The title character of The Education of Max Bickford is played by Richard Dreyfuss, an actor who’s spent most of his career being a smirky know-it-all in movies ranging from ”Jaws” to ”The Goodbye Girl” (pause here to note Oscar win) to ”Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and it turns out that Dreyfuss has finally found a role that suits his smirk, his age, and his talent. Plus, it’s great to see Marcia Gay Harden (pause here to note Oscar win) on the small screen. She plays Prof. Andrea Haskell, Max’s former student and brief sexual fling, now a celeb academic who’s written an attention-getting book about ”class, gender, and the music of Bruce Springsteen.” (Here the script hits a plunking wrong note — any hipster prof worth her university-press contract would be writing about Eminem by now.) Andrea is awarded the history department chair Max coveted, setting up their sparky conflict. Harden, with her brainy grin, is perfect for this sort of jousting, and rather than feel sorry for her that she’d signed to do ”Bickford” before getting her ”Pollock” Oscar, we should be glad we’ve been spared the spate of bad follow-up movies so many best supporting actresses go on to commit (a.k.a. ”The Curse of Marisa Tomei”).
True, ”Bickford” has a few no-win subplots. The most awkward? Helen Shaver as a Bickford colleague who’s just back on campus after a sex-change operation, transformed from Steve to Erica. (Play it for laughs? Play it for ”edginess”? Either way, it seems an impossible role, as dignified as Shaver manages to be.) Dreyfuss has said he’s mining his life to give passion to Max’s middle-age crisis, career burnout, and sobriety. Okay, but to add improbably young children to the 52-year-old Bickford’s life — Nell (Katee Sackhoff), a grumpy 18-year-old daughter; and Lester (Eric Ian Goldberg), a sweet 11-year-old boy — is to stockpile a dangerous amount of goopy story-line material.
But so far, Dreyfuss and Harden are keeping ”Bickford” bracingly tart and dryly funny. True, the pilot ends by contradicting Max’s healthy contempt for the PC attitude, which dictates that, to capture slovenly students’ attention, you have to personalize everything (e.g., he transfixes his students during a Vietnam War lesson by injecting his own ambivalence about the divisive conflict). But the rest of the show exhibits a good grasp of bloody academic politics. My advice to the producers: Grab the razor-sharp novels of university life by the Brits David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, and pilfer the smartest, snarkiest bits for ”Bickford”’s Chadwick College campus.