Judge Lacey Worrell scrutinizes the philosophical and existential implications of the presence of exclamation points instead of the expected question mark in this classic sitcom's title.
Hey HAY Hey! (Not to be confused with Fat Albert's "Hey Hey HAY!")
Those of you who spent more afternoons in the 1980s watching reruns of '70s sitcoms than doing your homework may find the classic episodes of What's Happening!! The Complete Second Season a fond trip down memory lane.
Facts of the Case
Aspiring journalist Raj (Ernest Thomas, Malcolm X) lives with his single mother (Mabel King, The Wiz) and smart-aleck younger sister, Dee (Danielle Spencer, As Good as it Gets). Raj hangs out at Rob's Place, the local soda shop, with his friends, the dimwitted Rerun (Fred Berry, Alice) and naïve Dwayne (Haywood Nelson, Sanford and Son), where they are harassed…albeit good-naturedly…by the wisecracking waitress, Shirley (Shirley Hemphill The Love Boat). This season focuses on Raj's and Rerun's last year of high school and ends with their graduation and decision to move into an apartment of their own, with Mama and Dwayne as frequent visitors.
This release features all 22 second-season episodes, most notably "Rerun Gets Married," where Rerun is tempted to marry an illegal alien (played by Irene Cara of Fame) in order to help her gain residency; "Rerun Sees the Light," where Rerun shaves his head and joins a cult that worships a head of lettuce named Ralph; and "Going, Going, Gong," where Raj and Dee see to it that a talented young foursome are awarded a spot on The Gong Show. Top it all off with a two-part episode featuring The Doobie Brothers, and you've got one memorable season.
The second season of What's Happening!! is clearly the show's best. The classic episodes included in this release are some of the most beloved of the series' run. Also taking into account that the third season featured the annoying kid who had the crush on Dee and did bad Steve Martin impressions, this season is the last to address some of the themes and characters viewers had come to love.
The recipe for What's Happening!!'s success is the fact that it is not afraid to shift the focus from Raj to the supporting players. Witness the episode called "Mama, the School Girl," where a good-looking classmate of Mama's sweet-talks her into writing his term paper for him. Although the rest of the gang helps her turn the tables on him in the end, this episode belongs to Mabel King. Dee is also given a chance in the spotlight in "Dee's First Date," which is one of the weaker episodes in this collection, as well as "Bill Gets Married," where she is upset by her formerly deadbeat father's impending nuptials. Actress Danielle Spencer's ambivalent reaction to her father's fiancée is about as real as it gets.
One of the lesser-known episodes of the second season, but one that stands out nonetheless, is "Shirley Is a Mother," where Shirley gets to show her tender side by nurturing Raj and Dee when Mama goes out of town. Shirley's excitement at being able to exercise her maternal instincts is a delight.
What's Happening!! is notable for its willingness to address social issues of the '70s, like single parenthood, the lure of cults, the attempted bootlegging of a Doobie Brothers concert, and the underground press. Underneath the sarcasm and cynicism is an undercurrent of love and heartfelt emotion.
It is significant that several of the main cast members have since passed on, including Shirley Hemphill, Fred "Rerun" Berry, and Mabel King. Ernest Thomas is still a working actor, having made guest appearances on shows like Martin and The Steve Harvey Show. Mabel King appeared on Fantasy Island several times and in the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged. What's Happening!! was revisited in a short-lived, syndicated sequel called What's Happening Now!! in the late 1980s that even featured an ill-fated romance between a grown-up Dee and Dwayne. This show was also notable for the inclusion of actress Regina King as Raj's daughter, who went on to big success in movies like Boyz in the Hood, Daddy Day Care, and Ray.
Viewers who remember watching What's Happening!! when it originally aired (or when it ran frequently in reruns) will most likely be pleased with the show's transfer to DVD. The picture is sharp and the colors are bright…or as bright as can be expected, considering this was filmed in the decade when earth tones ruled the fashion industry. The sound is also good quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I loved this show as a kid, the fat jokes about Mama and Rerun are dated and not very funny. Danielle Spencer's performance is an enigma; her delivery is flat and expressionless, but because she is given some of the best one-liners, her performance is at times laugh-out-loud funny. The production was obviously done on a shoestring…at any point it looks as though the walls of Mama's house might crash to the floor, and in the episode where Rerun joins the cult and supposedly shaves his head, it is quite clear his hair has been hidden under a flesh-colored cap. However, the fun and surprisingly engrossing plots, and the interaction between the cast members, more than make up for the shoddy production values.
I wouldn't expect to see many special features for the release of the second season of a show, but when one takes into account that the first-season release of What's Happening!! didn't have any either, it's a disappointment. Considering the fact that the recent DVD debut of 227 contained not one but three retrospectives, the lack of one on this release is clearly a negative.
What's Happening!! The Complete Second Season is a surprisingly good investment for lovers of '70s sitcoms; it contains some of the series' best episodes and is far funnier than most of the comedic dreck on TV today.
Judgment in favor of a cast that made the most of their chemistry and some genuinely funny moments. Hey HAY Hey!
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