We know Judge Dennis Prince is always looking for some good times, so why does he become so depressed when he spends a few days with TV's Evans family?
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 Series (published November 5th, 2008) are also available.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!"
Good times, huh? If so, better than what…?
In its fourth season, September 1976 through March 1977, the well-rated Good Times was beginning to struggle under the weight of its own self-imposed irony. In the previous season, we watched the perpetually beleaguered yet ever-optimistic Evans family—father James Sr., mother Florida, elder son James "J.J." Jr., daughter Thelma, and younger son Michael—continually be pulled apart by the cruel world only to come back together thanks to their strong family ties. And within their roach-infested Chicago apartment, the Evans clan rebounded from their lows and rejoiced in their few highs as they lived the "good times."
That's all about to change now in Good Times—The Complete Fourth Season.
Facts of the Case
Finally, good fortune is smiling upon the down-but-never-beaten Evans family as they excitedly prepare themselves to move from their hovel of a high-rise homestead and relocate in Mississippi. James Sr. has landed a terrific new job, and the family's perseverance is paying off. Then the call comes in: James Sr. has died in an automobile accident. Shocked and speechless, the remaining Evanses can only grasp for some semblance of sense in light of this undeserved fate. But they manage to press on, with Florida (Esther Rolle) now struggling as a single parent to see that J.J. (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (Bern'Nadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter) can find their way out of the Chicago projects and into a better life. J.J. takes his place as man of the house with gangly unevenness. He manages to step up his game a bit yet still gets tangled in all manner of miscalculation including a tryst with an older art teacher and a dangerous scheme working amid gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers. Thelma must navigate the uncertain social landscape, questioning whether she should give up her college pursuits in deference to supporting the ever-constrained family. Michael is forced to find his own way, unfortunately succumbing to the appeals of gang membership and later questioning his spiritual faith under the atheistic tutelage of his employer. Oh, and Willona Woods (Ja'net DuBois) is along for the ride, as is the obnoxious building superintendent, Nathan "Booger" Bookman (Johnny Brown).
Somewhere around 1976, all the drugs from the past five or six years had worn off and the creative hangover was in full swing in Hollywood. While the earlier years of this "Polyester Period" were somewhat looser and less brooding (remember, we were looking to entertainment on the "boob tube" to distract us from the horrors of an ill-conceived police action), the decade formerly noted as that of smiley faces and self-empowerment gave way to smug looks and self-loathing. Like so many other television series of the day that were simultaneously smart and satisfying (such as M*A*S*H or All in the Family), this one, too, soon began to take itself too seriously and, subsequently, became mired in its own need to deliver powerful social messages…whatever that means. As a result, despite the trademarked "Dyn-O-Mite!" pronouncements of Jimmie Walker, Good Times soon became anything but.
I distinctly recall watching the opening episode of this season during its original broadcast on September 22, 1976, and being summarily stunned and confused as a new year of laughs was slapped down with a phone call announcing the death of James Sr., a pan around the apartment to witness the astonished reactions of the family, and a fade to black. What the hell just happened? The second episode of the two-part opener took us viewers through the grieving process of the family while allowing us to peer in on the funeral and wake arrangements. It still wasn't very funny. This is where the series took a sharp left turn from which it would not return. Like M*A*S*H and its sudden barrage of self-important sermonizing or the devolving All in the Family, which forced us to endure Edith's rape, these formerly entertaining television shows—temporary respites from the increasing harshness of our culture—became the newest tools of posturing and politicizing. What happened to all the laughter?
Clearly, the impact of the death of James Sr. was inescapable as the writers figured out how to dispatch the character after actor John Amos was asked to leave the show due to "creative differences." Both he and Esther Rolle had continually complained that the show did nothing to present positive role models for families in similar situations, but the producers and writers elected, instead, to cash in on the clueless J.J. Rolle, of course, would stick it out for the fourth season but would soon depart at the outset of the show's fifth year.
Again, I ask: good times? Hey, I know that there were some serious issues afoot—always were and always will be—but sometimes a good dose of silly escapism is the best way to gain proper perspective and a fresh approach. This, sadly, has entered the realm of wallowing more often than not.
Some decent one-liners can be gleaned from this third season of Good
Times, but they certainly can't mask the fact that the show had become heavy
and often heart-breaking. Here are the episodes you'll find on this set:
If you're a fan of Good Times across its six-season creative arc, you're likely quite excited to see that Sony is continuing its season-by-season release schedule of the show. In this newest three-disc boxed set, you'll find pretty much the same quality you've found on the three previous releases. I, for one, as something of a '70s purist, appreciate the somewhat unpolished look of the episodes here, presented in their original 1.33:1 full-frame format. The image is rather soft, and resident video elements betray the videotape lineage of the episodes. It's not the spotless digital dynamism we've come to expect from the medium, yet it's truthful to the original source material. (I believe it to be more important to preserve the original state of the technology of the day rather than rewrite the media history through over-applied and unrepentant tech-touchups a la George Lucas.) The audio is the same Dolby Digital 2.0 mono format as we heard in the previous boxed sets and, for the material at hand, it's fine. There are no extras, again to uphold the notion that these boxed sets are being produced in the Sony "projects," where such luxuries simply cannot be afforded. Yeah, right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hey, there's no arguing that the times were uncertain as we wound down from the fleeting '70s and realized that bitching about the war and the government simply couldn't pay the bills; we'd have to get jobs and start gaining capital if we were going to prosper. (Look out! Here come the '80s!) The topics being explored during this season of Good Times were certainly important to understand, yet those discussions needed to take place at the right time and in the right forum. As it stood, we long-time viewers soon began to realize that our favorite comedy shows were ambushing us by promising us the lightheartedness we'd come to enjoy only to slap us across the face with one social injustice after another, just when we were waiting for the kid to say "Dyn-O-Mite!"
What suckers we had become.
From a technical standpoint, Good Times—The Complete Fourth Season shows consistency in execution and presentation, though the lack of extras to accompany the first 85 episodes now transferred to DVD continues to disappoint. While I found this particular season to be afflicted by the "important episode" syndrome that infiltrated most of our favorite sitcoms of the day, the show is nonetheless an important and appealing marker of the evolution of a formative decade. If you're a committed fan of the show, I recommend purchasing this boxed set. If you were something of a casual viewer and are curious to relive the sights and sounds of the bygone era, at least give this set a rent.
Sony is again commended for continuing its pace to release Good Times in a season-by-season format. While this court is disappointed by the producer Norman Lear's original indiscretion of needlessly weighing down this otherwise enjoyable program, the release does accurately reflect the events as they occurred—and the truth is always deserving of pardon in this courtroom. Case dismissed.
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