Tube Teachers: Television Isn't All That Bad
Since the days of tiny black-and-white screens, television has been drawn to the world of education.
For more than half a century, television executives have found the school setup irresistible, from Mr. Peepers and Our Miss Brooks -- two sitcoms that debuted in 1952 and enjoyed multiyear runs -- to the painfully unfunny Teachers, axed this past spring after just six episodes.
So, how do the report cards look for some of the best-known school shows of the past five decades? Here's a chronological list of high school shows, rated on a scale of one to four apples.
Mr. Peepers (1952-1955)
This show centers on the title character, a bashful, mousy science teacher played by Wally Cox. (In the first show, he announces that his salary is $46 a week.) Filmed live, Mr. Peepers feels like a vaudeville comedy routine, with Peepers going on dull "adventures" (his words) such as a surprise birthday party put on by his girlfriend Nancy, the school nurse, and a comic save-the-day sewing job on a costume for the school play. In the episodes I viewed, students were largely absent (and when they did appear, they were model citizens). The action of this flat show is minimal and the plots paper thin, but the endearing Cox is worth the price of admission.
Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956)
This sitcom features the wisecracking but equally endearing English teacher Connie Brooks, played by Eve Arden. Delightfully droll, Brooks gets through her days at Madison High School with a fine supporting cast that includes Gale Gordon as cantankerous principal Osgood Conklin and Richard Crenna as goofy, girl-crazy student Walter Denton, who drives a "hopped-up jalopy." An ongoing theme has Miss Brooks vying for the romantic attention of the clueless biology teacher Mr. Boynton. Again, few students are in the mix -- and vintage classroom clocks feature Roman numerals.
Room 222 (1969-1974)
It's odd that Room 222, unavailable on DVD, has been largely forgotten. More than any other school show, it attempted to reflect the realities of an urban classroom during years of radical change. The racially integrated Walt Whitman High School was named for a poet, not a president, and scripts focused on social issues. Nurturing educator Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), flighty student teacher Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine), justice-minded counselor Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas), and gruff/pushover principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine) come to grips with school violence, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, interracial dating, and questioning the English-curriculum canon. Room 222 offers a refreshing look back to a time when our culture encouraged the questioning of authority.
Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979)
The joke-a-minute title character, played by Gabe Kaplan, returns to his alma mater in Brooklyn to teach ten years after graduating. The corduroy-jacket-wearing onetime troublemaker lands the homeroom of the "remedial academics group," a.k.a. the Sweathogs, whose members spar with one-liners. Welcome Back, Kotter is another one of those '70s yuk-yuk shows that proliferated during the Happy Days era, with the school peripheral to the jest fest. It launched the career of John Travolta, who portrayed studly head Sweathog Vinnie Barbarino. Kotter conspicuously went AWOL as the series waned. Best bet: Dive into season one, when the concept was new and the insults fresh.
Teachers Only (1982-1983)
Classy British actress Lynn Redgrave probably doesn't brag about her role as amiable English teacher Diana Swanson at Los Angeles's Millard Fillmore High School. Students arrive in class with challenges (what today we call "issues") such as how to cope with divorcing parents and how to be responsible journalists after they quote Swanson out of context in a school-newspaper article about premarital sex. But this is supposedly a sitcom, so all these weighty matters are swept clean for laughs and tidy endings.
It worked in the movie theater, so why not on the tube? But TV's Fame, set at Manhattan's La Guardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts and starring Debbie Allen as a tough but likable teacher, cheapens the originality of the premise of young, messed-up creatives in hot pursuit of show biz celebrity. The TV version is more about teacher drama than student dysfunction. Some hard-knock lessons are delivered, such as when Professor Benjamin Shorofsky, played by Albert Hague, chides an aspiring musician who's shirking his studies, "Something I've said or done makes you think this classroom is a democracy. It is not. It is a kingdom. It is my kingdom. I am now raising the drawbridge and retreating to the faculty lounge for a cup of tea. Long live the king." More often, unreality prevails, as when students interrupt class with a belly dancing routine. Oh, those arty types -- always breaking the rules.
Call this one Slow Times at Ridgemont High. This here-today, gone-tomorrow clunker thankfully may never see the light of screen again. Students are invisible; teacher silliness dominates, in one-dimensional cutouts: an optimistic black drama teacher, a curmudgeonly biology teacher, and a flirtatious principal. The teachers jokingly agree that "pimps get more respect than public school teachers." Cue the laugh track.