Saturday, June 7, 2008

Good Times

I have been watching old shows like Thea and Different Strokes and thinking about how far television has evolved, specifically about how African Americans are represented on television, I realized that I could still count the notable and inspiring black characters this season on one hand. We all know black folk have come a long way in real life, but for some reason, TV still tells a different story. I think I prefer the black television of yesteryear. We've been so busy moving forward and not looking back that we've forgotten the black characters of the past who inspired us, worked hard, set positive examples for the community and made us proud to be black. Case in point: Good Times.

During my teens and early twenties, Good Times was often dismissed as a negative representation of black popular culture. People said it perpetuated stereotypes, and everyone focused on J.J. as “The Coon”. Recently I had a chance a marathon of Good Times on TV One. I have often relayed to others that this is one of my favorite television show of all times. After really watching the show through 2008 eyes, I realized that Good Times actually had it right.

Looking at the show now so many things stood out to me, especially after watching several shows in a row. First, the Evans family probably had more integrity than any African-American TV family. Ever. Now before you jump in with the Huxtables, I have to say, the Evanses are far more impressive, because they actually had real life problems. The Huxtables, while they were a meaningful and entertaining acknowledgement of affluent black life, didn't struggle like the Evanses. Isn’t the true measure of a man (or woman) is how they perform when they’re down right? Well, the Evanses were down all the time with constant problems. Theo Huxtable's girlfriend was never shooting up heroin in the bathroom.

The Evanses had real life or death, how-we-gonna-eat problems. They faced poverty, VD, unemployment, discrimination, gangs, suicide, child abuse, drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, hypertension, illiteracy and the like. I mean, if there was a social issue, Good Times covered it. And the family's way of dealing with these issues always centered around morality, integrity, strength and just being downright decent. What African-American TV family represents those values today? Hell, what white family for that matter?

The Evanses had a strong two-parent home. James was clearly the leader of the family, but he and Florida still acted as partners. Their love for each other was evident. The kids respected the parents. They weren't obnoxious smart asses, and they weren't incorrigible troublemakers either. They were regular kids. They were us. Although they were poor, they were hopeful and eager to learn and jump at opportunity.

J.J. was a talented artist. What an incredible role model! I mean, as silly as J.J. was, he was a creative genius. Where can you find a talented African-American painter on TV today? He made black art and painting accessible to the world. He showed us a talent and an art form that many of us would have never been exposed to otherwise. He showed poor kids that poverty cannot stifle art or creativity. And the J.J. character allowed the producers to showcase the work of real life African-American artist Ernie Barnes (who did all the actual paintings shown). Where can you find African-American art on TV today? Do you realize how cool that is?

And Thelma. She was sexy, yet classy, and like all us women growing up, she made some mistakes and got into some sticky situations. Remember when she was about to marry that African fool or when she got felt up by Willona's creepy ex-husband Ray? I mean that's real life there. But through it all she grew up, stepped up when James died, always handled herself with class and grace, and she had a husband before she had a baby. Who would argue that she isn't a great role model for young women of any socio-economic class?

Finally Michael always kept racial issues in the forefront, injecting social consciousness into every conversation. Michael was a typical, bright, city kid. He was militant, excelled in school; he was strong but respectful of his parents. He also got involved with gangs, got drunk off Vita-Brite and beat up that fat kid in school that time. He went through what we all go through trying to find ourselves in this world. But he knew that education was the key to his success, and that thread ran throughout the show. Where can you find that now?

And as bad off as the Evanses were financially, they never asked for hand-outs or charity, never made excuses. They acknowledged racism, but never used it as a crutch. They just knew they had to work twice as hard because racism stacked the deck against them. If times were tough, James just worked harder. Florida and James always had a hopeful outlook. They always focused on hard work and its relationship to success. They helped their neighbors and ate dinner together. Can you imagine what a world this would be if we all embodied the character traits of the Evans family? It would be good times, indeed.

Looking at current representations of African Americans on TV, I can't believe I ever dismissed Good Times as being merely entertainment. Many African Americans at the time felt that since it was a show depicting a poor black family, then it was, bad, an insult, a stereotype. It was dismissed as something we had come too far to look at, an obsolete show with no value and no relevance to modern day black people.

I know folks out there are going to argue that the show "Jumped the Shark" when James died, even so where can you find a better representation of African Americans today? Tell you what, watch Good Times and then look at us now. Take a new look at the Evanses, and then look at our images on MTV and VH1 and BET. Look at the way African Americans are depicted on network dramas and sitcoms. Check out the evening news.

Then you tell me if Good Times didn't have it right?


The Rock Chick said...

