Saturday, December 21, 2013
When TV Changed : Room 222
In 1969 when Room 222 debuted television was coming off a decade and a half purge of black faces from the screen. The networks had taken so much heat for Amos & Andy they wanted to avoid any further controversy. The easiest thing to do was not have people of color on the tube at all.
That changed in 1965 when Bill Cosby co-starred in a hit series, I-Spy on NBC. Slowly the networks warmed to the idea of blacks starring in their own series, starting with Julia in 1968.
Does Room 222 hold up in modern times? Well, yes. In a very strange way it may even be more enjoyable to watch today.
Room 222 takes place at fictional (heck, mythical) Walt Whitman High, a school so supercalifragalistically-liberal that it must be taking place in an alternate universe. Following The Flying Nun and Courtship of Eddie's Father and airing opposite The Beverly Hillbillies, Room 222 debuted in that golden classic TV year of 1969, a season filled with Partridge and Brady type families.
This was a different kind of sitcom. Created by James L. Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons) and produced and sometimes directed by Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H), Room 222 portrayed the American public school system as a fully integrated, imminently healthy place of learning. This was the first of TV's 'relevant' shows that tackled issues of the day like abortion, prejudice, teen rebellion, and drug use. This wasn't a reflection of the reality on the ground in any place I'm aware of, most public schools were just beginning to integrate with decidedly mixed results. Just look at the South Boston School where angry parents stormed the place and would have literally ripped the black elementary kids who dared to defile their lilly white domain to death. And that was in 1975!
At Walt Whitman High the black and white students and teachers debated politely and intelligently the issues of the day while teachers sat back and allowed the free exchange of ideas. Huh?
Today's high schoolers eargerly discussing issues in such an informed manner? Maybe, but I can't imagine students of my era doing so. We were told to shut up and listen, talking about what was on your mind in class would land you in the principal's waiting room post haste. That's what makes Room 222 such an anomaly, an almost sad look at what could have been if we had lived in a more free and open society.
This was an era when school systems around the country were moving away from drilling the three Rs, instead expanding the curriculum to include more variations on the core subjects. In that way Room 222 provided teachers and faculty with a blueprint for a more liberal educational approach. Who knows if this affected life on the ground for students like myself. Network TV shows had a great deal of influence on society back then, for better or worse.
This was not a realistic show - unless you compare it to Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie or any of the other sitcoms on the air at the time; anachronisms cascade like an avalanche but with charm and intelligence.
Season 2 saw Karen Valentine as the perky white student teacher almost walk away with the show. A supporting role originally, Valentine graduated to full fledged star in season 3. She would go on to dominate the series in later years to the extreme detriment of the production. She looks so silly in the first episodes of this sophomore year with her Conehead hairstyle (she got a 3rd season makeover).
I doubt seriously if the show could have made it without Heshimu or David Jolliffe as the crimson afroed white kid Bernie who joined the show in the 1970-71 season. It is telling that Heshimu virtually disappeared from television after this series left the air, strange when you consider how popular his character was. I suspect, but have no way of knowing, that his portrayal of a sometimes angry young black man was a bridge too far for the early-1970s.
Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas were sterling as Pete Dixon and Liz McIntyre, TV's only African-American couple at the time. Michael Constantine is remarkable as principal Seymour Kaufman. The laughs are few but the storylines provided a fascinating glimpse at a moment in history when society was rapidly evolving toward a promising tomorrow - that's what we thought anyway.
Here's the first episode, as such it's more sitcom-y than the show became:
The 24th episode: