In my review of the “Fonzie’s Blindness” episode of Happy Days, I described it as “like reaching into a bag of gumdrops and pulling out a clove of garlic.” A lot of sitcom Very Special Episodes fall under that description–startling, unpleasant, and you know they don’t belong there. The structure of most sitcoms, where problems that aren’t really problems (oh no, I have two dates to the big dance!) are neatly solved in 25 minutes, simply doesn’t work when applied to heavy, real issues, like child abuse, homelessness, and death, particularly when it comes front loaded with a lot of self-importance and sanctimony.
As an example, the Family Ties episode “A My Name is Alex” was built up to be one of the biggest events in prime time television history when it aired in 1987. An extended episode dedicated to Alex P. Keaton’s emotional breakdown after losing his best friend in a car accident, it’s pretty obvious that it was intended to showcase Michael J. Fox’s dramatic acting chops. He does a fine job, but a considerable amount of the episode’s impact is lost when it occurs to you that Alex is wracked with grief and guilt over the death of a character who has never been mentioned before. Again, it works against the limits of sitcom structure–we have no idea who this person is, but we’re supposed to be sad that he’s dead because Alex is. Further lessening the impact is that, once the episode ends, the character is never mentioned again. Alex has that same Leonard Shelby-esque memory that most sitcom characters have when it comes to unhappy events–they’re immediately forgotten, and nothing has changed.
It’s a bit lazy and intellectually dishonest (most people don’t recover from the sudden loss of a loved one by monologuing their way through it), but then again, sitcoms aren’t what audiences watch when they want a dose of reality anyway. This, of course, leads to the question of why bother making Very Special Episodes in the first place? If there’s no intention of writing the realistic long-term effects of, say, sexual assault, then why have Natalie almost become a victim of it in an episode of The Facts of Life? Why follow up the death of Carol Seaver’s boyfriend with just a stern lecture from her father about the dangers of driving drunk? We already know the dangers, teenage Chandler Bing is dead! The meek pulling of emotional punches was what resulted in rolled eyes and derisive laughter from the audience, as opposed to tears and heavy hearts.
However, to watch the two part “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes is to be utterly perplexed. Diff’rent Strokes, a show based on a most implausible premise to begin with, hit upon quite a few Important Issues in its eight year run, including racism, bullying, the dangers of hitchhiking, kidnapping, drugs, eating disorders, environmentalism, gangs, smoking, teen pregnancy, gambling, sexual harassment, and stealing, all with varying degrees of well-intentioned corniness, but none hit quite the same level of baffling tone deafness as “The Bicycle Man,” which focuses (as if you didn’t know already, otherwise why would you be reading this blog?) on child molestation.
The first half opens with co-star Conrad Bain, wearing a suit and sitting behind a desk like he wants to talk to you about life insurance, urging families to watch both episodes and discuss them afterwards, as they’re about a “sensitive subject” that’s “of deep concern to all of us.” Wisely, what exactly that “sensitive subject” is isn’t mentioned, probably out of fear that the audience would turn to rivaling shows T.J. Hooker or Whiz Kids in search of something more pleasant.
The actual episode itself opens with young Arnold cajoling Mr. Drummond into buying him a bicycle for his upcoming birthday. Not only does Drummond agree, but the bike shop’s aggressively friendly owner, Mr. Horton (Gordon Jump), offers Arnold a radio if he hands out flyers advertising the store (this was back when a radio was something one had to work for, rather than something one declines as a free gift when opening a checking account). Horton takes a shine to Arnold, and, unbeknownst to Arnold’s family, invites him to hang out in his apartment behind the store, a veritable kid’s wonderland of video games, comic books, toy train sets, and endless banana split sundaes.
Nothing too untoward happens during that visit, other than spoiling Arnold’s appetite for dinner, but Mr. Horton amps up the friendliness to more insidious levels when Arnold returns another day with his buddy Dudley, whom he’s recruited to pass out flyers with him. This time, Horton plants a porno mag for the boys to find, plies them with wine, and shows them pictures of himself skinny dipping with other kids. Arnold becomes uneasy about indulging in Horton’s attention, particularly when it comes to drinking wine, but Dudley, evidently desperate for approval, eagerly goes along with whatever he says, even agreeing to take off his shirt and pose for pictures as they “play Tarzan.”
