Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Good Times: A Historic Television Series

Over fifty years after its debut on February 8 1974 on CBS, Good Times remains popular. It was also a historic show. Good Times was the first television show centred on a Black nuclear family, with a father, mother, and children. Previously Julia had focused on a widow with a young son. Sanford and Son centred on an elderly, widowed father and his grown son. In many respects, then, Good Times was breaking new ground.

Good Times starred Esther Rolle as Florida Evans and John Amos as James Evans. They lived in an unnamed public housing project in Chicago, inspired by the actual Cabrini–Green Homes in the city. Their children were J.J. (Jimmie Walker), an aspiring artist and illustrator, Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), an intelligent young woman who sees being educated as a way to improve both her own and her family's situation, and Michael (Ralph Carter), who even at his young age is something of an activist. One of their neighbours and Florida's best friend was Willona Woods (Ja'Net DuBois), a recently divorced woman who works at a boutique.

The creation of Good Times was somewhat complicated. Eric Monte and Michael Evans developed a concept for a show based around a family living in a housing project in Chicago. The show was largely inspired by Eric Monte's childhood spent in Cabrini-Green Homes. Eric Monte had earlier created the characters of Louise and George Jefferson on All in the Family. He later wrote the movie Cooley High (1975) and created the TV series What's Happening!!. Mike Evans played the role of Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family and later The Jeffersons.

At the same time, the producers of Maude wanted a spin-off from that series featuring Maude's maid Florida (Esther Rolle). On Maude, John Amos played Florida's husband Henry, a  firefighter. They then took the show that Eric Monte and Michael Evans had in development, and changed Florida's backstory to fit in with Mr. Monte and Michael Evans's concept. As a result, Good Times was at the same time a spin-off of Maude and yet not a spin-off of Maude. Florida and her family now lived in Chicago and had apparently never lived in New York. Florida's husband was now named James and he did not work as a firefighter, but instead he worked a variety of blue collar jobs. While reference was made to Florida having worked as a maid, it was apparently years before the events of the show. Furthermore Florida had worked for a Chicago couple, and no mention was ever made of Maude.

The theme song to Good Times was composed by Dave Grusin (who had composed the scores for Divorce American Style, The Graduate, and other movies) with lyrics written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (who had earlier written the lyrics for "In the Heat of the Night," composed by Quincy Jones). It was sung by session musician and singer Jim Gilstrap and R&B artist Blinky Williams. The sixteenth line of the Good Times has always been a mystery for many fans of the show. It has been interpreted as both "Hangin' in and jivin'" and "Haingin' in a chow line." Alan and Marilyn Bergman would later clarify that the line is "Hangin' in and jivin'."

As originally conceived, Good Times dealt with life in public housing, as well as the family trying to make it out of poverty. Like other sitcoms produced by Norman Lear at the time, it dealt with several social issues, including racism, sexuality, health, sexism, gang violence, and so on. It was fairly early in the run of Good Times that the character of J.J. became the show's breakout character. Jimmie Walker gave credit for the creation of J.J.'s catchphrase, "Dyn-o-mite!," to producer and director John Rich. Mr. Rich insisted that J.J. say the phrase in every single episode, despite doubts from both Jimmie Walker and producer Norman Lear. As it turned out, the catchphrase caught on with viewers.

The popularity of J.J. resulted in more and more episodes centred around the character. This did not sit well with either Esther Rolle or John Amos, who were unhappy with J.J.'s increasingly buffoonish and even stereotypical behaviour. Esther Rolle was particularly critical of the character, saying in a 1975 interview with Ebony, "He's 18 and he doesn't work. He can't read or write. He doesn't think. The show didn't start out to be that...Little by little—with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn't do that to me—they have made J.J. more stupid and enlarged the role. Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child."

John Amos was so unhappy about the direction of Good Times that he eventually had confrontations with executive producer Norman Lear. He was then fired after season three. While the reason for John Amos's departure was given as the actor wanting to purse a film career, in truth his contract had simply not been renewed. James Evans was then written out of the show as having died. Esther Rolle remained with Good Times until the end of the fourth season, when she left the show because she was unhappy with its direction. It was late in the fourth season that the character of Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn) was introduced on the show. Carl Dixon was the owner of a haberdashery for whom Michael had worked for a time. As the season wore on Florida and Carl began dating. It was in the two-part, fourth season finale that Florida and Carl became engaged, even though he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. In the first episode of the fifth season, it was explained that Florida and Carl had gotten married and moved to Arizona.

