Charlie: So to wrap it up, Ronald Reagan is known as the “teflon president”, because nothing sticks to him.
Alan: In that case, I guess you’d call Jimmy Carter the “velcro president” because everything sticks to him.
Charlie: What does that make Richard Nixon?
Sarah: The Saran Wrap president. Covered everything up, but you could still see through him.
I need a palate cleanser. Let’s back up, just a bit. It is March 8, 1989, a week I have already covered in all the detail I care to, aside from mentioning that The Heidi Chronicles opens on Broadway today. When they did it at Loyola back in ’99, my next-door-neighbor played the lead. She asked me how to pronounce “Artemisia Gentileschi”. I’ve spent the following nineteen years trying not to find out if I was right.
I’ve never talked about an individual episode of a sitcom before, I think. I mean, not as the primary focus of an entire article. I’ve padded a few out with digressions about them. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a retrospective on Sabrina the Teenage Witch at some point because it would be something different, but it’s hard to draw out enough words about an episode when most episodes are twenty-two minutes of one-liners glued together by five minutes of story. But like I said, I need a palate cleanser.
What possible connection do you think there could be Howard Hessman and War of the Worlds? If you said, “I bet WKRP in Cincinatti did an homage to the the 1938 radio play,” then YOU FOOL! You fell for my obvious trap! No, impossible as it may sound, there won’t be so much as an oblique reference to Doctor Johnny Fever in our source material tonight. Instead, we’re going to drop in on a later Hessman vehicle, the late ’80s sitcom Head of the Class.
Head of the Class was a successful ’80s sitcom which was basically Welcome Back Kotter with geniuses. Hessman plays Charlie Moore, a failed actor turned long-term substitute history teacher, who ends up spending four years teaching the students of Millard Fillmore High School’s “Individualized Honors Program”. They’re not exactly Sweat Hogs, but rather a diverse group of students, luckily representing a wide array of traditional sitcom high school stereotypes. We’ve got the pocket-protector’d and bespectacled 1950s nerd Arvid, the overweight prankster Dennis, the Reagan-worshipping ultra-conservative preppy Alan, the highly driven rich girl Darleen (played by a pre-Mike Tyson Robin Givens), the sensitive and artistic good-girl Simone, the Indian exchange student Jawaharlal, Eric the ’50s greaser, pre-teen super-genius Janice, the vaguely new-agey Maria, and Sarah, who was basically normal so the audience would have someone to identify with. The cast was rounded out with the antagonistic and reputation-obsessed principal, Dr. Samuels, and his administrative assistant Bernadette, Charlie’s never-paid-off-potential-love-interest.
Spring of 1989 keeps us in the “classic” era of the show. The next season would see the cast start to shake up with some departures and new arrivals, and the final season (Yeah, it takes these honors students five years to finish high school. The last two seasons are supposed to represent a single year with an inexplicable surplus of Christmases) would see Charlie replaced by Billy Connoly as Billy MacGregor. Connoly would continue the role in the terrible spin-off Billy, which would move him to California and stick him in a sham green card marriage. But all that is in the future, and a part of the future that’s well outside of our scope.
No, today we’re stopping by to have a look at episode sixteen of the third season, “Radio Activity”, due to a plot point that turns out to be smaller in reality than it was in my memory. In a show with such a large cast, not everyone got equal play every week. Hessman, of course, as the main lead, gets to be front-and-center in every episode, but otherwise, an episode tends to zero in on one or two of the students for the main plot, with a different student or two for a minor and unrelated side-plot that bookends the episode.
It’s not an overwhelming preference, and in fact, it might just be my memory cheating, but I feel like Dennis and Arvid were picked for character focus a bit more than the others. Their relationship fits into a couple of classic comedy-duo tropes: the fat guy and the thin guy, the buffoon and the straight-man, the bully and the doormat, the jerk and the woobie. They’re a dumber Leonard and Sheldon, a smarter Laurel and Hardy, a younger Abbot and Costello, a classier Bulk and Skull. Also, they’re white and male which I’m guessing endeared them to the writers.
