TV's All-time Greatest Openings Friday Night ABC 1971-72
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : TV's All-time Greatest Openings Friday Night ABC 1971-72
We talk about great movie title sequences in movies all the time, but prior to a thread in Creative COW's TV & Movie Appreciation Forum, I'd never seen much conversation about great TV opening sequences.
It can be hard to separate "opening sequences" from theme songs. Plenty of shows with fantastic theme songs had openers that are visually irrelevant. They're just there for the theme songs. There might as well be a black screen with some names on it.
That's obviously not always the case. There are of course a TON of great TV openings whose visuals are every bit as memorable as their songs. Two particular nights in the history of television struck me at the time as having five absolutely perfect openers in a row, at the top of five outstanding shows. I'm going to save the other night for a future article, but this time, I'm going to look at Friday night on ABC, 1971-72. Five great shows, five fantastic opening sequences, and, as a bonus, five incredibly memorable theme songs.
It happens that none of these shows debuted in the 1971-72 season. This is just when they landed in one place, driving each show to the peak ratings of its run. Indeed, the night worked so well that the network kept the same line-up for one more year. By the end of 72-73 though, half of these were gone. Two more seasons, they'd all be gone. Nope, 71-72 is the season that the shows of ABC's Friday night first came together in a truly magical way: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style.
(Please note that the views that follow are entirely my own, and do not reflect the views of Creative COW, LLC, anybody who works at the COW, anybody you've ever heard of, or indeed, anybody else at all. It's just me.)
It's more common than you may recall off the top of your head, but TV openers often undergo some tweaks along the way, sometimes on a pretty major scale. The 1971-72 season is also the one by which each of these shows settled into the opening that is best remembered.
I'm noting the start times for the Central time zone, because that's where I was watching at the time. Folks outside that timezone fail to understand what it means to have prime time start at 7 PM (and for that matter, have Johnny Carson come on at 10:30 back in the day). It made for a much more intimate experience, but it also drove household habits in a way that later air times can't. Since TV wasn't allowed at our dinner table, my sister Nancy and I had to get back inside, finish dinner, and be ready to be in front of the TV at SEVEN.
Think that was easy on a Friday? When the week was finally starting to get leisurely? No way, man. It also took some considerable training of our parents to make sure dinner was done by 7, but my sister and I eventually managed to pull it off.
So let's get on with the shows!
7 PM: THE BRADY BUNCH
This is what I call "an explain-y open," walking us through the show's premise. The Brady Bunch's creator, Sherwood Schwarz did this for an earlier show of his as well, Gilligan's Island. That one has a memorable theme, but not an especially memorable opening. However, the 9-up layout of The Brady Bunch is every bit as distinctive as the song, though. It looks simple now, but even a few years ago, this was a whale of a lot harder than it looked to actually create.
I worked for Boris FX around the turn of the century, a company whose long suits included DVE presets. Among other things, I managed the product line whose early claim to fame was in fact DVEs. My jobs included adding presets, and I gotta tell you, we got a ton of requests. We had a customer who kept asking, politely but increasingly firmly, for a preset for what he called "The Brady Bunch effect." It's obviously not technically an effect, but you know exactly what he meant.
I finally had to ask for my own curiosity what he was going to use it for -- it was for the 1998-2004 edition of Hollywood Squares! But he didn't say, "I need something for Hollywood Squares." That could mean anything. He said, "The Brady Bunch effect," which could mean only one thing.
You would expect The Brady Bunch opening visuals to change each season as the kids aged, and they did. It turns out that the vocals morphed a few times too. Watch the opener from Season 1 (1969-70) and see what you hear. Or what you don't hear.
Here's what you don't hear: any of the Brady kids singing! The theme was sung by The Peppermint Trolley Company! The Brady kids began singing the opening after producers heard "Bobby" and "Peter" goofing around on the set one day. Even THEY couldn't resist singing that dang song, and from Season 2 until the show ended with Season 5, the kids did the singing.
Ah, The Peppermint Trolley Company! This was An Actual Group that also happened to have a sideline playing the part of a rock band on TV in the mid-to-late 60s. Look 'em up sometime. The first time I noticed them was when they played the part of a Robin Hood-themed (!!!) rock group on The Beverly Hillbillies, but they were also really, really good on their own. In fact, they played themselves on Mannix, doing a very stripped-down version of this song for a recording engineer played by Harry Dean Stanton!
