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Room 222: Season One

Shout Factory // G // March 24, 2009
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted February 23, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
I recently commented in my review of the musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips that 1969 was a bellwether year for musical films, and not in a good way. Similarly, the 1969-70 television season was a bellwether year for ABC, but thankfully in this instance mostly in a good way. After struggling against behemoths CBS and NBC for most of the 60s, ABC had managed to carve out a few sizable hits like Bewitched by the time the 1969-70 season rolled around, but it still found itself routinely ensconced in third place among the then "Big Three" networks. The movie world was struggling with the "youth audience" after such counterculture success stories like The Graduate and Easy Rider, and television, always a year or two behind the curve (despite ABC's well-received The Mod Squad from the previous season), was trying to find that desirable demographic as well as fall 1969 approached, and no network courted it more steadfastly than the American Broadcasting Company.

It's perhaps ironic then that ABC's biggest success story of the year was the semi-geriatric Marcus Welby, M.D. (albeit with the studly presence of a young James Brolin to reel in the youngsters), but ABC was out there swinging for the fences, if not exactly connecting each time. While the season had the notorious early burn-outs of the two quite innovative 45 minute long series The New People and The Music Scene (simply unable to compete against the Laugh-In juggernaut), ABC managed to find at least middling success with a wave of new series that helped to pave the way for the network's eventual prime time dominance which started a few years later. The best of these shows by far, at least in my not so humble opinion, was the lovely and heartfelt high school dramedy Room 222, a series that not only adroitly addressed the angst of youth of that era, but brought a charmingly adult sensibility to its low key "grown up" interrelationships.

I should probably state up front that I have a soft spot in my heart for this series for a very personal reason. If there's anything geekier than being part of the AV Society in high school culture, it's probably being on the staff of the high school literary magazine. Confession time: not only was I on the staff, I was Assistant Editor and Business Manager. I at least have the comfort of knowing that our particular literary magazine had the rather unique cachet of being the first (and I believe probably still the only) high school class to successfully sell a script to a major television series, and that was indeed Room 222. This was not until the third season, but it was a big deal at the time and we had visits from cast members and a lot of local press attention and it's a memory I still cherish to this day.

Room 222 was a subtly groundbreaking series that didn't scream out for attention, but rather commanded it quietly, much like a good teacher. That good teacher was personified by lead character Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), an everyman instructor in the time honored tradition of Mister Novak or, perhaps, a much less nerdy Mister Peepers, someone who always seemed to "get" the kids even when (and perhaps especially when) no one else did. It just so happened that Dixon was African American, as was his girlfriend, Walt Whitman High counselor Lix McIntyre (the incredibly lovely Denise Nicholas). That "just so happened" is put to some good, if purposefully awkward, repartee when Dixon's student teacher, Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine, who became something of a sensation in this role), a young white girl prone to malapropisms, asks what Dixon prefers, to be called "colored, Negro or black" (this was in the days before African-American, of course). Dixon gives her a charming smile and responds, "I prefer Pete." That's the sort of low key humor mixed with some not very subtle, yet still effective, social commentary for which Room 222 was justly commended.

(A propos of Valentine, I must add in a sidebar here that I was intrigued and perhaps appalled to realize how much she looks and especially sounds like a certain female Governor of Alaska who made national news last year. I couldn't help but wonder if Sarah Palin's teacher father--he in fact taught my niece who went on to become an Alaska public school teacher herself--had Sarah watch reruns of Room 222 as she was growing up. I didn't see Valentine wink at the audience in any episodes, thankfully).

James L. Brooks was still a few years away from the best-remembered success of his early career, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, when he created and served as executive story editor for Room 222. If the high school series is less ostensibly funny than Mary's show was, it shares the Moore show's gentle sensibilities and very human characters. There are no real villains in the world of Room 222, just occasionally misguided youth and adults who are struggling to make decent decisions in an increasingly complex and at times troubling world.

