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Series / Head of the Class

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A highly successful Sitcom that aired on ABC from 1986–91. Imagine Welcome Back, Kotter in The '80s and with much smarter students. Or Saved by the Bell in prime time.

Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati) stars as Charlie Moore, a substitute teacher who is hired to teach history to a class of Individualized Honors Program students at Millard Fillmore High School in Manhattan. Although Charlie is not gifted himself, he thinks outside the box and is full of epiphanies, and thus has much to teach his class even as he finds himself clashing with the school's stuffy, by-the-book principal. Three months into the show's run, the Very Special Episode comes in where the original teacher returns from his medical leave. This being a successful American sitcom, after spending most of the episode trying to impress the guy, Charlie finally succeeds by being himself; the guy was looking for a worthy replacement so that he could retire. This naturally infuriates the principal further, even as it ensures a stable status quo.

The series ran for five years with almost no cast turnover. This did stretch credulity after a time, but it didn't cause problems until Hesseman quit the show and the producers were forced to replace him with Billy Connolly (as Suspiciously Similar Substitute Billy MacGregor) in the fifth season. The series ended in 1991, and Connolly's character would get a spin-off called Billy which lasted a single season. A sequel series of the same name, starring Isabella Gómez and featuring Robin Givens reprising her role, premiered on HBO Max in November 2021; like Billy, this series was also cancelled after a single season.

This was also the Star-Making Role for Robin Givens and helped launch Dan Schneider, responsible in some way for most every recent live-action hit on Nickelodeon until they parted ways in 2018, and Brian Robbins, who went on to produce and direct shows with Schneider and without (as well as work with the enemy sometimes) and is now the head of Paramount. Unlike Robbins, Schneider has yet to direct a big-screen movie, which may be a wise move.

Tropes found in this classroom include:

  • Academic Alpha Bitch: Alan Pinkard is none too pleased that others in the high IQ class do as well as he does, even better sometimes. And he is really pissed that 11-year-old Janice is in his high school - and more pissed that she leaves early to go to Harvard, which is where he wants to go. He and Darlene are neck-and-neck when it comes time to declare a class valedictorian, but the school's powers that be decide to make another girl, TJ, the valedictorian instead because of the challenges she'd had to overcome.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Shy, gentle Simone is drawn to leather-jacketed motorcycle-riding Eric. Subverted in that Eric's actually not much of a bad boy - he mostly just looks the part compared to his classmates.
  • Always a Live Transmission: In one episode, Mr. Moore takes an acting gig playing an Insane Proprietor in a series of late night commercials, all of which air live.
  • The B Grade: In the pilot, Maria, a straight-A student, grounds herself just because she got a B.
  • Back for the Finale: Janice shows up again in the series finale to get her high school diploma, having just graduated from Harvard.
  • Backstory of the Day: In one episode, Jawarhalal is suddenly well-known for agreeing with everybody about everything. Until that episode it was never mentioned.
  • Be Yourself: This was frequently An Aesop on the show, such as in the episode where Arvid sends Eric's picture to his female pen pal because he assumes she wouldn't find the real him attractive.
  • Bottle Episode: Pretty much every episode takes place in that one classroom and the hallway just outside it; occasionally they also used the school theater or the principal's office.
  • Break the Haughty: Alan was probably the most frequent victim of this. One of the biggest examples was "Alan Goes Crimson," in which Alan - convinced that he's about to receive early admission to Harvard - effectively tells off all of his classmates. When he doesn't get the early admission and must continue attending school with the other IHP kids, he has to eat a lot of crow.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Applies to various characters, depending on how you define brilliance.
  • Catchphrase: Billy usually greets his students with a boisterous "Good morning, geniuses!"
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: Charlie has to take an economics course in order to keep his teaching certification (and his job) but is shown struggling with the subject matter, as it's out of his area of expertise. When he's gearing up to take his final exam, the IHP kids put together a composition book that contains all of the formulae he would need to ace the test (they said he would be given two workbooks at the exam - one to write the answers in, one to use as a workbook, and he could just substitute their workbook to use). The next day, when they ask how he did on the exam, he says he thinks he did fine - then pulls the workbook they gave him out of his desk, showing he didn't use it. When asked why he didn't use it, knowing he could lose his job if he failed the exam, he replies, "I wouldn't be the teacher you deserve if I did."
  • Characterization Marches On: By season 3, Jawaharlal doesn't speak with much of an accent, if any.
  • Child Prodigy: Janice is only 11 years old, yet is in the same high-level class as the the other students, who are aged normally for high school. Janice is so smart that she graduates early and goes on to Harvard after the third season.
  • Christmas Episode: In season 5, Billy helps Viki track down her birth mother over the holidays.
  • Chummy Commies: In one episode, the Class is up against a touring Soviet superteam in an academic trivia meet. They get to know each other a little and decide in the end to let the meet end in a draw rather than Sudden Death overtime.
