I know what you’re thinking. I also do not know why Bennett the Sage, Rick Springfield, Pearl Mackie, Paul Ryan, and Elizabeth Berkley are in this picture, nor why half of them appear to have Hitler mustaches. It was the ’80s.
Charlie: So to wrap it up, Ronald Reagan is known as the “teflon president”, because nothing sticks to him.
Alan: In that case, I guess you’d call Jimmy Carter the “velcro president” because everything sticks to him.
Charlie: What does that make Richard Nixon?
Sarah: The Saran Wrap president. Covered everything up, but you could still see through him.
I need a palate cleanser. Let’s back up, just a bit. It is March 8, 1989, a week I have already covered in all the detail I care to, aside from mentioning that The Heidi Chronicles opens on Broadway today. When they did it at Loyola back in ’99, my next-door-neighbor played the lead. She asked me how to pronounce “Artemisia Gentileschi”. I’ve spent the following nineteen years trying not to find out if I was right.
I’ve never talked about an individual episode of a sitcom before, I think. I mean, not as the primary focus of an entire article. I’ve padded a few out with digressions about them. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a retrospective on Sabrina the Teenage Witch at some point because it would be something different, but it’s hard to draw out enough words about an episode when most episodes are twenty-two minutes of one-liners glued together by five minutes of story. But like I said, I need a palate cleanser.
What possible connection do you think there could be Howard Hessman and War of the Worlds? If you said, “I bet WKRP in Cincinatti did an homage to the the 1938 radio play,” then YOU FOOL! You fell for my obvious trap! No, impossible as it may sound, there won’t be so much as an oblique reference to Doctor Johnny Fever in our source material tonight. Instead, we’re going to drop in on a later Hessman vehicle, the late ’80s sitcom Head of the Class.
Head of the Class was a successful ’80s sitcom which was basically Welcome Back Kotter with geniuses. Hessman plays Charlie Moore, a failed actor turned long-term substitute history teacher, who ends up spending four years teaching the students of Millard Fillmore High School’s “Individualized Honors Program”. They’re not exactly Sweat Hogs, but rather a diverse group of students, luckily representing a wide array of traditional sitcom high school stereotypes. We’ve got the pocket-protector’d and bespectacled 1950s nerd Arvid, the overweight prankster Dennis, the Reagan-worshipping ultra-conservative preppy Alan, the highly driven rich girl Darleen (played by a pre-Mike Tyson Robin Givens), the sensitive and artistic good-girl Simone, the Indian exchange student Jawaharlal, Eric the ’50s greaser, pre-teen super-genius Janice, the vaguely new-agey Maria, and Sarah, who was basically normal so the audience would have someone to identify with. The cast was rounded out with the antagonistic and reputation-obsessed principal, Dr. Samuels, and his administrative assistant Bernadette, Charlie’s never-paid-off-potential-love-interest.
And Billy Connoly as the War Doctor Johnny Fever
Spring of 1989 keeps us in the “classic” era of the show. The next season would see the cast start to shake up with some departures and new arrivals, and the final season (Yeah, it takes these honors students five years to finish high school. The last two seasons are supposed to represent a single year with an inexplicable surplus of Christmases) would see Charlie replaced by Billy Connoly as Billy MacGregor. Connoly would continue the role in the terrible spin-off Billy, which would move him to California and stick him in a sham green card marriage. But all that is in the future, and a part of the future that’s well outside of our scope.
No, today we’re stopping by to have a look at episode sixteen of the third season, “Radio Activity”, due to a plot point that turns out to be smaller in reality than it was in my memory. In a show with such a large cast, not everyone got equal play every week. Hessman, of course, as the main lead, gets to be front-and-center in every episode, but otherwise, an episode tends to zero in on one or two of the students for the main plot, with a different student or two for a minor and unrelated side-plot that bookends the episode.
It’s not an overwhelming preference, and in fact, it might just be my memory cheating, but I feel like Dennis and Arvid were picked for character focus a bit more than the others. Their relationship fits into a couple of classic comedy-duo tropes: the fat guy and the thin guy, the buffoon and the straight-man, the bully and the doormat, the jerk and the woobie. They’re a dumber Leonard and Sheldon, a smarter Laurel and Hardy, a younger Abbot and Costello, a classier Bulk and Skull. Also, they’re white and male which I’m guessing endeared them to the writers.