This episode in particular belongs primarily to Arvid. We’re back in the ’80s, well before the ascendancy of nerd culture, so you shouldn’t expect this character to be especially nuanced. As I said before, he draws on a nerd aesthetic that was retro even at the time. Pocket protector. Coke-bottle glasses. Deviated septum. Love of chess. Eminently wedgie-able. Arvid is part of the tradition of television nerds that will soon lead us down the dark path of the Ur-kel. It is a portrayal that has a great deal of ugliness stuck around it. It is not an empathetic portrayal: we are meant to laugh at, not with such characters, view their abuse and mistreatment as no less than they deserve. And yet, even at its worst, television is an inherently sympathetic medium. No one’s going to make a TV show where the goal is for you to root for the bully, teaching that sensitive kid an important life-lesson about how he should learn to conform if he doesn’t want to be sexually assaulted with a broom handle. At least, not until Parker and Stone. So there is a paradoxical element to the TV nerd archetype in that while we revel in his humiliation and abuse, we don’t actually want to see him fail. Such is the nature of comedy. If you hit someone with a frying pan and it makes them think they’re a race car driver named Chazz, that’s funny; if you hit someone with a frying pan and it kills them, less so. But also, writing for television is something of a nerdy pursuit, so there tends to be hints of authorial self-insertion here. For the writer, maybe it’s therapeutic to take charge of their childhood traumas by reducing them to a series of jokes. But more than that — and here’s where things get troublesome — there’s an urge toward recompense. Arvid Engin is part of tradition that extends forward through Steve Urkel, to Ross Gellar and Xander Harris, of the Butt-Monkey Ascendant. These are characters who are mistreated and abused — by their friends, by society, by the fates themselves — well beyond what any reasonable person should be expected to deal with. Where this becomes ugly and problematic is that the audience is encouraged to view this as a kind of price that the universe is extracting from the victim. They are “paying their dues”, and we are pushed to see it as just, as fitting, proper and good when the Butt-Monkey is ultimately recompensed for this. The laws of fictional universes tell us that they have earned a happy ending. The have earned it not by working toward a goal, though, or by learning to be better people or by developing as characters. No, they “earned” their reward because the universe incurred a debt to them which now must be paid. We are encouraged to think of how Urkel never gave up his quest to woo Laura no matter how much pain and humiliation it brought him — we are encouraged not to think about the fact that he stalked her for a decade and refused to show the most basic respect for her wishes. Seriously, fuck that guy.
I have, par for the course, wandered away from the point. As far as I remember — and I haven’t seen this show in a quarter-century, so I might be forgetting a lot — Arvid Engin is a fairly mild, innocuous version of the trope. There’s no long-term stalking issue, no discreet passive-aggressive campaign of undermining a woman for a decade until her self-esteem is broken enough to accept his advances. But what’s there is that first thing I said: we’re supposed to revel in Arvid’s humiliation, but we still want him to win. And that’s the force that controls the moral arc of this episode.
After an introductory scene in the classroom as they cover the Reagan era (Will there be an arc of consistent themes and topics as the IHP spend five years working their way through history in some kind of chronological or thematic order? Of course not! Monday: Reagan. Tuesday: the 1930s. Wednesday: The Punic Wars), Charlie Moore is accosted by the principal. Dr. Samuels and Mr. Moore don’t get on well. Samuels considers Moore underqualified, and doesn’t like how he’s teaching his prized honors students to take joy in life and the process of learning and how he encourages them to eat Apple Jacks even though it doesn’t taste like apples. Samuels reveals that all teachers are required to serve as faculty advisers to one of the extracurricular clubs, and orders Charlie to sign up for one. They all sound totes lame, with the Future Farmers getting a chuckle out of the laugh track (I personally know better than to knock the FFA, though it does seem like an unlikely fit for Manhattan), until he discovers that the school has a radio station. It turns out — in a shocking reveal — that Charlie digs radio and jumps at the chance to take over. I know, right? What a stretch to have Howard Hessman play a guy who’s into radio!
