Friday, June 26, 2020

Purchase or Pass: Head of the Class

Just two months ago, in a piece about retro TV program lineups, I mentioned how Head of the Class was the lone holdout for those wishing to recreate a Wednesday in 1986 on ABC.

And now it’s here. You’re welcome.

I wish I could take credit for it. If this blog had that kind of clout we’d have the rest of The Defenders on DVD by now, and season sets for The Farmer’s Daughter and My World and Welcome To It.

But let’s get back to Head of the Class, which I was delighted to start watching again. I was a fan in its first run and was curious how well it would hold up more than 30 years later.

For the uninitiated, the series is set primarily at New York’s Fillmore High School. The twist is that the students were the anti-Sweathogs: geniuses and super-achievers who were often ostracized for their intelligence. Into this classroom of high-maintenance kids ambled Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman), the ultimate laid-back history professor who was not intimidated by the fact that his students were already smarter than he was.

Good premise? Sure. Did they hit a home run with it? I thought so in 1986. Now – I’d pull that back to a solid double. I think the show got better in the next couple of seasons, so we’ll revisit that box score if and when they are released.

The students are well-cast and none of them are annoying (at least until Rain Pryor shows up), but they’re one-note types instead of nuanced characters: class clown Dennis (Dan Schneider), nerdy Arvid (Dan Frischman, who was 27(!) when the show started), poetry-loving romantic Simone (Khrystyne Haje, be still my heart), preppy Alan (Tony O’Dell), pampered rich girl Darlene (Robin Givens), tough kid Eric (Brian Robbins), etc. When an episode revolves around one of them they might dig an inch or two below that surface, just enough to get to the “Gee, I really learned something today, Mr. Moore” denouement, and then it’s back to business as usual.

The stories are superficial as well, with plots you’ve seen on many other shows – Charlie meets up with an old flame; jokester Dennis discovers that humor can be hurtful sometimes; Maria (Leslie Bega) gets asked out by a rival school’s Academic Olympics team captain, and her classmates wonder if she’s being set up.

Such repetition is inevitable in television, I know. But when a story is told cleverly and well it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it somewhere else. Head of the Class rarely puts its own spin on these warhorse plots. This is blunt force comedy – which doesn’t mean it can’t sometimes be funny. But as a viewer I often found myself hoping they’d try something more imaginative with the situations they introduced.

Case in point: in “You’ve Got a Friend,” Arvid and Sarah (Kimberly Russell) collaborate on a science project and develop feelings for each other. So far, so good. But from all the directions open to that scenario, the series opted for a lazy Rashomon rehash in which they both share different memories of their disastrous first date.

But there are positives here as well. I said the show rarely finds a new take on an old trope, but they did so in “Love at First Byte,” in which Charlie starts getting romantic notes in his school mailbox, and tries to deduce which of his students is sending them. The ‘byte’ in the title refers to computers at a time when they were about to change the world, and it’s fun to see how they are viewed at this nascent stage.

In “The Way We Weren’t” Darlene discovers that she may be a descendant of Sally Hemmings. That’s not the focal point of the episode, but in the classroom scene that touches on the topic of slavery, intelligent opinions are exchanged in a way that was more constructive and understanding of the context of earlier historical eras than anything I heard from the media in the last few weeks.

“Ode to Simone” introduces the attraction between Eric and Simone, which is developed well over the course of the series. It also offered the revelation that many of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” That may have been known in poetry circles at the time but it was new to me. I’ve also since learned that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” scans perfectly to the Gilligan’s Island theme.

“Past Imperfect” is the kind of episode that should have appeared more often: Charlie needs to pass a tough economics course to keep his teaching credentials, and his students help him prepare because they already know this stuff cold. Here at last was a story unique to the series premise that couldn’t just be pulled from another school show. It’s the only first-season script from Jerry Rannow, who also wrote for Room 222. He also wrote a Small Wonder episode, but nobody’s perfect.

“The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” features the only scene in which the honors class competes against a rival school, It’s another episode I liked as much as I did when I first saw it back in college.

But the season highlight for most viewers may be “Video Activity,” in which the class is asked to contribute something to a time capsule that will be opened in the year 2100. The principal wants a stuffy dissertation on the Individual Honors Program, but instead the kids shoot a music video to “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” 

The esprit de corps that emerges in this group of different students with different backgrounds, united by superior IQs, is a consistent series strength. I still wish they would have let some of the classroom scenes breathe a little more, but I get the challenge of balancing screen time (and actor egos) with such a large cast.

So close call, but it merits the purchase recommendation. How can I give students this smart a bad grade?

Plus, it’s got to be better than the remake now shooting for HBO Max. 


  1. Funny … you didn't mention the theme music.
    Especially when they let it play all the way through.

    If I were going to do a new Head Of The Class for today, I'd make it a sequel to the original, with new genius kids getting a teacher who was once One Of Them - Simone, of course, with Khrystyne Haje coming back as a grown-up to take it on.

    By the way, ever hear how Ms. Haje came by her name?
    According to the lady herself, her family wanted to name her Christine, but couldn't decide on the spelling.
    So all the Hajes wrote up as many different spellings as they could think of, tossed then into a hat - and Khrystyne was the winner.
    Anyway, that's the story she told once on a talk show - and I believe it, So There Too.

    1. Ok, that show I'd watch. The actual one in the works, not so much.

  2. I wonder if this series will last on DVD until Season 5, when Billy Connolly took over as the honors teacher. The thing I like most about this series is the theme song & opening credits, which may not be saying much for the show as a whole.

    1. Interesting - two comments both mentioning the theme. Didn't stand out as much for me. And after hearing it 24 times over the past 10 days, I figure I gave it a fair shot!