But the fully decked-out version of the song with its baroque orchestral arrangement is absolutely glorious. Check out this clip! They sound kind of like The Left Banke ("Walk Away Renee"), The Strawberry Alarm Clock ("Incense and Peppermints"), or one of the other psychedelic pop groups of the day. I gotta tell you, I think their song "Trust" was one of the best pure pop songs of 1968.
Back to The Brady Bunch opening. It played a crucial role for the show. In Season 1, it laid out the whole premise: a fella with three sons marries a gal with three daughters. In fact, the entire first season was ABOUT what happened after the song ended: "This group must somehow form a family." Okay, but HOW? Virtually every episode hinged on the specific challenges of blending the family.
Talking about this was quite tricky. Schwartz had written Mike Brady as a widower. He in fact talks about his deceased wife in the first episode. Schwartz had also written Carol Brady as a divorcee, but this was a no-go. ABC Standards & Practices had only recently approved ANY mention of divorce, but absolutely NOT if kids were involved. The father of Carol's girls is never mentioned at all.
While The Brady Bunch wasn't the first example of a blended family on TV (both Bonanza and Make Room For Daddy featured stepfamilies), The Brady Bunch was the first to focus on the actual blending as the entire subject of the show.
At least in Season One. The opening was in some ways even more important for subsequent seasons, because the blended family was taken for granted from Season 2 forward. Apart from explaining why the boys all had dark hair and the girls were all blond -- although anybody who saw Lady & The Tramp already knew that boys look like dad, girls look like mom; 'nuff said -- there was no reason whatsoever to assume that this was a blended family at all. It was just a big, mostly happy family. In fact, VERY happy considering that all six kids shared a single bathroom with (apparently) no toilet in it.
There were some truly great episodes in the magical season of 1971-72, including a guest turn from former Monkee Davy Jones, one of the great episodes of the era on any show. There was also this, which for virtually all of you will need no further explanation:
7:30 PM, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY
By the time the show premiered, their single "I Think I Love You" was already climbing the charts. A slick trick having a TV show tie-in when the show hadn't yet aired.
The premise is simple enough, and once again largely explained in the opening. Five siblings form their own garage band, only to discover that their widowed mother has an amazing voice. They cajole her into joining the group, and heartwarming hilarity and pop stardom ensue.
The pop music on The Partridge Family was entirely legit, featuring some of the best writers and session players to ever stride across the land. You music nerds already know The Wrecking Crew, a loose-knit group of musicians whose members backed everyone from Sinatra to The Doors, The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys, Derek & The Dominoes and Frank Zappa -- and The Partridges. The great Hal Blaine himself played drums on every Partridge track.
The show's composer, Wes Farrell, also won an Oscar(!!!) for his score for Midnight Cowboy the same year that The Partridge Family debuted! No kidding. This pop music was the real deal.
In addition to laying out the show's premise, the opening of The Partridge Family establishes some absolutely critical points of reference.
Notably, it establishes that by far the hottest girl on the show was the mom, and the second hottest girl on the show was the oldest brother. Hot Mom? Hot older brother? I found this both confusing and distressing as a boy on the cusp of adolescence…until I gave in and just went with it. I'm certain that this explains a lot about me, and I think about the 70s in general.
Hey, where's the famous phrase "C'mon Get Happy" in this version of theme? This "when we're singing" version was in fact the original one. "Come On Get Happy" was the version playing in the show's second season: the magical season of 1971-72. Oddly enough, that version doesn't appear to be available online, but no matter. You can surely sing it.
The animated portion of the opening ends with a live-action shot of the back of the family's tour bus, with the sign "Careful Nervous Mother Driving." To me, this was a big deal for grounding the show at least a little bit in the real world. We learn in the first episode that Shirley Partridge worked in a bank when her husband suddenly passed away. Experience driving a bus would have been unlikely.
She was also nervous because there's no way a level-headed, small town single mom would think that trying to make a go in the music world with two teens and three pre-teens was a good idea. Needless to say, making your kid a star is now demanded as a god-given right. Not the case 40-odd years ago, I assure you.