While this is going on, Eric is trying to woo Simone. She’s artsy and poetic and sensitive and highbrow and wears sweaters. He’s basically every character John Travolta played in the 1970s, only as a super-genius. Half Danny Zuko and half Vinnie Barbarino, and looking to be his generation’s J. D. Salinger, for whatever “his generation” could possibly mean when he’s meant to be a high school student in the 1980s, played by a 26-year-old actor dressed like it’s the ’50s. He and Simone had their first date a few episodes back, and they’ll meander their way in the general direction of couplehood for the rest of the series, without ever actually arriving substantively enough to upset the status quo.
Simone has two tickets to Mozart night at the New York Chamber Ensemble. She invites Janice, but she’s got girl scouts that night. The basic running joke with Janice is that she’s probably the smartest one in the class, but she’s also still a child. So she cites Ein musikalischer Spaß Köchelverzeichnis 522 as “raising your soul to the heights of emotional and intellectual bliss,” but then whines, “Oh boogers!” when it turns out she can’t make it. Actually, it turns out that there’s a second joke hidden in there which hints at the fact that sitcoms are often smarter than we give them credit for. Ein musikalischer Spaß K. 522 is an odd choice for “emotional and intellectual bliss”: it’s a satirical piece full of deliberate technical mistakes to parody less-competent composers. The English title is “A Musical Joke”. Eric steps in and offers to accompany Simone, but he’ll have to prove to her that he appreciates chamber music first. He conscripts Janice to teach him enough to fake it.
It turns out, because of course it does, that Arvid is the president of the radio club. He’s also the secretary, chief engineer and announcer. He’s the entirety of the club, and an eighth of its audience. Mr. Moore is clearly really excited by the prospect of making something about the radio station, but is less enthusiastic about Arvid’s notions of how to run it. Arvid is kind of spectacularly bad at this, in fact, and it’s one of the weak points of the episode. The writers can’t let go of their “Ha-ha, what a fuckin’ nerd, amirite?” attitude long enough to justify the place they want the themes of the story to go. So Arvid’s idea of exciting programming is “The Wild World of Chess”, “Stamp Collector’s Corner”, and “Insect of the Week”. Ha-ha, what a fuckin’ nerd, amirite? And though Arvid is supposed to be passionate about radio, when Mr. Moore namechecks The Green Hornet, Arvid assumes it’s an entomology show. Because the show has decided that Charlie’s love of Old Time Radio is “cool”, and therefore as alien and mysterious to the nerdy Arvid as the clitoris, or ending a school day with the elastic band of his underwear still attached. I mean, it’s not like nerds are knowledgeable about the things they are passionate about, right? They only know about nerdy things like science and bugs and chess.
So the situation we have here is that Arvid is basically running the station as his own personal hobby, without restraint or supervision, to meet the needs not of the school which is sponsoring it, but just for his own kicks. So maybe the moral of this episode is going to be that being president of the radio club makes him the steward of it, rather than its owner?
Of course not cousin, don’t be ridicu— wrong show, sorry. Nah, where we’re going with this is that Charlie’s going to impose his ideas on the radio station and change things too much and Arvid will feel left out, and it’s Charlie who needs to learn that nerdy clubs should be the personal fiefdoms of nerdy students and not try to reach out to the people it’s supposed to serve. I mean, they make a stab at it being about how Charlie shouldn’t muscle in and make the students’ things about him (one of the show’s occasional themes that comes up in particular when he becomes overly controlling during the musical episodes. Oh yes, they do musical episodes. It is wonderful. And yes, who the fuck do you think plays Danny in Grease, and who the fuck do you think plays Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors? I can’t remember who plays Claude in Hair. And, because of course it was, they made it a recurring joke that Arvid and Dennis wanted to be in the show, but were forced to be tech instead, because Ha-ha, fuckin’ nerds and fat guys, amirite? They were ultimately vindicated when Arvid got the lead in Little Shop of Horrors and Dennis, despite opposition from Charlie because fuckin’ fat guy amirite?, built the Audrey prop as a Power Rangers Monster suit for himself). But they don’t actually bother to show this happening in a substantive way.
