Nerds and the gifted are usually the butts of jokes in US sitcoms. Happier with the ordinary, the sporting and those who don’t try too hard, even when there is a smarter character (such as in Modern Family), the majority of US sitcoms see that nerdiness or intellect as a weakness, something to be mocked because it separates out the gifted from the rest of us – when, at High School, the last thing you want is to be different. And they’re never ever going to get a girlfriend or boyfriend, either. Well, not a normal one, anyway.
The 80s did, however, give us a show that dared to be different. Head of the Class starred WKRP in Cincinnati‘s Howard Hesseman as an actor who becomes a substitute teacher at a New York high school. His assignment was a class of children on the Individualized Honors Program (IHP): everyone in the class was a genius at one school subject or another. While to a certain extent the class was composed of stereotypes – the science guy is a skinny, pocket protector-wearing, bespectacled wimp; the computer genius is fat and cynical; the political science guy is preppy; the arts girl is airy fairy; and so on – it still had some variety with Eric (Brian Robbins), the motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket wearing cool kid who was a superb writer, a black rich kid (a young Robin Givens) and an Indian exchange student (Jory Husain).
Each week, Hesseman would give the kids life lessons and help to teach them the ways of the world, but with no ‘normal’ kids around, the IHP students were able to be themselves, to work hard, to be friends and to excel. They could know answers to questions, answer intelligently and debate issues. There were even potential romances, with airy fairy arts girl Simone and cool kid Eric having an on-again, off-again relationship. In a pre-Glee move, thanks to Hesseman’s acting background, the IHP kids would even put on a yearly musical.
The show lasted four five seasons, during which time it changed considerably. As well as being the first US sitcom to film in the Soviet Union (for its third season opener), by the fourth season, some students had graduated, bringing in new students to the programme, including a blonde hippie and an aspiring filmmaker (De’voreaux White from the first Die Hard).
The fifth season saw Hesseman’s character leave, his acting career finally taking off, to be replaced with Billy Connolly in his first US TV role. More stand-up than teacher, Billy also had to deal with America and its customs, and he was popular enough that he got his own spin-off show, Billy.
Sadly, the show ended that season with everyone in the IHP finally graduating and the school itself being demolished. While you’re mourning, here’s the rather catchy theme tune and iconic titles, as well as a full 11 minutes of an episode that featured Brad Pitt that shows why Head of the Class was so different from most sitcoms of the time.