Ain’t We Lucky We Got Them?

If you’re to believe the majority of “reviews” that have emerged in the last couple of days on Netflix’s animated version of the beloved 70s sitcom GOOD TIMES, one would think that the forces behind it took a collective dump on the memories of Norman Lear, Esther Rolle and James Evans.  That onsalught of negative criticism was fueled by a trailer which Netflix released last month that highlighted some of the show’s more outrageous and provocative qualities, such as a drug-dealing infant that makes Stewie Griffin look almost moral by comparison and gunfire in the decaying streets of some of Chicago’s more downtrodden neighborhoods.

CNN’s Brian Lowry offered up this representative viewpoint:

After the social-media blowback that greeted the “Good Times” trailer, Netflix opted to premiere the show without making it available to critics. But the animated series that dropped April 12 merely underscores the pitfalls of leveraging a familiar title without a clear reason for doing so, yielding an edgy comedy that likely would have come and gone with scant notice without the weight of that name.  Obviously, there’s a fertile market out there for adult animation and the outlandish exaggerations that go with it. Yet by the time the show gets to an episode featuring an animated Elon Musk taking an unexpected interest in the Evans family, or its tired superhero spoof, “Good Times” has left the original far in the rear-view mirror and boarded the train to zany town, raising the obvious question, “Why call this ‘Good Times?’”

And outlets like HUFFPOST offered up reviews like these from three of its African-American culture reporters, Erin E. Evans, Taryn Finley and Candace Frederick.  Let’s just say these purpotedly target viewers were not thrilled.

I’ll start by saying this: The “Good Times” trailer is the worst trailer I have ever seen in my entire life….I knew there had been talk of a “Good Times” reboot, but I also assumed that it was dead in the water since the first announcement about it was in September 2020. This was amid all these (what mostly seems to be false) promises from several industries to invest in diversity and equity. Then Netflix decides to give us … this! — Erin

Forced references aside, nothing about this show feels like it’s connected to the original. I know it’s hard to sell shows to studios these days, so leaning on existing IP is the way to get a greenlight, but this ain’t it. They besmirched the Evans name. (I’m so sorry, Erin.) — Taryn

Full disclosure: I watched the first two episodes while on the StairMaster this morning. And I almost leapt off that machine multiple times because my eyes rolled so hard they almost got stuck to the back of my head…The new show and its characters give a lot of “not your mama’s ‘Good Times,’” which could only work if there was something actually left to be desired from the original series. It’s just another reminder that, no, it’s not — and what a shame that is. — Candice

We get it, ladies.  This ain’t for you.  And it’s probably not for people who have a nostalgic fondness for the original, which launched 50 winters ago as a spin-off of a spin-off, inexplicably moving Maude Findlay’s outspoken maid from her nice little gig in Tuckahoe, New York to Chicago with a husband whose first name changed from Henry to James somewhere along the line.  And for as much as the show is remembered for being groundbreaking in its honest portrayal of an economically challenged family “struggling and surviving”, it was not without its own drama during its six-year run.  Both Rolle and John Amos, who portrayed patriarch James, left the show for both contractual and creative reasons during the show’s run, believing that those messages had devolved  over time by the overfocus on breakout star Jimmie Walker’s character J.J., whose catch phrase “Dyn-O-Mite!” was right up there with the Fonz’s “AAAYYYYY!” in terms of pop culture kitsch.  Had memes and social media existed at the time, it’s likely you wouldn’t make it through a swipe or two without seeing it pop up.

So I actually sat down and watched the first few episodes myself, knowing full well I am even less a demographic target than the ladies from HuffPost, and probably even Lowry, who I’ve known since his days as a writer for VARIETY! when I’d leak him stories about the early days of FOX.  And while I personally wasn’t all that keen about the messaging of a bling-bearing baby packing heat, or the depiction of an even more depressing Chicago projects than the original Evans family lived in (based at that time on the notorious Cabrini-Green housing that mirrored many similar projects in the New York I grew up in), here’s what was evident:  It’s clearly the world that the creator believes exists, and there was no more of a champion for such expression than was the revered Mr. Lear.

The original series was based on a concept by a then-young writer named Eric Monte, who grew up in such an environment in Chicago.  He partnered with Mike Evans, who was playing Lionel Jefferson on ALL IN THE FAMILY at the time and someone who expressed to Lear a strong desire to do more.  Monte’s experience became the framework for that show; again, a relationship that devolved over time (per Wikipedia, Monte filed suit against Lear and his business partner Jerry Perenchio late in the original series’ run, eventually receiving a settlement that results in he and the late Mike Evans being given creative credentials even on this version).  Lear provided the infrastructure, talent and experience for Monte’s vision to be told at the time.

And I know he did the exact same thing when he reimagined another classic 70s series for Netflix, ONE DAY AT A TIME, through the eyes and world of Gloria Calderon-Kellett, a Cuban-American who grew up in a world far different than, say, Lear’s but brought a voice that aligned much with the struggling single mother that Bonnie Franklin fearlessly portrayed back when.    The well-received version that Kellett and Lear produced while I had the joy of working with them took more than a few creative liberties with the original; for one, the surname was changed from Cooper to Alvarez (maybe since Cooper doesn’t sound at all Latino?).