The episode ends with Horton all but licking his chops in anticipation and saying “We’re just gonna have a great time together this afternoon.”
So this is all pretty creepy, right? Yeah, well, try adding a fucking laugh track to it. I’m hardly the first person to note this, but it must be stated anyway: the studio audience either thought, or at least were encouraged to act as though they did, that a sexual predator seducing his preteen prey was hilarious. I suppose it’s possible that a kid might think it’s funny seeing another kid go goggle eyed over dirty pictures, but what kind of sociopath adult would laugh at that, especially when it’s obvious that this is all a setup for a child molester’s typical m.o. of encouraging his victims to keep secrets? It pushes the whole thing over from merely unsettling to flat-out hair raising.
Part two, after we’re reminded by Conrad Bain, this time in a more relaxed sweater and necktie ensemble, that this is a Very Important Episode that should be discussed afterward, picks up right where part one left off, with Mr. Horton taking pictures of a shirtless Dudley, and Arnold wearing a pith helmet that just happened to be handy (Horton seems to have gotten his decorating tips from Better Homes and Pedophiles). The fun quickly comes to an end, however, when Mr. Drummond unexpectedly shows up at Horton’s shop to pay for Arnold’s bicycle. While Drummond keeps Horton occupied by babbling about childhood memories of his own first bike, the boys sneak out the back entrance of Horton’s apartment.
Arnold’s siblings, Willis and Kimberly, catch him with wine on his breath, but agree not to tell their father. Although the boys return to Horton’s store the next day, Arnold expresses reluctance about continuing to hang out at his apartment, especially since they have to keep it a secret from other adults. His silence can be bought with food, however, as Horton is able to lure Arnold and Dudley back with promises of Boston cream pie and cartoons.
You can probably guess what kind of cartoons Horton makes them watch, even without Arnold exclaiming “That mouse just lost his pants! And he’s not wearing any undershorts!” Shocked and appalled, he leaves (but not without taking his pie with him), while Dudley, who’s clearly way more into it, stays behind, an innocent fly all but hopelessly entangled in the nefarious Mr. Horton’s web.
By the time Arnold arrives home, Mr. Drummond already knows that something is amiss, after Dudley’s father tells him that the boys have been “experimenting with alcohol.” Arnold almost immediately admits to what’s been going on, and Drummond, remarkably calm for someone who’s just found out that his child narrowly escaped being sexually assaulted, calls the police. They arrive at Horton’s apartment just in time to save a dazed, half-dressed Dudley from whatever hideous plans Horton had in store for him.
Denying the viewers the pleasure of seeing Horton beaten with rubber hoses, the last few minutes of the episode are devoted to a police detective (or rather, an actor playing a police detective) warning Arnold and his family (and thus the audience) about the danger of child molesters. Showing a surprising bit of progressiveness for the time, the detective makes a special point of disabusing the popular misconception that most pedophiles are gay. What he does not mention, however, is the sobering fact that children are far more likely to be victimized by members of their own families than by the overly generous neighborhood shopkeeper. As for Dudley, the actual victim, he’s waved off with a dismissive “Oh, he’ll be just fine.” Mere hours after an experience that would be traumatizing for anyone involved, Arnold is smiling and laughing with his family, proclaiming that “Some hugs and kisses are still okay.”
Now you might be thinking “Gena, how did you expect the show to end, with poor Dudley’s corpse found floating in the East River?” No, of course not. Even without that wildly inappropriate laugh track, “The Bicycle Man” would still remain a weird bit of 80s sitcom history. Despite the Drummond/Jackson Family encountering one social issue after another, the tone of Diff’rent Strokes overall is so feather light, with Gary Coleman an adorable, non-stop quipping machine (one wonders if he didn’t spend the first eight years of his life locked in a basement with Jack Benny sketches blasting 24 hours a day), that any attempt to address a serious matter comes off as pandering at best, and downright tasteless at worst.
Like the similar Silver Spoons, it served as harmless fantasy for its young audience, a live action take on Richie Rich (if Richie Rich was a tiny black child), and it would have been perfectly fine if it had just stayed that way. The Brady Bunch never handled anything more serious than a broken nose, and Diff’rent Strokes shouldn’t have either.