During the last 20 months, there have definitely been times I’ve rubbed my eyes and wondered if I’m having some sort of break with reality. From a TV show president to a global pandemic once only seen in movies starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, the world often has seemed topsy turvy.
To an obviously much much smaller degree, I had that same “left is right, up is down, wrong is right” feeling while watching the new comedy series Head of the Class, premiering on HBO Max, which is such an odd home for it. With its tinny laugh track and line, line, joke rat-a-tat formula, it feels like a network television sitcom. The show is fine, at times even funny—but it seems better suited to airing between The Goldbergs and The Wonder Years on ABC Wednesday nights. What I find particularly challenging about this era of streaming platforms is that so few of them have a brand or a personality. We are at a point where any show could air on any network. Why do we have a gazillion streaming platforms anyway? Perhaps this could be the next topic for the honors debate class at Meadows Creek High.
Head of the Class, technically a reboot of the ABC sitcom of the same name that ran from 1986-1991, stars Isabella Gomez (One Day at a Time) as Alicia Gomez, a young teacher taking over the honors debate class for a group of high school overachievers. We know she’s cool because she has her class meet in the library and debate topics like “cancel culture.”
The class includes Miles (Adrian Matthew Escalona), a risk-averse teen who is quick with one-liners. “Sorry, as a rule I don’t follow suspicious notes to a second location,” he deadpans when Alicia leaves them a note to meet her in the library. There’s also Luke (Gavin Lewis), who fancies himself a future United States Senator and longs to be popular; Terrell (Brandon Severs), a swimmer trying to balance school, sports, and his demanding mother Darlene (Robin Givens, who reprises her role from the original series); Makayla (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), who is fashion conscious and enjoys being the center of attention; Robyn (Dior Goodjohn), a perfectionist whose confident exterior belies her inner insecurities; and Sarah (Katie Beth Hall), the daughter of Meadows Creek High Principal Maris (Christa Miller) who is trying to escape her mother’s watchful eye.
From executive producer Bill Lawrence, the series is often an odd juxtaposition of trying to be ultra-current with some very dated jokes. The teens watch a high school party via livestream and declare their parents to be “extra.” But in the second episode Luke exclaims, “I’m the Beyonce of this Destiny’s Child, people. I’m a survivor.” Do kids today know that a) Beyonce was once a member of a group called Destiny’s Child, and b) about that group’s 2002 hit song? Maybe? I certainly can’t speak to what teens today know, but that reference is a deep cut no matter what the show’s target demographics are. It’s not the fun, surprising pop-cultural references that populate Lawrence’s more innovative show Ted Lasso on Apple TV+ (“Make like Dunst and Union and Bring It On, baby!”). There’s definitely a lack of new ideas in the writers’ room. To wit, in the three episodes available for review, the show makes two murder podcast jokes, which I would posit is at least one too many.
As she was on One Day at a Time (also a remake of a beloved TV property), Gomez is delightful, bringing a plucky, infectious energy to the role even if it doesn’t seem like enough time has passed to go from playing a teen to portraying a teacher in her late 20s (although the pandemic has aged all of us). The show tries to give her the backstory that Alicia doesn’t want to get invested in her students’ lives, but from the jump that’s hard to believe. Gomez oozes enthusiasm and clearly Alicia cares a lot. The kids are all pretty great too, particularly Escalona, Goodjohn, and Severs, who have the most opportunity to provide their respective characters with depth and nuance.
The series has very little in common with its predecessor (all seasons of which are currently streaming on HBO Max). In the ABC comedy, Howard Hesseman was a substitute teacher in a rundown New York City high school who was only supposed to be there for two days. The students, who wanted nothing to do with him at first, were all social outcasts who only cared about academics. The high-achievers of this new generation are much less one-note at the start than their predecessors. Sure, the popular kids say they are in the “nerd zoo,” but they hang out in a coffee shop (which looks suspiciously like the set of Central Perk), star in school plays, and ask their crushes on dates.
But unless you recognized Givens as being one of the stars of the original series, you wouldn’t notice any connection between the 1986 Head of the Class and this one. Givens appears in the second episode and says lines like, “As we know, kissing is an actual gateway drug,” but makes no mention of the fact that she too was once an honors student.
This kind of Saved by the Bell humor courses through the series. Again it’s not bad, and it may work for the show’s intended younger audience. But as far as expanding HBO Max’s brand of original series, it’s too generic and not really worth the time. Head of the Class isn’t a failure, but you can easily pass on attending.
All 10 episodes of Head of the Class stream today on HBO Max.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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