NOTE: If you've got the individual releases of the three seasons of What's Happening!! there's really no need to bother with this collection as it brings absolutely nothing new to the table at all - it's simply a repackaging of previously released material.
What's Happening!! lasted three seasons on ABC from the summer of 1976 through to the spring of 1979 when it was taken off the air. The series was inspired by and loosely based on the film Cooley High, both were created and written by Eric Monte who also co-created The Jeffersons and who would sadly gain some notoriety for rampant crack cocaine abuse over the last few years. Monte grew up in the projects of Chicago and as such was able to provide an interesting take on African-American culture through the seventies.
The series followed the exploits of three high school friends:
Roger 'Raj' Thomas - a good natured kid with a penchant for getting into trouble, Raj is always scheming. Whether it's playing dice to win money to get his mother a birthday gift or filling in as Rerun's manager when he wins a slot on a dance show, he's into making money. He's also a would be writer who hopes to one day write screenplays. Raj was played by Ernest Thomas who currently stars in Everybody Hates Chris.
Freddie 'Rerun' Stubbs - Rerun is the 'funny fat guy' of the bunch. He's a jokester with a nutty sense of humor and he fancies himself a dancing machine. He earned his nickname because of his having to constantly repeat classes at school. Rerun wants to make it as a dancer or entertainer. He was played by the late Fred Berry, who also starred in the exploitation classics Hammer and Vice Squad..
Dwayne Nelson - The nicest guy in the group, Dwayne isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer but he always means well and he obviously values his friends quite a bit. He's a little cowardly and sometimes gets bullied around by other characters. He's famous for his greeting, 'Hey, hey, hey, hey' which has since become a bit of pop culture vernacular in its own right.
These three pals live in a lower income area of Los Angeles where they seem to constantly get into trouble with many of the supporting characters, such as:
Mabel Thomas - Raj's portly mother is a sweet, caring woman but don't mess with her as she doesn't put up with her son's nonsense. She's the sage of the show, and almost always tries to point the boys in the right direction when their mischief lands them in hot water. She was played by Mabel King who appeared in cult classics The Wiz and Ganja And Hess.
Dee Thomas - Raj's little sister is always looking to get her big brother into trouble. She can sometimes be bought for a quarter but will inevitably tell on Raj and his friends to her mother whenever she can. She eats an ungodly amount of peanut butter and is quite sarcastic and deadpan at all times. She was played by Danielle Spencer
Shirley Wilson - She's the rather homely waitress who works at the diner that the guys tend to hang out at all the time, Rob's Place. She eats a lot and she and Rerun have a strange relationship wherein they're always making jabs at one another about their respective weight problems. She also tends to sample everyone's orders at the diner. She was played by the late Shirley Hemphill who shows up in the N.W.A. parody film, C.B.4. with Chris Rock.
Bill Thomas - Mabel's ex-husband and the father of Raj and Dee is a bit of a swindler. The first time we meet him he's planning on ripping off his own son to the tune of $200.00. He does love his kids and care about Mabel in his own strange way, however, and as misguided as he is you get the impression that he means well. Bill was played by the late Thalmus Rasulala, a former soap opera star.
As the series progresses, the characters develop and their lives change. The focus remains on the three guys throughout, and their typical 'teenage guy' activities like meeting girls, making money and hanging out, but as they get older they take on different responsibilities. Raj tutors other students and eventually moves out of the house (he and Rerun become roommates) and writes while Shirley takes his place in the home to help care for Dee while her mother is off caring for an ailing relative we never meet (in reality, Mabel King left the show!). We eventually meet Rob (recognizable TV actor Earl Billings), the owner of the diner, Bill Thomas remarries (and disappears from the show) and we meet a detective named Big Earl Barnett and his young son, Little Earl Barnett (two rare recurring white characters), who is madly in love with the older Dee. Most of the major changes take place in the third and final season of the show. This is when Raj moves out and he starts tutoring a member of the school's basketball team nicknamed 'Snake.'
It's interesting to look back on the show now that it's a few decades old as its influence on American pop-culture is probably larger than most people give it credit for. The Dee character seems to have been a big influence for little Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show while the interplay and camaraderie between the three male leads is notably similar to the comedic goofy high jinks seen in Keenan And Kell and the Good Burger spin-off movie.
