In this still from the


The title of Eric Monte and Mike Evans’ Norman Lear-produced sitcom Good Times was designed to be welcoming and inclusive. The theme song was a litany of poverty-driven adversity — temporary layoffs, easy credit rip-offs, etc. — interjected with the chorus of “Good Times!,” setting up the story of the Evans family weathering the travails of the Chicago projects with a mix of pride, determination and a whole lot of dysfunctional domestic affection.

The title of Netflix’s new 10-episode animated Good Times has taken on an almost antagonistic quality, since the first trailer was released and devotees of the original blasted those two minutes for being a violation of said original’s style and spirit.

Good Times

The Bottom Line

After an excruciating start, the home stretch has promise.

Airdate: Friday, April 12 (Netflix)
Cast: JB Smoove, Yvette Nicole Brown, Jay Pharoah, Marsai Martin
Creators: Ranada Shepard and Carl Jones 

Cavalcade of caricatures! Good Times!

Drug-dealing baby! Good Times!

Executive Producer Seth MacFarlane! Good Times!

Only for adults! Good times!

It’s impossible to review Netflix’s Good Times without starting by saying what it is not — namely, it is not Good Times. Yes, the late Norman Lear remains an executive producer — Ranada Shepard and Carl Jones developed the new version — but viewers who grew up with a special place in their hearts for Good Times, a series that redefined the parameters of what the Black family could be on TV, will probably struggle to make it through even the first episode. And for good reason. 

The pilot of this new Good Times is coarse and generally unpleasant and, despite almost non-stop referencing of the original series, exhibits exactly none of the charm and warmth that defined Good Times. It’s also a bizarre choice to take a title associated with a show that illustrated how wide an audience you could attract even while telling a very specific story, and attach it to an adults-only animated series that alienates more than it welcomes.

BUT!

Let’s get past the pilot and the title, because if you can do that, the series that Netflix’s Good Times grows into by the end of 10 episodes isn’t nearly so dire and so worthy of instant condemnation. The last three or four episodes of the season have enough funny and promising elements that you would give that show, with a different title, some credit for its potential, even if it never rises to the level of actual inspirations like The PJs, The Boondocks and Bebe’s Kids.

Set in the unnamed Chicago projects that are definitely meant to recall Cabrini-Green, this Good Times focuses on Reggie (JB Smoove) and Beverly (Yvette Nicole Brown) Evans. Reggie’s the grandson of John Amos’ James and shares some of his hardworking ethos, even as he struggles to pay the rent with what he makes as a cab driver. Bev is determined to live up to the family’s legacy, whatever that means, and has an antagonistic relationship with Delphine (Tisha Campbell), the projects’ scheming president.

So while this Good Times is a sequel and not a remake, these Evans also coincidentally have a dim-bulb, artistically brilliant son named Junior (Jay Pharoah) and their daughter is also a brilliant, budding activist (Marsai Martin’s Grey). Instead of a youngest son devoted to community advocacy, though, these Evans have… Dalvin (Gerald Anthony “Slink” Johnson), a drug-dealing pre-toddler who does, indeed, bridge a gap between Stewie and Omar Little that nobody ever asked to have bridged.

The first episode includes lots of references to individual episodes of Good Times, features a cameo by Jimmie Walker that you definitely won’t notice and has Reggie singing the original theme song with a cockroach, endeavoring to pander to and insult fans of the original series.

After that, though, if you didn’t know the show’s title, didn’t recognize that the inconsistently utilized transitional music was the Good Times theme and could ignore/repress one horrible “Dy-no-mite!” reference, you would never make any sort of connection between the two shows. 

At that point, it becomes possible to ponder what Good Times is or isn’t doing well on its own merits.

The first couple of episodes remain more bad than good. The show is more invested in what it’s defining itself against — “This ain’t the damn Cosby Show,” Reggie tells Junior when his academically struggling son begs him to love him as he is — than defining what its voice actually is. The humor is heavily weighted toward stereotypes and pop culture references that are at best stale and at worst — multiple Wendy Williams jokes? — tone deaf. It commits to its coarseness — like Bev stripping down to lingerie to seduce Reggie because she’s jealous that he befriended a service dog — but not to finding anything funny in that coarseness. Grey’s attempts to aggressively spell out the show’s political undertones aren’t convincing. Huey Freeman, she is not.

With the third episode, you can at least see Good Times trying to expand its horizons and show why animation would be a good vehicle for this story. Grey’s first period, a standard sitcom trope, leads to a wild and gross Wizard of Oz-inspired sequence that would have been at home on Big Mouth (after a rewrite to include some sharper punchlines). This is the first episode in which Good Times exhibits some clear ideas, though the actual attempts at humor fall flat. A Donald Trump-esque figure with a G.O.P. badge trying to control young women’s bodies from within is pointed, but fails to develop into anything meaningful. The same could also be said for the entire next episode, in which Reggie befriends Elon Musk and learns that the quirky billionaire has a dark side.

You might be getting a sense now of how this Good Times is using fantastical elements to differentiate itself from an original series that wanted to be as gritty and authentic as a multi-cam comedy could be in 1974. That’s how Good Times progresses and evolves, going from drug-dealing babies and talking roaches to increasingly wild film homages and set pieces. Each time I was prepared to stop watching, a reference or piece of outsized animation would have just enough satirical juice to keep me going. Each time I got fed up with how disconnected or calloused the show felt to the “real” Chicago, a little detail would amuse me — even something as on-the-nose as the show’s treatment of “Mayor Heavyankles.”

It’s the eighth episode when Good Times finally picks a high-concept premise and nails it — the only one of the 10 episodes that I would unapologetically praise. A takeoff on vintage comic book art and framing, “Big Sister Is Watching” is an original superhero/supervillain origin story that actually made me laugh out loud several times and featured a few beats I found borderline audacious. Plus, Norman Lear makes a cameo.

Would I have enjoyed the eighth episode as much without watching the lackluster seven previous episodes for contrast? I don’t know, but it sets up a concluding run in which the show’s serialized plotlines and cautionary themes concerning gentrification and racial exploitation begin to hit home.

Over the 10 episodes, which resemble vintage Good Times less and less, there are decent character arcs for Reggie, Bev, Junior and Grey, with Smoove, Brown, Pharoah and Martin doing energetic vocal work. I never warmed to Dalvin, the drug-dealing baby — I don’t think the writers ever found an approach to the character that felt like a critique instead of a stereotype — but it became easier to just ignore Dalvin entirely. 

Throw in a great developing ensemble — Cree Summer, Ego Nwodim, Heidi Gardner, Affion Crockett, Lil Rel Howery and Godfrey are among the folks playing multiple characters — and there are reasons to think that in a second season, Good Times might start to consistently deliver some, well, good times. That said, I don’t know how many people are likely to last through the first half of the season, much less through the pilot, and I don’t blame them.



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