What they show us instead is Charlie Moore being an enthusiastic and supportive mentor who wants to get people involved in the radio club and make it serve as a better service for the school, and Arvid whining and sulking because the cool kids are getting involved in his club and he no longer has exclusive control over his own personal radio station. And I’m not unsympathetic. The whole idea of “The marginal thing you were into suddenly becomes popular and you feel pushed out of your own hobby because now it’s all about catering to the popular kids,” is something any fan of classic Doctor Who, original series Star Trek, or basically any band ever can understand. But that impulse right there, the one that says, “It was better before it was popular. It should go back to being the way us Real True Fans remember it,” is the voice of screaming entitlement. It comes from the same dark place that inspires basement-dwelling neckbeards to call SWAT teams out on game developers for the sin of failing to cater exclusively to white heterosexual men or corners women in elevators at conventions.
And if it seems like I’m being harsh, I am. If I were interested in being fair, I’d say that this is a largely harmless story and the only real weakness is that the message of Mr. Moore pushing Arvid out and making it about his own childhood passion isn’t given enough space to grow. But we’ve seen across this blog, I hope, how particular tropes in fiction are all bound up in their historical context. Arvid Engen is one of the earliest ones to be elevated to such a major role, and one of the last ones to be played so utterly straight. There’s a line that runs straight from Arvid to Urkel to the modern era of the sexually precocious man-child who badgers consent out of attractive women in Judd Apatow movies.
Let’s be clear here: Arvid claims to be on-board with Charlie’s plans to improve the station and build its audience. But there is no point where his support goes beyond words. The very moment Mr. Moore actually suggests a change, Arvid deflates. He looks worried by the prospect, and grants permission to launch a new show only with reluctance. We haven’t actually gotten to “Charlie Moore tries to take over the station,” when Arvid starts sulking. We’re still at “Charlie Moore tries to have creative input.” Yes, Arvid will indeed have cause to be upset, but he’s already acting the martyr at the very first suggestion of a new radio show.
That first new radio show goes to Dennis. Charlie tries to interest the rest of the IHP in the radio station, but gets a cold reception. After all, radio is nerdy and lame and old-fashioned, and no one listens to radio any more. Dennis refers to it as “Broken television.” Charlie tries to make a point by teaching a class on World War II and claiming that Americans learned of the Perl Harbor on TV, with promises that tomorrow’s lesson will be about FDR’s fireside chats and Churchill’s famous radio addresses, though that’s not actually going to happen. But despite Dennis’s reluctance, Mr. Moore manages to swing him by pointing out that it is the late ’80s and therefore right during the historical moment when the Shock Jock is becoming a thing.
Despite Arvid’s “My mouth says yes, but my eyes say this incident will be mentioned in the diary they find under my bed after The Incident, (There will, point of fact, be an episode where Arvid brings a gun to school in season 5. The plot has something to do with a mugging and a bully, and not at all what you think)” response, Dennis goes on the air the next morning with a performance that makes me pine for Tosh Rimbauch, based around obnoxious sound effects and bad impersonations, including having a not-even-slightly convincing Doctor Samuels order the students to wear their underwear on the outside tomorrow for “silly day”.
Mr. Moore bumps Arvid’s chess show to play an Edgar Bergen sketch, and Arvid sulks away, really the one time that they actually bother to convey the thing which the whole episode wants to say. Dennis, of course, makes an incredibly banal crack about Edgar Bergen, the joke which literally everyone in the world has already done about not being able to tell if his lips are moving, and… Y’know what? Just stick that in your back pocket for a few weeks.
