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Reviews

Whats Happening Now!! - The Complete First Season

Meremu C

Wacky misunderstandings lead to wacky situations; in typical sitcom fashion, this is silly but charming.


What's Happening Now! - The Complete First Season

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Ernest Thomas, Fred Berry, Haywood Nelson, Danielle Spencer, Shirley Hemphill
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: ABC
US Release Date: 2007-06-12
Amazon

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with the old sitcom What’s Happening Now! knows that it will never make any critics lists. It’s pretty much as derivative and obnoxiously tame as family-friendly TV gets. But it has an all-black cast! And a catchy theme song! Throw in a fat guy in red suspenders who is prone to random outbursts of break-dancing, and a neat catch phrase - “Hey hey hey!” – and you’ve got some pretty good, bad TV.

What’s Happening Now!: The Complete First Season contains 22 episodes starring Ernest Thomas as Raj, Fred Berry as Rerun, Haywood Nelson as Dwayne, Shirley Hemphill as Shirley, and Danielle Spencer as Dee. The series ran from 1985-1988, and was a continuation of the original series, What’s Happening!, which debuted in 1976 and ran for three seasons. After its cancellation, the original series went into syndication, and proved so popular that it was brought back seven years later as What’s Happening Now!

The series was created by Eric Monte (co-creator of Good Times) and was loosely based on the 1975 film classic Cooley High, also Monte's creation. The story revolves around three friends: Raj, the skinny, awkward hero; Dwight, the stupid, lovable one; and Rerun, the fat, lovable one. Rounding out the gang is Shirley, the sassy waitress at the local hangout; Dee, Raj’s know-it-all kid sister; and Nadine, Raj’s perfect wife.

Nadine was not part of the original series, and was a new addition for What’s Happening Now! She is played by the stunning actress, Anne-Marie Johnson, who is such an awkward mismatch to the gangly Raj – a disturbing sitcom trend that is still so evident in today’s television shows, namely those featuring the overweight man / hot wife set-up.

What’s Happening Now! relies on an old sitcom formula: wacky misunderstandings leading to wacky situations. The first handful of episodes on the DVD are entertaining enough. The set-ups are silly but charming, such as Raj dresses in drag to escape FBI agents he mistakenly believes are after him, or a miscommunication resulting in a horse in the backyard. But as the season wears on the episodes become increasingly heavy-handed, and the jokes are either flat or non-existent.

For example, there is a gang episode, complete with the requisite valuable lesson learned by all, that is borderline painful to watch. And then there are some episodes that are just plain surreal, like the one featuring a Wizard of Oz dream sequence, or the one in which Raj has to wrestle a man in a giant diaper.

Less than halfway through the season, a new character is introduced: Carolyn (Reina King), the lovable, but sassy, 10-year-old orphan who Raj and Nadine take in. The addition of a new character usually helps to energize a flagging show, and in this case it doesn’t hurt – she is just another flat character in an ensemble of flat characters – but she does come off as a bad imitation of Dee from the original series. In the '70s series, 10-year-old Dee’s spice and sass made her one of the funnier and more popular characters. The introduction of Carolyn is a bad attempt to fill that space in the formula.

What’s Happening Now! and its predecessor were, unsurprisingly, critically panned in their day, TV Guide going so far as to say it “capture[s] the offensiveness of Amos and Andy while avoiding that program's fun.” I wouldn’t go that far, but the critics’ larger point does work for me: it is hard to watch a show with an all black cast operating on stereotypical portrayals. From Rerun’s dancing to the boys’ handshakes to all the mugging at the camera, this series relied on minstrelsy for its shtick, just not enough to be really offensive. Sadly, it doesn't seem much has changed with modern sitcoms.

No discussion of What’s Happening Now! would be complete without mentioning the backstage drama. The actors were notorious for being difficult, especially Fred “Rerun” Berry. They demanded script changes, bigger dressing rooms, and more money. At one point the actors even walked off set, vowing not to return until their demands were met. Fred Berry later admitted that drugs, alcohol, and the stress of sudden success were all factors in his behavior.

But by far the biggest backstage scandal involved series creator Eric Monte. He sued the producers for $300 million, claiming that he did not receive his proper credit as creator of the show and that racial prejudice was a major factor. He eventually received a $1 million settlement, but was subsequently blacklisted from the industry and began a tragic slide into obscurity. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times did a story on Monte, who at the time was living in a homeless shelter in downtown LA after a series of setbacks, strokes and drug abuse.

What’s Happening Now! is still worthwhile if not for its cheesy jokes, then for its place in sitcom history and the history of blacks on white-dominated television. When the original series aired in 1976, shows with black casts were hot. There was Good Times, Sanford & Son, and The Jeffersons. Primetime white audiences were ready to see black faces on TV - as long as they stuck with their "own kind" and deemed non-threatening, and financially struggling. What’s Happening! fit right in.

The popularity of all-black shows waned in the early '80s, but then in 1984 The Cosby Show debuted and set new standards for representations of black Americans. That series showcased well-adjusted, middle-class blacks who interacted well with people of other races. But for The Cosby Show, such images were virtually invisible in the media at the time.

Unfortunately the hoped-for standards set by The Cosby Show, or the underrated Frank’s Place which aired in 1987, have yet to be met by network television, which believes in imitation, not innovation. Current network shows with black casts still rely on familiar stereotypes to get familiar laughs, and most favor all black or all white casts, perpetuating a worn and painful depiction that may of us, fortunately, have moved well beyond. For this DVD collection, the episodes have been digitally remastered (audio and video) for good quality, and there are no extras.

4

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