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Thursday, January 3, 2019

'Mr. Novak' S1 DVD: 'Dr. Kildare' Style Rookie Teacher Gets Schooled

The recent Warner Archive 6-disc DVD set of the 1963-64 S1 of  "Mr. Novak" provides a good chance to start 2019 on the right note. This Peabody Award winning anthology drama about the challenges of the titular newbie English teacher shows us what good television drams used to be and can be again. 

We meet titular idealistic young educator John Novak on his first day as an English teacher at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Fellow newbies include once-and-future teacher (Ed Asner), who is returning to the blackboard jungle after leaving that profession to earn a more lucrative living. The very frank orientation that these rookie faculty members receive provides viewers an education regarding the perspective of the folks who try to cram knowledge into the heads of kids. These pearls of wisdom include observing that every teacher has at least one student whom he or she detests but still must instruct.

This pilot also establishes the mentor/mentee relationship that handsome young blond Novak has with older and wiser principal Albert Vane (Dean Jagger). This is comparable to the relationship between fresh-faced Dr. Kildare and crusty Dr. Gillespie in the film franchise and television series that feature that pair.

Speaking of Vane, we also get insight into the life of a principal. Not many of us think about how these men and women juggle the heavy demands on their time that largely involve meting out discipline that meets the best needs of the malfeasor, refereeing disputes, attending meetings, and ensuring that his ship stays afloat. 

The aforementioned first day starts badly before Novak even enters the school; his car is the victim of a hit-and-run by a student seconds after Novak parks that vehicle. The plot thickens on the guilty literal honors student being on the verge of dropping out and his father supporting that decision. 

Another early episode creates great expectations of a "Jessie's Song" episode; Novak catching an over-achieving science whiz cheating on an English assignment creates angst regarding whether to follow a procedure that will be very detrimental to the student. Although it is discovered that this model student is greatly over extended, it is disappointing that he does not turn to caffeine pills for relief, 

A particularly timely episode has national treasure Lillian Gish playing veteran biology/sex ed teacher Miss Phipps. She is coming under fire for telling the kids the facts of life. A student whom it is highly suggested is the wife in a shotgun elopement helps hit the point home this time. A "do stand so close to me" outing has a young teacher who is the object of a schoolboy fantasy share the affections of that lad. 

The first-half of S1 also has a twofer episode that includes the worst nightmare of any teacher. A student who already has a bad relationship with Novak gets injured while the teacher is breaking up a fight. The first part of the story is dealing with the school-related fallout associated with a faulty member using bodily force on a student. The second "fer" relates to the legal system tradition of taking the easy way out by paying a settlement without much thought to actual culpability. A reference to an attorney named Arnie Becker at an L.A. law firm adds to the fun.

The "Novak" writers especially torment Novak with a Friday from Hell that begins with parents (including a father played by Edward Platt of "Get Smart") getting very belligerent and that ends with this newbie getting schooled in the pitfalls of being tardy for committee meetings. A change of pace for Novak and the series occurs when he then accepts a last-minute invitation to a weekend party at the family estate of a wealthy former girlfriend.

Hours of abuse by the rich and powerful finally prompts Novak to give a speech to those privileged elite. This conveys exactly the right message to folks who do not think that teachers deserve much regard.

On the other side of the coin, another episode has Novak challenging the easy life of a teacher who gets by with jokes and helping students cheat. The fun in this one includes watching our fair-haired boy embrace the dark side,

Larger social issues include intense harassment of black students despite ABSOLUTELY no provocation, a problem child from a disadvantaged background,  and mainstreaming blind students. We also get looks at teachers battling alcoholism and otherwise contending with the stress of their profession, The message each time is that Novak is committed to putting right what once went wrong.

The value of series such as "Novak" is that they provoke thought and discussion in ways that largely stay away from being preachy. Our hero mostly strikes the proper balance between being a crusader and a realist. 

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