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Mr. Novak, a Piece of Television History and a Piece of Personal History

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2018 – 4:19 PM

By Victoria Talbot

I rarely speak from a personal point of view, as journalism calls for objectivity. And I never insert myself into a story. 

But this time its almost personal. This book, Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, is about a series my dad created which, in a big way, framed my childhood. And the book reframed the events that charted the course of my family’s life. The point is, that through his painfully meticulous process of gathering information, author Chuck Harter filled in a lot of blanks.

The Novak series was highly acclaimed, though it only ran two years. A casualty of bad placement in the TV lineups, and,  – I’d like to believe – because my father was no longer in control of content in the second season. This coincides with the sense I had even as a child- that he was extremely proud of the series and deeply disturbed that it was cancelled.

Yes, it is a detailed history of the series; but it is so much more.

Harter has captured the era, which was a near-golden time in education. In those days, teachers were often idealists like the youthful Novak. Education was under local control and schools (teachers) had a more hands-on, integrated involvement in education.

Educators would find this book fascinating.

My father traveled all over the country visiting high schools and meeting with educators and students to understand their very real issues. As he was rarely present in our household for a significant period of my youth (which had disastrous consequences for our family) – I’d like to believe it was not in vain. This book actually restores the integrity of his work, and of his vision – to promote the cause of education and educators.

On the cusp of the sixties revolution, still bathing in the post-war hues of the 1950s, the series did not shy away from racism, bullying, drugs, drop outs, teen pregnancy, faculty affairs and foibles and other issues that were ignored by the feel-good Our Miss Brooks, Donna Reed, My Three Sons, Leave it to Beaver – types of shows. This was hard-hitting, truly investigative, and above all, real.

Harter’s analysis is vivid, with episode-by-episode enhancements that examine not only the scripts – but the events occurring among the cast and crew to give context to the story. Using an incredible volume of archival research, exhaustive interviews of anyone associated with the project who is still living, including surviving family and spouses, he pieces together a narrative that is complex and deeply revealing. 

For the uninitiated, those who never saw the show, it is a historical journey that leaves an open-ended question about how we arrived here, today, with our broken educational system. That is a question for politicians and administrators to answer. 

And the good news is that the series will become available again sometime next year. It has not been shown in reruns, so the boxed set will be an experience. Recently, I had the opportunity to watch some bootlegged copies of the show – and I was flabbergasted at how prescient and timeless it was. Nothing has changed. Kids will be kids. Fashions, cars, and faces change, but the issues remain. Only now, it seems, we are more violent, more careless with life.

The honesty that was the hallmark of the show makes the episodes come alive, and again, leaves us asking how we got here today.

Harter did a masterful job of researching and providing the background and understanding of the people and the forces, including network censors, that drove the story.

My dad would be so pleased, and I would like to think that he is somewhere smiling. 

My father later married one of the principals on the show, Marian Collier, and they were happily married and deeply in love, until his death. My father kept copious notes, and detailed files on everything. He was the quintessential researcher and writer, always gathering information. I hope it helped Harter, but he already had more than enough material to write a book. His information is breathtaking. 

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series has a 5-star, 100% rating on Amazon, with 32 reviews. I highly recommend it.

 

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