Friday, February 01, 2008

48. Head of the Class

Edit: I think that making fun of a decade's fashion faux pas are about the hackiest thing one could do, but this picture is just awesome.

I purposely stayed away from 1980s sitcoms for one simple, reason: they mostly suck. It's a hard fact to grasp, especially if you grew up during that time and you revolved your TV-watching schedules around Arnold Jackson, Webster Long, Ricky Straton and Blair Warner like I did. But the truth is, if you get the opportunity to check these shows out now, there's really not much in terms of plot or laughs.

Actually the laugh track could be one of the worst inventions ever created for television. Why do you need canned laughter to let you know what's funny? Shouldn't this be a discovery you make on your own? Have you ever watched a show without a laugh track with people who depend on a laugh track? Whenever something hilarious happens they look around and wait to be prompted to guffaw. This is one of my least favorite inventions.

For example, on “Diff'rent Strokes” the entire show is one long build up to Arnold (Gary Coleman) busting out his catch phrase, “Watchotalkinbout Willis?” Each episode was so formulaic that oftentimes logic took a vacation in order to wrap the show up in 30 minutes. The writing is stilted, the acting is often wooden and there is no real substance at all.

One show was different and that was “Head of the Class” starring a post “WKRP in Cincinnati” Howard Hessman. Though he played a former hippie in this show as well, his character was a different beast than the iconic Dr. Johnny Fever. While Fever was the ultimate FM DJ, Hessman's Mr. Moore was the best teacher that a student could wish to have.

What made HotC different from its sitcom brothers and sisters? It's hard to say, because a lot of times the episodes were formulaic and the students were straight out of central casting (the fat one, the uber nerdy one, the conservative, the foreigner, the hippie, the artsy one, the bad ass, the precocious kid genius, the black one and the nice one—who was also black). However, there was a certain intelligence to the show that you weren't going to find on “Who's the Boss?”—and if that isn't the definition of a back handed compliment, then nothing is. None the less, it's true. The show didn't always take the easy way out, there are times where the main characters actually didn't succeed.

The writers also didn't always go for the simple joke or the “funniest” pun. Despite being archtypes, most of the show's jokes were based on the characters' different personalities. With ten students in the class, some characters were more developed than others, but I often thought that development was based on the actor rather than the character.

For example, Arvid was probably the most popular character because of the way he looked and acted. The guy who played him (Dan Frischman) never portrayed him as a “Revenge of the Nerds” type nerd; which would've been easy as the movie had just been released two years prior to this show and was fresh in the collective conscious of the American public. Frischman chose to portray him as a smart guy who happened to be different in his looks and his interests. In the world of the 1980s sitcom, that is “Hamlet”-like depth.

Most of the show's plots reflected the dichotomy that is the high school jungle: the kids who made up the cast of HotC were the brightest of the school (their class was the Independent Honors Program or IHP), yet they were perceived by their classmates as losers. Most of the student body never took them seriously and the class was either mocked or held in contempt. The class worked and studied hard because they had nothing else going for them. That is until Hessman's character, Charlie Moore began teaching them.

Originally a substitute teacher, Moore was only supposed to be in the class for a few days and move on with his life. For some reason, he took a liking to the class and began teaching them about the other side of history—the stuff that you can't find in books. He also made them try new things and to expand their horizons outside of the library. The kids learned a lot and to the dismay of the vice principal (Dr. Samuels, who saw this group of kids as a learning machine) Moore was named the permanent history teacher for the Honors program.

This is the most basic template for most high school-related television shows; teacher shows the kids something that they never know, kids learn something other than school work and teacher learns something too. The fact is, it's a template because it works. With “Head of the Class” there was a Jeter-like intangible that made this show better than all those other shows like “Welcome Back Kotter”.

Kotter was a loud and obnoxious show that was filled with lies and hammy actors all mugging for the camera. HotC had a sense of sincerity and it wasn't loud or relied on cheap jokes and catch phrases to get laugh. To the 12-year-old, it seemed like it could've been shot in any number of high school. “Head of the Class” was more honest than anything that I was watching on television at that point in my life.

Even when I was eight, I knew that “Diff'rent Strokes” and “Silver Spoons” were bullshit shows. They were enjoyable bullshit shows, but there was no way that any of the plots could happen. On HotC, there was a possibility that most of the plots were built around a kernel of truth. I wanted to know that there are teachers in the world who really care about their students and high school is filled maladjusted social retards looking to break out of their shells.

At least that's what I was hoping for.

At the time this show was popular, I was in the midst of three years in hell—otherwise known as junior high school. None of my teachers were as interested in their students' lives as Mr. Moore was (it was more of adversarial relationship—or at the very least a I-won't-bother-you-if-you-don't-bother-me truce) and being in the “smart classes” I had an affinity for what the students went through, especially because I felt I was a maladjusted, social retard. “Head of the Class” provided some sort of faint hope that going to high school was going to be a different ball game than being stuck in junior high without any hope for parole.

And while Amesbury High School wasn't anything like Millard Fillmore High School, it was a better place than Amesbury Middle School.

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