By Matt Roush,
Whether you look back on your own high school experience as the best or worst of times, our TV scrapbook is full of indelible high school memories. Happy days? Mostly yes, with our living rooms serving as a national homeroom as we put off homework — or, possibly, housework — to get absorbed in the lives of teachers and students alike.
The first big high school hit predated TV: Our Miss Brooks, which started on radio and moved to TV in 1952, turning movie star Eve Arden into a TV sitcom icon as the sardonic English teacher who brightened many a pupil’s life. (Decades later, the beloved Arden would return to academia as Rydell High’s principal in the Grease movies.)
Among other early TV authority figures, Wally Cox was a lovably bumbling science teacher in the 1950s’ Mister Peepers, and, more dramatically, handsome James Franciscus won hearts as an idealistic English teacher in Mr. Novak. Modeled as a Dr. Kildare of the classroom for the early 1960s, the show won a Peabody for its social conscience.
As TV began to reflect America’s youth culture, the kids behind the desks started taking center stage. Bridging the 1950s and ’60s, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis starred Dwayne Hickman as dreamy dreamer Dobie, but stealing his comic spotlight was a pre-Gilligan Bob Denver as beatnik slacker Maynard G. Krebs (“You rang?”). A few years later, Patty Duke would follow up her Oscar for The Miracle Worker by playing those adorkable identical cousins Patty and Cathy on The Patty Duke Show. Patty was the typical carefree American teen, meaning the bookish and reserved Cathy from Scotland was the much better student.
The 1970s were a great time to go to school — on TV. Bringing much-needed diversity to primetime was Room 222, a warm and wise dramedy featuring African-American history teacher Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), who delivered life lessons at integrated Walt Whitman High School. A generation weaned on ABC’s legendary Friday lineup, including The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, stayed put for Room 222 and were much the better for it.
Sometimes the setting was urban and topical —What’s Happening!! followed an endearing group of friends looking to the future in Watts. Things got rowdy in the classroom of Welcome Back, Kotter’s scene-stealing Sweathogs. Gabe Kaplan played the hip teacher of a remedial class of cut-ups we couldn’t get enough of. The entertainingly diverse crew included Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a Puerto Rican Jew; African-American Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs); the goofy Horshack (Ron Palillo); and, most famously, John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, who was too cool for school. (Once the teen idol’s movie career took off, he tended to play hooky a lot.)
And who didn’t want to hang with Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his pals on Happy Days, a ’70s smash hit that told its coming-of-age stories through a prism of rose-colored 1950s nostalgia? Fonzie, the breakout star (Henry Winkler in Brando-lite mode), may have been a high school dropout — he’d later get his diploma in night school — but he somehow kept those kids in line.
By the 1980s and ’90s, it seemed school was never out of session. Saved by the Bell made telegenic stars of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Tiffani Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley and Dustin Diamond as the well-named Screech. The Facts of Life, set at a girls boarding school, was an unexpected long-running hit for NBC and gave George Clooney one of his first significant TV roles (as a swoon-worthy handyman). Johnny Depp found stardom as an undercover cop infiltrating high schools as part of the gritty 21 Jump Street squad.
The curriculum varied from show to show. There were series that focused on the jocks: The acclaimed The White Shadow, starring Ken Howard as an inner-city basketball coach, was a heartfelt precursor to Friday Night Lights. Others favored the arts: Fame euphorically adapted the hit movie with aspirational stories from New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. (Glee would take this sort of cutting-edge musical TV to the next level.)
Head of the Class was a rarity, introducing a room of gifted honors students, overseen by WKRP in Cincinnati’s Howard Hesseman. Smart-mouthed comedians made teaching fun in Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, starring Mark Curry, and The Steve Harvey Show, an early hit for the now-ubiquitous entertainer.
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch featured a young witch (Melissa Joan Hart) studying magic and earning her witch’s license while trying to keep her gifts a secret from mere mortals. The stakes were even higher on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) fought demons who often reflected the psychological struggles of young adults.
The pain and emotional confusion of adolescence distinguished the teen drama My So-Called Life, while the equally short-lived and critically worshiped Freaks and Geeks depicted outcasts from both extremes of the high school social spectrum: nerds and stoners. Filmed in 1999 but set in 1980, Freaks used the device of cultural nostalgia to cushion its stories, even though these were hardly happy days.
If we earned extra credit for all the high school shows we’ve devoured over the years, we’d all be scholars.
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