DYN-O-MITE post, Pjazzy! I used to watch this show all the time when I was younger. In some ways, it reminded me of All In The Family, but maybe that's just because they had the issues out in front and discussed amongst the characters.

I'm going to have to give this show another try thru my 2008 eyes. I'll bet I see it in a completely different light.

Malcolm said...

Excellent analysis Pjazzy! A few years ago, TV Land did a "Good Times" marathon over the weekend. When I watched the marathon, there were a few things that stuck out to me. In the beginning, Michael was the "militant midget", socially conscious and very much in tune with the plight of Blacks in America. On the "E! THS" of "Good Times", I remember them saying that they made Michael militant because what he was saying was less threatening than if it were coming from a Black adult. As Michael aged over the course of the series, the militant aspect of his character was dropped. He became essentially a generic girl-crazy teen.

The beefing up of the J.J. character at the expense of others over the course of the series was something else I noticed. One of the worst things that happened was when the studio audience burst into applause the first time J.J. said "Dy-No-Mite!" I can't blame John Amos and Esther Rolle for being upset at this turn of events. They probably were saying to themselves, "I didn't sign up for this!"

Another thing I noticed was that some of the characters started doing impersonations that were more in line with the performer than the character they were playing. Example: Bookman (played by comic Johnny Brown) started doing John Wayne, Keith (played by comic Ben Powers) is doing Bill Cosby, and Janet Jackson is aping Mae West. I'm like, "What is this, Showtime In the Ghetto?"

I still wish that there was some way that Norman Lear and John Amos could have worked out their differences. In my eyes, after John was fired from the show, Good Times went down the tubes quick, fast and in a hurry. The whole Carl/Florida storyline was a bust. Not only was it too soon for her to remarry, I still find it unbelievable that a religious woman such as Florida would get involved with an atheist. I can see where the producers were trying to go with an "opposites attract" angle, but I still didn't buy it.

I am glad that "Good Times" was allowed to redeem itself a bit when Esther Rolle returned for the final season. Although it still didn't compare to the early years, the final season did have some good and memorable episodes (the one about Larry the deaf student who rode on Florida's bus and the one with Paula Kelly as a hardened doctor come to mind).

It's too bad that the sitcoms of today aren't being influenced more by the Norman Lear productions of the 1970s. Maybe its for the best because in the hands of those who aren't as skilled at balancing comedy and reality, you fall into a "Very Special Episode" territory (Webster, Blossom, etc.).

Overall, Good Times is a show worth watching. For the most part, it kept it real but still managed to be funny. I just think that if they could somehow cancel out the 2 seasons (the 4th and 5th) without James and/or Florida, the show would stand even stronger today.

X. Dell said...

I would see both "Good Times" and "Cosby" as part of Hollywood, neither of them more real-to-life than the other. It's never been a requirement of television, especially. But I do recall "Cosby" getting singled out for many of the unrealistic conventions manifest in shows depicting white families.

I wouldn't say that "Good Times" had no good characteristics or qualities, or that it was uniformly one thing over the other, for the series went through a number of major changes.

The evolution of the show towards JJ really began to irk some of the cast members, who by that time had to continuously prod, plead and cajole the Lear production team to change direction of the show away from the stereotypical. The late-Esther Rolle once explained in an interview that when she first saw the show's script, she wondered why she didn't have a husband. She had to campaign to get a black father figure on the air. Later, both Rolle and Amos left because of the increasing silliness and role of the JJ character, a chaacter that didn't start out as outrageously buffoonish, but became so during the course of the show, and in the process reiterated a number of long-entrenched Rastus stereotypes.

The problem here is that the cast, and sometimes writers, had their hands full dealing with a predominately white production and writing staff that had little more than a broad knowledge of African American life and culture. Tim Reid's long-standing point about the need for black enterpreneurship rings true.

pjazzypar said...


When I look at television today, Good Times is not bad. You should give it a try, it's actually has some nuances that were pretty funny.


I agree with you about the downfall of the show, which had everything to do with the producers of the show. I often find that people will equate a characterization with the person portraying the characterization. Jimmy Walker was just doing what he was paid to do. I know he is glad he did seeing that it was the only successful role he ever acquired. Same goes for practically with the rest of the cast, with the exception of Amos and Rolle.

Showtime in the Ghetto (LOL!) that's funny! The producers had to do something, viewer ship was waning, and they thought providing lounge entertainment was the way to go. Even at it's worst, it's better than most of the crap on television today. Ever get a load of "Flava Flav" or "Hell Date"? I rest my case.

X. Dell,

I agree with you views wholeheartedly. The downfall of Good Times can be directly related to the writers and producers who weren't familiar with black life. Tim Reid is right, however his attempts at creating realistic shows have often fallen flat because of lack of support.