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Poor Reception

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Never mind that most teachers aren't former musicians, or unemployed actors, or failed novelists, or ex-Marines. They're actually in it for the teaching, sort of like Prometheus. And never mind, either, that the five series varied wildly in quality. It was still cause for cheer that Plato, Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, George Eliot, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, and both Tom and Thomas Wolfe were spoken of in prime time as if they mattered and that, while politicians demagoggled about uniforms and vouchers and curfews and bell curves, television was reminding us that once upon a time public schools embodied the very meaning of this country—before we decided we'd rather not pay property taxes.

It's taken most of us most of our lives ever to feel as bad for 10 minutes as the suburban high school kids in My So-Called Life feel all the time.

Annie Potts was in fact far more persuasive in the TV version of Dangerous Minds than Pfeiffer had been as a black-belt biker chick in the movie. Potts had some cool and edgy street in her. From previous duty in sitcoms such as Designing Women and Love and War, she brought not only her usual smart mouth but also a "been there" credibility to this inner-city "academy" program for grown-up-too-quickly problem children, with their high IQs and low self-esteem and gaudy, self-sabotaging behaviors, their gang colors, and their babies. She was her own subtext, teaching Of Mice and Men as if with a rodent in her pocket, teaching Look Homeward, Angel as though she'd run away with a circus. She was lots more hands-on than is strictly permissible in today's supersensitive public school system, where an incautious hug can get you suspended for child molestation, and not above bribing kids to perform, and one began to wonder if all her students would wind up living in her house, like in an R. D. Laing therapeutic commune. But good educators always break the rules to save a child. Dangerous Minds was at least nostalgic for the bygone era when all of us had cherished teachers—instead of border guards—who sought to engage us in classrooms that weren't impossibly overcrowded, in buildings that weren't falling down, in neighborhoods that didn't resemble Belfast or Beirut, back when public schools were trampolines from which we bounced into our futures instead of warehouses with metal detectors or detention camps for refugees.

Never mind, because generally speaking the public has been impatient with even the best teacher programs, whether they're set on a college campus, at a high school, or even in a day care center. You may not even remember Day by Day, a short-lived, half-hour NBC series with Linda Kelsey, formerly a reporter on the Lou Grant show, as a lawyer who, with her stockbroker husband on the occasion of the birth of their second child, dropped out of the rat race to run a depot for tiny tots in her own home. The timing, 1988, was unfortunate, in the middle of the crazy witch hunt for satanic ritual abusers in day care centers all over the country. The TV audience found it easier to identify with Linda's money-loving and child-disdaining yupscale chum, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who would go on to costar in Seinfeld, that immensely popular cheese doodle of urban fecklessness, Chinese take-out, and penis jokes.

I mourn even more the brief passing of My So-Called Life, which came and went on ABC in 1994-95 while persisting a season longer in reruns on MTV. Think of it as fifteensomething, a lowering of their sights from boomer weltschmerz to Gen-Y angst by the producers of thirtysomething. If you thought the folks on thirtysomething spent too much time feeling sorry for themselves, they were only lukewarming up to curdle. It's taken most of us most of our lives and several momentous occasions ever to feel as bad for 10 minutes as the suburban high school kids in My So-Called Life feel all the time, and they have apparently felt that bad since Pampers. What's amazing is that we love them anyway. We would have to be insensate, indeed, comatose in our comfort zones, not to remember what it felt like to open our lockers on a heart of darkness, to discover teen sex and adult hypocrisy, mean streets and betrayed friendships, black holes and vertigo, as well as the subversive texts that break the code and the subversive music that seems to sing it. When 15-year-old Angela (Claire Danes) was 12, "my mother gave me these sex talks, and I don't think either of us has ever recovered." Though she used to be close to her father, "my breasts came between us." And though she's supposed to be reading Kafka, all she thinks about instead is Jordan Catalano, a hunk so inarticulate he is either an Aztec god, a Nordic rune, or a cementhead: "Why is it he gets to be the one with other things on his mind?" From what she has seen at home and school, Angela develops grave doubts: "If we all did what was in our hearts, the world would grind to a halt." These doubts are seconded by her closest friends.