This episode in particular belongs primarily to Arvid. We’re back in the ’80s, well before the ascendancy of nerd culture, so you shouldn’t expect this character to be especially nuanced. As I said before, he draws on a nerd aesthetic that was retro even at the time. Pocket protector. Coke-bottle glasses. Deviated septum. Love of chess. Eminently wedgie-able. Arvid is part of the tradition of television nerds that will soon lead us down the dark path of the Ur-kel. It is a portrayal that has a great deal of ugliness stuck around it. It is not an empathetic portrayal: we are meant to laugh at, not with such characters, view their abuse and mistreatment as no less than they deserve. And yet, even at its worst, television is an inherently sympathetic medium. No one’s going to make a TV show where the goal is for you to root for the bully, teaching that sensitive kid an important life-lesson about how he should learn to conform if he doesn’t want to be sexually assaulted with a broom handle. At least, not until Parker and Stone. So there is a paradoxical element to the TV nerd archetype in that while we revel in his humiliation and abuse, we don’t actually want to see him fail. Such is the nature of comedy. If you hit someone with a frying pan and it makes them think they’re a race car driver named Chazz, that’s funny; if you hit someone with a frying pan and it kills them, less so. But also, writing for television is something of a nerdy pursuit, so there tends to be hints of authorial self-insertion here. For the writer, maybe it’s therapeutic to take charge of their childhood traumas by reducing them to a series of jokes. But more than that — and here’s where things get troublesome — there’s an urge toward recompense. Arvid Engin is part of tradition that extends forward through Steve Urkel, to Ross Gellar and Xander Harris, of the Butt-Monkey Ascendant. These are characters who are mistreated and abused — by their friends, by society, by the fates themselves — well beyond what any reasonable person should be expected to deal with. Where this becomes ugly and problematic is that the audience is encouraged to view this as a kind of price that the universe is extracting from the victim. They are “paying their dues”, and we are pushed to see it as just, as fitting, proper and good when the Butt-Monkey is ultimately recompensed for this. The laws of fictional universes tell us that they have earned a happy ending. The have earned it not by working toward a goal, though, or by learning to be better people or by developing as characters. No, they “earned” their reward because the universe incurred a debt to them which now must be paid. We are encouraged to think of how Urkel never gave up his quest to woo Laura no matter how much pain and humiliation it brought him — we are encouraged not to think about the fact that he stalked her for a decade and refused to show the most basic respect for her wishes. Seriously, fuck that guy.
I have, par for the course, wandered away from the point. As far as I remember — and I haven’t seen this show in a quarter-century, so I might be forgetting a lot — Arvid Engin is a fairly mild, innocuous version of the trope. There’s no long-term stalking issue, no discreet passive-aggressive campaign of undermining a woman for a decade until her self-esteem is broken enough to accept his advances. But what’s there is that first thing I said: we’re supposed to revel in Arvid’s humiliation, but we still want him to win. And that’s the force that controls the moral arc of this episode.
Events occur in real time. Provided you keep pausing the tape and doing something else for 23 hours and fifty minutes each day.
After an introductory scene in the classroom as they cover the Reagan era (Will there be an arc of consistent themes and topics as the IHP spend five years working their way through history in some kind of chronological or thematic order? Of course not! Monday: Reagan. Tuesday: the 1930s. Wednesday: The Punic Wars), Charlie Moore is accosted by the principal. Dr. Samuels and Mr. Moore don’t get on well. Samuels considers Moore underqualified, and doesn’t like how he’s teaching his prized honors students to take joy in life and the process of learning and how he encourages them to eat Apple Jacks even though it doesn’t taste like apples. Samuels reveals that all teachers are required to serve as faculty advisers to one of the extracurricular clubs, and orders Charlie to sign up for one. They all sound totes lame, with the Future Farmers getting a chuckle out of the laugh track (I personally know better than to knock the FFA, though it does seem like an unlikely fit for Manhattan), until he discovers that the school has a radio station. It turns out — in a shocking reveal — that Charlie digs radio and jumps at the chance to take over. I know, right? What a stretch to have Howard Hessman play a guy who’s into radio!
While this is going on, Eric is trying to woo Simone. She’s artsy and poetic and sensitive and highbrow and wears sweaters. He’s basically every character John Travolta played in the 1970s, only as a super-genius. Half Danny Zuko and half Vinnie Barbarino, and looking to be his generation’s J. D. Salinger, for whatever “his generation” could possibly mean when he’s meant to be a high school student in the 1980s, played by a 26-year-old actor dressed like it’s the ’50s. He and Simone had their first date a few episodes back, and they’ll meander their way in the general direction of couplehood for the rest of the series, without ever actually arriving substantively enough to upset the status quo.
Seen here for some reason dressed as Rufus from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Simone has two tickets to Mozart night at the New York Chamber Ensemble. She invites Janice, but she’s got girl scouts that night. The basic running joke with Janice is that she’s probably the smartest one in the class, but she’s also still a child. So she cites Ein musikalischer Spaß Köchelverzeichnis 522 as “raising your soul to the heights of emotional and intellectual bliss,” but then whines, “Oh boogers!” when it turns out she can’t make it. Actually, it turns out that there’s a second joke hidden in there which hints at the fact that sitcoms are often smarter than we give them credit for. Ein musikalischer Spaß K. 522 is an odd choice for “emotional and intellectual bliss”: it’s a satirical piece full of deliberate technical mistakes to parody less-competent composers. The English title is “A Musical Joke”. Eric steps in and offers to accompany Simone, but he’ll have to prove to her that he appreciates chamber music first. He conscripts Janice to teach him enough to fake it.
