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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Retro Review: What's Happening!!

Duration: 1976-1979 
No of seasons: 3
Release date: (US) 5 August 1976  
DVD release by Mill Creek Entertainment
Produced by Bud Yorkin Productions and ABC  
Cast: Ernest Thomas, Haywood Nelson, Fred Berry, Danielle Spencer, Shirley Hemphill, Mabel King

What's Happening!! follows the lives of 3 working class African - American teenagers living in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California. Another in the long line of African- American situation comedies of the 1970s era, What's Happening!!' debuted alongside 'Chico and the Man' and 'Good Times'. 

In stark contrast to The Jeffersons and Good Times, What's Happening!! only rarely scratched the surface when it came to social issues. Instead, the show's episodes focused on the boys' teenage life and their struggles and successes, as well as things such as meeting girls, finding work and planning for the future. This trio of boys consist of Raj, Rerun and Dwayne. 

What's Happening!! was loosely based on the 1975 movie, ''Cooley High'', which was also penned by the same writer of the TV series, the late Eric Monte. He was previously the co-creator and writer for Norman Lear's other African- American sitcoms, 'Good Times' and 'The Jeffersons'. Along with producer Bud Yorkin - who gave us 'All In The Family' and 'Sanford and Son' - the show premiered on ABC a year later after the movie.  

The one thing that didn't make it into the series was the drug and crime references and mentions. There was no hint or appearance of that on 'What's Happening!!', a prime-time, family -orientated sitcom. 

It lasted three seasons and later spawned the follow-up, 'What's Happening!! Now'. 

Raj is also known by his full name Roger Thomas: a bespectacled teenager who lives with his single parent mother, Mabel and younger sister, Dee. He is intelligent and articulate, who finds himself at loggerheads with sibling, Dee. Not to mention getting himself in bigger trouble, much to the chagrin of Mabel. Freddy 'Rerun' Stubbs is overweight, wears a beret on his head and matching suspenders. Surprisingly, he is also a very good dancer and therefore takes part in dance contests. Rerun is the joker of the pack with a crazy sense of humour. He dreams of making it as a dancer or showbiz entertainer. In an episode, Dwayne answers the question why he was nicknamed Rerun, and he replied with because he did so poorly academically at school, every summer he would go back to school to rerun all the stuff he failed at. Dwayne Nelson is the youngest of the trio, who becomes the centre of attention by girls, due to his cute boy-ish looks. He also comes across as being very shy and timid and often endures bullying. His trademark phrase is, 'Hey, Hey, Hey!', which is up there with Good Times' JJ Evans' 'Dy-no-mite!!' and George Jefferson's 'Zebra' in the sitcom ranks. Mabel Thomas is Raj's sweet and caring mother with a 'don't mess with me' exterior, whose role diminished later on, leading to her exit from the series. Dee is Raj's younger sister and a brat to boot too. She is the typical annoying little sister, who is an overbearing big mouth and pain- in- the- ass to deal with, and throws tantrums and often blackmails her brother and threatens to tell their mum what he has been up to. Just to get him into trouble. Almost all sitcoms have one sarcastic character throughout the series, and on ''What's Happening!!', it was Dee of whom fit that bill. Last but not least, Shirley is a waitress at the restaurant that Raj, Rerun and Dwayne regularly visit. She is the brash, no-nonsense type who often clashes with Rerun and the pair trade verbal exchanges with one another. Shirley also eats a lot as well, even going as far as sampling a taste of the customers' orders! 

What was strange was Rerun making fun of Shirley and calling her fat, when he too was, ahem, fat. This was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Still, I couldn't help but raise a chuckle, especially when Rerun would head straight out of the restaurant after making his remark, before Shirley tried to catch him. 

Raj and Dee's father occasionally appeared during the first 2 seasons of 'What's Happening!!'

The main heart of this show was the boys ever -growing friendship and being there for another through the good times, as well as the bad times, whilst trying to do the right thing, which for them it's not, or be it wasn't easy. 

Compared to Good Times, What's Happening!! has a lot more things in common with the prior sitcom, than 'The Cosby Show'; besides the class thing they both share, what with the Evans's and Thomas's families being lower working- class, Raj and Dee are brought up in a one- parent family.'What's Happening!!' was a lot more positive and encouraging, in stark comparison to the moody and somewhat sober overtones of 'Good Times'. Good Times was a good show too - but I do understand the heavy themes and darker tone did turn people off. 

This show has a 'feel- good', young vibe going for it; it's fresh, easy-going in nature and doesn't take itself too seriously. I like how with 'What's Happening!!', it chooses to be different from all the other sitcoms out at the time; there are times where you just want to sit back, relax and watch a sitcom that is fun and enjoyable and for the show to not focus on being too political or socially conscious all the time. Underneath all that slapstick and quirky humour, What's Happening!! emphasized the importance of friendship as well as family, morality and good etiquette but it does it in a way that doesn't become socially and politically overbearing, as well as sugary and preachy. Even if it means dealing with a bratty sister along the way. 

It may not be as socially- driven as the other sitcoms of the same era, - or as deep as some viewers want this show to be, but that doesn't mean 'What's Happening!!' lacks heart; this show doesn't (and thankfully isn't) constantly shoving one social problem to another down our throats; it just presents a different approach and angle to sitcoms, whilst still retaining its humour and feel-good vibe. 

From Rerun's dancing, Dee consuming burgers in the episode, 'Burger Queen', Dwayne's 'nice guy' attitude and Raj's money- making, get- rich- quick antics, the kids on this show are never short of ideas, and entertainment. The humour is an essential component in sitcoms and none more-so than on this show, which was very offbeat and carefree. The show's story-lines and development allows for the characters to gradually grow as individuals and develop and change for the better that makes us want to root for them to be happy. 

There are many teen sitcoms that have been released over the years, but this was a teen-based sitcom with a difference, as well as the first African- American teen sitcom to air on US TV: ''What' Happening!!'' was and is profoundly funny and entertaining to boot. 

And frankly, you just can't ask for any more than that. 

By Waiching 

Season ratings (out of 10)

Seasons 1 to 3:  8

Overall: 8 out of 10

sources: DVD Talk 

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