Friday morning, Arvid’s nerdy friends — the eight regular listeners —accost him about how the radio station is, “Just not good lately,” and how they miss the chess, the insects, and the stamp collecting. Hey, that’s a solid angle. Arvid might not have made the station popular, but he did serve a community that no one else caters to, and Mr. Moore’s format change was made without any consideration for the actual audience, only a hypothetical future audience. That’s got legs, especially given how the episode is going to go in act three. But we’re not going to see these nerds again, they’re not going to come up in the big Full House Talk at the climax of the episode, and no one’s going to care about them. Fuckin’ nerds, amirite? Oh, and they’re also all wearing their underwear on the outside. Because of course they are.
Meanwhile, Eric took a stab at impressing Simone with borrowed knowledge of chamber music. He made some progress by namechecking Ravel, but then blew it when Simone asked if he preferred Beethoven’s early, middle, or late quartets. Sadly, he managed to learn Ravel but not someone as obscure as the “Dun-dun-dun-DUUUUUUH!” guy, so he says, “I like them the way he intended. The early ones in the morning and the late ones at night.” They remember he wants to be a writer, right? He may not know classical music, but he knows how the English language works. But Simone appreciates the effort and relents, prompting him to give a little speech about not wanting to try to be someone he’s not. She affectionately caresses his cheek, prompting the simulated audience to do one of those “woooh” things.
By now, you’ve probably worked out why this article exists, but are wondering when I’m going to get to the point. For reasons unseen and underexplained, the rest of the IHP is starting to take an interest in radio now, so Charlie plays them a clip of Orson Welles, complete with the received wisdom that it caused a nationwide panic. They’re skeptical that a modern audience would fall for such a thing, but the prospect of pranking the school is too attractive to pass up. Charlie suggests that a major stunt like that would gain the radio station publicity that would give all of the students an audience for their own pet projects. He suggests Maria might do a call-in show, or Alan could, “Be the next Paul Harvey,” because no one would wish being the next Rush Limbaugh on another human being. Arvid momentarily seems excited at the idea of getting more listeners for his chess show, but when this elicits a groan from the others, he goes back to sulking and generally acting like this whole War of the Worlds thing is going on the list of those who have wronged him and will pay.
Just before a one-week time-skip, Charlie drops by the office to Bernadette can foreshadow the moral by hinting that Arvid might not be fully pleased with the changes to “his” radio station. Ahem. Why will no one call him on this? It’s not his. Anyway, Charlie insists that Arvid, “in his own quiet way” probably does like the changes, in a way that basically screams that yes, Charlie knows he’s being unfair to him.
And Arvid apparently never bothers to say anything about his feelings on this matter, since we skip ahead one week to a few minutes before the broadcast. And that is when Arvid decides that he needs to talk, because Charlie can’t reasonably accommodate him at that moment, which means that he gets to be the Bad Guy Who Ignores The Feelings of His Student. Y’know, there are only two times in this entire episode where Arvid actually tries to raise an objection, and both of them are while Charlie is about to go on the air. And you know, I think that a big part of the reason I’m so hard on this episode is that being jumped by someone when I’m on a tight schedule to demand I address their concerns under threat of being The Asshole unless I find a way to help them while still making the deadline is one of my berserk buttons, and so much of the moral structure of this episode leans on “Arvid is in the right here because Charlie won’t listen to him as he’s about to go on the air.”
At last, finally, we get to the War of the Worlds bit. With Arvid begrudgingly doing sound effects, Sarah introduces their framing story, the comedy soap opera All My Parents, whose central joke is “It’s about a girl whose parents have divorced and remarried, so she’s got two parents AND two stepparents. Oh the hilarity!” (Also, Janice plays the girl, which seems sort of cruel, since, if I recall, a few weeks ago, they did an episode based around the fact that Janice’s parents were getting divorced and she was having a hard time coping. Because it’s the ’80s and fuck continuity).