Ah, but the very first episode of The Partridge Family didn't feature this famous animated opener at all! It opens with an "If you'd told me five months ago, I'd say you were crazy…" kind of VO from mother Shirley Partridge as she drives the bus into Hollywood. Exactly one minute into the episode, they're in a TV studio where Johnny Cash (yes, THAT Johnny Cash) introduces the band, as they kick into a genuinely luminous song, "Together (Havin' A Ball)."
Two quick asides. First, The Johnny Cash Show premiered in 1969, and his guests on that first episode were Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Fannie Flagg. (The elder among you, like me, will be flooded with warmth by her name.)
Just for grins, as I was writing this, I looked to see who the guests were on The Johnny Cash Show the week that The Partridge Family debuted, the third week in September, 1970: Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie and Liza Minelli! And two days later that same week, we see John introducing The Partridge Family. Sure. Why not?
Second aside, it's well known that The Partridge Family didn't do all their own singing. In fact, "the family" did virtually none of it.
Now, Shirley Partridge was played by Shirley Jones, who of course sang in real life. Her movie debut was as the lead in Oklahoma!, handpicked for the role by Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves. She was also the only singer for whom they ever chose to act as managers themselves, which I find absolutely amazing.
Her son Keith was played by her real-life stepson David Cassidy. David had, and has, a wonderful pop voice. Between his looks and his exceptional pop singing skills, he would easily have been a music star without this show.
Both Shirley and David sing on almost all of the Family's songs, with David singing lead. After the first episode, David also sang lead on the opening theme. But in the entire first episode, neither Shirley nor David's singing is heard at all.
The voices we heard were the voices we heard filling in for the rest of the Family on every episode: The Ron Hicklin Singers.
The Ron Hicklin Singers!
They also filled in as voices for The Monkees! And background vocals for Cher, Burt Bachrach, solo Ringo Starr, soundtracks for movies including Rosemary's Baby and Dirty Harry, and on and on. The Ron Hicklin Singers were, and indeed still are, absolutely first-rate pros in a role that barely exists anymore. I'll leave it to you to look him up, but he's got a nifty Facebook page that's very much worth checking out.
The radio nerds in the class are going to love this 1974 demo and pitch reel that includes some priceless banter and AM jingles. They really, really don't make 'em like this anymore.
So while we hear David and Shirley singing the Partridge Family opening from the second episode forward, they're always carried on the gentle wings of the Ron Hicklin Singers, whose voices stood in for the rest of the family on every track.
Actually, a third aside. Seeing that The Partridges were cleaning up with music -- four major hit albums in our magical year of 1971 alone -- the producers of The Brady Bunch decided to try to cash in as well. There were only a couple of episodes of The Brady Bunch where the kids "sang" on the show, all in this 1971-72 magical season…yet several albums with them "singing" began to appear at this time.
Except in rare, specific instances of solo vocals, the heavy lifting for the singing was performed by -- you know it: The Ron Hicklin Singers.
The Partidge Family: "SOUL CLUB"
Continuing with the Partridges: in the context of ABC's Friday evening in 1971-72 (and 72-73), I found The Partridge Family a huge step up from The Brady Bunch. Not just because of the psycho-sexual dynamics of my disturbing attraction to both Hot Mom and Hot Older Brother, and not just because of the pop music. I unapologetically still love the best of the music, but I was even more impressed with the show's occasional weight. Sure, it was a single-camera comedy with a laugh track, but it never shied away from a variety of social issues, including women's rights and racial justice.
My favorite 1971 episode, and one of the series' best, was "Soul Club." It featured one of the show's better songs, "Bandala." The episode also featured RICHARD PRYOR and LOU GOSSETT (as he was credited)!! It was in fact a back-door pilot intended to kick off a series with the two of them that sadly never came to pass.
Richard Pryor and Louis Gossett, Jr. in the 1971 episode of The Partridge Family, "Soul Club"
Seriously, though? Trying to kick off a Pryor-Gossett show from The Partridge Family?! No kidding. Richard Pryor. Louis Gossett, Jr. The Partridge Family. Wow.
The pair played brothers who had intended to book The Temptations into their inner city Detroit social club, only to have the white, white, oh so white, Partridge Family roll up instead.
