[12 February 2014]
In the beginning, there was All in the Family, and it was good. Actually, in the beginning there was the British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part, of which All in the Family was a remake, but I digress.
All in the Family, in turn, managed to spin off more TV shows than any other show, including 704 Hauser, Archie Bunker’s Place, Gloria, The Jeffersons (which spun off Checking In) and Maude. Maude featured the title character’s no-nonsense housekeeper Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) who proved so popular that she earned her own spinoff in Good Times.
Created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans (and developed by Norman Lear), Good Times was initially based on Mike Evans’ life as he grew up with the youngest of the Evans kids, the “Militant Midget”, named after the writer/ actor.
The truth is that Good Times is an excellent and remarkably funny show even until this day, but the irony of the show and its title continues to resonate, perhaps even greater today. Florida’s husband James (John Amos) is the hard working father of their three children, the flamboyant J.J. (Jimmie Walker), the reserved Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis) and the aforementioned “Militant Midget” Michael (Ralph Carter). While the Evans Clan is nothing if not a proud family unit, they have to regularly deal with the crime and hardship that comes with living in the Cabrini Green projects of Chicago, not to mention a steady stream of bad luck.
It’s this bad luck that both fuels the real comedy and meaning of the show’s title and the irony surrounding both. Every time James gets a big job opportunity, the rug is sure to be pulled out from under him. Every time the family comes into a little money, there is sure to be some event that will syphon that cash right out of their hands. Every time one of the kids gets a lucky break (J.J.’s art career earns a sponsor, Thelma is invited to join an exclusive sorority, Michael is offered a chance to go to a better school), something inside or outside of the family is sure to happen that keeps the status quo just as it was the previous week before the closing credits. Meanwhile Florida remains either stoic or joking about their misfortune throughout almost every episode.
And that is the key to Good Times. It is very true that this sitcom can be something of a downer when watched in bulk and the misfortune and missed opportunities tend to stack up and make for quite a sad ride with punch after punch delivered to the family. However, Good Times is not a case of a show deriving comedy from consistently keeping an African American family down. On the contrary, the Evans family is as proud as they come. Just as the theme song juxtaposes the bad, hard events in life with the shouted refrain of “Good Times!”, the show illustrates in every episode how well the Evans family stands up to every layoff, rip-off, arrest and other rough situations. If life dishes it out, the Evans family can take it.
Good Times is also a show that lost its way after a few years. Amos and Rolle objected to the increasingly large role of Walker (only eight years Amos’ junior) and the increasingly stereotypical portrayal of his character JJ. Eventually Amos’ character would be written out with the role of Rolle (incidentally nineteen years Amos’ senior) facing a great reduction, as JJ had already become the show’s breakout character.
All of the characters’ major elements were already established in the first two seasons (JJ only waited for the second episode to deliver his catch line “Di-No-Mite!”), but the family was still one cohesive, loving and strong unit facing a plethora of social issues, such as gang violence, poverty, wrongful arrest, racism and the disparity of inner-city vs. suburban schools. While all of this may seem to be the recipe for a “heavy” show, there are almost no “very special episodes” in the first two seasons. Just like the show (and its concept) on the whole, each episode is packed with great laughter no matter how distressing or serious the subject.
The 2014 Mill Creek DVD release, is not at all “packed” with anything. All of the episodes from the first two seasons are intact and look and sound fine for a program that was shot largely on video years before “letterbox” was even a thing. However, much like the rest of their Sony-licensed releases, Good Times: Seasons 1 & 2 is as bare bones as it gets with absolutely no special features whatsoever. No documentaries, commentaries, previews or introductions.
This is almost a travesty considering the importance of this quality show. Good Times represents an era of television in which three of the top ten television shows (The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and, of course, Good Times) were centered around African American families. While the extras are nonexistent, even to commemorate this noteworthy fact, the television show itself is so great that the overall package, much like the show, overcomes its limitations and bad spots and ends up just being a collection of, dare I say it… Good Times!