Monday, April 10, 2017

Comfort TV Classroom Crushes

One of the most popular family sitcom stories of the Comfort TV era is the student who develops a crush on a teacher.

I wonder, in the wake of so many news stories about inappropriate teacher-student relationships, if this trope is still popular today. Perhaps, like episodes in which characters get drunk in a funny way, it has been relegated to the scrapheap of ideas that can no longer be explored without offending someone.

That would be unfortunate. For decades the teacher crush was a go-to plot because it could naturally accommodate both comedy and earnest, sometimes painful emotion, which most viewers can appreciate having gone through a similar experience.

For me it was Miss Bobbin in second grade, a hippie chick with long dark hair that wore flowery sundresses and taught barefoot. Ah, the ‘70s.

Looking back on a selection of these episodes, there is an almost even divide between boys falling for female teachers, and girls falling for male instructors.
Most happen in high school, which is understandable. And when the series is set in high school at least one story like this is inescapable. Even the nerdy, reedy-voiced Wally Cox, who played a science teacher in Mister Peepers, became the object of a student’s affections in “The Teenage Crush” (1952). 

No series went there faster than The Patty Duke Show. “The French Teacher” was the first episode of the first season, and has Patty failing French (“a moth-eaten drag”) until her teacher leaves to get married and is replaced by dashing substitute Andre Malon (Jean-Pierre Aumont).

Starry-eyed looks turn to genuine hope after Andre offers to show her Paris if she ever visits. But when Patty starts to make plans for their future, Andre turns to her father for help:

Andre: “I think she wants to marry me!”
Martin: “It would serve you right.”

Patty was among the luckier students in these stories – a solution was found that spared her any feelings of rejection. Bud Anderson of Father Knows Best was not as fortunate during his infatuation with a French teacher in “Bud Branches Out.” Now a college freshman at the start of the show’s sixth and final season, he gets herded into French by mistake and decides to stick around after an amour-at-first-sight glance at Miss Luvois. 

Through one of those patented sitcom misunderstandings, a dinner invitation to Bud sent by his girlfriend is delivered by Miss Luvois, and he thinks it’s from her. Standing outside her home with flowers in hand, he learns the hard way that it wasn’t. But don’t feel too bad for Bud, as the girlfriend he returns to is played by gorgeous Roberta Shore.

Heartbreak usually passes quickly in these situations. In The Brady Bunch episode “The Undergraduate” the family can’t figure out why Greg is flunking math. Alice finds a note in his pocket addressed to “My true love Linda,” but after paging through a yearbook they can’t find a Linda in his class. The mystery is solved when Mike opens a school conference invitation from Greg’s math teacher – Linda O’Hara. 

Greg remains smitten until he meets Linda’s fiancĂ©, Dodger first-baseman Wes Parker (playing himself). He offers Greg tickets to the season opener if the kid gets his math grade up, and Greg happily chooses baseball over love.

Such bribery would not work with Cissy Davis on Family Affair; her crush vanished when she learns the object of her affection is a jerk.

In “Think Deep” Robert Reed plays philosophy teacher Julian Hill, the kind of supercilious twit still found in higher education. But he has a goatee and says things like “The true personality is hidden beneath a welter of self-denigration,” and that was enough for Cissy. But then Uncle Bill invites him to dinner and the twins spill coffee on his suit, prompting the outraged Julian to call them “little monsters.” The shattered look on Cissy’s face says it all. 

The show seemed to take another run at this plotline two seasons later in “The Substitute Teacher,” in which Jody develops a fascination with Miss Evans, wonderfully played by June Lockhart. Turns out this time it’s not puppy love, but Jody gravitating toward her because of her resemblance to his late mother. Few shows delivered that kind of emotional gut-punch better than Family Affair

While most crush stories are told from the student perspective, Room 222 explored how the situation can be just as distressing to the teacher. In “The Coat” guidance counselor Liz McIntyre (wonderful Denise Nicholas) helps a troubled student get a job at a department store, and he mistakes her professional interest for something more. He buys her an expensive coat from the store to show his affection (actually he steals it, but it’s the thought that counts). Liz agonizes over the proper response, knowing that the wrong one may drive a dropout risk out of school for good.

Then there are those rare episodes where the student’s attraction is actually reciprocated. On The Facts of Life, the two-part episode “Taking a Chance on Love” has 19 year-old Jo embarking on a romance with her 30 year-old photography teacher. And on Wings, Brian gets to live the dream by spending the night with his ninth-grade English teacher (played by Peggy Lipton!) in “Miss Jenkins.” 

Unfortunately, he gets so caught up in the fantasy he can’t handle reality.

Joe: “You mean…”
Brian: “I got an incomplete.’

Do I have a favorite? Glad you asked. The episode is titled “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You, I Think” and it’s from Gidget. It starts when Gidget meets an older guy on the beach and they start surfing together. 

She loves it when he calls her “a pint-sized adorable doll,” though he won’t admit they have a relationship. “At least for the next five to six years,” he tells her. “Talk to me then and I might make you a serious proposition.”

With school starting next Monday, the mystery man urges Gidget to forget him, and she calls it the perfect romance – “over before it had a chance to begin.” But on Monday she walks into math class and guess who’s her teacher?

This was the pivotal scene, because given the flirting and feelings and the now much more obvious age difference, it could easily play the wrong way. But while the moment is every bit as awkward as it should be, it’s also hilarious, because of some unexpected slapstick moments and because Sally Field is a gifted actress.

Teacher and student finally talk things out, but a lot of stuff implied on the beach is deftly sidestepped in the climax, probably because there was no better way out. Still, this is one of those TV episodes that's a lot more complex and provocative than its creators intended.

If you’d like to plan your own teacher crush classic TV night, you have many other options to choose from:

“Beaver’s Crush” (Leave it to Beaver)

“Another Day Another Scholar” (The Jimmy Stewart Show)
“The Love God” (My Three Sons)
“Love at First Byte” (Head of the Class)
“The Communication Gap” (Nanny and the Professor)

Each one offers its own variations on a story that almost always makes for fun television.

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