The Temptations concert had been the brothers' last hope to save their club. They'd gotten in deep to a loan shark, and were counting on The Temptations to deliver a big payday.
It was immediately apparent that the Partridges weren't going to be able to help them -- ah, until they actually DID help. Heartwarming hilarity ensued as the Partridges played a street fair benefit show. Along the way to saving the day (which they did), Danny Partridge is made an honorary member of "The Afro-American Cultural Society," a thinly-veiled and highly favorable representation of the Black Panthers.
In fact, when you look this up yourself -- and you should -- many accounts report that the episode DID feature the Black Panthers. (For a start, try Googling "Partridge Family Black Panthers.") Even without the actual Black Panthers, a number of scholarly sources have nevertheless cited the "Soul Club" episode as a pivotal moment in American cultural history. That part is absolutely true. This was the first positive depiction of militant black pride in mainstream media, and it was A Big Deal. I didn't need the perspective of history to tell me that. Watching on that Friday night in 1971, I could FEEL that it was a big deal.
None of which would matter in the context of a show about a singing musical family if there wasn't a great song somewhere in there. And there is: "Bandala," one of the best in the show's entire run.
Kind of a kick -- members of the Afro-American Cultural Society are shown serving as the song's string and horn sections! This might have been the only time in the show's run that it acknowledged that the plethora of sounds that we're hearing couldn't possibly have been coming only from the Partridges themselves.
Wait for Pryor and Gossett to show up around the 2-minute mark in this clip, "giving five" to each other in a variety of creative ways, some involving hip bumps. Yes indeed, friends. Hip bumps.
Also kind of a kick: I got to meet Shirley Jones in the mid-90s and told her some of what she and Shirley Partridge meant to me growing up. I definitely skipped the part about having a crush on her. But far more than the Brady Bunch, this is the theme from the night I've sung most over the years.
But I have to say, ever since I rolled that "Together" clip in the house a few days ago, neither my wife nor I have been able to stop singing it. Curse you, Partridge Family! Curse you, Ron Hicklin Singers!
8:30 PM, THE ODD COUPLE
(Yes, I skipped the show at 8 PM. I'll be back to it.)
More famous now as a playwright, Neil Simon got his start as a radio and TV writer, notably on Your Show of Shows, The Phil Silvers Show and Caesar's Hour. He in fact won two Emmy Awards for his TV writing.
September 24, 1970 saw the premiere of not one but TWO ABC shows that originated as Neil Simon plays, each of which had also been adapted into films before becoming TV shows.
Barefoot in the Park was Simon's second play, and after an adorable film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, the TV show lasted only 12 episodes. The cast was one of the first on TV to be predominantly black. While you don't remember the stars, you may recall supporting actors Thelma Carpenter from The Wiz, and Nipsey Russell, also from The Wiz, but far more important for most TV viewers, a million game shows, talk shows, variety shows and more, from the 1960s to his passing in the 90s.
The other Neil Simon show debuting September 24, 1970 stuck around for 5 seasons. Barely. It was canceled every year, but strong summer ratings led to it being renewed four times.
It was based on Neil Simon's third play, The Odd Couple. The film adaptation starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would be remembered more fondly if it was more remembered at all: the TV version starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman lasted for 114 episodes, and I think for most people entirely overshadowed the film.
Eventually abandoned for a truncated version, the original, full-length opening title sequence of The Odd Couple used in the first three seasons was a classic from the moment it aired. It's another explain-y intro, but still a lot of fun. Music by Neil Hefti, who also wrote the music to the Batman theme.
Indeed, anybody who watched the show can hum the musical theme every bit as immediately as any other instrumental theme on TV or in the movies -- even if they haven't seen it since its early 70s run. Easily up there among most memorable TV and movie themes ever, alongside The Pink Panther, Batman, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-0, The Rockford Files -- you name it.
My wife and I also found ourselves still able to recite the narration that ran over the intro music. This is the version from our magical season of 1971-72. Along with some crackerjack acting that succinctly established the characters, be sure to note the ITC Souvenir Black font, a go-to look for the late 60s and early 70s.
The Odd Couple themselves are actually somewhat like The Brady Bunch, yes? A sort of blended family.
