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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Andrew Lawrence

Netflix’s animated Good Times reboot is a stain on a comedy classic

an illustration of five people sitting on a couch in a living room
A still from Good Times. Photograph: Netflix

The Good Times reboot opens in the Chicago projects with its next-gen patriarch in the shower naked duetting the original theme song with a roach on the window sill. Dy-no-mite, this is not.

We may well now have the official cause of death for Norman Lear, the god-like sitcom producer who brought Good Times – a spinoff of a spinoff of the groundbreaking TV series All in the Family – to network television in 1974. The reboot, an animated show now, was among the final credits Lear had before his death late last year at 101. Carl Jones, the brilliant writer-animator behind Adult Swim bangers like the Boondocks and Black Dynamite, bailed on the project “due to creative differences”, he wrote after Netflix dropped a trailer for the new show to the horror of TV fans who have long viewed the show as cornerstone of Black Americana. Some character wardrobe pieces are on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, along with works from Ernie Barnes, the Black Romantic whose Sugar Shack painting was used for the closing credits and a Marvin Gaye album.

Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays the matriarch on the new series, has stood up for the reboot. (“It’s still a show about family, fighting the system and working to make things better,” she wrote.) But hers is a lonely defense. The NAACP called the new series a marketing choice. John Amos, who played almighty father James in the original, withheld some judgment but not his skepticism. (“I don’t see anybody reaching [our high bar], especially in an animated version,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.) Bernadette Stanis, who played the much-beloved daughter Thelma in the original series, has talked about feeling played after doing some voice acting for the new series, saying “I did not know it was going to be the way it is.” By that she means dumb, crass and nigh unwatchable – a modern minstrel show that stains the memory of a sitcom that transformed the medium. And yet: about par for a Seth MacFarlane production.

The Family Guy omniscient is the creative force behind this crime against originality, mining its humor for inner-city blight and using some leading lights of Black Hollywood to cover its ass. Reggie (played by Curb Your Enthusiam’s JB Smoove) is the father, a dumb cabbie one stressor away from death by hypertension. His wife, Beverly, prays to White Jesus and, in the second episode, harbors fear of her husband leaving her for a “bitch” German shepherd. SNL’s Jay Pharoah and Black-ish’s Marsai Martin voice the two oldest kids – a stoned graffiti artist and a bleeding heart know-it-all, respectively – while Black Jesus’ Slink Johnson plays Dalvin, the baby drug pusher at loggerheads with his father. Which is to say it’s not the kind of show you’d imagine would be executive-produced by Stephen Curry, the Focus on the Family NBA star who memorably opposed an “affordable” housing development in his own Bay Area backyard.

Urban decay, gang violence and jezebel women are staple themes – which would be fine were they rendered as smartly as in, say, Black Dynamite. But Good Times doesn’t just have nothing new or interesting to say about these things, it’s also completely oblivious to its source material. The Evanses of the original Good Times were a white picket fence family of the projects. They worked hard, had effortless polish and style (again: their clothes are in the Smithsonian), still believed they could overcome. The first two-parent Black household in sitcom history, James and Florida Evans may not have gone to college, but they were the furthest thing from dumb. Amos and Esther Rolle, who played James’s wife Florida, were so hellbent on fighting for the dignity of theirs and others’ characters that they wound up leaving the show as protest against the encroachment of buffoonish racial tropes – not least son JJ’s dy-no-mite catchphrase, among the most resonant punchlines in TV history.

There’s no chance the third generation of the Evans family would be right back at square one. JJ was a serious artist who was already being commissioned for his work. Michael, the “militant midget” family baby who became the vessel for the show’s trenchant social commentary, had aspirations of becoming a civil rights lawyer when the series ended. In the final episode, Thelma and her husband, an emerging star on the NFL’s Chicago Bears, move into a deluxe apartment with a Lake Michigan view. Even little Penny, the sweet girl the Evanses took in for ratings, probably had a big future ahead of her given that she was played by Janet Jackson. The Robert Taylor Homes, the project apartment complex where the Evanses are posited to have lived, were demolished in 2005. The reboot’s laggy frame rate evokes an even earlier era of TV animation, well before Netflix was setting fire to millions to incinerate the cultural legacy of a television show it more than likely won’t renew.

Thirteen years ago, when MacFarlane began reimagining himself as a keeper of the Great American Songbook, it was difficult to imagine him taking up a more vainglorious pursuit. But this Good Times reboot proves there are still more levels to his depths. Few would’ve been as offended if he had spun off this exact series from his existing animated universe and even repeated the same digital blackface casting mistake he did with The Cleveland Show. But by branding this fetid poverty porn production a Good Times reboot, MacFarlane not only disrespects a treasured American heirloom, he furnishes yet more damning evidence of just how quick and easy it is for Hollywood to take the very best of Black culture and turn it sacrilege.

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