  • Class Reunion: In "Back to the Future", Charlie gets an invitation to his high school reunion, and he later has the class imagine what they would be like in 20 years, to help Eric deal with the praise he's been getting from his assignment.
  • Common Meter : Discussed, when someone points out that all Emily Dickinson poems may be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas."
  • Courtroom Episode: "Twelve Angry Nerds". Alan is caught cheating on a test, and the rest of the class acts out a courtroom procedure to decide his punishment.
  • Cousin Oliver: Streetwise T.J. during the third season and then transfer student Jasper during the fourth season (after the show already added three new characters).
  • Deal with the Devil: In "The Devil and Miss T.J.," desperate to ace Mr. Moore's latest assignment and get into the IHP, T.J. meets a man and has him help her with the assignment. Only after finishing it does she realize that the man was actually the Devil, who plans to collect her soul at the end of the school day. The whole class has to help her and convince the Devil not to go through with it... but of course, it was All Just a Dream.
  • Dean Bitterman: Dr. Samuels. He specifically did not like Mr. Moore's teaching style and was afraid that it would ruin the IHP.
    • One-off nemesis Mrs. Hartman falls into this. She objects to the class performing Hair on stage because she sees the tie-dye, hippie themes of The '60s as disrespectful to American history, but becomes much more sympathetic when it is revealed that her son was killed in the Vietnam War. She eventually relents and drops her objections.
  • Devil's Advocate: In a school debate club meet, Alan has to extemporaneously defend a position he is personally against. He wins the debate.
  • Enemy Mine: Invoked by Mr. Moore on one occasion. The students were fighting each other, so he became a bad teacher, giving them a greater enemy that would force them to put aside their own differences.
  • Expy: Alan was basically this show's version of Alex P. Keaton.
  • Extra-Long Episode: "Mission to Moscow" was originally aired as a one-hour special, but in syndication, it's split into two parts.
  • Famous Ancestor: In "The Way We Weren't," Charlie has the class research their family trees, and Darlene discovers that she is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: Jawaharlal Choudhury is obviously named after India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It is very unlikely that an Indian or an Indian-American in his teens in the mid-1980s would have a name like Jawaharlal.
  • Fat Comic Relief: Dennis, who comes up with a lot of Zany Schemes and is a Deadpan Snarker.
  • Fiery Redhead: Shy, sensitive Simone is an aversion.
  • Final Season Casting: The fourth season premiere sees Janice, Maria and Jawarhalal being written out, with their places taken by new students Viki, Alex and Aristotle. Later in the season, recurring character T.J. and another new student, Jasper, also joined the IHP. The fifth season takes this a step further and replaces Mr. Moore with Mr. MacGregor.
  • For Science!: The reason Dennis wants to be Arvid's pheromone guinea pig.
  • For Want of a Nail: Discussed when Mr. Moore brings up how the world (specifically America and Cuba) would be different if Fidel Castro was a better baseball player, and went pro instead of becoming President of Cuba. Alan thinks it's silly, and compared it to Ronald Reagan staying an actor instead of going into politics, which Mr. Moore thought was an excellent point.
  • Genghis Gambit: Mr. Moore once comes up with one, on the theory that he can reunite his fractious class by getting them all angry at him and immediately revealing that it was a trick.
  • Genius Ditz: Viki's specialty is quantum physics, but she's a bit of a space cadet, especially in early seasons.
  • The Glasses Gotta Go: In the first episode, when Arvid summons up the nerve to ask a girl to the school dance, one of the girls in the IHP class removed his glasses and his pocket protector to make him look better.
  • Glorious Mother Russia: IHP Goes to Russia in one two-parter. Dennis hatches a Zany Scheme to sell the Russians blue jeans and Beatles tapes.
  • Graduate from the Story: The entire cast graduates in the series finale.
  • Grew a Spine: In one episode, Jawarhalal is suddenly well known for agreeing with everyone about everything. Then the class goes to see Mr. Moore's off-off-off-Broadway post-post-Modern production of Hamlet. Everybody hates it except Jawarhalal, who defends it to everyone. They're so caught up in trying to prove him wrong that until the end of the episode they never ask him why he likes it and don't notice that he's disagreeing with them, counter to his personality.
  • Here There Be Dragons: Billy Connolly references this in the context of showing off the new world maps the school bought — he says that the other ones were so old they had "Here dragons be" indicators.
  • Hidden Depths: Eric, ostensibly the least academic-minded of the IHP, is revealed to be a skilled writer, and at one point shows talent in fashion design.
  • High-School Sweethearts: Eventually, Eric and Simone; the final season shows them getting briefly engaged, then deciding to wait until after college.
