Instead of going back to school, we’re turning on the TV.
Hey, it’s back to school time!
…he said, with an unsure wariness that belied his omnipresent suspicions that he was finally old enough that his regular frame of reference assured that almost no one reading him was likely to be going back to school right now.
Well, whatever — I committed to the topic. SO!
For as long as there have been schools and classrooms, we’ve been using them as a can’t-miss setting for drama: It’s a fixed situation the characters are generally required to remain in, it’s got its own set of social and cultural hierarchies, most of the occupants tend to be young and thus prone-to/focused-on theatrically-friendly matters of high emotion, it’s a near-universal experience almost everyone in the audience is likely to be familiar with. If you’re trying to set up a compulsively-watchable TV show, what better setup could you ask for?
…Okay, besides that.
But a good TV classroom is often only as good as its TV teacher. Here are ten of the best:
10. COACH CUTLIP
Robert Picardo,The Wonder Years
Before he became a permanent geek icon as one of the only things from Star Trek: Voyager worth a damn, Robert Picardo was meting out “tough love” to schoolboys in the 60s-flashback dramedy The Wonder Years as a gym teacher in an era where that meant playing hard-bitten surrogate-father/drill-instructor to insecure boys.
Typically comic relief, Cutlip is probably best remembered for a Christmas episode where series-lead Kevin discovers the hard-nosed coach’s winter job as a mall Santa — a secret identity he covets because it’s a role where don’t hate him.
9. EIKICHI ONIZUKA
Wataru Tagaki/Steve Blum, Great Teacher Onizuka
Here’s a premise that could only come from the world of late-90s Anime: Eikichi Onizuka, a reformed(ish) gang member, decides to become a school teacher because it will afford him both the respect of and romantic access to a steady supply of eager-to-please schoolgirls. Oh, Anime. What would we do without you?
But in the process of earning his credentials, he discovers a hitherto unknown drive to be both a great educator and a better person — meaning that he resolves to go to any lengths (even unconventional or illegal ones) to become the greatest teacher of all time to his students… and also not to seduce them.
Instead, he chases after their attractive mothers. Baby steps.
8. MR. SLURM
Jude Ciccolella, The Adventures of Pete & Pete
Nickelodeon’s seminal 90s sitcom, possessed of a still hard to define tone and flavor nestled somewhere between Arrested Development and Wes Anderson, had a winning formula: A mountain of kid-friendly idiosyncratic quirk disguised what was otherwise a contemporary counterpart to Wonder Years — sweet-natured middle-Americana with simple homespun growing-up lessons.
“Tool and Die” exemplified this formula: It begins in full weirdness-mode with Big Pete agonizing over having to take a shop class under claw-handed Mr. Slurm and worrying that the “secret project” he’s been assigned is some nefarious sci-fi abomination, but ending with Pete getting called out on his own ego by a teacher who’s more (but also less) than he seems. I remember not being into this episode as a kid, but saw it again as an adult and realized “Oh. That’s what that was about.”
7. HAMATO YOSHI (aka “MASTER SPLINTER”)
Peter Renaday, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Don’t give me that look.
A martial-arts Sensei absolutely counts as a teacher, and given that Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo have all grown into their teens well-versed not only in ninjitsu but also speaking English (which isn’t even Splinter’s first language!) and with expertise in a diverse set of fields and interests it’s clear that Master Splinter — while doubling as a full-time single dad, no less! — did a fine job in teaching his adopted sons all they needed to know.
6. DR. GREGORY HOUSE M.D.
Hugh Laurie, House
Okay, this one might technically be cheating…
House M.D. wasn’t a show about a school or a teacher: It was a darkly-comic Sherlock Holmes update whose acerbic main character solved medical mysteries instead of crimes. But after seeing Dr. House’s three-person team (i.e. almost half of the regular cast) depart at the end of season 3, the show took a different track for the first half of season 4: House brings in 40 hopefuls, assembles them into a lecture-hall classroom and announces his intent to whittle them down to a new trio through mind games and… well, mostly mind-games.
To my mind, “teacher House” was the high-point of the series, in terms of story-arcs. The characters were fun, the lead’s persona lent itself to the gimmick and this was the arc that introduced the world to Olivia Wilde. So it had that going for it.
5. CHARLIE MOORE
Howard Hessman, Head of The Class
The premise? Charlie Moore is an out-of-work actor and aging former hippie feeling lost and burned-out in Reagan’s 80s. He scores a temporary teaching job that he’s told will be a cake-walk — because they mostly just want him to babysit.
