Dougan (James Henriksen): I am President of the Concerned Parents Association. I can make your life hell!
Emma Wiggins (Kali Rocha): I am the principal of a public school. I’m already there.
— “Field Trip”
NBC’s latest entry into the Russian roulette of ratings warfare is a sitcom set in a New Jersey public school. Scheduled to follow Scrubs, Teachers offers none of that show’s surrealism and invention, but it’s still funnier than a poke in the eye with the sharpest script ever written for Martin, and its first episode, “Substitute”, boasts more laughs than the WB’s entire comedic lineup ever. And yes, that includes Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher.
Teachers straddles the intersection of two of television’s great ley lines. First, it’s set in a school, which makes it part of a long tradition that includes Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Facts of Life, Square Pegs and… um… Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher. Its closest relative, however, is probably the highly successful vintage British sitcom Please, Sir!.
Itself inspired in part by the British movie To Sir With Love, Please, Sir! followed a young teacher struggling to maintain control over a class of rough, tough, but funny kids in a South London high school. If that sounds a little like a certain American sitcom set in Brooklyn, that’s because Welcome Back, Kotter stole almost all its ideas from Please, Sir! without so much as a by-your-leave.
But while Kotter largely overlooked Please, Sir!‘s interest in its educators’ attitudes, enmities and alliances, Teachers is all over this rich, fertile soil like a fast-gro weed. With pleasing symmetry, Teachers U.S. — as it shall now be known in a belated retaliation for the Charlatans U.K. and the English Beat — is also a remake of a British TV show. This is the second major cultural ley line that defines its place in what passes for televisual history. The American TV networks have a tradition of borrowing comedic ideas from Britain, and although there have been some notable successes (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Three’s Company), the general rule is that sitcoms, like Bulgarian nose flute symphonies, do not travel well.
However, NBC seems to have learned a lesson from the abject failure of Coupling U.S. and the success of The Office U.S. For Teachers U.S., the network has purchased the premise, logo, and fonts from the British show, but has completely reworked the format and the ethos of the original to produce a straight-down-the-middle 22-minute American sitcom, where the British show was an hour-long comic drama with considerably fewer jokes.
A moderately controversial depiction of the teaching profession, the British show portrayed its teachers as every bit as childish as their pupils, and revealed that they had absolutely no interest in teaching anyone anything. Teachers U.S. is quick to show us characters who play scratch golf games through the corridors and classrooms of the school, and who grade papers in bars (last one to finish buys the beer), but it still leaves no doubt that America’s teachers all have hearts of gold. And while it pokes gentle, uncontroversial fun at the politics that can dominate the American school system, it prefers to focus on traditional comic elements, like relationships, tart one-liners, and boobs.
A further contrast between these two different instantiations of the same idea is the casting. With faith in their network and a commitment for an entire series, several of the stars of the very popular British show This Life were happy to sign up for Teachers, which ran for four full seasons. The biggest star in Teachers U.S. is Sarah Alexander, another British import, probably best known for her role in the BBC’s original Coupling.
Given American TV’s persistent lack of commitment, it’s slightly surprising to see Alexander make her American debut in yet another remake of yet another British show for the network that failed so badly with Coupling U.S.. But her character, Alice, is paper thin. She’s hot, she speaks like the Queen, and she’s prim to the point of OCD. She’s also the illogical crush of choice for the clinically irreverent but 24-carat-hearted Jeff (Justin Bartha, Nicolas Cage’s nerd sidekick in National Treasure), and an object of disdain for Tina (Sarah Shahi, the ex-Dallas Cowboys cheerleader best known for her role in The L Word). Tina, of course, is the hot new substitute teacher who combines both boobs and cynicism with her own inevitable heart of gold.
Fortunately for all concerned, Kali Rocha plays school principal Emma Wiggins as Megan Mullally-lite, with barely a hint of a circulatory system. Wiggins has to deal with the political conundrums that plague much of American society. However, given the sitcom’s need to dissect life in smart-arse one-liners that leave plenty of time for boobs, these issues are addressed superficially, to say the least. Nonetheless, whether she’s avoiding any possibility of charges of racial bias (“Substitute”) or contending with the Concerned Parents Association (“Field Trip”), the principal’s heart-in-principle is firmly in the right place. Handing down her judgment on an influential parent’s complaint about a school trip to see Romeo and Juliet, she announces, “If I give way on this, then all you kook parents are going to come out of the woodwork”.
If we’re to learn that Emma Wiggins does have a heart, and that it is indeed entirely golden, NBC may have to give this funny but inconsequential show the same levels of love and support it gave The Office U.S. To date, however, the network has yet to schedule even a second episode of Teachers U.S. So catch it while you can.