In a time where we must ponder, "what is 'is?'," Judge Dennis Prince also retrospectively examines, "how good was 'good?"
Our reviews of Good Times: The Complete First Season (published March 21st, 2003), Good Times: The Complete Fourth Season (published May 4th, 2005), and Good Times: The Complete Series (published November 5th, 2008) are also available.
Easy credit rip-offs,
Ain't we lucky we got 'em .
If it pleases the court, we present the Evans family: father James, mother Florida, eldest son James, Jr. (or "J.J." as he prefers to be addressed), daughter Thelma, and young Michael. Oh, yes, and there's also the active neighbor, Willona. These fine, upstanding citizens of Chicago's ghetto area look their downtrodden situation in the face daily and laugh. That's right, they laugh because they have to. If not, they'd likely never make it through to tomorrow. Yet, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, do not pity these prideful Americans, they who bear the burden of economic inequality, they who have only the inner-city "projects" to call their home, they who toil mightily just to keep the shirts on their backs and soup in their pot. No, do not console these fine people for they need no consolation. These are good people and these are their good times.
Facts of the Case
After two years of "scratchin' and survivin'," television's Evans family hadn't gotten much further ahead than they were when we first met them on February 1, 1974. James (John Amos, Roots) is still working hard as ever but can't seem to get beyond his stretch at the loading docks. Florida (Esther Rolle, reprising her character originated on TV's Maude) is the tough-as-nails matriarch who struggles to make ends meet with whatever the family budget can bear. J.J. (Jimmie Walker, Let's Do It Again) believes he's heir-apparent to head-of-the-household status yet can't seem to steer his actions and abilities to match that of his fast flappin' mouth; he's well on the way to becoming a starving artist. Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis) is fast becoming a woman yet protests derisively while in the shadow of the obnoxious J.J. Young Michael (Ralph Carter of Broadway's "Raisin" fame) is the boy with a dream, envisioning the day when the family can rise above their poverty status, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of society, and proudly proclaim their black heritage by words and deeds. Oh, and Willona (Ja'net du Buois, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka) seems destined to become an old maid in spite of her hip and happening lifestyle, forever shopping for a honey yet still unable keep her sassy mouth shut.
"Ain't we lucky we got 'em…Good Times."
Yes, this is the same family (plus one) that we met two years prior and, though their adventures have been many, they've literally remained on the same rung of the economic and social ladders. Through the fertile mind of series developer Norman Lear (All in the Family, Maude) and flanked by a stable of cutting edge sitcom writers (mostly white, Jewish males if you can believe that), the Evans clan hope to call attention to what they consider the flailing American Dream. They're quick to level blame at then-President Ford, apparently seething over his apathetic administration, one that seeks to reduce government intervention and spending, unconvinced such doling would actually assist the working class or rejuvenate the sluggish economy.
"Maybe the recession is over for [President Ford] but it ain't for us. He's swimmin' and we drownin'!"
They struggle over owning a gun, Florida fearful that "soon everyone will have guns" even in light of the fact that Thelma was mugged just outside the projects. And they're sickened at the high price of health care when Florida requires a gallstone procedure at the expensive hospital, fearful of what might become of her at the under-funded county clinic.
Although the show sought to raise eyebrows and elicit a similar level of controversy as did the caustic All in the Family, there simply wasn't enough character opposition to fuel the fire; the show seemingly hoped "social strife" could prove to be enough of an antagonist. Whereas Lear's heyday outing pitted the hard-lined liberal Michael Stivic against the grating knee-jerk conservative of Archie Bunker, supplying an endless stream of plotlines and put-downs, the Evans family had only the spectre of "the man" holding them back and keeping them down (thankfully refraining from accusing "whitey" directly). It was refreshing, nonetheless, to see the American situation through the perspective of the Evans family, but the fact that they remained virtually unchanged seemed to lend credence to the unspoken notion that politics needs the poor in order to prosper—the politicians prospering, not the poor. It seems comedy likes the poor right where they're at, too. And so, while Good Times did offer some laughs amid its view of the governmental machine and proclaimed social decay, it needed a believable "arc" upon which its characters would travel, grow, and change. Lear got the laughs he wanted at the expense Evans's plight.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The show was successful, though, and consistently rated high in the Nielsen polls through the majority of its five-year run. That success, however, didn't seem as largely attributed to the biting social commentary that underscored Lear's other successes but, rather, was buoyed by the unexpected popularity of Jimmie Walker and his catchphrase, "Dyn-o-mite!" During each episode, the gangly Walker would be provided a set scene where he would unleash the manic motto to the screeching approval of the studio audience. First uttered during the second episode of the show's first season, Good Times instantly became the commercial property of Walker, his axiom being immediately emblazoned on all manner of consumer goods including a talking J.J. doll.
Ah, there's the rub: how could American households truly empathize over the trials and tribulations of TV's Evans family when the show itself was a money-making machine? Then, consider that this third season would be the last for actor John Amos, he who stalled contract negotiations, reportedly, for more money. No matter, because there was still the element of a family's love for one another, the glue that holds them together through thin and thinner. Unfortunately, in the real world, Esther Rolle made it known through an interview in Ebony that she was getting increasingly infuriated at the direction the show took, spotlighting the unemployed and under-educated J.J. as the show's fulcrum, pandering for laughs rather than stumping for social change. Rolle abruptly left the show in 1977, citing creative differences, but returned in 1978 in hopes of saving the waning series.
In the final analysis, whatever Good Times was, it was the staple of Tuesday night viewing for millions of Americans during its run. Following the success of the complete first and second season DVDs, Columbia TriStar brings us this third season to continue chronicling the family's ongoing adventures in 24 episodes on three discs.
• The Family Gun
• Michael's Big Fall
• J.J.'s Fiancée, Part 1
Now, if you're a purist for the original experience, this disc set will not disappoint. Here you'll find a full frame 1.33:1 format that features an often soft, often graining, always inconsistent image quality. Some might complain that a restorative approach wasn't employed here, but those of us who enjoy the look and feel of the picture we saw on our four-legged Sylvania's of the day will pardon the lack of image boost (recalling that the source material was taken from original video tape, not film, elements). The audio here is a slightly improved Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track but sounds more like a two-channel mono presentation. Again, citing original elements, this sounds pretty much as you remember from 30 years ago, sometimes harsh, sometimes hollow, but always decipherable nonetheless. As for extra features, there are none, further imparting the notion of hardship for folks like the Evans, they who could never afford such luxuries (but, then, it wasn't the Evans's who produced this boxed set, now was it?).
No matter your politics, then or now, or your opinions regarding the ability for hard-working Americans to "get out from under," Good Times proves itself an interesting time capsule of sorts. Whether as a quasi-historical source or as a source of a few laughs in the face of adversity, this show is worth a look no matter your position on the economic scale.
The only crime that was apparently committed here was that the show's developer and staff of writers hadn't felt three years of economic embattlement was enough for the generally likable Evans clan. In light of the statute of limitations for such creative misdeeds and in acknowledgement of Columbia TriStar continuing to present the facts as they occurred, this case is dismissed.
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