  • Historical Character's Fictional Relative: While doing a genealogy project, Darlene discovers that she is probably descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. While her classmate Alan is overwhelmed by this revelation, Darlene herself is completely blase about it.
  • Improbable Age: While all the students in Fillmore High's IHP program are gifted, young Janice is particularly off-the-charts bright. At the beginning of the series, she's in the advanced high school class at the age of ten, and is already being offered admissions and scholarships by various universities — her parents keep Janice enrolled in high school only to help foster her social development. Midway through the series (when the character is about 12) Janice departs, having accepted an offer from Harvard to begin studies as a sophomore. She makes a cameo at the conclusion of the series, having been gone for about a year in-universe (the final two seasons took place over a single nine-month school year). By that point, age about 13, Janice has graduated from Harvard and is lining up a job at IBM.
  • Inkblot Test: The class is given a group psychoanalysis in one episode. Afterward, Mr. Moore takes it himself. When they get to the inkblots...
    Mr. Moore: Fly... fly... fly... screen door.
    Psychologist: Why a screen door?
    Mr. Moore: Too many flies.
  • Inner City School: Played with. Although the show is set in New York City, they never show the poorer students, and instead focus on the academically gifted ones.
  • Insane Proprietor: Charlie got an acting gig as "the King of low prices," a crazy late night commercial pitchman for an appliance store.
  • International Showdown by Proxy: The IHP takes on a Soviet group of gifted students in an academic competition - twice.
  • It's a Wonderful Plot: Yes, even this show played with the formula. In "Moore Than You Know," Charlie's deceased uncle helps him to understand what a difference he's made in the lives of his students.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Most of the class members are accepted to one Ivy League school or another by the end of the series. Justified in that it was a show centered around geniuses.
  • Jerkass: Dennis, to the point that the class just accepts that it's part of who is even when his actions are unforgivable.
    • Most of the class in "Fillmore vs Billy Jeans", when their bus breaks down and strands them at a truck stop, they think that the friendly locals are stupid hicks and have no problem letting them now by blatantly insulting them to their faces.
  • Mid-Season Twist: Mr. Moore was originally meant to be a substitute teacher... until the episode "Teacher's Teacher", in which the original teacher arrives and reveals that he was looking for someone worthy to replace him so he could retire, and Mr. Moore became the permanent teacher going forward.
  • Mixed Metaphor: Dr. Samuels was occasionally prone to these.
    • In one episode he referred to teens in school as "a bubbling cauldron of raw human emotion." Charlie calls him on it: "Wouldn't that be cooked human emotion?"
    • In another he says he can smell trouble, "It's like a sixth sense." Charlie: "No, that would be one of the five."
  • Never Learned to Read: The IHP helps the star basketball player overcome his dyslexia in one episode.
  • New Year, Same Class: The main cast stays in the same class for the whole series. Justified, since these kids are in the advanced placement class, and the regular classes would be too easy for them; rather than give them to different teachers, therefore, the school arranges for them to remain in one classroom with one teacher who can challenge their extensive intellect.
  • Nice Girl: Simone generally fits the trope, being shy, sweet, and something of a Granola Girl. Subverted in the episode where she's elected the editor of the literary magazine and it goes to her head a bit.
  • No Budget: In-Universe. Mr. Moore directs Little Shop of Horrors as the School Play, for which he is given zero budget. He talks the principal into being in the show as Mr. Mushnick, then explains his concept for production. (Quote not guaranteed exact; we couldn't get someone to search it out.)
    Mr. Moore: You heard of Japanese Noh theatre? No sets, no costumes, no props. Because, you know... no money.
  • Obsessed with Perfect Attendance: In "and then There Were None", Arvid shows up for class several days in a row despite being seriously ill, so as to not mess with his attendance record. He quickly starts infecting his classmates. They end up taking sick days to the point where Arvid's the only one who shows up; by the end of the episode, the entire school is implied to be out.
  • One Degree of Separation: Howard Hesseman <-> Dan Schneider, which provides the link between everyone connected to WKRP in Cincinnati (and by extension Loni Anderson's longtime husband Burt Reynolds) and approximately 40% of all currently-working comic actors of the millennial generation.
    • Note that Schneider himself worked with Kevin Bacon (in The Big Picture), as did Hesseman (in an '80s TV remake of Mister Roberts).
  • Parallel Porn Titles: Darlene blackmails Arvid with proof that he rented a movie called Buns of the Magnificent Seven.
  • Peking Duck Christmas: Or in this case, Thanksgiving; Mr. Moore and Dr. Samuels spend Thanksgiving together after bumping into each other in the same Chinese restaurant.
  • Put on a Bus: After the third season, Janice graduated (and was already a sophomore at Harvard), Jawaharlal's family moved to California, and Maria transferred to the New York High School of Performing Arts; Mr. Moore quit teaching after Season 4 to pursue an acting career full time (despite a Very Special Episode earlier in the run where he decided to stop acting and dedicate his life to teaching).
