You Probably Won’t Have A Good Time Watching Netflix’s ‘Good Times’

An animated sequel fizzles where it doesn’t actively offend
You Probably Won’t Have A Good Time Watching Netflix’s ‘Good Times’

In the entertainment industry, almost every rule has an exception. “Never work with children or animals” didn’t apply to Brie Larson, who won a Best Actress Oscar starring opposite an 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay in Room. “Learn to live with your mistakes” might have worked for Werner Herzog, but there are seven different versions of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — and since Scott is still alive and working, there may yet be more to come to correct mistakes he can’t abide. Here’s one that, after this week, might become a truism: Don’t make a TV show that gets you in trouble with the NAACP.

On the eve of its premiere, Netflix’s (very) adult animated series Good Times was the subject of a guest column at The Hollywood Reporter by Kyle Bowser, Senior Vice President of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau. A trailer had dropped, and the civil rights organization had received so many messages from concerned viewers that staffers reached out to Netflix to request screeners for review; that request was refused. Having not been permitted to place the scenes from the trailer in the context of their episodes, Bowser could only respond to the material that was available, writing, “(T)here’s nothing new here. Renderings of Black life in media often serve to buoy the artificiality of white supremacy. … While we continue to engage with media institutions to encourage reform, we also call upon our constituents to develop greater discernment in their engagement.” 

In other words: Anyone is free to watch the new Good Times, as long as they know doing so makes them part of the problem.

Critics might not have their knives out and sharpened if not for the new show’s connection to the original series, which ran from 1974 to 1979. Co-created by the late Norman Lear (also an executive producer on this version, along with NBA star Stephen Curry and animation magnate Seth MacFarlane) and Bud Yorkin, Good Times told the unvarnished story of life in a Chicago housing project. Florida (Esther Rolle), originally introduced as a maid to the eponymous protagonist of Maude, is raising her three children with her husband James (John Amos). His unemployment drives the plot in the series premiere, as he attempts to apply for a training program to join the mechanics’ union, only to find out he’s aged out of eligibility. 

As the series went on, the systemic barriers keeping Black Americans from social mobility were a frequent subject, but the characters maintained their dignity — at least until J.J. (Jimmie Walker) and his catchphrases started taking over the proceedings, Urkel-style, driving Amos and Rolle to complain to the show’s entirely white writing staff about the authenticity of the dialogue and situations they were being asked to portray, and ultimately to quit.

The new show has more diversity on its creative team, which is led by co-creators Ranada Shepard (a Cuban-born woman whose adoptive parents are Black) and Carl Jones (who is Black). Admittedly, this makes it dicey for me, a white Canadian, to join the discourse about whether this Good Times trades in offensive stereotypes. So here are some facts about the first two episodes, presented without comment. 

One of the first sounds we hear in the new theme song — and I know I just said “presented without comment,” but it’s indisputably inferior to the original — is gunshots. Reggie Evans (voice of J.B. Smoove), grandson to the original show’s James, and resident of the same apartment we saw James occupying in the ‘70s, has kicked out his youngest son Dalvin (Slink Johnson) over Dalvin’s criminal activity; Dalvin is a talking baby who’s young enough that his mother Beverly (Yvette Nicole Brown) is still lactating, and the activity Reggie objects to is that Dalvin’s drug dealing. Later, a situation involving some of Dalvin’s criminal-baby rivals devolves into Reggie beating them with his belt, to which the babies retaliate by instigating a knife fight. 

An unlicensed salon in the apartment building is operated by Bev’s best friend Lisa (Rashida “Sheedz” Olayiwola), who also does baptisms, funerals and fake IDs. The middle Evans child, 12-year-old daughter Grey (Marsai Martin), is a community activist whose attempts to raise even her own family members’ consciousness are repeatedly met with defeatist negation like, “We can change the world tomorrow.” 

I might have generously overlooked a plot point in which the heat gets cut off in the Evans apartment because Bev secretly spent the emergency fund on home decor to win a beautification contest in the building, but then a later episode finds her spending the family’s entire rent budget on clothes for herself. 

High school teacher Mrs. Likeigiveashit (Wanda Sykes), warns Bev and James that their eldest son Junior (Jay Pharoah) is at risk of repeating the 10th grade for a fourth time; she advises him to consider giving up on academics and showing his feet on OnlyFans. 

Before directing you to reviews from critics of color including Aramide Tinubu and the Huffington Post team of Erin E. Evans, Candice Frederick and Taryn Finley, I’ll gingerly tiptoe back toward topics I am more qualified to address. While the design of the characters makes them compelling to look at, the animation is herky-jerky and cheap; the project was announced three and a half years ago, so you’d think there’d have been time to polish it. The third episode starts with Grey getting her first period (to which both she and Bev initially respond by shrieking that they hope Grey got shot) and then takes a hard pivot into a tour of a uterus, where Bev confronts her shame about her own free-spirited youth. The story is important, but the execution can’t help seeming like a ripoff of Big Mouth, which more or less exists to take its characters on pubertal fantasias like this and has been doing so since the mid-teens. 

The extremely overwrought fourth episode involves cabbie James picking up Elon Musk as a fare, and if your first thought is that Elon Musk doesn’t seem like he’d be interested in appearing in a sitcom about Black characters, he doesn’t play himself: the character is voiced by Joe Mantegna — a real-life legend of the show’s Chicago setting, but not one who seems to have thought it important to learn Musk’s South African accent for the performance. 

Woven through the season’s 10 episodes, viewers will find relevant social commentary, in doses large and small. When Mrs. Likeigiveashit suggests that Junior might benefit from ADHD medication, Bev and James don’t bother trying to get a prescription; they buy it from a neighbor who deals drugs. When a CCTV system is installed in the building, even the justice-minded Grey can’t help becoming obsessed. And a late-season arc involves shadowy city officials manipulating local project leadership to trick residents into leaving their homes so that the desirable real estate can be developed for wealthier tenants. 

Since Chicago’s crime statistics have long been cynically exploited by politicians who don’t have residents’ best interests at heart, returning to Apartment 17C now could have been extremely meaningful. Unfortunately, good and timely points are drowned out by the noise of this version’s racist clichés. Chances are you won’t be hanging in and jiving to the finale, and that Good Times 2024 won’t keep its head above water in Netflix’s vast ocean of programming.


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