"Chalk and Pencil Skirts"
People, have we discussed my crush on Amber Tamblyn? She was a hell of a lot of fun as an anxious cop seeking to make it as a homicide detective without help from her wealthy parents on The Unusuals. She’s prickly and charming as an aspiring filmmaker who has a pregnancy scare in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies*. And she’s one of the few Hollywood actresses who work fairly regularly who look like actual human women as opposed to cartoons.
So it’s completely excellent news that she’s working on a show set in a public school with Ed Burns, of The Wire fame. We get a lot of shows about cops and hospitals, but public schools are probably the branch of government that the largest numbers of Americans have the most contact with, and they’re largely absent from the small screen, with the exception of the occasional show like Boston Public or Glee. Both of those shows are topic-of-the-week stories rather than systematic critiques of public education. But oh, how we need one. Our debate over education reform is cinematic in the extreme: it’s got great, strong personalities, ranging from Michelle Rhee to past National Education Association president Reg Weaver (Note to Mr. Burns: if you need a consultant who can tell you stories about Reg Weaver’s wife’s poundcake, I am ready and available); the issues are intensely emotional and not easy to resolve, providing fertile ground for debates and anti-heroes; and the schools bring together people across race, class, and age lines in the same way that crimes and emergency rooms do.
Burns and Tamblyn seem like a great combination to make that kind of show happen. Tamblyn’s human and fun, she’ll be a relatable portal for audiences, and one who can perhaps help translate Burns’ sophisticated ideas about education for a mass audience. There’s no question that Season Four of The Wire is intensely compelling television, but it’s also so grim that it’s not necessarily the right starting point for broader questions about how to fix all of our schools. But we don’t need more Dangerous Minds-style pablum, either. We need a show that can introduce audiences to the broad language and basic outlines of the debate over education reform, the same way Law & Order teaches due process and House teaches medical ethics. It’s not a substitute for policy, but it’s a step towards common understanding.
*By the way: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies are completely substantive and excellent. I haven’t ever read the books, but I’ve seen both movies, which deal sensitively and intelligently with race, depression, and decisions about sex. That doesn’t mean you have to see them, but if there’s a tween or teenage girl out there you ever need to bond with, you could do a mitzvah by suggesting an evening that’s a double-header of these two movies.