Thought-provoking shows about teaching

'Max Bickford' star Richard Dreyfuss wants to address important issues 'that are not talked about much on TV'

"The Education of Max Bickford" started last September as a promising show about what it means to dedicate your life to helping young adults. But it quickly dissolved into a dreary, angst-ridden meditation on the trials of a middle-aged professor.

Then something fine happened: The writing improved, the storyline became more complex, and voilà! The Education of Max Bickford (CBS, 8-9 p.m.) lives again.

Star Richard Dreyfuss is a funny, intelligent, and inventive actor who is playing Max out of a deep-rooted love for teaching. Dreyfuss, principally a movie actor who has now moved into TV, told critics last summer in Pasadena, Calif., that he always wanted to teach at the college level. The subject he loved most was history.

"Teaching is not just loving a subject. It's not only knowing how to think, but encouraging others to think greatly, widely. And it's not easy," says Mr. Dreyfuss, reached by phone on the "Bickford" set recently.

"It's one thing to be a history buff and to love this story or that story, and it's quite another to stand before kids and get them to participate with you and get them to think," he says. "That's one of the things I've come to realize about teaching."

Dreyfuss has visited classes at Columbia University in New York to research the role, and he has a number of friends who are professors.

"We now have a broader area to talk about" in the show, he says. "We're not just talking about [politics]; we're talking about teaching and the academic life - so, I've learned a lot from [real teachers]. What is the life? What are the issues? What is the interaction? How do they deal with kids and other faculty?"

Ethics comes with the territory of the show, he says. "People have interests in their lives that are not talked about much on TV. Whether they are issues about ethics, or family, or God, or the spirit, and we wanted to give those things some latitude.

"When I first came [to the producers], that's what I wanted to do - ask about how do you deal with death, or how do you deal with God, or the refusal to believe in God? That's what everyone does in reality."

It's clear that Dreyfuss has a hand in the storytelling. The writing reflects his passion for the subject, and he inhabits the role like, well, a real teacher. True, many of the stories are about his character interacting with friends and family. But he has created something unusual, something real, something of the nature of classroom communication.

Teachers and teaching are seldom the center of TV comedies and dramas - not like lawyers, for instance. But scenes from the classroom do show up in several shows like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," "Smallville," and "Dawson's Creek," though more as a teenage environment than the focus of teenage attention (she's a college dropout now, but when did Buffy ever study?). "Freaks and Geeks" didn't last long, but when the subject was life in high school, the show was fairly real and natural, even though the teachers were portrayed mainly as geeks.

Some controversy has surrounded the often sleazy, melodramatic Boston Public (Mondays, Fox, 8-9 p.m.). It's not that things as bad as these don't happen in public schools, but all of them at once? Its world is so hyper and so disheartening, one has to wonder: If "Boston Public" is an accurate representation of high school today, is anyone raising the children?

Charles Skidmore, the principal of a real Boston high school, Brighton High School, turned down the opportunity to have his school's exterior used in the show. He worried that the depiction of the students would be sensational. His reservations have been justified.

The real Brighton High has a low-income student body, with 80 percent of the kids qualifying for reduced-priced lunches, Principal Skidmore says. But the kids are generous and giving. For example, they support The Heifer Project, which gives livestock to families in third world countries, and they are equally generous with each other.

"I attended a private high school, and I find urban schools less cruel than [private] schools - the cruelty there is about cliques and snobbery - much more cruel than the occasional fistfight that breaks out here," Mr. Skidmore says.

"Boston Public" has had some good episodes. The installment last Monday dealt with the "n" word and the sensitivity that surrounds the use of that word in a multicultural classroom. It was, at the very least, thought-provoking.

"Max Bickford" take place at a private woman's college, and issues of snobbery and the power of the elite do surface sometimes. But the show is not about trashing young people or sensationalizing their behavior. And it is always thought-provoking.

This Sunday, Max enters new territory in what promises to be a classic episode (the tape was not available to reviewers at this writing). Max's father (played by stage and screen veteran Eli Wallach) is taken to the hospital, near death. Max's young son, Lester, believes God will save his beloved grandfather; Max does not.

The conflict between youthful faith and adult skepticism is an old one, but allowing a young character's innocence to breathe through all the adult fuss is unusual on TV. Max Bickford's education continues to surprise us, as life surprises him with its remarkable realities.

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