Last season, Black-ish ended its first season with the gimmick episode “Pops’ Pops’ Pops,” an ode to the Harlem Renaissance and the Johnson family’s history. It was fantastic, different, and a terrifically bold choice for Black-ish to make for the final episode of its debut season. As a matter of fact, in his episode review, Joshua Alston explained just how difficult it was to assess an episode like that:
“Choosing a grade for ‘Pops’ Pops’ Pops’ comes with its own challenges. To call ‘Pops’ the best episode of Black-ish’s first season seems mildly unfair because of the singularity of its premise. It’s the kind of high-concept episode a family sitcom can only pull off once per season, if that often, so part of me regrets giving it the season’s first minus-free A. But ‘Pops’ isn’t merely a case of an average episode amplified by its novelty. It’s also aesthetically pleasing, thematically rich, and really funny.”
Now, as Black-ish has chosen to go with a gimmick episode for its second season finale, I find myself with a very similar challenge. But in this case, Black-ish has at least made a habit in its sophomore season of calling on the nostalgia-based power of classic black television, with re-creations and discussions of Diff’rent Strokes and The Cosby Show; so “Good-ish Times” is just the natural progression of that. In fact, given the status of current Black-ish plots, the series’ invocation of Good Times comes at a perfect time. Dre’s job status is up in the air, Rainbow (and her “geriatric womb”) is now pregnant, and the kids want, want, want.
Which reminds me: There is definitely no way that “Hunger Games camp” can end well, and everyone involved should take a second to think about the very concept of “Hunger Games camp.” That is all.
In terms of the Good Times set-up of the episode (as a dream Dre has while passed out in front of the television during a marathon), much like in “Pops’ Pops’ Pops,” all of the character assignments are something that work very well as long as you don’t think too long or hard about them. That means things like Bow (as Good Times’ Thelma) being siblings with Junior (J.J.) and Jack (Michael), Pops (James) and Ruby (Florida) being their parents, Dre (Keith) as the boyfriend of his real parents’ daughter, and Zoey (Willona) and Diane (Penny) being friends of the family—just go with it. Once you do, you can appreciate what they each bring to the table. Like, for instance, how Black-ish acknowledges that, even in a dream, Ruby’s inner Ruby-ness is just too strong, effectively turning the character of Florida from the supportive, unconditional-loving matriarch she’s know for being into a woman who sells out her own daughter in favor of her daughter’s boyfriend. And while Junior/Marcus Scribner doesn’t quite nail the same awkwardness as J.J./Jimmie Walker, Black-ish knows how to use his particular brand of awkwardness very well, to a point where he makes the character his own.
There’s also Black-ish’s general attention to detail in the Good Times homage, from Junior/J.J.’s painting in the corner of the living room, to the very fashion sense of Zoey/Willona almost stealing the show (just like she steals from the government with her adoption checks), to the set design also getting a little touch like the white Jesus painting (but sadly, no black Jesus/Ned the Wino painting) in the living room right.
“Good-ish Times” has a very simplistic, ‘70s-esque plot, with Black-ish committing every bit as much to the premise as it is winking at it. It’s also really good about making even lighter (or darker) of how uncomfortable the Evans family’s life was, as Pops/James comes in and out of scenes in order to either return from or leave for one of his four jobs. The best example of that is of course him returning home “early” at midnight from a quadruple shift, just in time to go back to work again at another job. And despite the actual Good Times giving Keith and Thelma their happy ending with regards to Keith’s professional football dreams (no Houston Oilers in sight), Black-ish’s version of that story points out just how wrong even that happy ending could have gone in the long run, given the dark truths of professional football, again making the happiness from Good Times seem a lot less happy.
So while Dre again looks at his life through the lens of an aspirational sitcom, this time, he looks at those aspirations in terms of the intangibles for once—love, support, and happiness.