With GOOD TIMES, Lear entrusted the sensibilties of Ranada Shepard, who appears to have been born after the original left CBS, and had previously created a short-lived TV ONE series BORN AGAIN VIRGIN.  In what little video exists of her, it’s quite clear she has a passion and has seen things that a lot of us have not.  Much like Kellett, they aligned with the core elements of one of Lear’s properties, and much like he did decades earlier with Monte, he provided a way for it to be told.

This time, the connections to the original family are more consistent–the Evans surname is used; indeed, this version’s dad, Reggie, is the grandson of Amos’ James (though it’s unclear if he’s the son of J.J. or Michael).   Voiced by J.B. Smoove, he’s over-the-top and drawn in an exaggerated style that likens him more to how Fat Albert might have matured.  And there’s a Junior who loves to paint in this version, too; indeed, he’s voiced by Jay Pharoah, who played Walker’s role in the 2019 installment of Lear’s LIVE IN FRONT OF A STUDIO AUDIENCE that recast one of the more iconic episodes of the original version’s run.  And this Junior fights and chides with his impassioned sister much like J.J. with Thelma, only this time around she’s named Grey.

And as for the third child, the drug-dealing baby Dalvin–nope, he sure ain’t Michael.  And he’s arguably even more replusive than Griffin or even Rollo, Cleveland Brown’s wisecracking stepson introduced by Seth MacFarlane when that character was spun off from FAMILY GUY.  MacFarlane just happens to be a co-producer on this show.  And having just binged his most recent streaming series, the prequel to his TED movies, I found none of the humor or storylines that he was involved in here to be any less off-putting or over-the-top than many used on that show, which was reportedly a hit for Peacock.

Not all of the reviews have been as negative as many that surge to the top of a Google search.  I found this one from the “hometown” CHICAGO SUN-TIMES’ Arionne Nettles, arguably more well-versed about this world than I, to be of value:

(I)t’s not all stereotypical. Grey is willing to protest and go on a hunger strike for what she believes in. Junior is a talented painter and muralist who just wants people to see it. Beverly wants to protect her family’s legacy. Reggie takes pride in his hustle and being there for his family. And Dalvin, the baby, still gets scared of being by himself at home in the dark.

And I also know that the tone of the series is no more adult and no less “respectful” than that which Netflix commissioned with BIG MOUTH.  A show that just happens to be its longest-running scripted series in its history.  And as John Dillilo wrote  last year on TUDUM, the service’s in-house hype source,  the statistics on that show and its spin-off are compelling:

Over the course of their record-breaking run, Big Mouth and Human Resources have racked up quite a few enormous statistics. More than 50 million households have spent more than 1 billion hours watching the two shows.

BIG MOUTH will see its EIGHTH (and final) season–a milestone likely never to be reached by any other Netflix series ever again–later this year.  And if the reviewers are indeed correct, this version of GOOD TIMES won’t even come close.

But I for one don’t think it’s all that much a foregone conclusion.  We’ve heard a lot of opinions, to be sure.  But there’s ones out there that carry a bit more perspective.  THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Ryan Rajewski cited this social media response by actress Yvette Nicole Brown, who voices matriarch Bev:

In a post last week on X (formerly Twitter), Brown responded to a user who questioned why the Community alum would be involved with the Good Times revival. “This show is edgier and more irreverent than the Good Times of our childhood but it’s still a show about family, fighting the system and working to make things better despite where you start out in the world,” Brown wrote. “That 100% lines up with my values.”.

And even Amos, who indeed made enough peace with Lear to have had a cameo role in LIFOASA’s GOOD TIMES playing opposite his former role, portrayed to precision by the late Andre Braugher, offered up this respectful take:

“I really can’t form an opinion, as I’ve not seen any of the episodes yet,” Amos says. He goes on to explain that the high quality of the 1970s series makes it challenging for newer projects that aspire to be compared to it. “Norman — and the entire cast and company — set the bar pretty high. They’ll have a hard time reaching that level of entertainment [and] education”.

Sadly, one voice that is missing in this discourse is Lear’s, who passed last December, but indeed signed off on Shepard and this execution, and who makes a voice cameo in one of the later episodes.  Knowing how he spoke up to critics and naysayers who had initial reservations about the ONE DAY reimagination, I’m fairly certain he would have defended and likely have amplified Shepard.  Maybe even have provided a few nuggets for the likes of the HuffPost StairMaster club to ponder.

And I’m even more certain he would defer to the expectations and desires of his platform as what will ultimately determine the show’s fate.   He endured tedious presentations of data from them that he later shared with myself and my team, some relevant, some not, and often seeming to change week-to-week almost on whim.  We’d sometimes get more frustrated with their inconsistencies and shifts that he would.  In his incomparably calming manner, he’d offer to us the assurance that “they’ve got more numbers than we ever will.  We just have to come up with enough good reasons for them to pay less attention to them”.

That’s Shepard’s biggest challenge now.  And I bet she wishes she still had Norman to help her and her team now as I know he did in getting them the chance to make it.  For now, they’ll simply just have to heed the sage advice from the lyrics I’m certain they can’t help but hum:

“Keepin’ your head above water; makin’ a wave when you can”.

Until next time…

 

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