“The Day My Kid Went Punk” (1987)

One of the things I originally intended to do with this blog is rewatch the ABC Afterschool Specials, or at least, as many as YouTube has available. Though new episodes were being made as recently as 1997, I stopped watching probably a decade earlier, right around the time The Day My Kid Went Punk aired. Most people remember The Day My Kid Went Punk for its great TV Guide ad, which was greeted with a collective giggle, particularly from the teen audience it was targeting.

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Two notable things about this ad: one, the family’s last name isn’t Nelson, it’s Warner. Also, my usually reliable memory for such completely useless information convinced me that the father was played by Max Wright, who, of course, played Willie on ALF. I was mistaken, though, it’s Bernie Kopell, who played Your Ship’s Doctor on The Love Boat. If they ever bring back Beat the Geeks, clearly I’ve blown my chance to participate as “ABC Afterschool Special Geek.”

The kid who goes punk is Terry, played by Jay Underwood. For one hot minute in the late 80s Jay Underwood was poised to take the throne as the latest cute and harmless as a puppy teen idol, then just as quickly disappeared (as per Wikipedia he is now a pastor at a church in California, and has six–!!!!–children). Though Terry, a classical violinist, is a nice, talented kid, he suffers from a terrible case of middle child syndrome, ignored by his overworked parents in favor of his older brother, a faux Alex P. Keaton type, and younger sister. They don’t even bother with taking him to dinner the night before he’s to leave town for the whole summer, because, according to his mother, “it’s getting late” (note: it’s broad daylight out when she says this).

Though Terry has gotten a summer job as a daycare counselor at a hotel, he decides it’s the perfect time to give his nerdy, boring look a major overhaul, and does so right before his flight. Regrettably, there isn’t a scene in which he goes to a punker supply store in the airport, located right between the Brookstone and Cinnabon. Terry has packed a suitcase full of carefully ripped t-shirts, studded belts, and cans of Halloween hairspray. He’s also packed a pair of scissors and a pocket knife, which made me reminiscent of the more innocent time before 9/11, when you could pack a chainsaw in your carry-on bag and no one would care.

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It should go without saying that despite his best efforts, Terry doesn’t look “punk,” not one little bit. Really, this show should be called The Day My Kid Discovered Adam Ant. He looks adorable, which makes the scene in which he walks into the hotel for his first day of work and onlookers all but drop their monocles in shock and dismay even more hilarious. The hotel manager (played by Roxie Roker, Lenny Kravitz’s mom) literally recoils in distaste at the sight of him, and describes Terry to the hotel’s owner as “a Ziggy Ziggy Sputnik lookalike.” This strange bit of dialogue, referencing a British new wave band that made not the slightest blip on American music charts (their name was actually Sigue Sigue Sputnik), bears the question: did no one associated with the making of this show, even the teen actors, think to pick up an actual music magazine and find a more appropriate, relevant band to name drop? No one could have walked into a record store and asked a clerk to name a punk band, any punk band? Black Flag? Dead Kennedys? Ramones? Sure, Terry looks more Siouxsie Sioux than Sid Vicious, but come on, at least make some kind of effort here.

Though the manager and hotel owner’s wariness around Terry suggest they think he’s going to assault the children in the daycare center with a barbed wire wrapped baseball bat, he’s actually a whiz with them, calming them down by singing a generic light rock song about the power of believing in yourself. In his spare time he scores a gig with a bar band that has a harder sound, and by “harder” I mean they sound like Loverboy as opposed to Kenny Loggins. Terry’s new look seems to be working out for him, but–uh oh!–we learn that Terry’s mother is a psychologist, and is going to be the guest speaker at a conference in the same hotel where he works. The subject of the conference? “Punk Syndrome: How Parents Can Avoid It.”

