What a pity when you factor in how culturally important this one is when looking at the history of situation comedies. I'm glad to see the entire run finally condensed in to one convenient set, but I wish they would have offered something more compelling to make new viewers understand what the show meant and give fans something extra in return.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Good Times in syndication even though I lived in a white suburb outside of Houston, about as far removed from the characters as you could get. What worked for me was what seemed to work for every one, the show was genuinely funny and full of characters you cared about. I would look to Florida Evans as a moral compass, someone who's warmth and goodness I wanted to emulate. Sitting down to a marathon of Good Times was a real treat, like catching up with old friends. The references to '70s culture and the clothes do date the show, but the issues remain relevant even today. It's amazing to see Norman Lear's unique brand of comedy, and one has to wonder why we don't see this any more on television. The Evans were a real family facing real problems, and although it only took twenty minutes to solve them they still felt real and true. This set's a nice reminder of what the show was all about—counting your blessings, and hanging on to the people you love.
Guilty of being a seminal sitcom where happy meets sad and color lines are blurred. Good Times is free to go keeping its head above water, and making a wave when it can. Ain't we lucky we got it?
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