Fast Times

Not Mr. Chips Zachary Ty Bryan, Jessalyn Gilsig, and Chi McBride in Boston Public.Photo: courtesy of Fox Television

There is no good reason why the prime-time television schedule – that honor roll and rap sheet of the culture – shouldn’t celebrate teachers at least as much as doctors, lawyers, cops, and cowboys. Most of us have logged more time in school than we ever will in hospitals, courts, or prisons, not to mention on a horse. But if Boston Public is a hit, it will likely become so because of its provenance (executive producer David E. Kelley) rather than its subject matter (urban education). The Nielsen ratings like Kelley a lot more than they’ve ever liked high school, or even young people. To any party whatsoever, he can be counted on to bring his carpetbag of overcoats and noses, as if he were our crazy Gogol.

Chi McBride, big and black, is the principal of Boston Public’s Winslow High School, and therefore its aggrieved Prometheus, pecked on and liverish. Assistant principal Anthony Heald is a combination of tough-love drill instructor and East German border guard. Jessalyn Gilsig, the obligatory white babe, runs the social-studies department and has just flunked the star running back on the eve of a big football game. Sharon Leal, the obligatory nonwhite babe, teaches music and wears static cling. Fyvush Finkel, a favorite of Kelley’s since Picket Fences, teaches history, although he rather wishes some of it hadn’t happened, like busing and desegregation. The faculty also includes Loretta Devine as the special-ed teacher who eats peach-colored pills to keep from cracking up, Nicky Katt as a geology teacher who brings a gun to class to make a bang-bang point, and Joey Slotnick as an English teacher and the designated nebbish.

And the students? Well, when they aren’t young men worried about their angry fathers and their college-football scholarships, or young women who go bra-less in order to vamp their male teachers and then extort favors, or members of a golden-maned “Gwyneth Club” (Paltrows palely loitering at their lockers, waiting for the prince), they have their own guerrilla Website – much harder to censor than a school paper or a yearbook – on which they say terrible things about the sex lives and character defects of their teachers.

It seems to me that not only children but all of us would be safer in the caring hands of a Jessalyn Gilsig than ministered to by the martial-arts karate chops of Jessica Alba, the Mexican-Danish Dark Angel elsewhere on the Fox schedule. And I’m glad Chi McBride found work after The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (a credit mysteriously omitted from the Murdoch press guide). And this Winslow High actually seems to be an improvement on the Boston public-school system I recall from the mid-sixties, which threw away its minority kids – bagged, tagged, and trashed them. And Kelley can be relied on to use Winslow as a lightning rod and a fallout shelter for all the contradictions and convulsions of democratic culture. I only hope he waits a season before staging a Columbine shootout.

But why don’t school shows last on television? While the schedule is subject to periodic seizures of enthusiasm for the classroom, the audience has always resisted. Gunsmoke moseyed on for twenty years in prime time, and Perry Mason kept winning cases for twenty-one, but you won’t find a single teacher show in the Top 100 TV series since 1948. Mr. Peepers, with Wally Cox teaching science and Tony Randall history, lasted three years. Our Miss Brooks, with Eve Arden teaching English and Robert Rockwell biology, lasted four. Mr. Novak, with James Franciscus as an English teacher and Burgess Meredith as a principal, lasted just two. Room 222, in which Lloyd Haynes taught history and faced up to drugs, dropouts, and racism, had a comparatively long run of four and a half seasons. Fame, set in New York’s High School for the Performing Arts and introducing us to Debbie Allen, Lori Singer, Cynthia Gibb, and Janet Jackson, was canceled by NBC after a single season. As the CBS network had canceled Paper Chase, with John Houseman as the imperious professor of contract law, after a single season, before it got another couple of years of cable production. The Bronx Zoo, with Ed Asner playing a high-school principal, likewise vanished after a single season, during which Ed got shot. TV 101, about a high-school media workshop, would not return after a semester during which it had the temerity to suggest that a pregnant teenager might actually contemplate having an abortion. Nor did Montel Williams do much better, moonlighting from his talk show for one abbreviated season as a naval officer teaching high-school science. Not to mention Annie Potts in Dangerous Minds, Rhea Pearlman in Pearl, and Claire Danes in My So-called Life.

