Good Times

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Good Times

Throughout its initial success and later criticism, sitcom Good Times revolutionized prime-time television. While the story lines of 1950s and early 1960s television sitcoms provided little more than cautious counsel on the minor vicissitudes of family life, the decade of the 1970s ushered in what came to be known as the era of relevancy in television programming. In Good Times, which aired on CBS from February 1974 to August 1979, suburban street crime, muggings, unemployment, evictions, Black Power, and criticism of the government were frequent and resounding themes. The show is regarded as perhaps the first in prime-time television to tackle such issues with any measure of realism. It stretched the boundaries of television comedy and provided a different view, not only of black family life, but of the social fabric of 1970s American society in general.

Good Times, along with Maude, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and television's most controversial sitcom All in the Family, was the creation of independent producer Norman Lear, whose programs, built on confrontational and ethnic-style humor, helped revolutionize prime-time television during the 1970s. Good Times was developed as a spin-off of the earlier hit show Maude, which starred Bea Arthur and Bill Macy, and featured the sometimes controversial machinations of a well-appointed, middle-aged, married couple. Their black housekeeper, Florida, was portrayed by veteran actress Esther Rolle, who was chosen to star as Florida Evans in Good Times.

The appearance of Good Times is noteworthy in that, along with The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, it was one of the first prime-time television sitcoms featuring a mostly African-American cast since the controversial Amos 'n' Andy show had been canceled amid a firestorm of protest in 1953. Good Times was also unique in its funny but sometimes poignant portrayal of an African-American family eking out an existence in a high-rise tenement apartment in an urban Chicago slum. The program exploited, with comic relief, such volatile issues as inflation, unemployment, discrimination, and the apparent reluctance of the government to do anything about them. In addition to the Florida character and James (John Amos), her frequently unemployed, but looking-for-work husband, the cast of Good Times included their teenage son, J.J., portrayed by comedian Jimmie Walker; their grown daughter, Thelma (Bernadette Stanis); and an adolescent son, Michael, portrayed with gusto by a talented young Ralph Carter. A fortyish woman named Wilona (Ja'net Dubois) made frequent appearances as the Evans's supportive neighbor. Later in the series, a very young Janet Jackson of the musical Jackson Family fame joined the cast as Wilona's adopted daughter.

Good Times's popularity and good ratings were rooted in the fact that it offered solace for a TV audience fed up with the Vietnam War, Watergate, high interest rates, and unemployment. Both blacks and whites could identify with the difficulties the Evans family faced, and the show became a champion for the plight of the underclass. Black viewers especially appreciated how the program highlighted the good parenting skills of James and Florida. In spite of their difficult situation, they never shirked on their responsibility to teach their children values and accountability. The Evans's ability to remain stalwart in the face of difficult odds was the underlying theme of many episodes.

Good Times is also significant for the controversy that haunted the show's production. Disputes developed about the program's changed direction; in particular, the ever-popular J.J. character. J.J.'s comical, but at times undignified, antics raised the resentment of many in the black community. With his toothy grin, ridiculous strut, and bug-eyed semblance, to some he had metamorphosed into a coon-type stereotype of former times. More and more episodes were centered around his farcical exploits, featuring his trademark exclamation, "DY-NO-MITE!" All but forgotten was the daughter Thelma, James's search for a job, Michael's scholastic interests, and family values. "We felt we had to do something drastic," Rolle stated in the Los Angeles Times in 1978, "we had lost the essence of the show." After both Rolle and Amos left the program in protest, attempts were made to soften the J.J. character and continue the program without the James and Florida characters. But with an employed and more mature-acting J.J., and the return of Rolle, ratings for Good Times declined. The program failed, and the series was canceled but continued to enjoy success in syndication.

—Pamala S. Deane

Further Reading:

Barnow, Eric. Tube of Plenty. Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago, Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L. A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Boston, Little, Brown and Co, 1992.

Margulies, Lee. "Ester Rolle: Coming Home." Los Angeles Times. May 12, 1978.

Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. University of California Press, 1989.