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Netflix's 'Good Times': An explicit revival which feels calculated to offend

The Evans family in Netflix's <em>Good Times:</em> Jay Pharoah as Junior, Marsai Martin as Grey, Yvette Nicole Brown as Beverly, Gerald Anthony "Slink" Johnson as Dalvin and J.B. Smoove as Reggie.
The Evans family in Netflix's Good Times: Jay Pharoah as Junior, Marsai Martin as Grey, Yvette Nicole Brown as Beverly, Gerald Anthony "Slink" Johnson as Dalvin and J.B. Smoove as Reggie.

Netflix's animated series revival of Good Times seems almost genetically engineered to snark off critics like me.

With an opening image that reads Good Times (Black again), it's packed with the kind of stereotypical characters and imagery which seems sure to anger fans of the original series, which was a groundbreaking, '70s-era sitcom revered for the way it challenged presumptions about a poor Black family "scratchin' and survivin'" in a Chicago housing project.

Described by Netflix as a "spiritual sequel," the animated Good Times features the fourth generation of the original series' Evans family living in a Chicago housing project.

This new show opens with the patriarch, a bombastic, not-too-smart cabbie named Reggie Evans, singing part of the original Good Times theme in a duet with a cockroach (he's such a soft touch, he has trouble earning a living because fares keep stiffing him). Matriarch Beverly Evans can tell when her baby is around because her breasts lactate and leak through her shirt.

The baby, Dalvin, has been kicked out of the house because he's a pistol-packing drug dealer with studs in his ears. And when his militant older sister Grey decides to go on a hunger strike in protest, she gets emaciated and has flies swarming around her face like a child suffering in an African famine.

It's a universe where, when Reggie takes his artistic son Junior to a broken-down medical center for a prescription to help him focus in school, a gunfight breaks out. And when baby Dalvin leaves their apartment after a visit, Beverly makes sure he doesn't forget his handgun. Sigh.

Edgy content brings criticism

Yvette Nicole Brown voices  Beverly in <em>Good Times.</em>
/ Netflix
Yvette Nicole Brown voices Beverly in Good Times.

Much of it plays like one of the most jacked-up editions of Adult Swim I've ever seen, littered with images that sometimes feel like stereotypical cartoons exhumed from the worst online Reddit conversations. Taking advantage of the freedom provided by animation, the show provides trippy scenes that sometimes verge on the fantastical — sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels oddly creepy. There's even one chunk of dialogue cheekily cloned straight from the pilot episode of The Cosby Show.

Already, the show's trailer has drawn criticism from the NAACP. Kyle Bowser, senior vice president of the civil rights organization's Hollywood bureau, wrote in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter that it's clear Netflix made a choice "to market the show based on an interpretation of Black life as an 'otherized' experience, replete with abhorrent beliefs and behaviors." A Change.org petition urging viewers to boycott the show has more than 3,700 signatures.

But I'm wary of delivering the expected critique of such jarring imagery — in part, because there are interesting messages buried beneath them. In the episode where he and his dad visit a run-down clinic, Junior struggles over why he needs to take medication to build up his mental focus in school at the expense of his creativity – not sure why he has to choose between the two – and Grey learns to shake off the shame she feels after having her first menstrual period, finding liberation from patriarchy in the process.

Part of the issue here is the connection to the original Good Times — celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — which was considered the first TV show centered on a two-parent Black family, humanizing folks who live in poor, Black neighborhoods. As a kid watching the show who didn't have a father in the house, I found it inspirational to see John Amos' character James Evans as a stern but loving paternal presence in a home with Esther Rolle's quick-witted matriarch Florida, BernNadette Stanis' earnest daughter Thelma, Ralph Carter's studious son Michael and Jimmie Walker's borderline-stereotypical artist son J.J.

Yvette Nicole Brown plays Beverly and JB Smoove voices  Reggie in Good Times.
Yvette Nicole Brown plays Beverly and JB Smoove voices Reggie in Good Times.

After a multitude of references to the original in the first episode, the new show doesn't seem particularly tethered to that old template, which can make watching it a tough experience for longtime fans. And it doesn't have the same mission as the old series, though it eventually depicts a family that loves each other through all of the craziness. (It also bleeps out usage of the n-word, but doesn't bleep profanities like s*** or f***. Hmmm.)

In a way, it would have been better to just craft this as an original series without all the baggage and expectations of reinventing a TV classic – but then, Netflix wouldn't have gotten all the headlines and attention from the shocked reactions.

This is a project with a pedigree. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and basketball star Steph Curry are executive producers, alongside original Good Times executive producer Norman Lear, who worked on the show before his death in December at age 101. Ace talent like J.B. Smoove, Jay Pharoah, Yvette Nicole Brown and Wanda Sykes voice characters.

Still, for this longtime Good Times fan, the new show feels too much like a different program twisted into something vaguely resembling the old show, but without the sense of mission and pride that made the original series such a television landmark.

Story edited by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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