In his opening monologue, Sinbad proclaims an ambitious agenda for the infotainment special “Back to School ’92.” He declares that the show will describe “what’s wrong with (the American educational) system and how to fix it.”
While that mandate remains unfulfilled, the show is an amiable enough pep talk, one that commiserates with students and teachers about the often-appalling conditions in today’s public schools and gently chides kids and parents to play their part in making things better.
The briskly paced program, filmed at Los Angeles’ Garfield High School, is a mix of music, comedy and discussions with students, teachers and parents about ways to improve today’s classrooms. It utilizes a one-issue-at-a-time approach, focusing on such topics as self-esteem, adult illiteracy and the importance of mentors.
Not a lot of actual info is conveyed as, say, Whoopi Goldberg talks to high schoolers about their fears concerning gangs and guns. But it’s positive to have so many celebs–adults whom teens presumably look up to– showing concern and reiterating the need for study and hard work.
Perhaps even more valuable are the series of short videos in which such comedians as Dana Carvey, Jerry Seinfeld and Lily Tomlin talk of how awkward they felt in high school. These should help reassure today’s students that being popular is no gauge of success in later life.
Robin Williams contributes a typically brilliant cameo as he takes us on a tour of a library, conveying the joy of reading through one of his inimitable stream-of-consciousness monologues. And Paul Rodriguez gives kids something important to think about when he notes, “We hate things we don’t understand, and we hate things we’re afraid of.”
The program’s style was clearly influenced by musicvideos. It utilizes odd camera angles, moves seemingly at random between color and B&W, imparts much of its information via factoids (“82% of our prisoners are high school dropouts”) and seldom lets anyone say more than a single sentence before cutting away to another talking head.
While this style presumably will increase its appeal to young audiences, it inadvertently pinpoints one problem the show fails to address. Through its very shallowness, the show argues that the MTV style of fragmented images and thoughts doesn’t allow for any development of complex or reasoned ideas.
That raises an important issue: Does the fact that kids are getting barraged with such entertainment have something to do with the fact so many find school lectures and discussions boring?
However, we can’t really expect a TV show to criticize TV. It’s surprising, and heartening enough, to hear Tony Danza tell parents to turn off those sets and read to their kids. Let’s just hope the kids have enough of an attention span to appreciate the spoken word.