If skeptical, morose, goofy, romantic Danes is an unfinished symphony with more phases than the moon, A. J. Langer as Ray-anne, voted "best potential slut" in the sophomore class by a poll of jocks, is light, heat, energy, and sarcasm. Wilson Cruz as Rickie, their half-African, half-Latino, wholly androgynous Third Musketeer in these high school wars, is a marvel of dignified vulnerability; gay-bashed, he will insist on eyeliner, honoring his own confusions. What's more, mirabile dictu, they are actually learning something in school. They read Anne Frank and then discuss it with a cop who brings them home to their troubled parents. They connect the dots between a science lab experiment on a pig's heart and what goes on in the parking lot at a school dance. They find in Kafka's "Metamorphosis" a variety of their own irrational self-loathing. As Angela navigates on sympathy and cunning through an opaque world, she has a better built-in moral compass than she seems to think and a voice as distinctive as J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or Mark Twain's Huck Finn before Huck lit off for the territory on that famous raft. That the great waste of unwashed Nielsens so resoundingly rejected this series—an honorable alternative to Heathers on the one hand and to Clueless on the other—leads me to believe that it's time we stopped asking what television has done to the attention span of the American public and began instead to wonder what the attention span of the American public has done to television.

Why don't school shows work on television? 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.

Christy, a 1994 CBS series based on Catherine Marshall's lovely, if sentimental, novel, was another mass-market failure in the teaching sweepstakes. It was based on an idea as old as the Republic and as recently expressed as the Peace Corps and Vista programs in the Great Society '60s: You can't afford to waste a single child, and the privileged young invest themselves, and everybody learns how little we really knew about each other. Kellie Martin, who grew up as Becca in the wonderful series Life Goes On, starred as Christy, an idealistic 19-year-old who left genteel Asheville, North Carolina, in 1912 to teach in a missionary school in Appalachia. There to assist her in her own education were Stewart Finlay-McLennan as the widowed doctor who gave her a dress to wear; Randall Batinkoff as the handsome young minister who started the school; Tess Harper as the mountain woman Fairlight Spencer who can do everything but read; and Tyne Daly as a gun-toting Quaker surprise: "Were you meant to come here and serve, or were you only running away from home?" Plus, of course, the children, all 12 grades of them, as young as or older than Christy; sleepy, because they got up before dawn; barefoot, because they couldn't afford shoes; a girl who wouldn't talk; a boy who lied all the time; hogs un-der the floorboards; and a pet raccoon.

In one episode, Christy's failure to understand the local moonshine culture caused her school to burn down. In another, having acquainted her class with where they'd come from—chiefly, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scottish Highlands—she had to depend on a bagpipe-playing ghost to save a wayward waif. I'd have thought we'd all identify with Christy—ache for the misapprehensions and the condescensions, the quick temper and quicker despair, the huge ambition and modest results, the terrible doubts and romantic entanglements—and then rejoice in her ability to bounce back because, of course, one of these children was secretly reading David Copperfield, and another would grow up to write his own novels, and a third would maybe invest herself in passionate teaching, and, out of moonshine, cabinet making, history lessons, cartwheels, bagpipes, and an ax, the Republic would compose its music. But Christy, after such promising ratings for its two-hour pilot, fell off the charts into an occasional holiday special, like the long-gone John-Boy Waltons.

Why don't school shows work on television? 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 most of us are cowboys, preferring the saloon tart to the civilizing schoolmarm. Maybe the culture itself thinks teachers have it too easy in the Darwinian tooth-and-claw, taking the summer 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. Like many another noble noodle, instead of one more cop show I'd personally prefer a series in which social problems are solved through creative nonviolence after a Quaker meeting by a collective of vegetarian carpenters.

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