The thing that hinders “Good-ish Times” as an episode and finale—as this is an episode the season has intentionally built its way to—is something that has been lingering in a lot of episodes this season: The Johnsons’ financial struggles or the possibility of struggles never quite feel “real.” As much as Black-ish is willing to “go there” with plenty of other topics (as episodes like “Hope” and “The Johnson Show” prove), the Johnsons actually falling on hard times never comes across as one of those things the show would really go for. We’ve learned this season that the Johnsons are in debt, and while the idea of them all tightening their belts (which is part of the equation by the end of this episode as well) is brought up, this is still the same season in which the Johnsons hired a Black Nanny, bought Zoey a car, and enrolled Jack in travel basketball for a hot minute. (Plus, the first scene of this episode makes sure the audience has a nice look at all of Dre’s extremely expensive sneakers.) This is also still the same show about an upper middle class black family who is the finished product of years of struggles on Dre and Bow’s side, not on their way to an inevitable return.
So while Dre’s worries about work and the family’s stress about the upcoming baby are all technically well-done and the show sells them as much as it can, there’s still that notion that nothing bad will truly happen. On the contrary, bad things happening was the entire concept of Good Times. Patriarch James only had a sixth grade education because he had to drop out of school to provide for his family. “Hope and dreams don’t feed the family,” according to Pops/James and Ruby/Florida, but on Good Times, hope and dreams were literally all the Evans family were guaranteed, especially living in the projects. There’s no version of Black-ish where things get that bad for the Johnsons.
That’s the catch about this entire plot: If Dre loses his job, as a viewer, it’s difficult to see him do anything other than bounce back (probably scored to Mystikal’s “Bouncin’ Back”). Dre’s a highly-qualified, (mostly likely) in-demand professional, and there’s no way a rival advertising firm wouldn’t try snatch him up immediately, if for no other reason than how he turned “the urban market” into “the market” at Stevens & Lido. Plus, Lucy, who is fired in this episode, loses her job out of sheer incompetency on the company’s side; if the same were to happen to Dre, there’s no way it couldn’t be easily reversed. So while “Good-ish Times” is so solid and such a heavily-detailed homage, in terms of a season ender based on the plots the show has been working with, it doesn’t completely work. “Pops’ Pops’ Pops” was essentially luckily to be so separate from the rest of the first season as a whole.
Still, the fact that Black-ish ends the season leaving this all open-ended means that, regardless of the outcome, it’s not the end of the world for the Johnson family. That’s something that, among all of the pain and struggle, Good Times also said. It’s honestly a good lesson to end a season on, especially one as strong as Black-ish’s second season.
- In preparation for this episode of Black-ish, I started watching Good Times, as all I really knew about it (which was still quite a bit) came from pop culture osmosis. As far as Norman Lear shows went in my house growing up, I came from a Jeffersons and Sanford & Son family. Young me also apparently believed (at least subconsciously) that you had to be a Diff’rent Strokes person or a Good Times person, and I chose the former. I can say in my present day viewings (I’m still only in season one), Michael is my favorite character, and Willona has my favorite fashion sense. I can also say that I really don’t understand why young me chose Diff’rent Strokes.
- I’ve said for ages that I can’t wait until Lucy sues the crap out of Stevens & Lido, and now (well, next season) seems like the best time ever for it to finally happen. Lucy’s Place has an ever better ring to it than Lido’s Place!
- Junior/J.J. appearing in the corner once Dre/Keith reveals his injury to the audience is such a good moment after he’s already rambled on about the one bedroom they all obviously share.
- Speaking of Junior/J.J., his living room painting is of a basketball player, and unlike in Good Times, its arm isn’t too long. Guess he finally took everyone’s advice.
- I was waiting for a “DAMN, DAMN, DAMN” and I’m happy Black-ish didn’t disappoint me on that one, not that I thought it would.
- Charlie/Bookman saying “sugar eggs!” is pretty much the most important thing anyone has ever said. Deon Cole is very funny, a fact TBS obviously knows.
- Diane/Penny’s glasses not actually being prescription is the icing on top of the sadness cake that is their lives.
- I’d spend good money to watch a classic black TV network with Laurence Fishburne appearing in various roles on all the shows. Laurence Fishburne as James Earl Jones is something I didn’t know I needed until this episode of television, and now part of me wants Laurence Fishburne as Martin from Martin. “Damn, Gina,” indeed.
- Bow’s Ziggy Stardust shirt at the end of the episode made me tear up. Don’t look at me!
- I love writing about this show, and I’m glad this is the season I got to write about it regularly. A big thank you to every one of you who reads these reviews. Catch you on the flip side.