Head of the Class premieres Thursday, Nov. 4 on HBO Max.
’80s/’90s sitcom Head of the Class gets the reboot treatment with an energetic but clunky new outing featuring One Day at a Time’s Isabella Gomez as the young, unorthodox teacher of GPA-obsessed high school smarties. It’s well-meaning but ineffective, offering up a weakly handled premise and nervous, patchwork comedy.
The original Head of the Class was a modest hit, working as a both a return to TV for WKRP in Cincinnati’s Howard Hesseman (he’d be replaced by comedian Billy Connolly for the final season) and also as a vehicle for the fresh faces playing his students. It ran for an “okay” five seasons but it has little to no cultural footprint now as part of our current, rotating pool of nostalgia.
Head of the Class: Season 1 Gallery
Was bringing it back was a bit of a head-scratcher? Sure, even if Gomez’s own One Day at a Time revival was met with critical fanfare and firmly carved out its own territory as a funny, important series that was able to address pertinent social issues while also bringing genuine laughs. It was very much evocative of the original Norman Lear comedy in that way.
The original Head of the Class never landed with any significance along those lines, but this reboot — which is actually a “legacy sequel” since, after the first episode, Robin Givens returns as Darlene from the old series — tries very much to interweave hot button topics of the day into the show’s fabric. With Gomez playing the rule-bending, chatterbox debate teacher for five AP teens (which seems to be her only class?), there’s an attempt to hash out certain issues — the first being “cancel culture.”
But instead of addressing what cancel culture actually is, it only touches on what it’s perceived to be. In Head of the Class’ premiere, the kids feel like they can’t make any mistakes in their life for fear of repercussion, but never is there an attempt to discuss the difference between, oh, a high school social faux pas and, say, a racist remark or sexual misconduct.
So right out of the gate, Head of the Class doesn’t even tackle the topic effectively. It’s as if the show itself, like the teens, is scared to make a mistake. Add to this some strange joke pacing — in which the pauses for the laugh track are either too long or the gags go by too quickly for the track to feel proper — and Head of the Class feels like directionless extra credit.
Gomez is a supreme talent, and on paper she’s a great fit for this gig. At the heart of the old Head of the Class were uptight, Ivy League-focused kids clashing with a “hippie” teacher. That’s who Hesseman was in the original, as the history instructor. Here, Gomez is great as the “only 10 years older” instructor, Alicia, who awkwardly wants to be liked, and who can also still relate to teens on a certain level, but the show itself isn’t zipped-up tight enough to squeeze out the funny parts of that premise.
In this first episode, the class itself — played by Gavin Lewis, Dior Goodjohn, Adrian Matthew Escalona, Brandon Severs, and Jolie Hoang-Rappaport — mostly feel like a normal set of teens you’d find in any new streaming sitcom. They don’t feel like rigid brainiacs or aggressive grade-trackers, just, like, run of the mill students who’d naturally side-eye a teacher, with no previous experience, for being loud and weird.
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There’s also a strange background story running about how Alicia is supposedly also aloof and only took the job because it seemed easy, and not a 9-5 grind. A fellow teacher, played by Jorge Diaz, warns Alicia that she’ll soon get emotionally invested, which she scoffs at. This not only makes you wonder how she got hired in the first place but also, just from a premise standpoint, makes you ask why we should care about an unorthodox teacher who doesn’t care about her kids.