Before breaking into movies, writer-producer-director James L. Brooks earned a reputation as a television wunderkind—a sort of small-screen version of the film-school brats taking over Hollywood on the cusp of the ’70s. Only TV wasn’t as hip as cinema in 1969, when Brooks’ sitcom Room 222 debuted. True, compared to the rest of ABC’s Friday-night lineup of the time (which consisted of The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Love American Style), Room 222 looked downright groundbreaking for the lighthearted way it dealt with racism and the generation gap at a diverse L.A. high school. Now, though, Room 222’s message-of-the-week formula—along with the way everyone talks in punchlines—makes it seem very much a product of its time.
The 26 episodes in the Room 222: Season One DVD set feature Lloyd Haynes as a down-to-earth history teacher, helping idealistic student teacher Karen Valentine learn how to relate to the kids of the late ’60s on their own level. Pretty much every rising star in Hollywood appeared on the show during its five-year run—including Teri Garr, Kurt Russell, Rob Reiner, Richard Dreyfuss, and Cindy Williams in season one—and Brooks and his writing staff really tried to get inside those kids’ heads, to let the younger generation explain themselves. As a result, the characters are a little too on-point. (And none more so than Haynes, whose main job was to beam with quiet dignity, Sidney Poitier-style.) Still, beneath the show’s placid exterior, Brooks and his co-producer, future M*A*S*H-hand Gene Reynolds, tried to engage with real issues, and make all the rapid cultural changes of the late ’60s seem less threatening. Dated though the show may be, Room 222 is still highly watchable, largely because Brooks and company strove to make the show relevant and human-scaled.
A year after Room 222 premièred, Brooks and one of his main writers, Allan Burns, brought The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the air, and found a way to work social relevance into a show that was more spontaneous, vibrant, and funny—a show where any messages about feminism, fair-mindedness, and social responsibility were so deeply woven into the material that they didn’t immediately stand out. In 1974, Brooks and Burns arguably topped Mary Tyler Moore with a spin-off, Rhoda, starring MTM’s Valerie Harper as a native New Yorker returning home. Where Moore’s character had been an upbeat single career woman, Harper’s Rhoda was a cynic who arrived in the city with no job, and crashed with her chubby, self-conscious sister Julie Kavner while pursuing a relationship with divorced dad David Groh. The first season of Rhoda is largely about the whirlwind romance, which culminates in a mid-season wedding, and then a lot of episodes about finding apartments, dealing with pregnancy scares, and learning to cope with each other’s neuroses.
Rhoda was very much about the times in which it was made—and about a more dangerous, economically depressed New York—yet it still dealt with the travails of modern women and men in a natural, day-to-day way. There were no “very special” episodes, in other words. Much of Rhoda’s flavor can be attributed to Harper and Kavner, who were theatrically trained and able to make even the cleverest line feel spontaneous and true. But it’s also due to Brooks and his writing staff, who could shift gears smoothly from shtick to sentiment, and wring 22 minutes’ worth of humor and genuine emotion out of, for example, two newlyweds’ disagreement about whether they should go out or stay in on the weekends. The leap in confidence and quality from Room 222 to Rhoda is astounding, and evident even if viewers close their eyes. Room 222 has an awkward, artificial-sounding laugh track, while Rhoda features the laughter of a studio audience, punctuated by Brooks’ own braying, wonderfully natural guffaw.
Key features: Room 222 adds a 15-minute package of interviews with Brooks and some of his writers and cast, while Rhoda includes an interview with Brooks and Burns only. (One further note: The image quality on both these sets is murky at best, either because no clean-up was attempted, or because the original elements were beyond fixing. Either way, to quote the Brooks-produced show The Critic, “It stinks.”)