Room 222: Season One [4 Discs] on DVD
Room 222 was an odd little series when it premiered in the fall of 1969. Basically, it was a comedy without a lot of big laughs, which made it most unusual at the time and far ahead of its time -- what's more, the playing was realistic rather than broad, and the stories, if not always serious themselves, usually had some serious overtones, based in a reality that included the issues of race, war, and other contemporary matters. And to top it off, the lead character in the series was an African-American history teacher, played by Lloyd Haynes, this not much more than a year after the first modern prime-time series with an African-Amercan lead character, Julia, had gone on the air. Created by James L. Brooks and produced by Gene Reynolds (who took some of what he did here, in terms of nuanced comedy, to M*A*S*H), it was one of the more good-natured of the new wave of ABC series that premiered in the fall of 1969, all of them suddenly contemporary and "relevant." It might also have made more of an impression on this reviewer than some of its rival series that season, because we were starting high school that same year.
The series' first season has arrived on DVD from Shout Factory, in decent but not exceptionally great condition. The episodes look grainy, and there are scratches in some sequences; and the color tones are faded and all slightly off, and, in the pilot (a gentle and wonderful, and very knowing show), have deteriorated to a greenish tone -- indeed, if this is the condition of the existing materials on the series, then the owners, 20th Century-Fox Television, have committed gross negligence with their own property. Luckily, the series is good enough that it is worth seeing, regardless of the condition -- it's a pity it's not in better shape, but it's still good viewing, well-written and, atill amazingly . . . (forgive the use of the word) relevant; and the range of familiar (and soon-to-be-familiar) faces in the supporting and guest casts includes Beah Richards, Paul Winfield, Larry Linville, Ed Begley, Jr., Kenneth Mars, Bernie Koppell, Teri Garr, John Rubinstein, Rob Reiner, Cindy Williams, Liam Dunn, Roy Stuart, and Brenda Sykes. And the directors include producer Gene Reynolds, among other notables. Each episode is broken down according to the original commercial and credit breaks, and all four discs open automatically to a dual-layer menu that offers "play all" and individual episode access. Disc Four offers a delightful supplement featuring cast members Michael Constantine and Denise Nicholas, who provide insightful comments on their characters and the content of the series -- that goes double for the late Lloyd Haynes, who played the lead character on the series, and who gets a good, if too brief, account of his career here. James L. Brooks and Allan Burns also tell of the problems in the series, in terms of writing for it, given the time in which it was done, including the controversy over the idea of white writers and producers doing a series dealing with African-American teachers and students. One only wishes the supplement ran another 15 minutes -- viewers in 2009 might want to hear more from the participants about the attitudes of some ABC executives concerning the show -- according to them, the network wanted a series that was nothing but laughs, with no serious overtones; but much more important, they also wanted a key supporting character changed from African-American to white; and the producers of the show say outright that the network had some avowed racists among their executives who were perfectly comfortable expressing their views, in private, to them; fortunately, the producers fought back and won. As it is, the writing is sharp and knowing, and holds up despite some minor period details that are no longer relevant, and which could be distracting. Indeed, the biggest distraction here is the presence, albeit low-keyed, of a laugh-track that comes up at times in the early episodes.
The shows themselves, despite lots of 1960's details (Nehru jackets and Afros) and slang ("Out of sight"), hold up extremely well. And in one peculiar pop-culture note, one episode, "The New Boy" -- which seems to have been inspired by the old Carole Lombard comedy/drama True Confession -- was probably the first time the Rolling Stones or Mick Jagger were utilized in a dramatic context in a script on American television. (One just wishes the writers had been a little more careful in some other aspects of the plot and dialogue). Other episodes involve the kinds of issues that had mostly been lost with the transformation from black-and-white to color, including psychological problems and other difficulties in living and growing up. Watching this series anew, 40 years on, one feels a great sense of relief that the producers held their ground and did the show as they saw fit -- otherwise, the likelihood is that the series would not be viewable in the least, much less as enjoyable as it still is. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
Dolby Digital Stereo