By Bret Fetzer
What first comes to mind is super-skinny Jimmie Walker proclaiming
"Dyn-o-mite!" and waving his arms like a funky scarecrow in a
whirlwind of 1970s jive. But while Walker's James "J.J." Evans
Junior became the most famous face of Good Times, the bedrock of
the sitcom were the actors playing his parents, Esther Rolle and John Amos
as Florida and James Evans, two good-hearted but fallible people
struggling to raise their family amid the poverty of the Chicago projects.
Add to the mix boy-crazy daughter Thelma (Bernnadette Stanis),
preadolescent black activist Michael (Ralph Carter), and Florida's
world-wise best friend Willona (sassy Ja'net DuBois), and you've got one
of the best comic ensembles of the time.
Modern politically correct sensibilities may wince a bit at J.J.'s
sometimes cartoonish antics, but what's far more striking about the first
season of Good Times is how frank the show was willing to be about
race, politics, class, religion, sexual double standards, and family
conflicts--considerably more direct and daring, in fact, than just about
anything you'll find on television today.
The topics of shows range from the corruption of television evangelism
and white-centered history classes in school (Michael gets suspended for
stating that George Washington owned slaves) to more typical sitcom themes
like a housekeeping contest or J.J.'s girlfriend troubles--but even the
most lightweight episodes tosses out a few acerbic (and genuinely funny)
comments on the difficulty of being black in America.
In one of the second season's comic centerpieces, the Evans family
avoids eating a neighbor's meatloaf because they think it's made with dog
food. The scene is played as hilarious farce, but the acknowledgment of a
poor old woman living on dog food gives the sequence an underlying bite.
An episode about a pregnant teen ends on an unexpectedly moving note,
without any strings on the soundtrack to cue the audience's
heartstrings--that's solid writing and acting.
With buffoonish Jimmy "Dy-no-mite!" Walker, foxy Ja'Net Du
Bois, sweet BernNadette Stanis, and militant Ralph Carter rounding out the
cast, Good Times is a time capsule both for fashion (even though
they lived in the projects, the Evans' fashion-plate neighbor Willona,
played by Du Bois, was rarely without a glamorous get-up) and for a time
in which mainstream sitcoms had the freedom to reflect the tougher side of
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