I should note that 1971-72 was the second season of the show, when it also switched from the first season's single-camera/laugh track format, to 3-camera/studio audience, the only show of the five this night for which this was the case. Future seasons retained the multi-camera/live audience format through to series end in 1975.
9 PM, LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE
Now THIS opener was a piece of work.
The theme for the first season was performed by The Cowsills, which in a nice bit of recursion is the real-life family act that served as the model for The Partridge Family. (The Cowsills apparently balked at doing the show themselves when told that their real-life mother wouldn't be part of the project, but instead played by Shirley Jones.) The Cowsills were just tailing off from several years as one of the nation's top concert acts, so them performing the Love, American Style theme was considered quite a coup -- one of the first times that a major pop act recorded a TV show's theme when they weren't featured in the show.
Needless to say, it was released as a single. It sold quite well, and for obvious reasons, remains a staple of Cowsills concerts.
1971-72 was the season that Love, American Style stretched from 30 minutes to an hour. It was an anthology-style format, with anywhere between 3 and 5 segments, plus some 10-20 second mini-sketches to plug the holes in running time and provide some recurring elements. Producer Garry Marshall called it "the place where failed pilots go to die," because its loose format allowed un-picked-up pilots to be re-edited to become free-standing segments within an episode.
(Co-producer Aaron Spelling used variations on some of these tricks for The Love Boat, including a virtually identical approach to the opening credits, with a porthole replacing the heart.)
One of those failed pilots that Marshall refers to is one that he himself wrote and shot in early 1971, called "New Family in Town," about a group of teenagers in the 1950s. What? The FIFTIES? This was the SEVENTIES, man. Who would be interested in a bunch of kids from the FIFTIES? No wonder the pilot flopped.
And so, at the beginning of the 1972 half of the 71-72 season, the failed pilot for "New Family In Town" was tweaked and retitled "Love and The Happy Days," airing as one half of a Love, American Style episode. It starred Ronny Howard (as he was still billed) as Richie Cunningham, Marion Ross as his mother, and Anson Williams as his best friend Potsie. (His father Howard was played in the pilot by the great character actor Harold Gould.)
Here's the version of the opening theme that people remember, which began airing in this magical season of 1971-72, not by The Cowsills. It happens to be from the very episode featuring the stars of "Love and The Happy Days."
Before we go on, having mentioned that The Cowsills were now grazing greener pastures, any guesses who sang the Love, American Style theme starting in the magical season of 1971-72?
That's right. THE RON HICKLIN SINGERS! The same Ron Hicklin Singers who were bringing us the voices of Partridges and Bradys earlier in the same evening!
I remember "Love and The Happy Days" like it was yesterday. The Andy Griffith Show was the most popular series on TV in 1968, when its star decided to step away, and anything Ronny Howard did was still news, at least to me. The plot of "Love and The Happy Days" revolved around the Cunninghams being the first family in the neighborhood to get a TV. You may not be surprised that watching TV was also a pretty big deal to me, so a plot hanging on this singular act was more than enough to keep my attention.
Remarkably when considered in retrospect, Potsie was originally a leering, sex-crazed beast trying to help his pal Richie "score" -- the word that was actually used. A genuinely unsavory fellow, verging on misogynistic in his lusts, a brainier Beavis. His bright idea was to have Richie entice girls into carnality using the promise of watching television as bait. Hilarity ensues, heartwarming conclusion with father and son bonding over choosing the right way to treat girls, with dignity, rather than taking shortcuts to phony intimacy. The classic Love, American Style modus operandus: start spicy, end sweet.
In 1973, the year after "Love and The Happy Days," George Lucas decided to make a film rooted in memories of his own small-town youth, set in the SIXTIES, and NOT the fifties. The tagline on the poster for that movie, American Graffiti, was "Where were you in '62?"
Lucas really enjoyed Ronny's performance on Love, American Style, and felt he was the perfect fit for American Graffiti -- whose success, recursively enough, led to the greenlighting of a show based on Garry Marshall's previously failed pilot as Happy Days the very next TV season, starring, of course Ronnie Howard, along with Marion Ross as his mother, and Anson Williams as a significantly overhauled Potsie.
Which means that not every failed pilot that went to Love, American Style to die stayed dead.
There we are: 4 distinctive openings on 4 shows, each playing a huge part in setting up the shows. They were all also quite explain-y, yet still visually memorable, verging on iconic.