While the show is very dated in many regards - fashions, slang, hairstyles and what not - it remains a pretty enjoyable series. The humor is quirky and often times rather slapstick (particularly where Fred Berry is concerned) but underneath the smart-alecky attitude and cornball jokes there is, more often than not, generally a positive message about friendship and genuine morality. The three main friends stick together and despite occasional quarrels and squabbles they almost always do try to do the right thing. Raj turns out to be a bit of a role model in some ways, tutoring kids and working his way up, and his work ethic obviously stems from his mother who toils away working long hours to support and take care of her children. It's a fairly sweet series that can thankfully be heartwarming without ever becoming too sugary or melodramatic.
The series is also notable for its stab at what at the time would be considered abnormal family dynamics, at least by the standards of mainstream television. Initially Raj and Dee live with their mother, a divorcee, and are pushed into spending time with their father who is a bit of a conman. In one episode in particular they reluctantly spend Christmas with him when their mother has to work, and it's mom who winds up saving the day when he can't put together a decent meal. In another episode, Dee misunderstands a conversation and thinks that her older brother has impregnated one of the girls that he's tutoring. In another episode, Raj and his friends have to help his mother out when she's accused of stealing from one of the homes where she works as a maid. The series does do a fairly good job of portraying the daily toils of low income, single parent households and this wasn't something that was normal on television at the time.
The series is hardly political, however, and the focus is always on comedy first and foremost. There isn't much in the way of direct social commentary though one episode finds Dee helping a terminally ill man find his daughter who, when she married a white man, he fell out of touch with. In the second season Dwayne winds up involved with a girl whose ex-boyfriend was abusive to her and later in that season Shirley winds up having to deal with her sister who has gotten pregnant outside of wedlock. Rerun tries to marry an illegal immigrant so she won't get deported and Dee becomes very upset later in the series when her father remarries, despite the fact that Mabel is completely okay with it all and even lets Bill use her house for the wedding. Another episode finds the guys coerced into breaking the law and bootlegging a Doobie Brothers (the band does guest star in this episode!) concert of all things. The series does have a social conscience, but it isn't a very heavy one and instead it uses these platforms for entertainment rather than for and sort of strong political stance.
It's hard not to like Raj, Rerun and Dwayne. They're nice kids and their good natured humor can be infectious sometimes. The series doesn't get too deep too often but it does grow the characters enough to let us care for them a little bit and as such, the series holds up well. The disco references and musical nods ensure that the series shows its age but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The later episodes aren't as strong and the series does drop a notch or two once Mabel King leaves the show, but even the weaker episodes have got some solid gags throughout.
Roughly a decade after What's Happening!! went off the air, it'd be brought back in the from of What's Happening Now!!, a spin off series where Raj and Shirley ran Rob's Place together and Rerun and Dwayne lived in an apartment as roommates. It too lasted three seasons and is famous for giving Martin Lawrence his first television role which he earned after an appearance on Star Search!
What's Happening!! arrives on DVD in its original 1.33.1 fullframe original broadcast aspect ratio. The series looks alright for a series shot over three decades ago and while there are some quivering lines on the image and some fluctuations in the colors everything is always very watchable. Detail is alright even if it doesn't compare to modern fare while edge enhancement is held in check at all times. There isn't a lot of print damage, dirt or debris to complain about nor are there any mpeg compression artifacts to note. The image is a little on the soft side but given the show's technological limitations that's to be expected.
The only audio option on this release is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track. Optional English closed captioning is provided but there aren't any alternate language dubs or subtitles so if you don't speak English, this set isn't for you. As far as the quality of the audio goes, for an older series it isn't half bad. Being an older mono mix there isn't going to be any channel separation but the dialogue, around which the show is centered, is always clean and clear and there aren't any problems with audible hiss or distortion. The levels are properly balanced and, generally speaking, everything is fine.
Here's where this set falls short. Aside from some static menus and episode selection sub-menus, and promos for other TV sets available through Sony, this release is completely barebones and doesn't contain even a single extra feature.
On top of that, the packaging is terrible. The discs are housed on a flimsy plastic spindle which fits inside a cardboard slipcase. While you can't expect super fancy packaging given the price point on this set, this packaging is cheap and it makes getting at the discs a pain.
What's Happening!! isn't as deep or poignant as maybe it could have been but it's an entertaining and sincerely funny series even now, decades after it was made. Sony's boxed set compiles every single episode of the series is reasonable quality but shortchanges fans on the supplements. Regardless, the series is fun and the price is right and this set comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.