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This is probably my favorite shot in the entire show. The guy on the bottom left, is that Dave Gahan? I’m pretty sure it is. The guy at the top center looks like a professional wrestler. It’s like the production designer grabbed some poor sap intern working for none cents an hour and said “Go find me some pictures of weirdo rock ‘n’ roll types,” and this was what they came back with. Again, how hard could it have been to just do ten minutes of research and find a picture of an actual punk band? By 1987 punk was all intents and purposes over, or at least, in hibernation, having been edged out by hair metal, which would soon be edged out by grunge. I didn’t even know any actual punk rockers in my little suburban New Jersey town when this aired, and I still could have provided it a dose of realism.

Terry’s parents arrive at the hotel for the conference, and are shocked by his appearance. His mother is initially more concerned with how it’ll impact her standing as the leading authority on Punk Syndrome than what may have spurred the change. She demands that he go back to the way he looked before, but Terry refuses. “This is the real me, I just changed the wrapping,” he says, which is the point of the show. Underneath all the hair product and eyeliner, Terry is still the same good-natured teen. He even eventually wins over a snobby hotel guest, who earlier nearly blows an aneurysm over the idea of him watching over her child in the daycare center.

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After an argument in which Terry accuses his parents of favoring his siblings over him, his mother comes to the startling conclusion that he went punk because he was looking for attention. Her taking that long to figure that out would suggest she’s really not all that good of a psychologist, let alone a leading authority on Punk Syndrome, but never mind. Where initially she didn’t even want to admit he was her son, Terry’s mother instead invites him to appear on the panel of the conference, where he and other punkers talk about how they’re just humans with feelings underneath all the scary makeup to a dubiously grumbling audience.

When one of them points out that some of the audience members probably dressed like hippies at one time, a woman unclutches her pearls long enough to say “That’s hardly the same thing, young man! We preached love and peace, you stand for violence and cruelty!” Again, it’s reasonable that someone would think that of, say, Johnny Rotten, but the kids on the panel look like they decided to hit up a Spirit store after volunteering at the local animal shelter. Only a couple scenes earlier, Terry gifts a handicapped little girl with a doll and takes her horseback riding. Obviously the “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing is the message of the show, but it would be a bit more incisive if the punkers didn’t look like, well, a totally square, out of touch person’s idea of what a “punker” would look like.

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The conference ends up being a success anyway, and later one of the audience members approaches Terry’s mother with a snapshot of his son, who was a punker a few years earlier, but since cleaned up his act, and is “now 22 and a banker!” The “after” photo shows the son sitting at a desk with slicked back Gordon Gekko hair, which was still a noble goal in 1987.

Terry and his parents go home having reconciled, but he still refuses to depunkify himself, which costs him the first violin chair in the school orchestra, because, as the orchestra conductor says, he would be too “distracting.” After some soul searching, and a bonding moment with his brother, Terry decides that while he has sold his soul to rock ‘n’ roll, he’ll tone down his look after all, losing the makeup but keeping the Flock of Seagulls hair. Life, it’s about choices, like choosing not to do some research before you do an entire TV show dedicated to a subculture you know nothing about.

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As I rewatch the Afterschool Specials (and CBS’s equivalent Schoolbreak Specials) with the eyes of a cynical old person, they come off as dopey and overly earnest as educational films of the 1960s. I doubt The Day My Kid Went Punk made much of an impact on anyone whose children were paying to see GG Allin shit on himself, and those children probably weren’t watching ABC Afterschool Specials anyway. They could have done the exact same plot with almost the exact same dialogue twenty years earlier, only instead of dyed hair and earrings the son would have had long hair and love beads.

And yet, it is charming, and completely well-meaning. It’s like when you’re sixteen, and your grandmother gives you a birthday card with a picture of Strawberry Shortcake on it (not that this happened to me). Sure, it completely misses the mark on what “punk” is, and everybody’s reaction to Terry is so over the top it’s as though he’s walking around with a heroin needle sticking out of his arm, but any show that encourages parents to understand that a teenager’s desire to change their appearance usually isn’t driven by some malicious desire to humiliate and punish them is pretty useful. Sometimes a kid listens to Ziggy Ziggy Sputnik, and wants to go a little wild, and what’s the harm in that?

Original airdate: October 23, 1987

Watch it here

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