Friday, November 1, 2019

Mister Peepers Review

There's no need to fear . . . Robinson Peepers is here.

Wally Cox, who would later give voice to the popular TV cartoon hero "Underdog" and put his quintessentially "square" personality to ironic good use on "Hollywood Squares," became instantly popular in his first series role as a meek junior high school teacher.

Fans of "Welcome Back, Kotter," "Saved by the Bell," "Head of the Class," or "Square Pegs" might find this early example of the teacher-student sitcom fascinating. It celebrates a quiet, painfully shy, and unashamedly intellectual educator whose child-like wonder at the world of science allows him to remain the consummate naïve, as well as a someone who's able to pass on that wonder to adoring (and adorably polite) students. Peepers is such a nice guy and so fragile in his outward appearance and emotional make-up that everyone wants to look out for him or take care of him--even students. As with "Our Miss Brooks," an early high school sitcom entry, many of the episodes didn't have much to do with what happens in the classroom. But there's enough here to provide a stark contrast to classroom shows that would follow, and reinforce that the Fifties and the early years of television really were a kinder and gentler place, with a pace that was more conducive to character development and introspection.

From S'more Entertainment and the UCLA Film & Television Archive comes Season 2 of "Mister Peepers," and while I can't compare it to the first release (I never received a screener), I can say that the second season is surprisingly well done. Then again, "Mister Peepers" was nominated for Best Situation Comedy all three years of its brief run (1952-55), and it also earned five individual Emmy nominations. Originally pitched as a summer replacement show that was only scheduled to run eight weeks, "Peepers" caused a firestorm when NBC took it off the air. The network got so many phone calls and letters of complaint that they quickly slapped together a second season. A few of the characters were dropped and Peepers' first-season love interest was replaced by a school nurse named Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit) who's as earnest and mild-mannered as the show's namesake. Cox, of course, returned as Robinson Peepers, as did Tony Randall as history teacher Harvey Weskit and Marion Lorne as English teacher Mrs. Gurney. Randall would go on to star in TV's "The Odd Couple," while Lorne would become memorable for a new generation of fans as Aunt Clara in "Bewitched." Lorne is a pure delight to watch in every scene, but even more so than the star.

So how mild-mannered was Mister Peepers, and how mild is this show? Peepers appears to live in a boarding house by himself, with an elderly woman running the show and looking in on him from time to time. He teaches kids named Homer; reads books like "Beetles I Have Known Intimately"; spends time leading the Fungus Watchers, Birdwatchers, and the Fall Guys on nature hikes (usually while wearing his suit and tie); and advises the school newspaper. His "Good morning, class" elicits a "Good morning, Mister Peepers" response, and when Peepers leaves the classroom his students sit perfectly still and well behaved. It doesn't get any more wholesome than this.

Obviously, there was something about Cox and the whole cast that fans found endearing. This was live TV, and in the early days, viewers were pretty particular about whom they welcomed into their living rooms. What's great about this season is that you see it exactly as it was broadcast live--and by "live" I mean that there are occasional flubs that the actors make. Also live are the introductions and commercials for Reynolds Aluminum products at the end of the 1st and 2nd acts, and for fans of television history that's just as important as the episodes themselves. It's amazing how many products were sold during the heyday of aluminum--things like Reynolds acoustic ceiling systems, Reynolds aluminum siding and roofing, Reynolds aluminum reflective insulation, Reynolds liquid aluminum paint, and, of course, Reynolds Wrap. There's something kind of dangerous about live TV, and it's like watching a play where a character can muff a line and try to cover up. It makes you appreciate the actors' talents all the more.

All 26 episodes are included, but there's no listing by episode title, much less annotation. All we get is a clever but dysfunctional menu screen that's approximated to look like a chalk board, with episodes listed according to original air date. With episodes blurring as they will over a 26-show season--especially since certain types of shows emerge, like the nature walks--it's tough trying to find a favorite episode again. There's no printed material to help, either.