Friday, April 3, 2009

Blackboard bungle

While I’m old enough to remember when Room 222 was on ABC’s TGIF schedule (the seventies version), my most recent memories of the show stem from the series’ heavy (and I mean that in a seventies fashion, too) rotation in the 80s and 90s on the USA Network. In fact, I have such high regard for the seminal high school comedy-drama that it’s a darn shame no cable outlet can find a place for it on its schedule today.

Then again, after watching the entire contents of the series’ freshman season (the recently released DVD set from Shout! Factory) and noticing (you really can’t help it) the less-than-perfect video and audio quality, maybe this isn’t entirely surprising. If this were a Mill Creek or Timeless Media Group release I’d be inclined to cut the company a little slack (their sets more often than not depend on public domain or collectors’ prints for their content) but you sort of have to ask “What’s the story?” here. It’s certainly not Factory’s fault—they do what they can with the tools that they got—but if 20th Century-Fox made any sort of financial inroads to have these episodes restored…well, I hope they kept the receipts. I was lucky to be able to capitalize on the extraordinary $10.99 pre-order deal, but I have nothing but empathy for the individual who paid full price and didn’t quite get what they were expecting on their investment. It stands to reason that I should avoid the next release (assuming there is one), but I don’t think it will happen in my case. I’ve rediscovered just why Room 222 remains one of my favorite shows: great writing, first-rate casting, and a groundbreaking attempt (about a season-and-a-half before the more celebrated All in the Family) to address some of the thorny, controversial issues of its day. I feel, however, that I would be remiss in not revealing that the audio/video isn’t up to the usual standards from the Factory folks—but by Disc 2, I’d moved on, continuing to enjoy a fine show that’s addictive as cocktail peanuts.

Writer-director James L. Brooks—who would later go on to create television landmarks like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons—was approached by ABC to create a half-hour pilot…with the only stipulation that it involved, in his words, “a black schoolteacher.” Room 222 was the result, and that teacher was Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), a too-good-to-be-true history instructor at fictional Walt Whitman High School who was dedicated to his profession despite the long hours and lousy pay. Dixon was, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun, “too cool for school”—he drove a bitchin’ car, looked hipper than anyone else wearing a turtleneck at that time (with the obvious exception of Harry Belafonte, of course) and had earned the admiration and respect of both his colleagues (even the ones with which he sometimes clashed) and students. Dixon’s idealism is borne out in an episode entitled “Teacher’s Dropping Out” (10/29/69): he’s been approached by a corporate behemoth to accept a position that would allow him to work with student dropouts (with a very hefty increase in salary and fringe benefits)…but would also take him away from his love of teaching. He’s instructed to take an aptitude test for the company, and is later informed that another individual considered for the position performed better on the exam—but the company’s head also explains to Pete’s relief that his test results qualified him as a teacher, something from which Walt Whitman would benefit, not the corporation.

It was this idealism—a teacher who honestly cared for his students’ well-being as opposed to some underpaid drone who preached rather than taught—that made Room 222 a solid hit, and the cast of supporting characters was also particularly endearing. Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas) was the school’s equally-dedicated guidance counselor, who knew every student by name and went out of her way to make certain that their academic needs were met. (Contrast this with my high school guidance counselor—a crotchety old crone who got the gig by default because she was too dumb to teach…or as my friend Doghouse Riley explains: “The guidance office was widely known around the school, among teachers and students, as what became of teachers who couldn't teach, or, in one case, as where they sent the woman who couldn't go an entire class period without a cigarette, whose desk drawer was a notorious spot for glomming free smokes during her regular, King-sized absences.”) Liz was also romantically involved with Pete—something they kept on the Q.T. in the early episodes of 222, but by the end of the first season everyone had pretty much been clued into it and moved on. Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine) was the principal at Walt Whit; a sardonic and somewhat jaded individual whose reputation as an authoritative grouch was a masquerade; deep down he was all teddy bear. The fourth member of 222’s quartet was Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine), a student teacher unencumbered by her endless vitality and bubbly enthusiasm; she became a full-fledged instructor in the second season (though her field of expertise was curiously changed from history to English).

There were other instructors at Walt Whitman that were seen on a semi-regular basis—I would argue, however, that we didn’t see enough of these people; the fact that Pete, Liz, Mr. Kaufman and Alice always ate lunch together always seemed to be a bit cliquish to me. Actor Ivor Francis probably got the most screen time as the fussy, pedantic English department head Ken Dragen, but Robert Casper (as the neurotic Mr. Wisegarten) and Sidney Clute were also spotlighted as well. OTR veteran Helen Kleeb played an instructor named Miss Tandy in a few of the first season’s episodes (including an outstanding one entitled “Our Teacher is Obsolete”; Liz substitutes for Miss Tandy’s “Preparation for Marriage” class and the students decide they like her better, wanting to put Tandy out to pasture) and Mary Jackson, the actress who would play Kleeb’s addle-pated sibling (Emily Baldwin) on The Waltons is present for a couple of go-rounds as well. (The Waltons connection made me chuckle, as you may have guessed.) I also found it difficult to contain myself seeing Bernie Kopell in “Goodbye, Mr. Hip” as a teacher whose attempts to be “hip” around his students results in an elaborate practical joke that threatens his career at Walt Whitman. (I really looked forward to seeing Kopell say to one of the students: “Zis is Valt Vitman High School…we don’t shush here!”)

