As we’ve known for quite awhile, Black-ish closes its second season with a half-hour tribute to Good Times. It was fun to see the gang in late ’70s attire (especially Tracee Ellis Ross, who makes everything look great), but unfortunately, this finale lands below the high expectations Black-ish set for itself. A flashy episode like “Good-ish Times” needs more than nostalgic winks to truly stand out. Nevertheless, it’s certainly refreshing to see that creator Kenya Barris didn’t feel the need to end the season with a dramatic cliffhanger.
As “Good-ish Times” begins, the layoffs at Dre’s work have ended, so he suggests to Bow that she take some time off during her pregnancy. She worked so hard with the other kids, he says. It’s time for her to take care of herself, especially since her doctor mentioned her advanced maternal age. Ruby offers to carry the baby because she has the uterus of a 16-year-old Latina girl, but hopefully it won’t come to that. Of course, Pops praises Dre for being man enough to look after his wife and family. When I heard that, I barely kept my eyes from rolling out of my head. Again with the tiresome prescriptions of manhood? We’ve seen enough flashbacks to know that Pops wasn’t exactly there for his family. It’s time he stops holding Dre to a standard he couldn’t meet himself.
Unfortunately, Dre was wrong — the layoffs are far from over, and Lucy is on the chopping block. Charlie thinks Mr. Stevens is about to fire him, too, so acts like a mini-Godzilla in the middle of a conference room. Charlie assures Mr. Stevens that all he has left is his God and his goatee, then he throws papers, rolls a coffee cup, and tries in vain to flip the table. Settle down, Charlie! Mr. Stevens only wants to compliment him on the Forever 21 campaign that’s doing extremely well … but that was actually Lucy’s work. You know, Lucy. Who was just fired on her birthday. Ouch. Lucy was pretty much the only person at Dre’s office with any sense, but at least Charlie isn’t leaving again. (No offense, Lucy. Good luck!)
Reeling from news of more layoffs to come, Dre begins to worry if the family can afford for Bow to take time off. The kids have expensive summer-school plans — including Junior’s wizarding school and the twins’ Hunger Games camp — which Bow desperately wants to happen because it will mean two whole weeks of child-free quiet. And so, Dre doesn’t bring up the layoffs this time. He doesn’t want his family to think he can’t provide for them. Stuffed with Ruby’s biscuits and gravy and his own worries, Dre falls asleep in front of the television at the start of a Good Times marathon and … well, you know what happens next.
Dre and Bow become Keith and Thelma. Junior is J.J. and Jack is Michael. Pops and Ruby are James and Florida. Zoey and Diane are Willona and Penny, and Charlie is Bookman. In Dre’s dream world, “Thelma” has just learned that she’s pregnant with a huge lab kit of a pregnancy test. She’s afraid to let her parents know, but “J.J.” overhears her, then “Penny” finds the pregnancy-test box. Soon enough, the cat’s out of the bag. “James” is furious because he knows how futile it is to rely on the hopes and dreams of a football career, but soon everyone begins fantasizing about how “Keith” joining the NFL would give them everything they’ve never had: a full night’s sleep, art supplies, glasses, and fresh strawberries. “Keith” eventually confesses that his football career is over before it even really started; he blew out his knee. “James,” as always, is angry. “Florida” reminds him of his own difficulties providing for a family, but that he found a way to do it. They have to have faith in “Keith” and let him work everything out. After the family offers their support to “Keith,” he finally feels optimistic about his family’s future.
Aside from Bow’s fantastic Thelma outfits, the best part about the Good Times dream sequence is seeing Marcus Scribner’s awkward attempts at J.J.’s famous strut. The studio audience’s reactions are also great. It’s worth watching an episode of Good Times just to hear the audience, especially whenever they gasped at a dramatic moment. In the dream sequence, “Willona” offers “Keith” some of the foster-parent stipend she receives for “Penny” (and her sister, who probably doesn’t exist), and the fact that Willona may have taken in Penny as extra income had either escaped my memory or I simply hadn’t thought about it at all. Good Times reruns have played in the background through most of my life, so even though I found this stroll down memory lane to be a little lackluster, I’m glad for a chance to look at the Willona-Penny story line with new eyes.
The trip to Good Times ultimately seems like a chance to end another season with the cast in cool costumes. In the first-season finale, Pops told the twins a story about his grandfather, prompting a flashback to the Harlem Renaissance. Laurence Fishburne even had a chance to pay homage to Bumpy Rhodes and Bumpy Johnson, the characters he played in The Cotton Club and Hoodlum. (It’s hard to resist Fishburne in suspenders and a fedora.) In contrast, the Good Times dream featured criticisms of the NFL and immigrant labor that seemed unusually forced and out-of-place. At one point, Dre’s “Keith” laments the idea that he’s going to be “poor, black, and strawberry-less” forever. We know that Dre is no longer poor. He’s had strawberries, but he’s still black. Is that something Dre wants to change? Is this just a nod to the show’s premise that having a certain level of income might distance you from your racial and ethnic heritage? It seems odd for Black-ish to have Dre, even in a dream sequence, be upset at a racial identity for being both negative and unchanging. I already had trouble with the dream sequence, but “Keith” citing his blackness as something to cry about really pulled me out of the moment.
When Dre wakes up after 12 hours of sleep, Good Times is gone but an old episode of Black Omnibus is on. This is a deep dive into the history of black television, even for Black-ish, and Fishburne’s impression of James Earl Jones is killer. He has great comedic skill, and it’s always a delight to see him put it to use. Dre opens up about the coming round of layoffs, and the kids say they’re willing to sacrifice their summer plans and allowances to help out. Well, everyone except Diane. She’s still learning how to share. Despite Diane’s mercenary ways, it’s a testament to Dre and Bow’s parenting that the kids react in such a selfless way to what may be a difficult future. Dre learns once again that there’s no obstacle he can’t overcome without the help of his family.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate this second season — it has been an amazing ride, hasn’t it? Black-ish finally found its rhythm and established itself as must-see TV. Barris proved he can tackle difficult topics with humor and grace, while balancing those “very special episodes” with the flat-out silliness we all need to take our minds off our own lives. Anthony Anderson may have started off as the highly publicized star of the show, but in season two, Black-ish dialed down his rants and let the rest of the cast step into the spotlight. Tracee Ellis Ross became so much more than the straight woman to Dre’s comic overreactions. When Bow got into conflict with the neighborhood moms, it was easy to see Ross as a modern-day Lucille Ball. Each of the child actors grew into their talents, and even as the show recognized Marsai Martin’s Diane as a huge draw, it wisely kept the character from taking over, like J.J. and Urkel did before her. Barris’s love of television is apparent in each episode, but it’s clear he’s learned from his predecessors’ mistakes and doesn’t want to repeat them. His careful attention has helped turn Black-ish into a family sitcom for the ages.
Here’s to a third season!