Head of the Class: The Complete Fourth Season
I’m thrilled that Warner Archive has been releasing this late 1980s sitcom to DVD. I always liked this show, as I was labeled a “gifted and talented” student in my school days. (Don’t know what to do with smart kids who get bored easily? Give them more work.) It’s about an honors history class in a New York City high school, taught by aspiring actor Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman). I enjoyed this sitcom, both then and now.
Out this coming week is Head of the Class: The Complete Fourth Season, with 24 episodes on three DVDs and no extras or special features. (The episodes “Reel Problems” and “Recruitment Day”, which originally aired as part of season 4 in 1990, were made during season 3, and they’re included on that DVD set.) The studio sent me a copy for review.
The students are:
- Arvid (Dan Frischman), the geek of geeks (even in a group of smart kids, there’s still going to be one that’s geekier)
- Darlene (Robin Givens), polished and accomplished, the pretty one, but snobby
- Simone (Khrystyne Haje), the artsy poet
- Alan (Tony O’Dell), the politician, a baby conservative in sweater vests
- Eric (Brian Robbins), the tough kid in leather, secretly an accomplished writer, and with an on-and-off relationship with Simone
- Sarah (Kimberly Russell), whose main characteristic was that she was nice (the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with her, but sometimes she organized things)
- Dennis (Dan Schneider), an obnoxious jokester, the class clown, who often makes up a comedy duo with Arvid
In seasons 1-3, there were three additional kids, who were written out with absences explained through lines in the first episode of this season, “Back to School”.
- Janice (Tannis Vallely), a true prodigy, as she was not yet in her teens but going to high school
- Maria (Leslie Bega), an aspiring singer
- Jawaharlal (Joher Coleman), there to be South Asian
New this season are other students:
- Aristotle (De’voreaux White), an aspiring filmmaker and painter
- Viki (Lara Piper), an airhead blonde with a frizzy perm who’s into new age crystals, animal rights, and quantum physics
- Alex (Michael DeLorenzo), somewhat athletic, who’s transferred from an all-boys parochial school, eager to meet girls
- T.J. (Rain Pryor), who previously appeared a couple of times in season 3. This character is intriguing, as she’s a discipline problem in the remedial group who keeps trying to get into the class. As written, she flirts with the “angry Black” stereotype, but she also comes off, given the costuming, as potentially asexual, or at least less gender-specific. (All the other girls in the class are shown as attractive, with no “girl geek” types.) Unfortunately, the actress seems at times to be trying too hard, yelling most of her lines.
As I mentioned above, typical of a sitcom that’s been around for a few years, this season begins with cast changes. Hesseman was back with one of those white-guy skinny ponytails. (It was 1989 when this season debuted.) This was his last season — Billy Connolly took over as the teacher for the next, the fifth, which was also the last.
The plots of the first few episodes are rather silly. Eric and Simone want to date other people. Darlene’s new ring, a family heirloom, goes missing. A student gets a crush on a teacher. There’s a dance contest, and it interferes with academics.
With the second disc, some of the episodes become more poignant or thoughtful. What does it mean to mourn when one student loses an elderly relative and another a dog? Should you make a deal with the devil to get a good grade? (Featuring the immortal Richard Libertini as the tempter in a snazzy red suit.) Should Arvid get a nose job?
There’s a lot of romance — both attempted dating and ill-fated feelings — among the characters this season. Which leads to the occasional “come on, girl, smile, for me?” cringe-worthy dialogue. That’s not the only type of joke that doesn’t age well. In the first episode, there are some comments about the hair of the Black characters that made me cringe. But there are some solid laughs, as well.
A favorite episode for me was the one where Arvid is one of the judges for prom queen. That leads to people trying to pressure and blackmail him. This one heavily resembled an Archie comic, particularly when Arvid ends up taking three girls, separately, to the dance.
I also appreciated some that reminded me of the era. There’s a two-parter where Arvid and Dennis have a chance to get their experiment onto the space shuttle, and it affects their friendship. These were filmed at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
There’s also the requisite “athletic star can’t read” Very Special episode. And one that manages to be about gender expectations, egotism, cheating, and intellectual property when it turns out tough-guy Erik can sew and design women’s clothing.
Another high point was the two-part musical. In previous seasons, the cast did versions of Grease and Little Shop of Horrors. This time, it’s Hair, which leads to debates on artistic creativity, as the principal and another teacher object to the choice of show. The plot doesn’t quite come together, but there are some good renditions of the musical numbers. Plus, a young John Cameron Mitchell and the classic Elaine Stritch guest-star.
Later in the season, a new student joins, played by Jonathan Ke Quan, aka Ke Huy Quan, who was in The Goonies and played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Other plots include Dennis saving Simone’s life. Mr. Moore gets help with his acting career when there’s a call for casting a Woody Allen movie. The final episode, “Teacher’s Pet”, features Eric and Mr. Moore competing to date a writer of sexy historical fiction and night-class teacher (Debra Sandlund).
This is not an outstanding sitcom, or a historically important one, but it’s well-done, if typical, and still brought some laughs.