Petting Teachers

'The Education of Max Bickford' Strokes Richard Dreyfuss--But Gets a Passing Grade

You can smell the condescension that infects The Education of Max Bickford. Someone has apparently informed Richard Dreyfuss that some pretty good stuff appears on TV these days--he clearly is not someone who would watch it himself, you understand--and so he has pondered deeply, weighed commerce against art, and decided to grace us with a program of his very own...like Bette Midler, Geena Davis, and

Daniel Stern! To add verisimilitude, Dreyfuss was facing his own midlife issues and--Neil Simon not having written him any great lines lately--decided to go out on a limb and, um, masquerade as a fussy, sputtering professorial Jewish priss who spits his self-loathing at colleagues, students, and friends alike. "That moist, sucking sound," he snarls at one pushy student, "is the milk of human kindness draining away from me." I know that some of you may have a hard time accepting this late-career change of pace, but trust me: Nobody sputters prissily and professorially like Richard Dreyfuss. (Well, except Philip Seymour Hoffman or Liev Schreiber, but who would dare give them a series?)

Not a philosopher for the 21st Century: Max Bickford
Courtesy of Dana Fineman/CBS
Not a philosopher for the 21st Century: Max Bickford

The surprise is that Max Bickford transcends its predictable graying-boomer routines (these hooligans don't appreciate Mick Jagger's genius!) to actually become an uncommonly smart show. But the smarts rise mostly whenever the camera wanders away from tired certainties about Max and his Issues. To give those Issues their due: Max is a once-popular American Studies professor at a New England women's college who wakes from stupors professional (he has taught the same three courses for 20 years) and emotional (he is a recovering alcoholic widower raising two kids on his own) to realize that the world has passed him by.

His former best friend Steve returns from Europe as Erica (Helen Shaver), who announces, "I have undergone some significant changes over the past year and a half" at the first faculty meeting. Max has just lost a coveted Chair to former student and paramour Andrea Haskell (Marcia Gay Harden), a leather-jacketed pop-culture trendoid who seems to be equal parts Judy Butler and Karal Ann Marling and teaches classes on the cultural significance of tattooing. Oh, and his pink-haired daughter Nell (Katee Sackhoff), a freshman at the school, would rather sing than study, while the calm acceptance of his Cute and Soulful™ 11-year-old Lester (Eric Ian Goldberg) reminds him of What's Really Important.

Much of this angst feels recycled from the cranky Jewish distemper mainstreamed by early-Seventies Roth, Bellow, and Richler novels whose film versions Dreyfuss was too callow to star in back then. Presumably he's been biding his time, waiting eagerly for his chance to be brainy and crotchety at once. We are apparently supposed to find Max exasperating but lovable, and believe that eventually he will overcome his fits of pique and do the right thing. The least interesting portions of the show resolve said Issues: Dreyfuss's closing voiceovers, supposedly from the autobiographical novel he's writing, galumph into obvious epiphanies about cherishing small moments with your family, accepting your life choices for better or worse, and assorted other yecch.

But the show's producers deserve more than a little credit for putting smarts on display without embarrassment--they've even requested online assistance from the main American Studies listserv to correct the details. Max worries about what and how to teach (when he lectures on Vietnam, should he discuss his own conscientious objection?) and wrestles with complicated moral and intellectual issues that, shockingly, don't receive easy answers. One episode probes Max's discomfort with the honors afforded a visiting speaker who, as a young woman, played a low-level role in the State Department's denial of visas to desperate Holocaust-era Jewish immigrants. The American Historical Association should issue some sort of award for such a willingness to present honestly the messiness of historical contingency. Max appears to be decisively behind the times in both subject matter and historiography: He specializes in the dreaded dead-white-guy history and, to judge from his lectures, has not picked up any books published in the past 25 years on the Japanese internment or the atom bomb. But then, how many TV series can even be attacked on such grounds?

Academic fidelity aside, the real intelligence of Max Bickford lies in Harden's Andrea Haskell, who becomes far more than the one-dimensional Bad foil she might well have been to Max's furrowed-brow Good. Though Max Bickford smirks at her book on Bruce Springsteen, Max Bickford doesn't. The show treats her scholarship as useful and valuable, perhaps even having something to say to disaffected non-brains like Bickford's daughter Nell, whom we see perking up when Haskell drops knowledge about Elvis. Her stringy 'do a sly marker of academic hipness, Harden plays her character as whip-smart, confident, and much better with theory than practice. She's a good friend to students but needs to learn to draw the adult perimeter that every good teacher must maintain.

In one of the sharpest subplots, she smilingly dismisses Max's distaste for her endlessly chummy office hours, then suddenly confronts the consequences: A male student takes their "friendship" as an invitation to further intimacies. Rather than simply putting her down as a fool or a hypocrite, the show lets Harden register her confusion without settling on a victor. Especially in moments like this, Max Bickford makes the grade--and Richard Dreyfuss has nothing to do with it.

 
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