A sentence in, they interrupt so that Darleen can impersonate a public radio reporter in the studio, telling about a UFO sighting near Saratoga. When they return to the soap opera, the four parents give their daughter a puppy, which she promptly drops. Arvid does a crunching glass sound effect by accident, and that’s where he slips off the rails. He gets increasingly flustered and can’t perform his lines when he’s meant to break in to transfer the listeners back over to the news. At Charlie’s gesture, Jawarhalal skips ahead to his only lines in the episode, playing the field reporter at the scene of the UFO landing. With the sound of sirens in the background, he reports on helicopters overhead using “special radar” to study the craft, preparing for, “A close encounter of the real kind.”
In the next room, Arvid quits the radio club and storms out. Mr. Moore indicates for the others to keep going and follows him back to the history classroom. In the hall, students are going about their business without paying the broadcast any mind. Dr. Samuels passes Charlie in the hall, insisting that he, “Didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.” My first thought was that seemed weird, if he was old enough to remember 1938. And then I remembered that this show was almost thirty years ago, and Samuels would only need to have been in his late fifties to be old enough to remember the original broadcast.
The radio play remains audible over the PA system in the halls for a time. The field reporter starts to interview two local women, though this doesn’t actually happen because of a set change. There’s a bit of back and forth between the field reporter and studio reporter, and from what snippets I could make out, there’s a subplot about a scientist (female, for what it’s worth; I didn’t hear a name, but there’s a “she”) who’s bringing a “special computer” in the hopes of using it to decipher alien communication. Maria or Sarah (There’s talking over them and the recording I’m watching doesn’t have the best sound) reports on the craft opening, and seeing movement. Just as she reports a light turning toward her…
Charlie turns off the sound to go have some plot resolution with Arvid. Arvid tries to apologize for walking out on the radio club, and admits that Mr. Moore’s changes really are making the station better and attracting a new audience. And, again, they could have found a compromise here and made this a lesson about Charlie being more respectful to Arvid’s feelings while also Arvid has to learn to accept change. But instead, Charlie admits that his plans haven’t worked: no one’s listening to their War of the Worlds. And he concedes that the station was Arvid’s. No. No. No. Do enable this. Come on.
Arvid, for his part, tries to cop to having been unwilling to tell Mr. Moore how he felt, but even then, he can’t bring himself to say he was angry over it. Charlie encourages him to do so, saying that he’d rolled over Arvid with no consideration for the young man’s feelings, and that he’d acted like a jerk, and his ideas hadn’t even worked besides. “Mr. Moore, I can’t yell at you. You’re my teacher, my mentor. You’re a god. You can’t just yell at a god.” Arvid has a tendency to, “Fold in the face of authority. Parents; teachers; crossing guards,” so Charlie ultimately has to order Arvid to read him the riot act. “It was my radio station,” Arvid finally, sheepishly confesses. With growing confidence, he adds, “It was my special thing and you pushed me out. You rolled right over me without even considering my feelings. You got carried away with your own ideas, which don’t seem to have worked, and for a teacher and a mentor, you acted like a jerk! How was that?” In case it wasn’t clear, Arvid literally just repeats back the self-deprecating things Charlie had said about himself a second ago.
One Video Toaster flip transition later, they return to the studio just as Dennis is placing the audience on hold with the soothing sounds of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra. Everyone’s excited to hear how their show is doing, and both Arvid and Charlie make a stab at a noble lie about it raising some interest, but then give in and admit that no one’s listening. He suggests that they regroup, with Arvid coming up with a new programming schedule.
It’s at this point that I realize that even when the other students were being included in the planning process, it was still all Charlie’s ideas. Dennis doing a comedy show? Charlie’s idea. War of the Worlds? Charlie’s idea. He made lots of proposals for different shows the students could do, but there’s no spot where he actually solicited show ideas from them. Now see? That’s a perfectly good example of Charlie getting carried away. Why didn’t they focus on that side of things instead of zeroing in on the idea that the radio station was Arvid’s by right? It would be very easy to make this episode about Charlie doing the thing that I’ve been accusing Arvid of doing: treating the radio station as his own personal thing and ignoring the community it’s actually for. But there’s very little focus on that, compared with the intense push to make Arvid the hero here. For 90 percent of the running time, they act like moral problem here is that it’s Charlie and not Arvid who’s acting like he owns the place.