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Occasionally, such as cast changes caused by different actors leaving the show.
  • Remember the New Guy?: Sarah shows up in the second episode without an explanation as to why she wasn't in the pilot.
  • Replacement Scrappy: Both Mr. Moore and Mr. MacGregor were In-Universe examples, at least for specific people.
    • Dr. Samuels didn't like Mr. Moore, worried that he'd ruin the IHP with his unorthodox teaching style, but reluctantly put up with him because he was a substitute teacher merely holding down the fort until their real teacher returned.
    • When Mr. MacGregor took over, the class took some time to get used to Billy, but Dennis and Arvid had the most extreme opinions of him. To Dennis, Billy was a replacement scrappy, while Arvid felt betrayed by Mr. Moore and latched onto Mr. MacGregor out of spite.
  • Save Our Students: Somewhat of an inversion, in that Mr. Moore's kids are academically gifted and high-achieving but socially and emotionally underdeveloped.
  • Scandalgate: The episode "Charliegate", which involves Dennis writing a controversial newspaper article about Charlie.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Mrs. Russell. It is eventually revealed that she has Alzheimer's.
  • Second Episode Introduction: Sarah Nevins, played by Kimberly Russell, is neither seen nor mentioned in the pilot episode. She is in the classroom from the second episode onward.
  • School Play: Happened Once a Season, except for Season 5; They put on Hamlet in Season 1, Grease in 2, Little Shop of Horrors in 3, and Hair in 4.
  • Scotland: The replacement replacement teacher came from there, which made for an interesting Revolutionary War episode.
  • Secret Admirer: In "Love at First Byte", Charlie gets letters from a secret admirer, and he believes they're coming from one of the students in the IHP. They're actually from one of the class's computers, put out as a ploy by the students to get Charlie to start liking computers.
  • Speak Friend and Enter: Dr. Samuels gives the class an assignment: how do you measure the height of a building using a barometer? After several explanations, he asks the new sub Mr. Moore how he would do it. Mr. Moore says to the super, "If you tell me how tall this building is I'll give you this neat barometer.". This is a reference to a tale of similar smartassery on the part of Niels Bohr (in his university days).
  • Spin-Off: Billy, which is about Mr. MacGregor moving to California and marrying a single mother to prevent himself from being deported back to Scotland. It ran for half a season in 1992.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Out of all the students, Arvid gets the most episodes revolving around him. Dennis and Alan also get a lot of focus.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: After Howard Hesseman quit the show, his Charlie Moore was replaced with Billy Connolly as new teacher Billy MacGregor.
    • Averted with Alex and Aristotle who were nothing like Janice and Jawaharlal but played straight with Viki for Maria. Like Maria, Viki was the fashionable, pretty girl with some airhead attributes but was also extremely brilliant.
  • Swallow the Key: In one episode, Dennis leads a protest in the cafeteria, handcuffs himself to a lunch tray rail at the serving line, and tells the teachers he swallowed the key. The janitor later has to cut the chain with a hacksaw to free him.
  • Teen Genius: The majority of the teenage cast, although arguably Janice (who was really a pre-teen genius) and Arvid in particular.
  • Thanksgiving Episode: "Cold Turkey". Both Mr. Moore (alone for Christmas) and Dr. Samuels (escaping his in-laws) find themselves at the same Chinese place on Thanksgiving. They bond.
  • Time Capsule: In "Video Activity", the class gets an assignment to make a time capsule to be rediscovered in 100 years. They decide to make a music video of them lip-syncing to "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" by Timbuk 3.
  • Title In: Every episode has a few Establishing Shots with text clarifying the day and time when the next scene takes place.
  • Trojan Gauntlet: In one episode, as nerdy Arvid prepares for his date with the school bike, he ventures to the drugstore to purchase condoms. Of course, he is thoroughly embarrassed and thwarted at every turn. He finally prepares to leave the store when a completely random woman—who'd apparently figured out the reason for his nervousness—calls him out, telling him, "Don't you DARE leave here without those condoms!" She then proceeds to buy them for him, lecturing him on safe sex and responsibility.
  • Vacation Episode: The class went to Moscow, the first American show to film there.
  • Very Special Episode: A number of these, such as the first season episode in which the IHP's regular teacher returns and the It's a Wonderful Plot episode.
  • Wimp Fight: At the beginning of Season 5, Arvid and Dennis come to blows over the departure of Mr. Moore. For them, "coming to blows" involves a lot of weak slapping and nose-pulling.
  • Working Through the Cold: Arvid, in the episode where he has the flu and refuses to stay home from school.
  • You Are in Command Now: Mr. Moore was originally meant to be a substitute teacher until the IHP's regular teacher came back. He gets promoted to be the regular teacher when the old teacher announces his retirement.