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I Watch Boston Public and I’m Ashamed

Our society should consider TV watching to be a guilty pleasure, but it really doesn’t. Although educators bemoan the TV time spent by our children, and moral crusaders scold Hollywood for sex and violence, these critics of television are generally regarded as joy-killing nuns. Many of us watch TV every night, and while we want better quality, even the stupidest shows are somehow enough to keep us from spending our time more wisely.

Fox’s Boston Public is one such guilty pleasure. To say the show is sensationalist would be the depth of understatement. Boston Public is a sensationalist highlights reel. More shit has happened during the first half of Boston Public’s first season than in all high schools, everywhere, in the history of high schools. Consider:

  • A teacher, Harry Senate, fires a gun in class to get his students attention. Luckily, the gun contained blanks. Parents are outraged. Miraculously Senate keeps his job.
  • Senate kisses a female student. She blackmails him to give a failing football star a passing grade. Later he confesses the kiss to the principal. Miraculously Senate keeps his job.
  • Senate starts a suicide club after school, to get kids talking about suicide.
  • Senate gets a troubled teen a job in a mortuary. The teen brings a human foot to the school, where it is discovered. Miraculously Senate keeps his job.
  • An English teacher has an affair with his star student.
  • Another English teacher recognizes that this star student knows Shakespeare better than him. He leaves her in charge of the class, and goes home and eats pizza for six weeks without notifying the administration. Because of a teacher shortage, the principal lets the star student teach.  
  • The female students, in a show of feminine solidarity, all remove their bras simultaneously in the hallway. The bra removal is remarkably well choreographed, with the girls opening their lockers with a simultaneity worthy of a Busby Berkely musical. The school is powerless to control them.
  • A student maintains a web site documenting all the shit going on in the school, including which teachers asked which other teachers out on dates, which female teacher would the male students most like to sleep with, and which students are sleeping with whom. Helpful graphics are included, including an animation of one teacher literally eating horse shit.
  • The high school tries to suppress the site, but the editor of the site wins her case in court.
  • A student spits in the face of a social studies teacher, Lauren. Lauren was previously disappointed that she finished seventh in the poll of who the male students would like to sleep with, though she herself is built like a panther. The student is expelled, but because he is black, this sparks racial tension at the school.

 

All of this may well have happened in one episode of Boston Public. Even if it didn’t, that much does happen every Monday night.

I watch, I think, because it’s entertaining to see just how much can be crammed in every week. The show’s creator, David E. Kelley, is considered one of TV’s top writers, having created Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice and Ally McBeal.

Clearly Kelley’s scripts are inspired by sensationalist headlines. Picket Fences was undoubtedly his best work, because in it he explored legal and social issues with a nuance not seen on TV since his own work back on L.A. Law. Yeah, it was absurd that so many Supreme Court worthy cases were tried in such a small town, but you accepted it, just as you accepted that a dead body would appear in whatever town Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote was visiting to research her latest book.

Picket Fences won Emmys, but never was a hit, so Kelley must have decided to spice things up to get a big audience. Unfortunately for Kelley, Chicago Hope remained eclipsed by ER. But with Ally McBeal, and those hip lawyers sharing a unisex bathroom, Kelley finally found his métier.

Boston Public lacks all Redeeming Social Value. If I were Plato, creating the ideal state, I would certainly ban Boston Public and probably have Kelley banished for foisting Ally McBeal on the world, even though I have only been exposed to previews of it.

Boston Public is probably not beneficial for high school students, but the show may seem to “understand” them, and so they will watch. If I were a high school student watching this show, I would probably become disappointed at the contrast between Winslow High and my own high school, where teachers were assumed to be sexless drones, where the only fear of violence was of being beaten by bullies, where no one bothered to maintain a web site about the dirt going on, partly because reporters were known to be geeks.

Because Boston Public explores the cauldron of sex, dirt, and violence without blanching, people may take it for being honest. “Gee, maybe society has degenerated that much” or “These kids today…” we may think.

We can see the calculating cynicism at work in conceiving this show. Kelley may well have thought: “I’ve explored sex and relationships and social values in a variety of milieus, especially law firms, where I’ve shown that moral concerns are only a strategy to avoid litigation. I need a new venue at which to take an “honest” look. I know: High schools! There is still room for outrage where teenagers are involved. And just as I showed the tireless legal warriors staying up all night to the best damn job they could, so I will champion the teachers and the neglect they feel. My show will seem to be the friend of the very profession it secretly and openly scoffs at for being so underpaid.”

Undoubtedly, Kelley will have to explore other professions to keep generating new shows. In the future, we may see junior high students, monks, or social workers explored with such unflinching honesty. And then people in those occupations will experience the secret thrill that their lives, too, are worthy to be televised.

Dan Geddes

March 2001

Notes

The phrase “TV’s top writers” recalls the Seinfeld where George is writing the pilot for a show called Jerry. When Jerry questions whether George is writer, George replies: “Writer? What writer? It’s a sitcom!”