What about the fifth show? The one that aired at 8 PM Central? It played an even bigger part in my life than my simultaneous crushes on a mother figure and an older brother figure.
8 PM: ROOM 222
(Again please note that the views that follow are entirely my own, and do not reflect the views of Creative COW, LLC, or anybody else at all. It's just me.)
I'm just going to roll tape on this one. It's a full minute and half, a long time even then; unheard of now.
The theme is light and delicate in a way that perhaps no other had been up until that time. Composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith, a 6-time Academy Award nominee who eventually won the Oscar for his score to The Omen! That one couldn't possibly be more different than this one, but you can't imagine how many great movie themes and scores he did that were just as different from each other as these -- Chinatown, Hoosiers, five Star Trek movies, so many more. Do yourself a favor and check him out.
For now, let's get back to talking about his theme for Room 222.
A solo classical guitar plucks a simple tune, adding light percussion, an unusually prominent but tasteful bass guitar, and a recorder (!!!) to solo the main theme. As the song proceeds, a drum comes in, with its lightly-sticked high hat cymbal strongly contrasted against heavy timpani. There's a visual thematic shift (back to that in a second) accompanied by a powerful string sting. The return of the solo classical guitar is laid over with a solo flugelhorn (the trumpet's rounder, gentler cousin) repeating the theme originally played on the recorder. No explain-y lyrics. Just a beautiful piece of music, given enough time to breathe.
It KILLED me that I couldn't listen to this over and over in 1971. Unlike every other theme from the night, it was never available as a single or on a soundtrack -- as far as I know, you still can't buy it. There were no readily available VCRs, so I just paid insane attention to it.
Remember, this was Friday night at 8PM. I was often back outside after supper. I might have missed The Brady Bunch some nights (admittedly expendable), maybe even The Partridge Family -- GASP!!! -- but I was definitely rooted in front of our black and white TV at 8, ear pressed to the speaker, demanding silence from anyone else in the room.
The visuals were huge on their own, too. The multiracial, well-groomed, and fully engaged students wearing a safe blend of modern yet conservative attire are a cliché now, echoed in every college's marketing materials. But this was a public high school, where in many parts of the real world, dreams of peaceful integration were quite a long way off.
As we shift from the general scene-setting imagery in the first part of the theme, through the transition cued by the musical sting, things get REALLY interesting. Wheeling up, top-down, in his red convertible is one of the most freakishly handsome men in the history of television, a well-dressed BLACK man, gently smiling yet serious, with an undeniable air of authority. (Turns out that he's a history teacher, passionate about the subject and his students.)
The next person we see is a BLACK WOMAN -- the first time since Amos and Andy went off the air in 1953 that a show featured TWO black leads. (The predominantly-black Barefoot in the Park came a year later.) She was also gorgeous, which helped, and clearly a person of both authority and sincerity -- a guidance counselor, it turns out.
Next comes the older white gentleman, obviously both kindly and put-upon. Definitely the principal. You didn't need the label on his parking space to tell you that.
Finally comes a girl who looks like a student, but, we find out later, is actually a student teacher. And hey! A cute little visual punchline when she's so taken in by the vision of the school and its community laid out before her that the bus doors start to close on her. Ha ha! That Karen Valentine! What a hoot!
(The show opened to disappointing numbers, but Emmy wins for Valentine, Michael Constantine as the principal and for the show as Best New Series helped keep it on the air.)
Not every one of these details is laid out in their specifics in the opening -- we don't KNOW that the black woman is a counselor rather than a teacher, and the student/student teacher switcheroo was played to the hilt for the show's entire run -- but by the time the opening minute and a half has completed, we've already been told a STORY. Race, class, gender, the role of education in upward mobility, character arcs (for example, you can see that the black man and woman have a relationship of some sort, even though they're never in the same frame) -- it was all here, and had the grace to end with a visual punchline.
Alas, Room 222 isn't available for streaming, no Netflix DVDs. You'll have to buy it. TV production aficionados will find it more than worth the investment. The first episode opens in startling fashion: a consecutive series of 20-30 second handheld tracking shots. This was definitely new! I'm not sure I've seen it since.
