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Fox's 'Boston Public' salutes teachers in unrealistic way

Sunday, October 28, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

As outrageous and exasperating as ever, Fox's "Boston Public" returns tomorrow at 8 for its second season of teaching in the trenches. Set at an inner city school, the series salutes the important work of teachers, but continues to do so in an over-the-top, unrealistic way that undermines its ode to the profession.

Tonight's episode features a teacher who encourages a fight in his classroom. Another teacher talks to his class about masturbation and mentions fantasizing about his female students. A third teacher, angered when a student talks back, calls the boy by a shortened form of "Richard" - but the kid's name is not Dick.

TV Preview
"Boston Public"
When:8 p.m. tomorrow on Fox.
Starring: Chi McBride, Anthony Heald.

New characters are introduced, including Jeri Ryan ("Star Trek: Voyager") as an attorney-turned-teacher and Michael Rapaport as the masturbation-minded educator who dresses as informally as his students.

Written by David E. Kelley ("Picket Fences," "The Practice," "Ally McBeal"), "Boston Public" turns to black humor for the continuing story of controlling mom, Mrs. Peters (Kathy Baker), and her studious son, Jeremy (Kaj-Erik Eriksen), whom she used to regularly lock in the basement as a form of punishment.

"Boston Public" often entertains, but it stretches the bounds of credulity. And that's fine by series star Anthony Heald, who plays uptight vice principal Scott Guber.

"There are projects you can say are realistic and it's a real compliment. I don't think our show aspires to that," Heald said in July at a Fox party in Hollywood. "I don't think our show is trying to be realistic and gritty. ... What we're trying to do is tell stories in an entertaining way."

At the same time, Heald said "Boston Public" bridges the generation gap, allowing adults and teens to better understand one another.

"My ideal Monday night audience would be a pair of young parents watching with their adolescent kid and talking about what they just saw," Heald said. "It shows the adult world in ways that make it possible for adolescents to comprehend and it shows the adolescent world in ways that make it comprehensible for an adult.

"That's David [E. Kelley's] genius, an ability to bring to light both those worlds. Whether that's presented realistically or not is really immaterial. Sometimes David chooses to push the envelope in one way, and sometimes he chooses to push it in another. The point is, it's still dealing with that crucial interaction."

The heart of "Boston Public" is the relationship between Heald's Guber and actor Chi McBride's put-upon principal, Steven Harper.

"Without these two guys and their ability to interact and have a real working relationship that's a little deeper than something servicey, kind of a general-lieutenant relationship, the inmates would run the asylum," McBride said in a phone interview earlier this month. "It's a lot of the backbone of the series. We've got to have these guys talking all the time and conferring. Nobody has all the answers. Harper's smart enough to know he can't do everything."

Though some parents and parents' groups object to the content of "Boston Public," particularly for an 8 p.m. show, McBride dismisses their complaints.

"Part of the reason why our youth are in such a state of disrepair is people don't think these things are going on. They think they're going to school, jumping rope and singing nursery rhymes," McBride said. "Last year I was looking in USA Today and saw the Parents Television Council named 'Boston Public' the worst family viewing show on television. Worse than wrestling? So what they're saying is, let's go watch grown men hit each other with chairs, but we don't want 'Boston Public.'

"People need to wake up and realize we live in an ever-changing world. Even before Sept. 11 our society was becoming incredibly unmanageable, with children bringing guns to school, violence and all kind of things going on."

Both actors say they get feedback from viewers. Heald hears from an old college friend who is assistant principal of a public high school in Boston.

"She e-mails me frequently after episodes to say, 'This would never happen,'" Heald said.

McBride was surprised to discover the show has such a following among teen-agers. While returning videos to a Blockbuster, a teen approached him and said the show had changed his life. The student had been a wiseacre, but he was moved by an episode that showed a teacher who, because of her low salary, was unable to afford to buy a house.

"That just blew me away," McBride said. "I was just standing there slack-jawed."

Heald was cast in "Boston Public" after appearing in an episode of Kelley's "The Practice" as a tightly wound judge with a unique pronunciation for "Mass-a-chusetts." He almost didn't take that role, but only did so at the urging of his wife, who enjoyed watching the legal drama.

When Kelley approached Heald about starring in "Boston Public," he was reluctant. Then Kelley described the character.

"Think the judge in high school except that everybody looks upon him the way people look upon the judge, but the audience sees he's vulnerable, that he's conflicted," Heald said. "That was exactly the strategy to overcome my reluctance to do series television."

McBride is eager for viewers to see new "Boston Public" episodes because they explore more of Harper's personal life. Viewers will meet his ex-wife and daughter.

"There was a real emptiness to Steven's existence last year that I think is going to change," McBride said. "I'm a realist who believes happiness is not a destination, it's a journey. David doesn't write happily ever after; he writes happy for now. It's time you'll get to see that with Harper. Sooner or later it will all go to hell ... but life is a bit of a winding road and David is very adept at letting you see the curves and forks in everyone's roads."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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