With Esther Rolle no longer on the show, the fifth season would see major changes to Good Times. Willona's role became more important, as she checked on the younger members of the Evans family frequently. Nathan Bookman, the building superintendent, went from being a recurring character to a regular, playing a bigger role in plots. Janet Jackson joined the cast as Penny, a girl abandoned by her mother who was eventually adopted by Willona.

Beyond the major cast, Good Times also featured several recurring characters throughout the show's run. Ned the Wino (Raymond Allen) was the local drunk who lived in the same neighbourhood as the Evans family. "Sweet Daddy" Williams (Theodore Wilson) was the neighbourhood pimp and numbers runner, whose given name was Marion. For the most part he was threatening, but he could occasionally be soft-hearted. Alderman Fred C. Davis (Albert Reed Jr.) was a somewhat dodgy politician that the Evans family generally disliked and Willona outright hated. Wanda Williams was a resident of the Evans family's building, who often attended funerals, even of people she doesn't know. Lenny (Dap "Sugar" Willie), also known as "Looting Lenny," was a peddler whose items were often suspected to have been stolen. He kept his wares attached to the inside of his coat. Throughout the show's run there were several other recurring characters on the show.

The sixth and final season of Good Times would see Esther Rolle return to the show in a recurring role. Without Esther Rolle, ratings for Good Times had plummeted, going from no. 24 for the year in its fourth season to no. 55 for the year in its fifth season. The producers then approached Esther Rolle about coming back to the show. Miss Rolle had several conditions before she would agree to return to Good Times. It should come as no surprise that among her demands was that J.J. would be made a more responsible character. After all, the reason she had left was that she felt J.J. was a poor role model for Black teenagers and something of a stereotype. She also wanted the character of Carl Dixon to be written out of the show. Esther Rolle had not been happy about the subplot in which Florida had begun dating and then married Carl. First, she felt that it was much soon following James's death for Florida to date anyone else, let alone marry anyone else. Second, she felt that as a religious woman, Florida would not consider dating, let alone marrying an atheist like Carl. It was then in the first episode of the sixth season that Florida returned to Chicago without Carl. Carl was briefly mentioned in the episode and then mentioned only one more time during the season. Florida even used the name "Florida Evans" instead of "Florida Dixon." It was as if he had never existed. The first episode of the sixth season would also see the introduction of Keith Anderson (Ben Powers), a professional football player to whom Thelma became engaged and would marry during the season.

Unfortunately the return of Esther Rolle to Good Times would not save the show. CBS moved Good Times from Monday night to Saturday night for the first several episodes of the season. The series was then returned to Wednesday night. It seems likely that the changes in the show's time slot further hurt Good Times in the Nielsens, this after ratings had been declining for some time. For its final season, Good Times only came in at no. 91 for the year. The show was then cancelled.

The cancellation did come in time for Good Times to have a proper season finale. In the final episode, Michael goes to college. Thelma  and Keith announce that they are expecting. They are also moving into a luxury apartment, and they ask Florida to move in with them so she can watch the baby. Willona is promoted to the head buyer at the boutique she works at, and as a result gets an apartment in the same building as Thelma and Keith. J.J. finally gets a big break, becoming a professional comic book artist. His character is a superhero named DynoWoman, based on his sister Thelma.

Following its network run, Good Times would have success as a syndicated rerun. It ran for some time on TV Land. It can currently be seen on TV One, Get TV, and Catchy Comedy. The entire run of the show has also been released on DVD. It is also available on such streaming channels as Freevee, Peacock, and Philo.

Good Times was among the shows to have an episode recreated for the 2019 series of specials aired on ABC titled Live in Front of a Studio Audience. The specials were broadcast live and recreated episodes of various sitcoms, among them All in the Family and The Jeffersons. In the case of Good Times, it was "The Politicians," in which Alderman Fred Davis was running for re-election,  that was recreated for the special. In the special, Viola Davis played Florida, Andre Braugher played James, Jay Pharoah played J.J., Corinne Foxx played Thelma, and Asante Blackk played Michael. The role of Fred Davis was played by none other than John Amos, the original James on Good Times.

While Good Times declined in quality during its run and the character of J.J. would be the source of some controversy, it was very much a groundbreaking sitcom. Never before had a Black family with a father, a mother, and children been portrayed in a regularly scheduled show on American television. Early in its run it often tackled issues of concern to African Americans and issues of concern to those living in poverty of any ethnicity. Indeed, early in its run it was nominated for two Humanitas awards. If Good Times remains popular to this day, it is perhaps because it was a revolutionary show for its time that addressed issues that are still pertinent even now. I have no doubt people will still be watching the show fifty years from now.

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