Sunday, March 8, 2020

When the Lead Leaves the Show: John Amos and Esther Rolle

This is going to be a series of articles about when a Black lead character leaves a television show and the aftermath of that event.  I will look at the events leading to the departure, how the character was written off the show, and the aftermath to the show they left.

First up, John Amos and Esther Rolle, stars of Good Times that ran on CBS from 1974-1979 and was a huge ratings hit for the network.  Created by Mike Evans and produced by Hollywood heavy weight, Norman Lear, this spin-off of Maude focused on the Evans Family and their daily struggles living in the projects in Chicago.  The Evans family consisted of patriarch James Evans, played by John Amos, matriarch Florida Evans, played by Esther Rolle, and their three kids JJ, Thelma, and Michael.

Rating Success

The show portrayed the typical struggles of a family living in poverty.  Shows about unemployment, hustling, and surviving, were not just in the theme song, they were the theme of the show, but told with humor and heart. The show, much like All in the Family, was to examine taboo topics with humor and looking to build a dialogue about difficult topics. The show was a ratings hit ranking in the top 25 shows on network television in year one and in the top 10 shows by year two, and not appearing outside the top 30 through season four.

John Amos Departs

So what went wrong?  While the show was a hit and tackling topics rarely seen on network television, the shows focus started slowly moving away from Florida and James Evans and focused more on JJ, played by Jimmy Walker.  JJ had become such a popular character on the show and him screaming DY-NO-MITE became a huge cultural phenomenon and JJ often became the focus of the show; not the serious topics the show had been dealing with.  Amos voiced his frustrations to the producer Norman Lear which lead to constant arguments about the script and the shows direction.  At the end of season 3, the decision was made to kill off James Evans off camera as he was looking to get a job and finally move the family out of the projects.  His death lead to this great bit of television and now meme/gif history.

Esther Rolle Departs

Rolle was much more verbal with her disgust with the JJ character becoming the focus of the show. Rolle, in an interview, called  the JJ character, "stupid" and thought he was bringing negative racial stereotypes to young Black youth watching on television. After John Amos was not brought back, she worked to get herself written off the show and by the end of season 4  she married character Carl Dixon and moved off to Arizona leaving the Evans kid to live on their own.

The Aftermath

Losing the two leads of the show tanked the ratings as the producers decided to have the show continue without the two parents who provided much of the heart of the show.  The show shifted its focus to Wilona, played by, Janet Dubois,  looking after the kids who now lived alone and stories focused on JJ and the kids and Wilona.  After Amos leaves, the shows rating dropped to 26.  After Rolle leaves, the rating drops to 55 for season 5.  Producers realized they made a mistake and did everything they could to get Esther Rolle back to give the show back its heart.  Rolle reluctantly agreed to return with a list of demands which included more money and to make JJ less of a buffoon and knock off the racial stereotypes.

Rolle comes back for season 6 and even with the focus on new characters and her return, the show was too far gone to come back.  Season 6 tanked and ranked 91 on broadcast television shows and was cancelled.

So what do you think?  Should they have cancelled the show after John Amos left? After Esther Rolle left?  Leave a comment in the comments section.

The Producer

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Star Wars: Darth Vader #1

Star Wars: Darth Vader( 2019) by Greg Pak and Raffael Ienco

As my continued disappointment with the Star Wars movie universe continues, I have deep dived into the comic book world for continued tales of Skywalker's.  Last month, we read the Kylo Ren book as it took a dive into the unknown time after the failed assasination by Luke Skywalker as untold from the Last Jedi.  This month, we look at an untold tale of Darth Vader which occurs in the events after Luke learns he is Vader's son in The Empire Strikes Back!

As Luke falls off and makes his escape on the Falcon with Lando, Chewbacca, and Leia, we get to see what the next step is for Vader.  While he makes a communication with Luke via the Force in the movie, we do not see Vader again until Return of the Jedi.  This book picks up after that moment as Vader is joined with Death Troopers as they set out to not find Luke Skywalker, but all the people who hid Luke from him and made him weak.

So we are off to Tattoine and, even though I enjoyed this book, this is where I always get a little weird about Star Wars comic books.  As writers look to flesh out the universe outside of our main characters, we get introduced to these wonderfully formed characters in the books who you know have only been created to die.  It creates a dissonance for me when reading the books because I cannot invest emotionally in a character that, if they were that important, woulda made it into one of the 10 Star Wars movies.

On Tattoine, Vader begin the Annakin Skywalker tour and even gets to visit some of his old stomping grounds. We get to see where Clegg Lars and Shimi Skywalker lived and we get the flashback of that scene from Phantom Menace.  The art plays across very little dialogue and is dependent upon the reader having fairly high knowledge of the movies.

The story unfolds through a wacky droid, Zed Six Seven, a Star Wars staple in comics and movies.  Vader sees that Luke grew up in the same house as Anakin did and sees that his son grew up with Owen and Beru Lars and had a similar love for flying and tinkering like Anakin did. We even get a flashback of Padme from Attack of the Clones.

We even get the callback to when Anakin gave into hate and killed the Sand People and gave us our clear path to Anakin becoming Darth Vader. Padme does his best to save him as we saw in the movies but the book draws the parallels of Vader losing Luke and Padme and the emotional toll these events had on Darth Vader.

And remember what I said about the characters introduced to die?  Well, we get two characters who were looking to rob the imperial troopers while on Tattoine.  They get the drop of some empire ships and take shots at Vader.  But when you come for the King, you best not miss.  They did and we get to see Vader use the Force like we only got to see at the end of Rogue One.  And these moments often bother me because we see the Jedi super powerful in the prequels and presented as old me when we get to A new Hope.  So to retcon Vader being this powerful comes off a bit awkward but its still pretty awesome to see.

Of course Vader kills all the Red Shirts( Star Trek reference) and upon leaving Tattoine, Vader and his crew head off to Corusant and the apartment of Padme Amidala as Vader is looking for clues as to who else knew that Padme was pregnant.  Through some flashbacks and finding a tracer droid, Vader and his crew make it to another planet and find Jar Jar Binks protecting a hidden figure as they are attacked by these monster looking creatures. Vader comes in for the safe before we get a secret reveal that we wont spoil here.

Overall, this book was a lot of fun seeing the flashbacks to tie the movies into the book.  Vader, at the time of Empire Strikes Back, was such a mysteriou character, even after the reveal in the movie.  Our watching of the prequels filled in more of the blanks to his origin and there is such more to explore and Pak does a great job laying the foundation built upon the movie foundation.  Good fun, great art, and playing in the pool we already can swim in.  Highly recommended for all Star Wars fans!

The Producer