In the final scene of the premiere episode of Good Times, 10-year-old Michael Evans (Ralph Carter) sits in front of the television thumbing through the TV Guide. “I wanna watch an all-black show for a change,” he announces to the family. “Where you gonna find one?” asks his dad. In this, father does indeed know best: the closest Michael can find to an “all-black show” is a basketball game.
When Good Times debuted in February of 1974, there was only one “all-black show” on the air, (Sanford and Son). Up to that point there had never been a comedy or drama series that focused on a “nuclear” African American family. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that Good Times offered a realistic portrayal (at least by sitcom standards) of a working class family living in a housing project on the south side of Chicago.
US DVD: 4 Feb 2003
The problems that the Evans family faced each week were the same problems millions of Americans were dealing with in the 1970s: unemployment, inflation, the gas shortage, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, and gang violence. As on other Lear sitcoms of the early ‘70s with a decidedly liberal slant, current events and social issues were discussed by the characters on an almost weekly basis and were largely the source of Good Times’ humor.
Created by Eric Monte and Michael Evans, Good Times was a spin-off of Maude, which was in turn spun off of All in the Family (both also Lear creations). When Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) leaves Maude’s employ as housekeeper, and relocates to Chicago, the intelligent and quick-witted maid is transformed into a more subdued, maternal stay-at-home mom. She is now busy taking care of her own house and raising her three children: 17-year-old J.J. (Jimmie Walker), 16-year-old Thelma (BernNadette Stanis), and young Michael. Meanwhile, her loving husband James (John Amos) is forced to work three jobs just to keep food on the table.
Several early episodes focus on the Evans family’s struggle to make ends meet. In the series’ premiere, for instance, James gets a chance to enter a trainee program guaranteed to turn into a high paying job. The family’s celebration turns out to be premature when James learns he is too old to qualify for the program. Unlike most situation comedies, which introduce and solve a problem in the span of 20 minutes (plus commercials), on Good Times, James’ unemployment and its effects on his family would remain on the front burner even after John Amos departed the series after the second season.
Of the three children, the rebellious Michael is certainly the comedy’s most original character and television’s first black militant. He insists a portrait of black Jesus be hung in honor of Black History week, participates in protest marches, and repeatedly reminds his mother, when she refers to him as “boy,” that it’s a “white racist term.” As played by Ralph Carter, a Tony nominee for his performance in Raisin, a musical version of Raisin in the Sun, Michael is the focus of the show’s storylines that directly tackle issues surrounding race and class dynamics in America.
No surprise then, the best episode from the first season revolves around Michael, an A student and aspiring lawyer, getting expelled from school for calling George Washington a racist because he owned slaves. Florida and James are appalled. Michael is given a choice: apologize to his teacher or get a spanking from his father. But when the time comes, Michael changes his father’s mind by giving him a lesson in revisionist history. James apologizes to his son, who in turn agrees to apologize to his teacher. It’s an honest, effective exchange between two generations of black men. Like the majority of performers on Norman Lear sitcoms, Amos and Carter are actors first and not comedians, and their naturalistic styles perfectly suit the scene’s blend of humor and drama without becoming preachy or melodramatic.
By comparison, Jimmie Walker’s J.J., who is best remembered for introducing the catchphrase “Dyn-o-mite!” into the American lexicon, is way, way over the top. Critics at the time disapproved of this cartoonish figure, reminiscent of the lazy, clownish, and dumb “coon” types that populated minstrel shows and pre-World War II Hollywood films. The show’s “breakout character,” J.J. is a fast-talker, skillful at weaseling his way out of most any situation. Still, he lacks conventional intelligence and continues to play the clown in even the most serious of circumstances. In effect, he became the comic relief from which there was no relief. In an attempt to go for the easy laughs, the writers undermined the show’s original intent to portray black American life either from a black American perspective or in a non-stereotypical fashion.
John Amos and Esther Rolle apparently felt the same way and didn’t exactly shed tears when they departed from the series. Amos left after season two, due to a contractual dispute with producers. His only regret, he says, was turning the Evans clan into yet another fatherless black TV family. Rolle was even more outspoken about the producers’ decision to focus on the buffoonish J.J., whose “Dyn-o-mite” was being emulated by the black youth of America. She left the show in 1977, but would eventually return for the final season.
Nonetheless, nearly 30 years after its debut, Good Times remains an important milestone in the history of African Americans on television. Even if the show did not live up to its promise of offering an honest look at life in black urban America, it certainly showed television’s potential for dealing with vital social and political issues, and the subject of race and class tensions in the United States.