In addition, there was a constant parade of students coming and going on the series, with some of them managing to negotiate some staying power. Howard Rice (the subject of 222’s inaugural episode—a kid who fudges the information on his place of residence in order to attend Walt Whitman) was proto-Urkel Richie Lane, the class nerd, while future Dyna-Girl Judy Strangis essayed the role of mousy Helen Loomis. There was also Bernie (David Joliffe)—the white kid with the red-headed Afro, Al (Pendant Netherly) and Pam (Ta-Tanisha)…but the one kid I could never forget was Jason Allen (Heshimu), because the dude was positively scary (Rice even points this out in the episode “Once Upon a Time There Was Air You Couldn’t See”)—with a death-rictus grin that outdid Steve McGarrett’s on Hawaii Five-O. In an episode entitled “Triple Date” (11/12/69), an over-protective father (Sid McCoy) isn’t too keen on Jason’s dating his daughter (Brenda Sykes). (Confidentially, I don’t blame him.) The first season also features the likes of Ed Begley, Jr., Rob Reiner, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr and Bud Cort as fellow Walt Whitman matriculates…but the weirdest was seeing Bob Balaban as a rebellious student—with TDOY fave William Schallert and Ann Morgan Guilbert as his pater and mater, respectively.

In its inaugural season, Room 222 found itself the beneficiary of three Emmy kudos: one for Outstanding New Series and best supporting trophies for Constantine and Valentine. The two actors’ wins were most deserved; in rewatching these shows, I come to appreciate what a truly underrated character actor Constantine was—particularly in “The Flu” (10/15/69), in which he’s painfully unable to express to his son (John Rubenstein), a Peace Corps official, how truly proud of him he is…even when the junior Kaufman gives up his vacation time to assist his father in keeping Walt Whitman running when a large percentage of their instructors are felled by a flu bug. (The emotional scene when he embraces his son at the episode’s end is a true “Niagara Falls” moment.). I’ve also reevaluated Valentine’s work on the series; her character of Alice Johnson had a tendency to be a bit annoying (something which was purposely planned, because the show often thrived on the chemistry between the dour Kaufman and the perky Johnson) but the neophyte actress frequently did nothing short of outstanding work, notably in “Alice in Blunderland.” (It is a shame, however, that the awards wealth couldn’t have been spread around more, as both Haynes and Nicholas did first-rate work as well.) The DVD set features a short sixteen-minute doc (sadly, Valentine either chose not to appear or wasn’t asked to participate) entitled “Forty Years On,” in which Constantine has nothing but praise for Valentine’s work…and he also recalls with sadness the day he learned his good friend Lloyd Haynes had contracted cancer (Haynes passed from the scene at the age of 52 in 1986, an amazing actor who left us far too early). There are also interviews with Nicholas (she is still a stone fox), Brooks, and writer-producer Allan Burns.

For a series that was originally telecast on the cusp of the 60s/early 70s, the question that will inevitably be asked is: “How badly has the show dated?” Room 222, being a product of its time, features risible slang (“That’s gonna cost some heavy bread, man…”) and fashions that are no doubt taking up space in someone’s storage closet or a forgotten Goodwill bin. But the writing—from the likes of Burns, Gene Reynolds, Treva Silverman, etc.—is still the jewel in the show’s crown; among the outstanding entries are “First We’ll Eat, Then We’ll Strike” (the teaching staff at W.W. stages a protest when it becomes apparent that the voters are going to thumbs-down a school bond proposal); “The Exchange Teacher” (actress Charmion Moore plays an English—as in U.K.—teacher whose unorthodox teaching methods make her a pariah at the school); and “Just Between Friends”, in which the friendship of Dixon and Kaufman is tested when the principal asks Pete to downplay the news that Whitman will have to take on a few more students…and Pete refuses to do so, citing his responsibility as the chairman of the PTA’s Standards Committee.

The one episode that will test your tolerance for Room 222—either you’re just as idealistic as the show’s characters or a down-right cynic—is “Arizona State Loves You” (12/31/69). A student athlete (Roy Pettie) is under pressure to sign a letter of intent to for a university known more for their football program than lofty academic achievements. The school has brought out their big gun, a former All-American (Paul Winfield) whose sales pitch to the young man proves irresistibly compelling. Kaufman thinks that signing with the school would be a big mistake (the student’s proposed schedule is larded with far-from-substantive elective courses), and in asking around, Dixon learns that Mr. All-American never graduated from the institution—he was permanently sidelined with an injury in his junior year and now makes a living selling used cars (which explains his success in swaying the student’s decision). At a party being thrown for the son, Dixon forces Winfield to reveal to the student’s mother (Beah Richards) his background…and the son politely declines the generous offer. The realist in me has difficulty buying into this premise (a principal actually concerned about where a student athlete goes to school?) but it’s so well-executed that my inner idealist wins out.

In summation, though I wish Fox had made an effort to clean up the episodes before allowing Shout! Factory to release this set, I still think it’s a worthwhile release…one that will bear subsequent fruit, as it were. Sure, Room 222 has developed a slight gray around its temples, but it’s still top-notch television from the past: a series with enormous appeal to those who suffered through the experience of high school even though its protagonist—in the words of one of his students from an episode entitled “I Love You, Charlie, I Love You, Abbie”—“[is] what most guys wish their teachers were but never are.”


Laura said...

Thanks for the detailed review...I also remember when this was on TV (I was in elementary school, I hasten to add, grin). I'm going to add it to our Netflix queue to check it out.

Best wishes,

Brent McKee said...

It always surprises me that Karen Valentine never had a bigger career. She had the terminal cuteness of a Sally Field but never really made the jump to more substantive roles and eventually her career just sort of faded to occasional roles.