See, his “class” is actually an assemblage of teen and child prodigies who make up the otherwise “normal” school’s Honors Program, all geniuses in specialized fields who bolster the school (and its principal) via participation in academic competitions. Their presence in classroom (and Moore’s presence as a teacher) are supposed to be formalities.
However, Moore warmed to his students and committed to teaching them life-skills that their isolated education was keeping them from — which occasionally meant staging productions of musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and Hair.
4. GABE KOTTER
Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back Kotter
Yes, yes. Welcome Back Kotter was the show where America met John Travolta, and that’s how the show went down in pop culture history.
But it was also a passion project for star and co-creator Gabe Kaplan, who conceived the story based partly on his own high school experiences. As Kotter, he returns to teach at the school he attended as a teen, where he was a founding member of a delinquent gang called “The Sweathogs.” He discovers that the Sweathog legacy survives with a new group of underprivileged youth, and resolves to help them make it through like he did.
3. PROFESSOR CHARLES XAVIER
Cedric Smith, X-Men
Fox’s bombastic animated series of the 90s was the place where most non-comic readers first discovered Marvel’s mutant heroes, and thus it was the first place many in a generation of kids were first electrified by its main hook: Misfit teens may actually be natural-born superheroes in waiting, and an invite to a special school by the benevolent Professor X was a ticket to adventure and self-acceptance.
This version of Xavier was slightly different from his comics-incarnation (at the time), less authoritarian, played-up as being significantly older than most of the X-Men and nowhere near as prone to self-loathing or rash decision-making. The showed refocused the franchise’s dramatic through-line on prejudice-metaphor angle, and framed Charles Xavier as nothing less than its moral center, idealized father-figure and (of course) perfect schoolmaster — the guy you’d believe when he told you that if you practiced hard and followed his lead, what made you different could also make you special.
2. GEORGE FEENY
William Daniels, Boy Meets World
I’m exactly old enough that Boy Meets World was mostly “after my time.” When its final episodes were being treated as a “television event,” my reaction was more like “That was still on?” But I’ve come to understand that, for a large swath of Millennials, this show was a cultural touchstone; and revisiting certain episodes, seeing fan-tributes on YouTube and watching the sincere affection that greeted the arrival of [i]Girl Meets World …I get it.
And what I get more than anything is that William Daniels (already an acting icon of the theater and a geek hero as the voice of KITT in Knight Rider) as Mr. Feeny, the lead character’s teacher, next-door neighbor and mentor, was the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the suburbs to a legion of fans: A voice of genuine inspiration, morality and fortitude whose words of encouragement and caution, by all accounts, still echo in the minds of an entire generation. What more is there to say?
1. EDNA KRABAPPLE-FLANDERS
Marcia Wallace, The Simpsons
Who else could it have been?
The recent, record-setting Simpsons Marathon confirmed, for me, that I’d been right about the supposed “decline” in overall quality of the greatest of all television sitcoms (animated or otherwise) being greatly exaggerated. But one thing was for certain: Even though it’s still painfully recent, the now-ongoing absence of Edna Krabapple (following the death of voice-actress Marcia Wallace) is going to leave a gaping, unmistakable hole in the show’s universe — complete with the final sting of knowing that the unforeseen plot turn robs her and Ned Flanders of what looked like a happy ending they’d both more than earned.
Edna Krabapple isn’t simply the funniest and most interesting fictional educator in the history of television (and not just for the laudable act of surviving two decades of daily dealings with Bart Simpson!), she was one of the most immediately complete supporting characters in all of Springfield — the first adult woman on the series to receive real characterization outside of Marge, to start with.
Watching The Simpsons as a kid, it was a shock to my system when the show started asking me to care about Mrs. Krabapple. She was frequently the “enemy” to Bart, the character a boy my age couldn’t help but identify with, and even when she wasn’t among the nominal villains she hardly evidence the kindly “Glinda the Good Witch” benevolence that signified a “good guy” teacher on other shows; so when episodes popped up where I was clearly meant to sympathize with her as the victim of Bart’s mischief rather than cheer him on the whole time? That was a big deal.
Edna was brash, rude, was visibly tired of her job much of the time, drank, smoked and had an active(ly disappointing) sex life. This was just not the kind of woman I was used to seeing on TV as one of the good guys. Sure, like everyone else in Springfield, her luckless foibles were played mostly for laughs, but there was reality underneath. Mrs. Krabapple was, at the end of the day, a survivor — not of some grand disaster or terrible trauma, but of life. Her job was thankless, her pay low, her marriage had collapsed at some point in the recent past… yet she was still showing up for work, trying to educate seemingly hopeless cases like Bart Simpson and Nelson Muntz.
We’ll miss you, Mrs. K.