Spiky yet vulnerable is an appealing combination that Annie Potts has in abundance; it was there in “Designing Women” and “Love and War,” but it comes out full strength in “Dangerous Minds,” the season’s latest film-to-TV-series transfer. Potts takes over the role of ex-Marine turned inner-city teacher Louanne Johnson that Michelle Pfeiffer originated in the film.
No leap is required to believe Potts is Louanne, a diminutive white woman determined to succeed in a hostile cityscape of black and Latino kids who long ago figured out the odds against success and threw in the towel.
The show opens with images of a chain-link fence, clusters of students huddled and seething with suspicion, and a blast of hip-hop as Louanne makes her way through the school’s public spaces. She’s wrapped in protective layers of clothing, but her short-cropped red hair sends out a more pointed signal. It’s not long before she faces down the first threat to her authority a strapping young man who just doesn’t want to sit down. Of course, she wins.
Louanne is the latest in a long tradition of TV teachers who really care, from James Franciscus’ Mr. Novak to Lloyd Haynes’ Pete Dixon (“Room 222”) to Ken Howard’s Ken Reeves in “The White Shadow.”
Louanne will take in a young single mother (Tamala Jones) struggling to extricate herself from an abusive boyfriend, and she mows lawns so Mr. Won’t-sit-down (Greg Serano) can study. When a sweet boy (Vicellous Reon Shannon) falls asleep in class, she wakes him with a kiss on the cheek, to the boisterous enjoyment of his classmates.
“Now you get to remember me for the rest of your life,” she says, and you know he will, even while entertaining doubts about how long that troubled life may be.
In her classroom, Louanne brings the words of Steinbeck and Wolfe (Thomas, not Tom) to life. She’s a soft touch with respect to grades, which gains her a nemesis in the evocatively named Bud Bartkus (Stanley Anderson), who may be counted on to be scandalized by her methods several times per episode. Bud is white; Louanne also has a black foil in Jerome Griffin (K. Todd Freeman, replaced after the premiere by Michael Jace), a counselor who has seen too many Louanne types burn out after a semester or two. But he has his eye on her, and you can see an alliance in the making.
Yes, it’s sentimental and often strains credibility. But “Dangerous Minds” is also keenly humane, a belligerent bulwark against cynicism. Moreover, Potts heads a terrific ensemble that makes you care about these kids and this teacher.
The show itself may be dangerous business for ABC: Hourlong dramas about teachers are as popular as documentaries on the economy. Even the well-liked “White Shadow” never made it to the top of the Nielsen rankings. Then again, teachers are very big this season, and Louanne Johnson’s a pip.