'Good Times' Showrunner Ranada Shepard Answers the Tough Questions About the Controversial Cartoon

From the drug-dealing baby, Dalvin, to the Evans' still living in the Chicago projects, 'Good Times' has faced harsh criticisms, but Shepard stands firm on the show’s messaging.

When Netflix's adult animation version of “Good Times” hit a standstill, Ranada Shepard was called in to revive the project. Despite an existing writer’s room and episodes, the show lacked direction. As the new executive producer and showrunner, Shepard was tasked with creating an entirely new vision for the series. She rejuvenated the writer’s room, developed fresh storylines, and retained five out of six characters, deciding to cut a ghost from the original animated cast. With these bold changes, Shepard was ready to helm a dynamic reimagining of the beloved sitcom “Good Times.”

But the audience's reception to the reimagined cartoon came with tons of criticism. sat down with Ranada in an exclusive to address her harsh critics and answer their probing questions. The critics, they’re all up in your face. Initially, what was your intention and goal of participating in this show?

Ranada Shepard: I was excited to do this because I'm a fan of the original series, and thought, ‘Um, okay, this is ‘Good Times,’ but also like this is ‘Good Times!’ This is the world's baby, so to speak, and we must be very careful. I felt a lot of freedom in that it wasn't live action, that it was adult animation, so that was the freedom for me, that it didn't have to live up to JJ, Thelma, Florida, James, Michael; it was some freedom in that, it was a new family and it was a new genre. 

We could play in a different space, do things different and push the boundaries and the limits, but also bring a family together and tell these family stories, and at the core, it’s still a family who loves each other, but they're still going through similar things because systemic oppression has not ended, nor will it as long as United States is a place. OK, but a drug-dealing baby…

Ranada Shepard: Can we have a Stewie? Can we have a bad baby? Can our characters be bad? I want to normalize that. We have drug dealers in our families. We have drug dealers in our community, even if it's not in our direct families in our communities. There's an awareness of that, but even deeper, based on that, it has little to do with leaning into a stereotype than it has to do with really calling out how the world sees our “criminals.”

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Italian mobsters get glamorized to the point where even Black men love “Scarface,” right? It's their favorite movie. That's why half of them, including my husband, have an aquarium in this house. [laughs] We talk about “Narcos,” That's a very successful show for Netflix, right? We talk about the white-collar crimes of Wall Street, and we are enamored by how white men continue to get away with such crimes and live wealthy lives. And then suddenly, when it's our Black men, it's a real big issue in society, and they are demeaned, demoralized, and criminalized in such a way that it holds no comparison at all to these three group of mobsters I've just said to you. And we still love, either our neighborhood or our family member who's the drug dealer. That is still somebody's baby. That is still his mother's baby, you know? 

God bless his soul. When we talk about George Floyd, he's laying on the ground, he's yelling out, ‘Mama!’ I don't care if you're 55, 65, or 5, you're still somebody's baby. If I had made Junior the drug dealer, that would have just been an easy go-to, and people would have said, Oh, the teenage boy's a drug dealer, and he's stupid, and he's in 10th grade for the third time,’ but to play with this concept of Dalvin, who's the youngest, the baby, babies go rogue. They're the ones who say, I'm not living like you guys are choosing to live. I'm doing this differently. He does.

Not just a drug dealer who only sells to the white community, but even in that, I took every moment possible to make sure he was getting his diaper changed, his belly nuzzled, he's on the changing table, he's in Mimi's carrier, his nanny. Just to remind you, even when he's getting ready to go blow up Elon Musk for the sake of protecting his mom, he says, ‘I'm getting too old for this,’  and puts his binky in his mouth. Just to remind you, this is a baby.

And so, is there any way in society we can start remembering the humanity in Black men? Can we stop with how they're being treated by the judicial system, by the cops, by just people in general, humans in general, looking at our men as if they are the worst criminals on earth? That's still somebody's baby. And Dalvin represents that for me. And I wanted to push the limits in the stories that we told, and then yet remind society that that's still somebody's baby.

I think we did a very good job at that. I understand how it was jolting in the trailer. I understand how it's jolting without the framing of the show. I understand how it's still jolting with the framing of the show. But I also understand this is adult animation and if we look at the history of adult animation, I don't look at Stewie and think he is a representation of white society. I think that baby is off the chain and he does all kinds of crazy things. 

And I worry that suddenly, because we're doing a Black show, it's adult animation and it's the epitome of fictionalization in the sense that these aren't even real human beings. These are drawn characters. Yet we're holding them as a mirror to Black society.

And I think that's more dangerous than anything, because it creates a space that then we can't have fun and play. What I worry happening when we go to pitch more shows, and not just myself, but the rest of the Black artists out there trying to pitch shows and push the boundaries of realization and maybe use social commentary or off a beaten path to push conversation and genre and characters, that we're stuck in just presenting characters in a very safe and accepted way.

