Within the first few minutes of “Mr. Robinson,” a summer replacement series about a high school music teacher that debuts Wednesday night on NBC, there are references to “bitches,” a joke using very specific language about the male anatomy, and a teacher who moonlights as a stripper.
We’re a long way from “Room 222.”
And we can probably blame “Bad Teacher,” the 2011 Cameron Diaz movie, for laying the groundwork for movies and TV to think of teachers less as bright-eyed idealists and more as scheming, sex-starved realists.
The star of the new NBC show is Craig Robinson, who played warehouse boss-turned junior manager Darryl Philbin on “The Office.” In the new series, he plays a musician-turned-substitute-teacher-turned-full-time music teacher named ... Craig Robinson.
Robinson is playing with his funk band, the Nasty Delicious, at a Chicago club when he runs into an old flame, Victoria (Meagan Good) who is now a teacher at their alma mater, Studs Terkel High School. Robinson soon takes a substitute gig at the school, and by the end of the pilot episode, he is hired full-time by Principal Taylor (Peri Gilpin, who played the producer Roz Doyle on “Frasier”).
In addition to teacher/stripper Ashleigh (Spencer Grammer, the daughter of the actor Kelsey Grammer), the staff roster at Studs Terkel High School includes Jimmy Hooper (Ben Koldyke), the foil of a physical education teacher who has a habit of throwing dodge balls at students’ heads; a likably nerdy teacher named Samir (Asif Ali); and “Supervisor Dalton” (Tim Bagley), who supervises the principal.
Robinson’s classroom includes a multiracial collection of sassy teenagers who don’t actually do much with music until the fourth episode. (NBC provided all six episodes of the summer run for previewing. The network will reportedly burn them off pretty quickly, with double episodes over the next three Wednesdays, starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time.)
Besides the school, the show also spends time at Robinson’s apartment, which he shares with onscreen brother and bandmate, Ben (Brandon T. Jackson), and at the club where Funky Delicious plays. Late in the series there is a great musical cameo by the funk band Kool & the Gang.
So, what is this show about? Robinson the actor actually taught K-8 music in Chicago. Mr. Robinson, the teacher in the show, is all about trying to be the cool teacher back at the same high school he attended, standing up for his ragtag bunch of students against a sometimes uncaring administration.
But we’re a long way from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” too.
In one episode, Robinson is debating going back to substitute status because full-time teaching is starting to crimp his musical career.
“Full-time teaching—I don’t know how you all do it,” Robinson tells his colleagues in the teachers’ lounge. “The bureaucracy, the extra hours, the paperwork, the parents. I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Robinson the actor has genuine but low-key musical and comedic talents. If this show burns out quickly this summer, as show-biz bible Variety predicts, it will be forgotten as quickly as last year’s short-lived TV version of “Bad Teacher.”
Like teaching, creating a great comedy show is harder than it looks.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.