They do pull out of the tailspin, when Arvid, now that his dominance has been reestablished, is perfectly happy to build a new schedule based on the show idea proposed by the others. Maria suggests a homework helper show, and Arvid’s excited about the idea. Arvid even suggests that Mr. Moore do a jazz show. Charlie gives a forced smile that hints he’s planning to bow out. Lest we forget this is a comedy, Dennis proposes a fictional series about a group of Las Vegas showgirls who move in with a “chubby-yet-virile high school genius”. Charlie interrupts Arvid’s reservations by pointing out that, since it’s radio, Arvid could play the lead.
The tag wraps up the B-plot. Eric is unthrilled after his night of chamber music. When Dennis presses him for details, he explains that Simone got sick and gave her ticket away. He doesn’t want to say to whom, but Janice passes by and stops to return the comb he’d dropped at the concert. Her girl scout meeting had been canceled. She blows him a kiss and dreamily rolls her eyes, and this is charming instead of creepy. We freeze-frame on Dennis, having been threatened with violence if he laughs, blowing Eric a kiss of his own.
Well okay then. This… Did not really go the way I was hoping. I haven’t watched Head of the Class in a very long time, so my memories had kinda cut out the bits I didn’t want to remember, and my imagination inflated the War of the Worlds sequence beyond the fairly small role it actually plays. I’m disappointed about that. I’ll have to go back and watch the musical episodes to see if those too don’t really contain much musical.
This show… Going back to ’80s sitcoms is always a difficult experience for me. This episode wasn’t really all that bad; my reaction to the plot is more about my personal distaste for nerd-plots, and that in turn is more about my own sense of shame at the years I spent embracing the toxic parts of nerd culture along with the good ones.
But the style of the show over all was strangely alienating to me. The past is a different country. When I watch modern comedies, I’m disappointed by the reveling in awkwardness and the dominance of characters who are pretty much just remixes of Homer Simpson, and I yearn for the days of mouthy kids and silly walks. But when I actually watch those old sitcoms, even when they’re funny, it’s like I’m watching people from a different planet. Mars, perhaps. Most of the humor in Head of the Class comes from very cliche stereotypes played entirely straight. Maybe that plays into which characters get focus too — Dennis and Arvid and Eric actually get to say and do things, because the things they say and do serve their stereotypes. Have Dennis be a prankster. Have Eric be a greaser. Have Arvid be a nerd. Alan and Janice get the next most lines because they both have a shtick. Everyone else is marginalized. I suppose we’re lucky that they didn’t decide to fill the episode with Jawarhalal doing Funny Foreigner shtick.
And it’s a slightly odd collection of shticks for the context, isn’t it? I mean, Arvid and Eric seem to come from the fifties, and Alan is the only over-the-top Reaganite High School Student I’ve ever even heard of aside from Alex P. Keaton. There’s a surprising number of jokes and references to old-time radio, including a Jack Benny reference I had to look up. And, of course, the show as a whole is clearly drawing heavily from at least one specific 1970s sitcom. I probably shouldn’t be surprised to find an ’80s sitcom trading on the nostalgia of aging Baby Boomers. But to see it in a show with an explicitly high-school premise is weird. And a little interesting when you consider that 1989 might well mark the point where targeting the Boomer demographic switches from basing itself on being contemporary and starts shifting over to being nostalgic.
But why am I surprised at that? After all, it’s March, 1989. And we all know what else happened on TV in March, 1989…
- Head of the Class is not available on home video, probably due to licensing issues with the music. However, a pretty substantial cache of off-air recordings have been uploaded to youtube here.