And if we do that, then we put ourselves in a box. Then we turn to look around and say, ‘Well, why do they get to do this?’ I know as an artist, I ask it all the time. Why do they get to do shows like that and we don't? And it feels good to be in a space where I've pushed boundaries of characters, that I've pushed boundaries of stories and visuals so that we could have conversations and we did things differently. And that’s a win for me. Is the show supposed to play on negative stereotypes of certain Black people in the ghetto, in the hood, in the projects?

Ranada Shepard: I think that satire plays on the stereotypes of everybody involved in the show. Even the white girl who shows up and is like, ‘Wow, cover me’ and ‘I got to pay more money because he's dead. Like, this is so exciting. Can I take a selfie?’ to the women who are coming to buy the drugs; everybody, every character in the show, is a satirical approach.

That's just the nature of adult animation and satire. And that's another piece that was lost on all this. I mean, if you're taking all this literally, then I understand you should be upset and offended. But if you understand what you showed up for, I think it's a different perspective on how you watch the art placed in front of you. What drew you to it?

Ranada Shepard: The first part is, it’s a groundbreaking opportunity for a Black woman to be able to sit in a place and be in adult animation. This is a white man's world, not even a woman's world, a white man's world and to be able to sit here today and say, not only did I develop, but a full season of adult animation exists with me as executive producer and showrunner on Netflix is groundbreaking. We can start and stop there for me, but also it's funny because there's Hollywood, and then there is the real world, and you are in your bubble and we're creatives, we're artists.

There was the excitement of like, ‘Okay wow, this is happening and this is being done,’ even when it wasn't my project, even when I saw it sold. I didn't think, ‘Why are they doing that?’ I wasn't a part of it, but I was like, ‘that's so cool. I wish them the best with that.’

So when it came around to me, I didn't see it as, ‘Oh, this is just so much pressure, and people are going to either love it or hate it.’ I was like, ‘What a great opportunity! I'm from Chicago. What can I put into this project that speaks to our people?’

As much as there is negative feedback, the beauty is when we get the positive. When people say, ‘I wasn't sure about the series because of what everyone was saying, but I watched it, and these are some really good stories and you all are saying some really good things in this series.’ I mean, that's what I live for as an artist: to make you laugh and upset you, but also to have a message in there that sticks with you. HuffPost called it “absolutely terrible,” NPR said it was “calculated to offend,” Variety said it was “humorless, dated and baffling.” Do the criticisms feel harsh to you?

Ranada Shepard: It is harsh, and I might have fallen apart if I hadn't finished the series. But also, I was done with it, and I knew how intentional I was and how clear I was on the series. So I felt like all of this critique and criticism…if that's how they felt, that was okay too. 

But I also felt like this show didn't have framing, it didn't have shape, and you didn't get to see Yvette [Nicole Brown] and JB [Smoove] on couches all over, you know, the United States or New York or LA to give you an idea. So I understood that people were being jolted from a place of, remember the sitcom? Well, here’s the new version! And the new version was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ Without anyone saying, ‘And by the way, it's going to be an adult animation, and it's going to be different, and it's new characters,’ like no one got to set anybody up for that. So I can't tell you that if I was on the other side of that, I wouldn't have felt like, ‘Whoa, what am I watching?’ the first time as well. So I'm not sure what they were looking for in respect to what they got. Your lens means everything.

When the Hollywood Reporter said episode 103 about periods was a sitcom trope coming from a Jewish man, I thought, ‘Wow, that's interesting.’ First of all, we're talking about a time of Roe v. Wade has been overturned. I'm sorry, man, human, man, male species, how can you tell me what is a trope when this doesn't even impact you the way it impacts me? And I'm sorry, lay out the times I've seen a Black girl have her period on a sitcom. I haven't, white man. So, explain to me what the trope is. From my lived experiences, that isn't so. I can read that, but that doesn't impede me because he didn't get it. There's a separation. It takes a special fan base to watch adult animation and enjoy it. This isn't a genre for everyone, and that's okay too. Do you feel like going forward, you will consider adjusting your approach on how you handle projects or characters or satire even in the Black community?

Ranada Shepard:  I think the one thing we don't have control over is how people market or choose not to market our shows. There's nothing I can really do about that until I'm in a room or space where I'm heard and respected on how to market or not market our shows. But outside of that, I wouldn't change my writing style, I wouldn't change my art form, and I wouldn't change my stories.

When I look on timelines, whether you're yelling, you're angry, you're a bot, or you're a real person, conversations are happening today that were not happening three and a half weeks ago. I'm so happy when I hear people say, ‘Episode six really got to me.’ Episode six should get to every Black person in America because it is the capitalization of our bodies, of our youth, of them killing each other.

These are important stories to tell. I would never not want to tell that story, the period episode, or the story of commodity in our Black young artists and our Black young men. What do you want people to know about “Good Times”?

Ranada Shepard: It’s adult animation. Don't take everything to heart, and don’t take everything personally. Just step back and enjoy it for what it is and watch it long enough to get the message because the message is the most important part to me. The jokes are great. The color is beautiful, the textures, the animation, all that was really important to me. But the most important part of every episode to me is what we're really saying.

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