Slapstick seasoned with stupidity apparently contributes to a longer run. Welcome Back, Kotter lasted four years and Head of the Class five. We also seem to be more comfortable spending classroom time in the company of scholar-athletes, as in The White Shadow (three seasons) and Coach (an astonishing eight). I suppose The Wonder Years, in which Fred Savage went to Robert F. Kennedy Junior High for six years, counts for something. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch certainly do not. Whether Felicity will ever matter seems to depend on her hair. And most of the youth-pandering on the netlets – Popular, Dawson’s Creek, Moesha, and Roswell – simplifies teen alienation by dispensing with pedagogy entirely.

Why is this? Maybe most of us hated high school and would rather not be reminded of our psychic pimples, and never again want to take another test. Maybe the cowboy in us prefers the saloon tart to the civilizing schoolmarm. Maybe the culture itself thinks that teachers have it too easy in the Darwinian tooth and claw, taking summers off to read books and plan courses, which is also why we underpay them. And maybe the answer is as simple as our pulp appetite for brutal closure. Instead of yet another cop show, I, like you, would prefer a weekly series in which social problems were solved through creative nonviolence, after a Quaker meeting or a quilting bee, by a collective of vegetarian carpenters. But our abiding narratives are deathward – and have been since at least those first Westerns, the Old Testament and The Iliad.

Meanwhile, coming up right after Boston Public is even more David E. Kelley – the fourth-season premiere of Ally McBeal. Ally, of course, needs help. Maybe she ought to consider a career change. Winslow High is probably hiring. But whether adding Robert Downey Jr. to the motormouth cast qualifies as anybody’s rescue fantasy is not for me to say – especially since Kelley has asked all of us advance-peek tapeheads not to divulge “any story points which are intended to be a surprise.” Stealth programming!

TV Notes
Critical Condition (October 18; 8 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) goes into homes, hospitals, and managed-health-care scams, where Hedrick Smith worries at eloquent and scary length about “The Quality Gap” (there is not only a lot of variation in medical practice but also a lot of error); “Pain, Profit and Managed Care” (everything insurance doesn’t cover); “Can Good Care Survive the Market?” (is nonprofit health care even possible in this country?); and “The Uninsured” (at least 41 million of us).

Investigative Reports: The Hate Network (October 20; 10 to 11 p.m.; A&E) introduces us to William Pierce and his neo-Nazi National Alliance; Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance; and Matt Hale of the anti-Semitic World Church of the Creator. Then catch Hate.Com: Extremists on the Internet (October 23; 10 to 11 p.m.; HBO), where Pierce and Hale show up online, along with Don Black of and Richard Butler of Aryan Nation and Christian Identity.

Possessed (October 22; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) is a docudramatic account of the real case that inspired The Exorcist, with Timothy Dalton and Henry Czerny as Jesuit priests, Jonathan Malen as a little boy possessed by the devil, Piper Laurie as the boy’s dead aunt, and Christopher Plummer as the politics-playing archbishop who covers the whole business up for fear of medievalism. Much more interesting than Blatty’s green gurgle, with subtexts regarding the atom bomb, the Rosenbergs, and Joe McCarthy.

Relative Values (October 22; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Starz!) stars Julie Andrews, William Baldwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Colin Firth, Sophie Thompson, and Stephen Fry in a trying-too-hard film version of a bubbleheaded Noël Coward play in which the great pretenders of Hollywood meet the great pretenders of the British upper class, and better breeding will prevail. Except for Thompson as Moxie, everybody works too hard and mugs too much.

Balzac: A Life of Passion (October 23 and 24; 8 to 10 p.m.; Bravo) stars an excessive Gerard Depardieu as the coffee-swilling nineteenth-century novelist, Jeanne Moreau as his perfectly dreadful mother, and Fanny Ardent as Eve Hanska, the Ukrainian cupcake who only loved him for his publicity value. Almost as unlikely a mini-series role for Depardieu as his Count of Monte Cristo. Better to read the novels.

Fast Times