It turns out, because of course it does, that Arvid is the president of the radio club. He’s also the secretary, chief engineer and announcer. He’s the entirety of the club, and an eighth of its audience. Mr. Moore is clearly really excited by the prospect of making something about the radio station, but is less enthusiastic about Arvid’s notions of how to run it. Arvid is kind of spectacularly bad at this, in fact, and it’s one of the weak points of the episode. The writers can’t let go of their “Ha-ha, what a fuckin’ nerd, amirite?” attitude long enough to justify the place they want the themes of the story to go. So Arvid’s idea of exciting programming is “The Wild World of Chess”, “Stamp Collector’s Corner”, and “Insect of the Week”. Ha-ha, what a fuckin’ nerd, amirite? And though Arvid is supposed to be passionate about radio, when Mr. Moore namechecks The Green Hornet, Arvid assumes it’s an entomology show. Because the show has decided that Charlie’s love of Old Time Radio is “cool”, and therefore as alien and mysterious to the nerdy Arvid as the clitoris, or ending a school day with the elastic band of his underwear still attached. I mean, it’s not like nerds are knowledgeable about the things they are passionate about, right? They only know about nerdy things like science and bugs and chess.
But then how do cool people avoid getting ink on their shirts?
So the situation we have here is that Arvid is basically running the station as his own personal hobby, without restraint or supervision, to meet the needs not of the school which is sponsoring it, but just for his own kicks. So maybe the moral of this episode is going to be that being president of the radio club makes him the steward of it, rather than its owner?
Of course not cousin, don’t be ridicu— wrong show, sorry. Nah, where we’re going with this is that Charlie’s going to impose his ideas on the radio station and change things too much and Arvid will feel left out, and it’s Charlie who needs to learn that nerdy clubs should be the personal fiefdoms of nerdy students and not try to reach out to the people it’s supposed to serve. I mean, they make a stab at it being about how Charlie shouldn’t muscle in and make the students’ things about him (one of the show’s occasional themes that comes up in particular when he becomes overly controlling during the musical episodes. Oh yes, they do musical episodes. It is wonderful. And yes, who the fuck do you think plays Danny in Grease, and who the fuck do you think plays Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors? I can’t remember who plays Claude in Hair. And, because of course it was, they made it a recurring joke that Arvid and Dennis wanted to be in the show, but were forced to be tech instead, because Ha-ha, fuckin’ nerds and fat guys, amirite? They were ultimately vindicated when Arvid got the lead in Little Shop of Horrors and Dennis, despite opposition from Charlie because fuckin’ fat guy amirite?, built the Audrey prop as a Power Rangers Monster suit for himself). But they don’t actually bother to show this happening in a substantive way.
What they show us instead is Charlie Moore being an enthusiastic and supportive mentor who wants to get people involved in the radio club and make it serve as a better service for the school, and Arvid whining and sulking because the cool kids are getting involved in his club and he no longer has exclusive control over his own personal radio station. And I’m not unsympathetic. The whole idea of “The marginal thing you were into suddenly becomes popular and you feel pushed out of your own hobby because now it’s all about catering to the popular kids,” is something any fan of classic Doctor Who, original series Star Trek, or basically any band ever can understand. But that impulse right there, the one that says, “It was better before it was popular. It should go back to being the way us Real True Fans remember it,” is the voice of screaming entitlement. It comes from the same dark place that inspires basement-dwelling neckbeards to call SWAT teams out on game developers for the sin of failing to cater exclusively to white heterosexual men or corners women in elevators at conventions.
And if it seems like I’m being harsh, I am. If I were interested in being fair, I’d say that this is a largely harmless story and the only real weakness is that the message of Mr. Moore pushing Arvid out and making it about his own childhood passion isn’t given enough space to grow. But we’ve seen across this blog, I hope, how particular tropes in fiction are all bound up in their historical context. Arvid Engen is one of the earliest ones to be elevated to such a major role, and one of the last ones to be played so utterly straight. There’s a line that runs straight from Arvid to Urkel to the modern era of the sexually precocious man-child who badgers consent out of attractive women in Judd Apatow movies.
Let’s be clear here: Arvid claims to be on-board with Charlie’s plans to improve the station and build its audience. But there is no point where his support goes beyond words. The very moment Mr. Moore actually suggests a change, Arvid deflates. He looks worried by the prospect, and grants permission to launch a new show only with reluctance. We haven’t actually gotten to “Charlie Moore tries to take over the station,” when Arvid starts sulking. We’re still at “Charlie Moore tries to have creative input.” Yes, Arvid will indeed have cause to be upset, but he’s already acting the martyr at the very first suggestion of a new radio show.