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Fall 2000: "Boston Public"

Ambrose Bierce was once asked for advice on child-rearing. His reply: "Study Herod, madam. Study Herod."

I watched Boston Public and was reminded of Mr. Bierce's advice by 8:04 p.m. By 8:05 p.m., I was ready to embrace a Biblical regime, if it would only guarantee that each of the loathsome little primates that populate Winslow High would meet their deservedly gruesome ends.

Boston Public provides exhibits A through Z on why we should be practicing any of the following:

  1. Mandatory military schooling for anyone over the age of ten.
  2. Corporal punishment for misbehaving students, up to and including horsewhipping.
  3. Installation of radio collars designed to control the unruly. One hostile or disrespectful act, and the teacher could respond by zapping the student with enough voltage to power Buffalo in January.

Want a core sample of the students who make Boston Public such a wretched place to be? Try this: one little tramp who's intent on sexually humiliating the staff, a distaff Matt Drudge who's getting her ya-yas from slandering the teachers on her gossipy Website, and a host of slack-jawed bullies. What makes each of these children galling is their smug, self-centered assurance.

Yes -- these snotlings are the spawn of yuppies, and they're fluent in legal sass, victim rhetoric and a dozen other specious behaviors that would have earned me or any of my peers a world of parental hurt. If there's a message in David E. Kelley's latest show, it's that the generation who spent the Eighties whelping the world's Ashleys, Tylers and Taylors has a lot to answer for, in this life and the hereafter.

The beleaguered teachers of Winslow High -- helmed by the riveting Loretta Devine as a suicidal special-ed teacher; Joey Slotnick as an endearing noodge and English teacher; Anthony Heald as the dignified, slightly ossified vice principal; and Chi McBride as hella principal Steven Harper -- rival Job in terms of the trials they must endure on a daily basis. Although the titular focus of the show is youthful social studies teacher Lauren Davis (played by Jessalyn Gilsig, an actress who looks and sounds as though David E. Kelley plopped Calista Flockhart on a photocopier and punched "150%"), she's eclipsed early on by Devine, Slotnick, et. al. This isn't a bad thing.

And, for a Kelley show, this is amazingly believable. My best friend used to be a seventh-grade gym teacher. That's used to be, and she credits the parents who used to call her, screaming over their child's C and refusing to hold their children accountable for their actions, with helping her make the decision to leave. The parents on Boston Public are surprisingly true-to-life, showing up only to complain about the way their brats are treated without questioning what might have pushed the teacher over the edge.

Like all Kelley shows, Boston Public has its flaws -- a declamatory monologue every five minutes, plenty of idealists who manage to ignore abundant evidence pointing to the futility of their quest, and Fyvush Finkel. But for those of you who manage to make it through The Practice or Ally McBeal on a regular basis, those are minor quibbles. The rest of us -- including people like me who normally use the words "David E. Kelley" as an epithet -- might even be willing to overlook these and other Kelleyisms, provided the show continues to grapple with the tough questions that the first episode raises.

And even if the show slips into the usual Kelley pattern -- a strong first season, with subsequent seasons slipping into self-parody -- it still has something for everyone. Fox has a new drama to bulk its thinning ranks. McBride has something on his resume to obliterate Desmond Pfieffer. Proponents of school vouchers have a series of sixty-minute commercials promoting their cause. And the rest of us have the viewing pleasure accompanying the knowledge that now, as in the time of Herod, the parents of those malevolent minors will eventually reap what they sow. I just hope they reap during sweeps.


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