The Ungovernable Boston Public

As the partisan bitterness escalates and the scenario in which this nation becomes ungovernable grows more possible by the hour, Culturebox can’t stop thinking about David E. Kelley and his new television series, Boston Public, a weekly meditation on the subject of ungovernability. This deservedly popular new show (Fox on Mondays at 8 p.m.) is set at a fairly average American public high school. But to the faculty and administration–our unlikely heroes–it’s the urban equivalent of a frontier town. At Winslow High, sneaky, oversexed, and barely controllable students start absurd crises, hysterical parents fan them, and political school board members exploit the turmoil to further their own murky agendas. Trying to tamp it all down takes up most of the teachers’ time. The rest is spent trying to shore up the respect required to keep the peace, whether by listening compassionately to troubled students or scaring the hell out of rebellious ones or even shooting blanks into a classroom to startle an incorrigible class into silence.

The teacher who shoots the gun, a likable guy, is reprimanded, not fired on the spot–one of the show’s more, shall we say, allegorical touches. These and others, such the principal’s bashing the head of the school bully against a locker and one teacher’s misguided effort to require buxom girls to wear bras that results in a hilarious schoolwide bra-removing and -waving protest, have been the object of disapproving articles in newspapers around the country since Boston Public first aired three weeks ago. The viewers who demand conformity to the exact reality of secondary school life miss the point. Though the show is set in a high school, its larger theme is authority in an ungovernable society–how do you get it and keep it in the face of corrosive distrust and mindless mutiny? Kelley’s flights of fanciful hyperbole are his way of shoving that question in the audience’s faces.

The basic premise of Boston Public poses the problem clearly. It is that teachers are figures of benevolent authority suspected of almost every form of malevolence conceivable and defended by almost no one. This, of course, is no parable. It reflects a political environment in which teachers’ unions are routinely blamed for everything that goes wrong in school systems today. In the show, the scapegoating of teachers comes across in a plot line involving a frosty superintendent who is trying to get rid of the beloved principal, Stephen Harper. Harper is the only Mr. Chips on this show–a warm, intelligent, soft-spoken fellow whose ability to run the school resides largely in a bulky body that he wields like a concealed weapon and mostly keeps in check. His sins, in the superintendent’s mind, lie in his flashes of temper and in the fact that he fails to fire otherwise talented teachers for their momentary lapses, such as the geology teacher who shot the gun or an overemotional history teacher who needs anti-depressants to cope with her obnoxious class.

Kelley’s interest in the principal’s and teachers’ plight does not come across as an idealist’s whitewash. It’s more like a vehicle for his extremely dark view of human nature. His students are mostly nasty, brutish, and resistant to improvement, and his parents are worse. Harper is a flawed hero, and the teachers are distinctly unsaintly. Most of them are dysfunctional themselves. To Kelley, schools are less a place where Rousseauian free spirits are led gently to a greater social consciousness than cautionary examples of what happens when a society routinely denigrates legitimate authority. One consequence is a student-run, Drudge-like Web site, run by a creepy little eavesdropper who writes up teachers’ private lives and posts cartoons that have them doing things like sticking their own heads up their asses. (She also has 90 students working for her and informs one social studies teacher that she is already a bigger professional success than the teacher will ever be.)

The more insidious consequence is overregulation–Kelley, an ex-lawyer, has made this subject the obsession of every TV show he has written. Whenever teachers or administrators try to help or discipline students, they immediately butt up against their or their bosses’ anxiety about litigation. The worst, in Kelley’s book, are sexual harassment laws, which he started railing about in Ally McBeal long before Monica Lewinsky got down on her knees. But there are also digs at anti-discrimination laws and an episode about a degrading school board regulation that requires all teachers to submit to thumb printing since they work with children. Culturebox has mixed views on sexual harassment and anti-discrimination laws and absolutely no idea whether the thumb printing law exists anywhere other than in Kelley’s head. He makes good use of it, though, to show what happens when people who should be looked up to and supported are met instead by automatic suspicion.

So what’s the parallel between Boston Public and the current crisis? That you can’t educate children, just as you can’t run a country, in an atmosphere of rancor and litigiousness, when the people who are supposed to be in charge are dismissed in a knee-jerk fashion as corrupt and illegitimate by the people they’re supposed to be governing. Kelley’s anti-proceduralist bias may appear to be reactionary. But though in some ways this apostate litigator does seem to be making a neoconservative critique of the rights revolution, it’s notable that he does so in defense of the quintessential public institution, the public school. When you can’t trust your government, he seems to be telling us, you must resort to regulations, and the more trust dissolves, the more convoluted and ridiculous the regulations become until you have a system in complete paralysis.