Each week, his name appears as executive producer on the longest running and most successful prime-time animated series in TV history, The Simpsons. He directed, wrote, produced and won three Oscars for 1983’s Houston-made tearjerker Terms of Endearment. He is clearly an entertainment industry icon.
And he got his show-biz TV start (after working in TV news) by co-creating and serving as story editor of a fine little program called Room 222, now new on DVD with a four-disc set of its 1969-70 first season.
The man is James L. Brooks, who used the light approach of an ostensible sitcom (the half-hour program had low-key laugh tracks in its first season, but was really more of a gentle drama) to sell educational messages without seeming heavy-handed. The key was to have likable lead characters, which this show had in Pete Dixon, the cool yet caring teacher, played by Lloyd Haynes; Liz McIntyre, the cool yet caring counselor and Pete’s girlfriend, played by Denise Nicholas; gruff yet warm principal Seymour Kaufman, played by reliable character actor Michael Constantine; and plucky, spunky teacher-in-training Alice Johnson, played by Karen Valentine, to whom the role of America’s sprightly ingenue fell after Sally Field finished with her Gidget phase.
As you can see from that list, the principal (no pun) focus was on teachers and administrators and how they interacted with students, rather than making the students the stars. Today it would probably be reversed. But back then, it worked.
Their Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles looks almost more like a college from the exterior. It has a surprising orderliness and calm sunniness about it, given the turbulent times, but Room 222 was an unusually racially mixed show — sort of like Star Trek on steroids, when it comes to boldly going in that direction. (Haynes and Nicholas played rare African-American leads, not second bananas.) But it wasn’t about race so much as about human beings and universal situations (not fitting in, jealousy, untapped talents, daddy issues, etc.). Still, budding hot-button topics such as drug use, racial conflicts and school violence were tackled, too.
Yes, the show feels awfully dated by today’s standards. But it wasn’t made today. It premiered in the year of Woodstock and the first lunar landing. Give it a break.
Yet while Room 222 is greatly welcome on DVD for its excellent content, I must report that the source material is not good. In the first disc which I’ve previewed, picture quality is very soft in show after show, especially compared to the pristine nature of so many vintage TV series, many of them older than this one. Still, it’s good to have Room 222 in any form.
The show, which ran five seasons, was an immediate critical darling and award-winner. It took home three Emmys for this debut season, including acting awards for Constantine and Valentine and one for outstanding new series.
BTW, other folks got their starts with Room 222 besides a young producer names James L. Brooks, including such actors as Mark Hamill, Bruno Kirby, John Rubinstein and Ed Begley Jr.
As for Brooks, besides The Simpsons, he’s also steered production of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Tracey Ullman Show and Taxi, winning 19 Emmys in the process.
You think Room 222 has a strong pedigree? You’re right. Go to the head of the class — and enjoy.