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Friday, February 14, 2014

Post #1,001 - "Good Times"

You know, I know that today is supposed to be that day in which everyone is supposed to be all about love and romance and roses and those lovely little chocolates in the lovely red velvet boxes.  But, not me.  I'm not in love, I have no romance, rose thorns cut your fingers and the filling in those chocolates taste like toothpaste.

So, for me, this is just February 14.  One of the 365 days of the year in which you can love and honour your spouse, significant other, casual date, or heck, even a one-night stand if you so desire.  Because, really...only devoting one day of the year to love?  That's just crazy talk!

So, if you're expecting to see an entry that is chock full of red hearts and gorgeous bouquets of flowers...well, it won't be today.  Besides, I'd rather do an entry that celebrates "BLACK HISTORY MONTH" instead.  And, if it happens to feature some people who are in love, well so be it. 

I'm going to say this though.  I was actually inspired to do this blog - blog entry number one thousand and one, by the way - because I saw a few of my friends on Facebook chatting about it in my news feed, and I was quite intrigued by it.

So, before I continue with this blog entry, I just wanted to thank
Cathy S., Sharyn D., and Jeri-Ann A. for providing the inspiration behind today's topic.  Thank you!

A few days ago (I think it was nearly a week ago, come to think of it), one of the people mentioned (I think it was Cathy) posted a link on her own page which celebrated the anniversary of a particular television series.  This television series began a little over forty years ago, on February 8, 1974.

(Or, in terms of my own age, when I was -7 years old.)

Now, I will say that the discussion about this show on the page was lively, and I think I remember both Sharyn and Jeri-Ann sharing their own memories of this show, in which all three of them seemed to enjoy it a lot.

But as much as I wanted to join in the discussion, I couldn't because I had never seen the show before.  The show ended its run on August 1, 1979 - nearly a full two years before I was born.  And, would you believe that it was one of the shows that never actually aired in reruns on any of the stations that I remember watching as a child?  I mean, maybe on some channels it was syndicated, but none of the ones that were a part of our cable package. 

So, imagine my surprise when I was stocking box sets of television series and one of the shows that was featured was the very show that my friends were talking about!  It was the first two seasons of this particular show packaged up in one convenient DVD package, and the cost was something like twelve dollars for the lot.  I thought to myself...what if I bought this and watched a few episodes of it so I could talk about it in an upcoming Friday blog?  And, that's exactly what I did.

My opinion?  Certainly a lot of good times to be had. 

By coincidence, that also happens to be the name of the television show that we'll be looking at this week.

We're going to be featuring the television show "Good Times", which ran for six seasons on CBS.  Initially a mid-season replacement show, the show garnered enough ratings for it to be renewed for a second season, which would air during the 1974-1975 season.  And despite some major casting changes, the show still managed to stay on the air for the remainder of the 1970s.

And, here are the stars of the show as they appeared during the first three seasons of the show.

Starting from the bottom and moving clockwise, you have John Amos as James Evans Sr., Ralph Carter as Michael Evans, Bern Nadette Stanis as Thelma Carter, Ja'net Dubois as Willona Woods, Esther Rolle as Florida Evans, and Jimmie Walker as J.J. Evans.

There were also some additional cast members who would appear on the show (including the youngest member of a very musical family), but we'll get to that a little later.

"Good Times" was a show that was created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans, and was developed by Norman Lear - the man who was most famous for "All In The Family" and "Maude".  In fact, you might consider "Maude" as being the direct inspiration behind "Good Times", as Florida Evans once worked as Maude's housekeeper.  But when Florida's character was spun off onto "Good Times", her entire backstory was retconned.  She now became the matriarch of a family that was living in the projects of Chicago.  Even her husband's name and occupation were changed to suit the theme of "Good Times", which saw Florida's firefighting husband Henry changed to a man named James who had great difficulty finding work.

But you know, despite the fact that the family really had to struggle to make ends meet, and despite the fact that the family never knew what it was like to have disposable income, they still managed to have "good times" together as a family.  And although the Evans family had their grand share of hardships, they truly loved each other, and every member of the family had their own hopes and dreams for the future.  For instance, a recurring theme of the show was that J.J. wanted to become an artist, as he was always drawing sketches and painting pictures.  It is assumed that the family portrait that appears in both the opening and closing credits was painted by J.J. himself.  Is that not dy-no-mite or what?

Seriously.  That was J.J.'s catchphrase.  Dy-no-mite.

The more episodes I watched of "Good Times", the more I realized just how great a show it was.  The writing was absolutely brilliant, and the casting was dead on...although one thing that I found quite interesting was that when the show began, the husband/wife team of James and Florida Evans had quite the age difference in real life!  Esther Rolle was fifty-three when "Good Times" began, which matched up with the age that her character was supposed to be.  But John Amos who played Florida's husband was only thirty-four (although he did look older than that for whatever reason).  Still, that's nearly a two decade age difference!  The only other couple who had that much difference in age were George and Louise Jefferson!

