This series broke a lot of ground when it came to race relations, largely because it often went out of its way to leave race out of the equation.
Room 222Distributor: Shout! Factory
Cast: Lloyd Haynes, Denise Nicholas, Michael Constantine, Karen Valentine
First date: 1969
US Release Date: 2004-03-24
Pete Dixon: “Right, I’m a teacher. I’m here to teach.”
Alice Johnson: “Well, I’d better ask you straight out, do you prefer colored or Negro or black?”
Pete Dixon: “I’ve always preferred Pete.”
Premiering in 1969, Room 222 tackled issues such as race, class, and sexual politics while balancing drama with comedy. Current television is no stranger to the high school setting, but Room 222 was one of the first to focus so closely on it as a primary location. There is also more attention on the teachers and administration than on the usual teen dramas. In fact, some episodes barely even focus on the students at all.
Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes) is the young, inspiring history teacher that students can both look up to and relate to, and his ideals are above reproach. His partner in crime at Walt Whitman High School is Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas), the school’s guidance counselor and Dixon’s girlfriend. Principal Seymour Kauffman (Michael Constantine) is the long-suffering bureaucrat who plays up his gruff exterior, yet it’s clear it’s only an act. Student teacher Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine) rounds out the principle cast as eager, inexperienced, and at times not too far removed from the students in the classroom.
The series centers on subjects as varied as teenage marriage, students with low self-esteem, dress code debates, and a teacher’s strike. With a recurring cast of students and a slew of guest stars (Bob Balaban, Teri Garr, Ron Rifkin, and Nancy Wilson, among others), the series keeps things fresh. The audience gets to know characters such as overachieving Richie, shy Helen, rebellious Jason, or Bernie, the class clown. They receive a fuller treatment as the season progresses while the audience is introduced to other students at Whitman High.
One of the series’ highlights is in the relationships between the four main characters. Haynes plays Pete with a great deal of charisma and it is easy to believe he is the kind of teacher who is fully invested in his students. Pete’s easy rapport with Kauffman provides both effective tension when needed, as well as a believable friendship. Liz’s relationship with Pete allows them to discuss school matters from a different perspective and she and Pete are both instrumental in nurturing Alice as a teacher. Valentine’s Alice displays a charming exuberance and an infectious enthusiasm that makes her perfect student teacher.
Although many of the issues that are the provenance of today’s high school shows (feeling like an outcast, struggling academically, being unsure of the future, etc.) such as 90210 or One Tree Hill are addressed, Room 222 is just as concerned with the relationships between teachers and students and among teachers themselves. It is refreshing to actually see scenes in a classroom where students are learning and teachers are teaching, rather than using the setting as a background for exaggerated drama or broad comedy.
Pressured to make the series a more traditional comedy sitcom, series creator James L. Brooks, along with the writers and cast, were more interested in stories of dramatic resonance. While the show retained moments of levity (Principal Kauffman’s dry, sarcastic sense of humor was used especially well to comedic effect), Room 222 was really an early incarnation of the more commonplace dramedy seen on television today.
A nicely packaged box set, unfortunately, the picture quality varies throughout the season. A note included on the box states that “DVDs created from best surviving video masters”, and some video masters are grainy and discolored, while others are much more crisp and sharp.
The only extra included is a featurette titled Forty Years On that includes interviews with creator Brooks, writer Allan Burns, and cast members Nicholas and Constantine. Their candid thoughts are beyond the typical superficial, congratulatory talking heads. Instead they offer real insight into what went into creating the series. Constantine says, “Let’s tell it like it is. There were bigots in the network, you know, that weren’t crazy about the fact that we had an integrated show.” In addition, Nicholas discusses her struggle to represent the African-American community as realistically as possible while attempting to manage the expectations of that community at the same time.
Room 222 was a series that broke a lot of ground when it came to race relations, largely because it often went out of its way to leave race out of the equation. Sure, there were stories that dealt with black or Latino students dealing with unfair disadvantages, but even though the series offered an open and direct commentary on race – along with other issues – it was not completely message-oriented. The problems portrayed in the series are tempered with a warmth that shows the series to be less about problems and more about relationships and creating real investment in these characters.