After watching the pilot for The Education of Max Bickford, one is tempted to quibble over whether a college student would scream “suckface” at her professor before receiving her final grade, or more importantly, whether James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was really “the first... articulate and enraged black voice heard by white America,” it being published in 1963, ten years after Malcolm X began preaching in New York, not to mention earlier works by Richard Wright, Frederick Douglass, and many others.
But academic minutia aside, it is refreshing to see a prime-time show about a history professor, not to mention the only show to star two Oscar winners and the first to feature a regular transgendered character. The series’ premise is the reeducation of a grumpy, socially backward college professor. Executive producers Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin molded the show especially for Richard Dreyfuss, whose credits include Jaws, American Graffiti, and a 1978 Oscar for The Goodbye Girl. Reportedly, Dreyfuss wanted to play “himself” as a history professor, and indeed, Max Bickford does look like a crabbier version of frustrated but talented music teacher Mr. Holland of Mr. Holland’s Opus, for which Dreyfuss received an Oscar nomination (whether or not Mr. Holland is “himself” is another question).
Bickford is a widowed college professor in the midst of a midlife crisis. Out of touch with his colleagues and students at a women’s college, as well as his daughter Nell (Katee Sackhoff), he’s been passed over for an endowed chair, and so, decides to resign. By the end of the premiere episode, however, he goes back to work and even accepts the position of a department chair, inspired by, of all things, his son Lester’s (Eric Ian Goldberg) good-natured tenacity after the kid wasn’t picked for his school’s basketball team. The rest of the series promises to trace Bickford’s transformation into a passionate teacher, caring father, and generous colleague.
Luckily, Max Bickford teaches in an environment that would be desired by many real-life academics. Chadwick College’s student body is far more racially diverse than that of Massachusetts’ elite Smith College, after which Chadwick was modeled. Bickford’s friends include a black college president Judith Hackett Bryant (Regina Taylor), a black faculty member, a black department chair, and his black AA advisor, a sage mechanic. His personal life has its good points as well. All Max’s friends are smart and articulate, often more so than Bickford himself. He has a remarkably close relationship with his son, and his teenaged daughter trusts him enough to confess that she might be pregnant.
Still, he’s feeling challenged by Andrea Haskell (Marcia Gay Harden), Bickford’s new colleague, ex-student, and former lover. She has already published three books, taught at Harvard, and won the endowed chair coveted by Bickford. Her books include Class and Gender in the Music of Bruce Springsteen and Sexual Violence in American Culture. In other words, Haskell’s intellectual ambition and flair contrast with Bickford’s conservatism—he has been teaching the same three courses for twenty years. He calls her a “cheap popularizer” and “academic sellout.” When she argues that “Popular culture reflects the value of a people,” he retorts, “It’s not history, it’s current events.” Harden is perfect as Haskell, an outspoken and smart woman confronting a doddy, confused, but talented man, a role reminiscent of her portrayal of painter Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife and far more articulate intellectual companion. Presumably, in future episodes, Bickford and Haskell will move beyond name-calling (admittedly hilarious in its realism) in their debate about rigor in American studies and history. Otherwise, Harden might get tired of being a foil for Dreyfuss’s character and look for work elsewhere. She certainly can—she received a Best Supporting Oscar for Pollock after signing up for Bickford.
Using such a great assembly of actors and characters, the show’s star and executive producers hope to reproduce the commercial success and critical acclaim of The West Wing, also starring an accomplished movie actor, Martin Sheen. Indeed, Dreyfuss told the New York Times that he took the role because of the high quality of writing on successful shows like NBC’s The West Wing and ABC’s The Practice. But Max Bickford‘s scripts don’t yet have the rhythm, urgency, and purpose of those by Aaron Sorkin and David Kelley. What makes these two shows so great is their ability to cogently explain and take a stand on controversial issues, often with clever humor and irony.
Bickford has yet to strike the right balance between outspoken politics and a desire not to offend. Politically, Max Bickford is hard to pin down: we don’t know what he is for, we don’t know what he is against. He recites from work by black bisexual novelist James Baldwin in class, but professes to teach “dead white guy” history. He ponders his conscientious objector views when teaching about the Vietnam War, but ends his lecture on Hiroshima with an appeal to students’ duty to die for their country. Most importantly, none of the teaching scenes show Bickford presenting conflicting historical interpretations of a controversial issue so that students can form an informed independent view of their own. For example, his summary of the ethical dilemmas Americans faced before dropping the bomb on Hiroshima concentrates on one question: “Should we have warned the Japanese… so they could remove innocent civilians?” When a student asks, “Are you saying that we should never have dropped the bomb?” he barks, “No,” and suggests that students look at the evidence and develop their own opinions. A responsible history teacher would emphasize and discuss the ramifications of the student’s question.
Out of class, Bickford does spout strong opinions, usually having to do with his hangups about gender and sexuality. First, he resents his friend Steve’s transformation into the transgendered Erica (Helen Shaver). Then, he says that he didn’t get the endowed chair because of “sexism” and “ageism.” More importantly, Bickford’s criticism of his female students accompanies a strangely skewed representation of what contemporary students are like. All Chadwick students appearing in the pilot are rude, silly, or dishonest rich brats who demand high grades they didn’t earn, download term papers from the internet, and suck up to professors for letters of recommendation. Bickford tells them all off, with sarcasm so biting that it borders on verbal abuse. He observes that students “care about saving the whales and they don’t want their mascara tested on some cute little bunny, but they don’t seem to care about social justice and the fact of human suffering.” This distinction, funny as it may be in Dreyfuss’s delivery, ignores the fact that most student protests in recent years, including WTO demonstrations in Seattle and DC, have been built on coalitions between environmentalist, social activist, and identity-based groups. But of course, the main irony of his ranting about students’ apathy is that a realistic representation of contemporary student activism might never make it to this show just as it did not make it to the network news programs.
Bickford repeatedly promises to teach students “a way to approach the world with a critical eye.” In order to offer something similar for viewers, The Education of Max Bickford would have to include issues current on college campuses, for example, economic globalization, and more recently, anti-war demonstrations and hate crimes against Arab American students. But given that producers may be mindful of CBS’s older, more conservative viewer demographics, Bickford is in danger of becoming a sweet family drama, like Prestwich and Yorkin’s Judging Amy, about a single mother who is also a family court judge, or worse, like Touched by an Angel, the saccharine sermon that had Bickford‘s time slot last year. In its first episode, Bickford huffs and puffs about “critical perspectives” and history as a “larger context,” but does not show what a critical perspective on major historical and contemporary events would look like.