Give Me Some Relevance on TV

Why can't we have comedies like Good Times, in which the characters tackle substantive issues?

One night recently I watched an episode of Good Times. The plot dealt with the 11-year-old militant yet cherubic character, Michael, being suspended from school for telling his teacher that George Washington was a racist slave owner. As his mother chastises him, he protests, “Mama, ‘boy’ is a white racist word.”

The rest of the episode dealt with the historical juxtaposition of Washington’s ownership of slaves, his role as a Founding Father of this country and the hypocrisy involved. It was funny watching the family deal with that issue, the day-to-day management of the household, the haywire economy of the mid-’70s and the masking of black history in America.

Later, I tuned in to the much-ballyhooed Reed Between the Lines, which launched on BET on Oct. 11, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross. The show has been touted as the answer to the dearth of black family sitcoms since Everybody Hates Chris was canceled. Then I brushed my teeth and quickly looked for another Good Times episode on YouTube.

It wasn’t that Reed, with its phoned-in dialogue, wasn’t trying, and it wasn’t that some might find it to be a good program (seriously). But I didn’t dig it for the same reason I don’t dig so many television programs aimed at urban (read: black) watchers these days: There’s no connection between the world outside and the people inside.

OK, OK. Before you go off on me, I realize that sometimes people don’t really want heavy themes or monologues that inspire thunderous applause from the studio audience. For some, it’s even a relief to see contemporary black people who do not seem to have dysfunction written into their familial script — even if the show is not funny.

But I miss black television that talks about issues relevant to my friends, my family and me. Maybe I’m missing something, but what’s being offered — not just on television, but in pop culture targeted generally at African Americans — seems to talk perpetually about being “fabulous,” “having swagger” or “knowing how we do.”

Sitting through another (Insert rich but pointlessly idle theme here) Wives or a Real Housewives of (Insert hip but prohibitively expensive city here) to watch a group of train wrecks set the feminist movement back a century; or any reality show about an athlete and his ego, relatives of pop stars, competition for the hearts of onetime or wannabe celebrities; or the lifestyles of any number of C-list and D-list celebrities waiting for a comeback — as much fun as it once was — now strikes me as the most obtuse thing I could do with my time.

“So don’t watch it, damn it! Turn to something else if you don’t like it” is what I can hear fans and producers offended by what I’m writing here say.