And to make the ages even more weird, there were only eight years difference between John Amos and Jimmie Walker - who played father and son!  But again, for whatever reason, John Amos looked much older than thirty-four when the show began, so it worked.

Anyway, back to "Good Times".  As I was saying, the show certainly did have its moments of laughter and hilarity.  And certainly there were dozens of moments in the show which had people laughing out loud.  Practically any storyline involving J.J. was guaranteed to have some funny moments present.  But the show also wasn't afraid to tackle serious issues either.  After all, the show was set in the middle of one of Chicago's poorest neighbourhoods, and the Evans family went through situations that not a whole lot of people really had to deal with.  They had to deal with trying to come up with enough money to pay their rent and keep the children fed.  They had to deal with serious subjects like racism, sexism, child abuse,  gambling, and alcohol abuse.  Heck, in one episode of the series, one of the Evans children ended up getting shot when he got too close to a dangerous gang, and the entire episode featured James debating on whether or not he should get revenge.

And, I think that in the long run, doing those types of shows really helped educate people in what life in the "projects" was kind of like.  I mean, I realize that those who really did grow up that way will likely state that "Good Times" did exaggerate the idea of living in the projects, but you know, you have to give Norman Lear and the show creators a lot of credit.  There weren't a lot of shows on the air that even attempted to make a predominantly African-American family living in a housing complex while walking down the fine line known as poverty, and I think that "Good Times" truly showed that no matter what your income was, and no matter how tough things were that if a family worked together, they could have good times.

And, certainly, the Evans family was one of the closest families to be showcased during the 1970s - and a lot more believable than the Brady Bunch!

Alas, behind the scenes of this popular show, it wasn't all good times.  Initially, the show was supposed to be a starring vehicle for Rolle and Amos, and the children were supposed to be supporting characters.  However, when Jimmie Walker's character of J.J. exploded in popularity during the show's first season, the show was reworked so that all of the storylines revolved around him.  Now, it should be noted that neither Rolle nor Amos had issues with Jimmie Walker himself.  Both loved working with him.  But both of them were quite annoyed over the fact that the writers and producers seemed to dumb J.J. down to the point that he appeared to be a moron.  And for Esther Rolle, that didn't sit well with her at all.  She felt that by dumbing J.J. down, it gave off the stereotype that all black Americans living in poverty were that way, when clearly that was not the case.  And, I can definitely see the validity of her argument.

As for John Amos, he too felt that they were making J.J. appear less intelligent for the purpose of cheap shots and filler material.  But at the conclusion of the third season of the show, Norman Lear and the show's producers had decided that they were going to take the show in a new direction, and that new direction did not include John Amos' character.  John Amos later confirmed in 1976 that he was, in fact, fired from the show.  As a result, when the fourth season debuted in 1976, James Evans Sr. was killed off in an automobile accident, leaving Florida to raise her three children alone.  Which lead to this memorable scene below.

A quick explanation.  After Florida heard about her husband's death, she did not show any emotion whatsoever, and she pretended as if nothing had ever happened.  But when all that emotion built up inside of her and she couldn't take it anymore, she took out her frustrations on a crystal punch bowl and finally allowed herself to grieve properly.  Quite a powerful scene.

And, by the show's fourth season, Esther Rolle herself had decided that she didn't like the way the show was going either, and she quit the series at the end of season four with her character getting married to someone else and leaving Chicago.  But, somehow, the marriage must not have lasted, as Esther Rolle returned to the series just a year and a half later at the beginning of season six, where she remained until the series was cancelled.

To make up for the departures of Amos and Rolle, Ja'net Dubois became the show's lead character, and she was the one who acted as a surrogate mother to the Evans children.  And, a couple of new characters were added to the show as well.  Recurring character Nathan Bookman (Johnny Brown) was turned into a contract role right around the time that John Amos departed the show.  Thelma's boyfriend, Keith Anderson (Ben Powers) also became a regular character towards the show's end.  And a little girl named Janet Jackson - the youngest member of the Jackson family which also included Michael, Jermaine, Tito, and LaToya - joined the show at the beginning of season five as Penny Gordon, a girl who becomes Willona's adopted daughter when her real mother abandons her after abusing her most of her life.

Still, all these changes didn't do much to stop the declining ratings, and the show was cancelled in 1979.  Though everyone in the show did receive a happy ending...well, I suppose everyone except poor James Evans Sr, that is.

So, my ultimate take on "Good Times"?  It was a great show, and a show that definitely showed that happy families can exist anywhere in the world...even in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of America.

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