Before watching the recent DVD release of What’s Happening!!, I had not seen the show in at least a decade and a half. When I was in grade school, and before my mother had money to lavish on a Nintendo, I watched a criminally colossal amount of television. At the time, the New York Tri-State area was served by two majestic recycler stations: Channel 5 and Channel 11 both aired the dregs of zeitgeists past in two-hour servings. A chronologically schizophrenic block of sitcoms aired every day, from I Love Lucy to Diff’rent Strokes and everything in between.
As I watched What’s Happening!! opening credits, with Raj, Dwayne, and Rerun clowning around with a basketball on a Watts sidewalk, I was taken back to the afternoons of my youth. I saw my shadowy living room, with its scratchy black-blue couches and dirty red carpet, my younger brothers punching each other in a corner. But I could not recall the details of the episodes themselves. I like to pride myself on my memory, and found it depressing that I should have wasted so much time watching a show that did not register in my brain. And now, again, I see that What’s Happening!! is profoundly forgettable and embarrassingly unfunny, in the same manner as an earnest, drunk uncle telling stale jokes at a family reunion.
If nothing else, What’s Happening!! shows how quickly the sitcom changed in the 1970s. A look at any sitcom from the 1960s reveals a cloying sweetness, harebrained schemes, subservient but wise wives to bumbling husbands. Thanks largely to the success of All in the Family, the form was transformed into one of unrelenting cruelty, a low-rent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The sitcoms after Archie took his anger and putdowns, discarded social commentary, and emerged as a batch of cookie cutter programs where all the action serves some form of insult.
In What’s Happening!!, Dee (Danielle Spencer) mocks her older brother, Raj (Ernest Thomas), who in turn threatens to smack her in retaliation. Rerun (Fred Berry) and Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), the waitress at the soda shop where the trio hang out, trade cracks about each other’s weight. And Raj’s hard working mother (Mabel King), the only character who exhibits anything resembling sympathy or love, repeatedly threatens to whup her children for the slightest transgression. And we are repeatedly reminded just how funny Rerun’s lust for food is, though no laugh-track in the world can make humorous such a pathetic addiction.
One is inclined to give What’s Happening!! credit for its setting in an inner city, as opposed to most black sitcoms these days, which tend to take place in some nameless, amorphous, pseudo-urban suburbia (see: pretty much everything on UPN). However, Good Times and Sanford and Son had already been doing this for several years when What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, not to mention that the former depicted an intact black family unit, and the latter featured a genuine comic talent in Redd Foxx. What’s Happening!!, by contrast, fell back on banal conventions, including the Mysteriously Missing Father, standard on many black sitcoms once upon a time.
The explosion of “complete season” DVDs has been both a blessing and a curse. While it has given new life to shows cut down in their prime or neglected into oblivion, like The Tick and Mr. Show, it has also given companies an excuse to slap together cheap packages of shows for which there is little or no demand. In the case of What’s Happening!!, we get three discs, a very small booklet, and a promo for future DVD releases. This lack of extras suggests that What’s Happening!! isn’t suited for the DVD era. It’s the kind of show that one catches in reruns, without need of directors’ commentaries and loving digital transfers. Either you’ve seen these shows a million times or not at all, and in either case, you never need to see them again.
A recent article in the New York Times discussed how people who once lived in East Germany now have a crushing nostalgia for products once sold under that Stalinist regime—tiny automobiles, grainy sweets, pungent jarred pickles. (Richard Bernstein, “Eisenhuttenstadt Journal: Warm, Fuzzy Feelings for East Germany’s Gray Old Days,” 13 January 2004). The actual quality of the products in question is irrelevant; what is important is the fact that the heyday of these items and these peoples’ pasts coincided. So it is with a show like What’s Happening!! The back of the package exhorts viewers to “slip into your bellbottoms” in order to enjoy the viewing process more fully. We’re not asked to remember the show itself, but what we wore back then, what was playing on the radio.
This is not to dump specifically on What’s Happening!! There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with it—there’s nothing spectacular about it, period, but I could list a hundred other shows of which the same thing could be said. I would simply like to point out that nostalgia is not the same thing genuine quality. What’s Happening!!‘s initial run predates me, but I can only imagine that people sat through the show when it first aired as I sat through it when it ran in syndication—silent, immobile, unquestioning, waiting for 30 minutes to pass, too lazy to reach for the lamp.