"Good Times" and representation: media in Cabrini-Green

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Mon Mar 11, 2019

Regardless of the exact medium, representation in media is critical for tracking social support and societal acceptance over time. The ability to see oneself reflected on-screen in well-rounded characters, from sitcom families to superheroes to detectives or beyond, can be important in feeling accepted and supported in society. While attention is thankfully paid to this phenomenon today, it proved just as impactful with the 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects. Created by pair Eric Monte and Mike Evans and premiering in 1974, “Good Times” was the United States’s first two-parent network sitcom featuring a black family, netting six seasons.

It is corny and dated and remarkably ridden with television tropes of the era, but this piece isn’t about if “Good Times” lives up. It does not. Rather, it serves to highlight the strides the show made by showing the residents of housing projects as dignified and relatable, providing proper and positive representation for those living in America’s public housing. 

“Good Times” tells the stories and misadventures of the Evans family as they survive and thrive, or at least try to, in those most infamous Chicago housing projects. It stars the parents James and Florida Evans, hitting the beats of typical sitcom patriarchal and matriarchal expectations note-for-note, with some twists that come from the unique setting. James Jr., or JJ, is the entertaining wildcard young adult with the goofy catchphrase — “Dyno-mite!” — who always seems to get himself into tricky situations. Michael, or Mike, is the socially conscious and smart-as-a-whip young schoolboy, and his charming sister Thelma isn’t afraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. They all hit their character archetypes spectacularly; even if it did push borders and confront important issues, it was still a 20th century sitcom. 

Oddly enough, “Good Times” is only implicitly set in the Cabrini-Green projects. The show makes both its setting in Chicago and the family’s residence in public housing explicitly clear, and though the neighborhood’s extremely distinctive high-rises and architecture are repeatedly shown in the opening credits sequence, a point is clearly made to never actually say the name “Cabrini-Green.” However, in the time the show aired, it would be impossible to watch the show and not know its specific setting or what was going on. 

The show was corny. When watching today, only the slimmest of a minority of the jokes land, and the live studio audience can be deafening.

However, the form of “Good Times” shouldn’t distract from the important matters that the show confronted for its television audience, helping to break down taboos. The pilot episode concerned the father hustling pool to make overdue rent money, though never skipping a chance to laugh. The episode “The Family Gun” confronts the family debating whether or not to get a gun in the face of a crime wave in the projects. Both “The Dinner Party” and “The Rent Party” are about the Evans family helping neighbors in need of a regular meal or a little money to keep the lights on, and the show does it without shame. In “Florida’s Protest,” the mother is arrested by police while picketing against a grocery store selling lousy meat. The subtext is there concerning the treatment of protesters against arguably more important topics, like discrimination or police brutality, but the show opts for a more tangential approach.

While “Good Times” confronts a host of important and sensitive issues, its format as a sitcom prevents “Good Times” from tackling too much of anything directly. It can introduce a crime wave, but it has to be gone — or at least out of their minds — in an episode or two. A two-part series even has JJ joining a gang and getting shot, but that, too, is over in no more than an evening’s viewing. 

This perceived brevity does not take away from the ability of “Good Times” to be important, as its lasting impact stands as having introduced these working class issues to a network sitcom, and being the first black family with its own sitcom at that, rather than solving them. It does not have to solve poverty or redefine the American family to be influential, as its refreshing humanization of the often marginalized groups of Cabrini-Green on a major platform are enough to do just that.

 

 

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