While Room 222 attempted, in its own at times basic and heartfelt way, to tackle some of the serious issues of the day like race relations and the old standby teenage rebellion, it managed, most of the time at least, to shy away from outright preaching. Haynes' underplaying is probably most responsible for this lack of proselytizing, managing to make Pete a mouthpiece for everything noble and honorable without ever making him didactic or soporific. Principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine) and his ultra-dry sarcasm mixed with an unfailingly jaded ennui also help to keep things grounded. (I of course was thrilled to have a character with my surname, even if spelled slightly differently).

While the heyday of Room 222 didn't really start until the second season (the show languished somewhat in the ratings the first year until it won the Best New Series Emmy), there is such a wholesomeness and honesty of emotions in these early episodes that it's hard not to be impressed by them. Along with the semi-regular recurring students (Judy Strangis as shy Helen, David Jolliffe as red-head "Afro" wearer Bernie, Heshimu as sullen black kid Jason, and Howard Rice as Jason's flipside, overachiever black kid Richie) are augmented by some fun guest turns by such very young stars as Teri Garr, Cindy Williams and John Rubinstein. Adult guest stars in this first season include the great Kenneth Mars, Mary Tyler Moore's Dick Van Dyke neighbor Ann Morgan Guilbert, Paul Winfield, and, as a Walt Whitman alum who's gone on to a successful singing career, Nancy Wilson.

In this first season, the show still sports a somewhat subdued yet occasionally intrusive laugh track. (By the time cast members came to visit my high school, the show, like The Odd Couple would do a few years later, had dropped the fake laughter and I asked about it. Judy Strangis seemed very impressed that I had noticed that and I felt incredibly cool for a few minutes. It didn't last). On the other hand, it also sports one of the loveliest television themes ever written for series television, Jerry Goldsmith's childlike yet quite complex 7/4 composition that prominently features the ocarina. (The ocarina had something of a heyday in 1969, also being prominently featured on Burt Bacharach's "Pacific Coast Highway" from his bestselling Make it Easy on Yourself album from that year).

Room 222 was a significant, if completely unassuming, series at a time when racial tensions had reached a boiling point and had, in fact, exploded in the previous several years. Having two African American leads was quietly earthshaking in its day, and Haynes and Nicholas made for one of the most "real" and gently authoritative couples of the late 60s and early 70s. Despite taking place in the crowded inner city of Los Angeles, Room 222 made Walt Whitman High seem like a place that even spoiled, upper middle class white kids like I was would want to attend. Pete Dixon was the kind of teacher everyone wanted, but few of us got to experience firsthand. Luckily, there was this show to give us at least a vicarious experience of great teaching from a caring and thoughtful adult, and we can experience it now again on this great DVD release of the first season.


You may, like I did, get a momentary pit in your stomach when you view the pilot episode. It looks like it was mastered from a third or fourth generation videotape, with horribly blanched color, unbelievable softness and degradation of image (to the point where you can't even make out backgrounds at times), and scratching and other debris. It's a mess, there's no other way to say it. Fortunately things improve at least nominally starting with the second episode. While there's still damage throughout the first season's 26 episodes, sharpness and especially color improve dramatically. Room 222 was completely filmed, so you have a somewhat grainy, soft texture to all of this first season, with nothing approaching digital perfection. But the pilot is the worst of the bunch and once you're past that, the image is at least passable if never superb. The packaging states that the DVDs "were created from best surviving video masters," so obviously Shout! is aware of the problem. Hopefully subsequent seasons are in better shape.

The mono soundtracks have survived in much better shape, with above average clarity and, surprisingly, no egregious hiss or dropouts. Goldsmith's theme has some "wobble" on the pilot, and some underscore exhibits similar symptoms, but overall this is a decent soundtrack. No subtitles are available.

A nice interview with Brooks, Nicholas and Constantine contains some reminscences of what the show was like to work on. (Haynes sadly died from cancer in 1986).

Final Thoughts:
What a lovely, lovely show Room 222 was. Simple, succinct, heartfelt and genuine, it puts much flashier and gaudier shows to shame with its basic goodness. Haynes, Nicholas, Constantine and Valentine made a most appealing lead quartet, the stories were always compelling if never very earth shattering in their import, and the whole enterprise served to give people hope that public education could be filled with excellent teachers imparting wisdom as well as knowledge. I love this show, in case you haven't figured that out yet, and am thrilled it's finally out on DVD. Highly recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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