YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Showing Their Credentials

Teachers seem to be the heroes of the new TV season. But are these portrayals at all realistic?

September 01, 1996|Michele Willens | Michele Willens is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Quick, think of your favorite teacher.

Now, did you pick that individual because he or she gave easy grades, or recommended you for student council, or taught you the dreaded Latin that later proved beneficial? Or, more likely, did that teacher make you laugh while you learned, turn you on to Shakespeare by showing the class "West Side Story," or voluntarily venture off campus to watch you play tennis or give a piano recital?

If you answered something resembling the latter, you'll like much of the new fall television season. For one of the surprising trends is the unusually high number of school-related shows about to hit prime time--among them Rhea Perlman and Malcolm McDowell in CBS' "Pearl," about a blue-collar widow going back to college; "Mr. Rhodes," an NBC sitcom about a hip teacher at an arch boarding school; "Dangerous Minds," ABC's drama based on last year's movie, with Annie Potts playing Michelle Pfeiffer playing LuAnn Johnson, the Marine turned inner-city school teacher; and "Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher" and "The Steve Harvey Show," both from the WB network and both about reluctant but way-cool teachers taking on sassy kids.

Several other new series, while not primarily classroom-based, have at least a few toes in academia.

ABC's "Clueless" (as if those kids spend much time studying), UPN's "Goode Behavior," ABC's "Life's Work" and NBC's "Something So Right" are all new sitcoms in which a main character is somehow involved with teaching. And then there are standbys such as ABC's "Boy Meets World," which moves this year to a later spot (9:30 p.m. from 8:30) where its creators are determined to impart more lessons behind the laugh track. And for midseason, UPN has "Social Studies," about a female teacher at an urban boarding school.

What are we to make of all this? Is it the surprise success of last year's feel-good movie, "Mr. Holland's Opus"? Is it all the family value rhetoric spouting from the mouths of presidents and White House wannabes?

"There was a spirit of triumph in 'Mr. Holland' that was positive, but most of these shows were being developed before it came out," says NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. "And I'd like to think we're not responding to politicians. This being an election year, we tend to not trust their motivations."

In reality, there are a number of factors in play: TV following the lead of movies, the classroom being a perfect forum for stand-up comedians to shift to series stardom, an attempt to bridge the generation gap with shows that appeal to children and their parents, and a sincere effort to celebrate what Littlefield calls "this most noble, most unappreciated profession."

Littlefield claims his own epiphany came while sitting on an education panel in which he wondered, "If Bill Cosby had been a teacher rather than a doctor [in "The Cosby Show"], what impact could we have had?"


Altruism aside, Littlefield and the others choosing what we see on television hope that this year's crop of classroom series will go to the head of the ratings. They prefer not to think of the two that failed in that mission last season--ABC's "The Faculty," deemed too unfunny, and CBS' "Matt Waters," deemed too preachy. Today's executives dream instead of the successful likes of "Welcome Back, Kotter" (1975-79) and "Head of the Class" (1986-1991).

In fact, that duo may foretell good news in that they featured verified comics (Gabe Kaplan, Howard Hesseman) doing their shtick to a bunch of kids who gave back pretty good too. Stand-ups hoping to carry the new classroom shows to similar success and attain Tim Allen-Jerry Seinfeld fame include Steve Harvey, Tom Rhodes and Mitch Mullany.

"Kids are a group I work well with," says Mullany, who comes from "The Wayans Brothers" and MTV fame to play the childlike Nick Freno. ("My name is Mr. Freno but I like it when you call me Big Papa.") "Even when the camera's off, I have the kids [laughing]."

The people behind "The Steve Harvey Show" admit the stand-up star came first and then the idea of how to present him. "Warner Bros. wanted a family-oriented show with kids where Steve could be comfortable doing his thing," says the show's executive producer, Winifred Hervey. "Little did we know everyone else would have the same idea this year."

"Let's face it, the dynamic of a teacher and a group of kids is fodder for a lot of questions," explains Don Reo, executive producer of "Pearl." "And when that teacher is funny, the questions become natural setups for amusing answers."

His series pits street-smart Pearl against the world's stuffiest humanities professor ("I thought of calling this class 'I Know More Than You Do,' " the McDowell character tells his students). He thinks Moby-Dick, she thinks Charlie the Tuna. (Watch the first episode to see who's correct.)

Los Angeles Times Articles