Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Room 222 - Social Relevance from the Early '70s

Room 222

"Room 222," so far as I know, has never played in re-runs. As in, nowhere. Ever. It is one of those mystery shows, like "Ironside," that apparently, at least to someone's way of thinking, wore out its welcome during its fairly healthy initial run. It's a real shame, because this show is a treasure that deserves to be seen. It dealt with cutting-edge issues of the day during those years of student protests and anti-war demonstrations, and reveals just how much we have changed.

Now, of course, "222" would seem anything but cutting edge, which is a good thing because it shows our progress since then. It simply deals with black teacher Lloyd Haynes struggling against bureaucratic pressures, exemplified (but usually moderated) by the fine Michael Constantine as the principal, to help his students stay in school and make something of themselves. Nothing dramatic about that. Absolutely routine - by today's standards. But not by those of 1969.

Room 222 Lloyd Haynes Denise Nicholas
Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas.

My memory is fuzzy, but I seem to recall that "222" was aired on the same night as comedies like "Love, American Style" and "The Brady Bunch," on ABC. Anyway, whether or not that is true, the contrast was striking. This was the heyday of bubblegum shows like "The Flying Nun" and "The Partridge Family" and rural comedies set in mythic small-town America. Seemingly half of the CBS schedule was set in Shady Junction or the Clampetts' mansion or Mayberry RFD when "222" premiered. Socially relevant shows were very few and far between. Like "The Mod Squad," this show was a very adventurous step for its day. Unlike "Squad" and "Brady Bunch," nobody seems to recall "222."

Room 222 Michael Constantine Karen Valentine
There was an underlying tension between the characters of Michael Constantine and Karen Valentine. Was it romantic?

Lloyd Haynes was perfect as the "Let's all just get along" teacher, and Karen Valentine was her usual perky self as his sidekick. Micheal Constantine was outstanding as a gruff administrator with a heart of gold. But the performances were secondary. Just seeing an African-American in a position of authority and bringing people together made this show stand out.

I'm guessing that this was intended to be nothing more than a low-rent rip-off of the previous year's classic "To Sir, With Love" starring Sidney Poitier. If so, it accomplished that goal and then some. "222" was only one small step for TV away from the mindlessness of the past, but it was a giant leap toward "realistic" shows like "All In The Family" and "MASH." I just wish people today could see it and learn what a fine show it was.


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