We also see that the inside of the school isn't quite as idyllic as the outside: equipment wasn't always working, there were supply shortages, and some of the 3000 kids were goof-offs, and occasionally genuinely menacing.
A STORY ABOUT THE STORIES
Even as a single-camera comedy with a laugh track, Room 222 played up more dramatic topics, in achingly sincere fashion. From our magical 1971-72 season alone: in an episode entitled "What Is A Man?" a boy is harassed for personality traits seen as gay. A fast-talking student entrepreneur turns out to be a con artist. (The already-brilliant Bruno Kirby, billed as B. Kirby Jr.) Parents remove a child because of all the black students in the school. An elderly teacher is threatened with firing for teaching her students about venereal diseases without obtaining parental permission. Our passionate history teacher and his student teacher head into the ghetto to teach kids to read. Vietnam and Watergate even popped up. You get the idea.
And that IS the idea. These educators weren't just tackling alternative approaches to sociopolitical insights within an otherwise pretty conservative school environment. They were helping kids make sense of their own lives, and giving them hope for their futures. It was a utopia rooted in underfunded public schools and the realities of the limits of current social consciousness. Don't worry, kids. We're not there yet, but we're gonna get there someday!
Room 222 not only helped shape my politics and activism, but my own desire to become a teacher…which I was before I got into video production…where most of the video I produced was educational. Whenever possible, I avoided explaining things via voiceover, always preferring to tell stories with a combination of carefully combined pictures and simple but compelling music.
In other words, I tried to produce documentary shorts and news magazine segments with passages exactly like the opening of Room 222.
JAMES L. BROOKS
My last observation about Room 222's aching sincerity is to note that its creator was James L. Brooks, who pretty much cornered that market. His other TV work included That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi among others. All sincere shows, all terrific opening sequences with memorable theme songs. His movies included the sincere Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets, both of which he wrote, directed and produced. He produced the very sincere Say Anything, and mentored its rookie director Cameron Crowe. Ditto Wes Anderson with his debut, Bottle Rocket.
Skipping ahead, Brooks also produced The Tracy Ullman Show, and its spin-off The Simpsons -- two more TV shows with great openers…although I'm not going to try and stretch the definition of Brooks's "sincerity" to include those last two. Not that those elements are altogether absent from them either.
A THIRD WAY
For all that that Room 222 resonated with my nascent liberalism, the show was more complicated than that.
Early in the first season, a teacher transferring in from England is rejected as too progressive, and, a few episodes later, a teacher trying to be hip is flatly rejected by the students. The students are the ones who insist he act his age.
The first episode is in fact about a young black student who resorts to elaborate trickery in order to STAY in school and take advanced classes. (The episode ends with him signing up for Hebrew! "Shalom, y'all!" warm-hearted laughs, fade out.) Time and again, staying in school and applying oneself to careful study is seen as noble, the key to a bright future for everyone.
This is the third way to which I refer: portraying positive values that both liberals and conservatives could embrace, at least to some extent or another. (A neat trick that another show debuting in 1971 came to master, All In The Family.)
It's easy to call this approach pandering on the network's part, but I didn't, and don't. It seems admirable to me to set yourself firmly in a recognizable version of something resembling contemporary society, and present a hopeful future that includes positive portrayals of both progress and tradition.
The same was true for the rest of the evening. The Brady family quietly begged the question of why the family was blended, opting to simply show a happy family. The Partridges were playing modern music, yes, but mostly of a moon-June nature entirely in keeping with Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building conventions that had been in place for decades. The family Partidge is, again, notably happy. Mom's word was law, and while they worked as performers, the kids minded their manners and never missed school.
Neither of the odd couple were especially happy with their lot, and indeed, the series ends with Tony Randall's Felix remarrying his wife. And as I noted, even the apparently edgy Love American Style reinforced primarily family-oriented values -- even as the show itself, and indeed the entire evening, reflected the changing specifics of how families are shaped.
There you have it. Friday nights, ABC, 1971-72. Five fun shows, five remarkable opening sequences, a couple of them enduring for the ages, and one of them shaping a significant part of my life for the next 40-odd years.
Actually, I was thinking about Room 222 when I said "shaping 40-odd years," but my crush on a mother figure and a brother figure on The Partridge Family helped put the "odd" in "40-odd years."