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Marvin Kitman

'Boston Public' gets an A-plus

A scene from
A scene from "Boston Public"  

(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- I give David E. Kelley an A-plus for his latest TV composition, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," also known as "Boston Public," the widely anticipated hour-long drama series that premiered Monday on Fox.

David had not been doing well. My report card last term gave him a flunking grade on "Snoops," kind of a "Masterpiece Theatre" version of "V.I.P." He got an incomplete on "Ally Whoops," the anorexic half-hour adaptation of "Ally McBeal." He had to drop out of medical school, closing the books on "Chicago Hope."

"Boston Public" is great, a classic serious but comedic DEK work, free of the silliness of brainless retreads of "Charlie's Angels" married to James Bond toys. And for a change, this is DEK not revisiting the law but public high schools.

I know some of us have spent more time watching TV shows about high school than they spent in high school. But "Boston Public" is different. It's about the professional and personal lives of the people who run our schools, the administrators and the hard-working, dedicated teachers.

Of course, it does have students, attractive trendy girls and zits-free lads, without whom none of this would be possible. It is a Foxonian show. At least it's not your usual Beverly Hills High crowd.

Winslow High is a midsize public school in Boston, with a racially mixed student body. It's a school with a lot of problems. Students are unruly and unmotivated. Parents are enraged. Star football players are flunking out, and the Wildcats are in trouble without them. The rights of students and teachers are being violated. It's a blackboard jungle out there, and David Kelley is hacking his way through it.

The central character is the principal Steven Harper, played by Chi McBride, an escapee from the UPN Civil War sitcom travesty "Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer." McBride's Harper is a strong, hulking authority figure with a heart as big as Fenway Park, who is constantly striving to promote an atmosphere where teaching is the king.

It's kind of a contemporary "To Sir With Love." Well-acted and well-written (Kelley himself, it is said, wrote six espisodes), it deals with controversial, topical, moral and ethical legal issues. Of course, it goes beyond reality for Kelley to get his messages across.

Being a DEK show, "Boston Public" has the usual Kelleyisian cast of eccentrics. My favorite teacher of the year is Harvey Lipschultz, the 80-year-old history teacher, played by Fyvush Finkel (''Picket Fences''). He blames Winslow's problem on students angry about spending long hours on buses and not having chapters about Rosa Parks. His teaching methods include lectures on the value of wearing bras and singing the national anthem. He also reveals that his ancestors were black, every one of them.

Young Harry Senate (Nicky Katt) is an idealistic geology teacher who has an unusual method of reaching students, which I'm not supposed to mention out of school. It is a technique Pestolozzi never taught in teacher's college. Senate also has Achilles' lips-he kissed one of the students, a blackmailing teen who is now worried about becoming the Monica Lewinsky of Winslow High. And then there is Scott Guber (Anthony Heald), the second in command administrator who is known as "the Nazi." But he loves the symphony and has his eye on the head of the Social Studies Department, the highly principled Lauren Davis (Jesslyn Gilsig).

At the end of what is considered a perfect day in the premiere nobody OD'd or got shot or was fired. But trouble looms everywhere. The Superintendent of Schools (aka the Dragon Lady) is roaming the halls looking for Principle Harper's head. Teachers are being vulgarly satirized on student journalist Web sites. Others are being hung out of the window upside down for crimes unspecified.

"Boston Public" is a welcome reminder that DEK has not lost his touch. He has put last season's disasters behind him. "Go Wildcats," you'll be saying with me by the second episode.

And speaking of Great Disasters of 1999, "Ally McBeal" also returned to Fox Monday.

"Everyone on the show went nuts last season," as Rich Brownfield of Austin, Texas, put it. "I just sat and shook my head at what David Kelley had wrought," explained Lisa Michele Jester, of Newark, Delaware, about how the aliens seemed to have taken over his head. "McBeal" went from a story about an independent woman's crazy antics in the office and on the street to a sex show. But Ally may be turning over a new fig leaf. In the premiere, she seems to be putting all her sex escapades behind her. It's as if she has changed her medication.

What is changing her love life is the arrival of what appears to be Mr. Right, a mysterious stranger Larry Paul, played by the infamous Robert Downey Jr. in his first acting role since being released from prison and rehab.

Ally is the sort of woman who could drive a man over the edge. Witness what she did to her last beau, poor Brian (Tim Dutton), on Monday. Downey adds a fresh sense of so-called reality to a show that has been higher than a kite. He is a good solid performer, somebody who could really do wonders for Ally's personal life. The coming thing with Larry looks real, for Ally.

Kitman is the television critic for New York Newsday. His column appears regularly on CNN Interactive's Entertainment section. E-mail Kitman at MarvinKitmanShow@worldnet.att.net

(c) 2000, Newsday Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.



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