For nearly two decades, the ABC Afterschool Special was the number one source for Young People With Problems. Anorexia, teen pregnancy, suicide, child abuse, dyslexia, drunk driving–all of it was covered at some point, and almost always wrapped up with a neat bow at the end. Occasionally, though, the episodes were light-hearted from the start, addressing teens who want to become professional gymnasts, teens going back in time to meet younger versions of their mothers, teens who switch identities with movie stars, and, of course, teens who go punk.
Can a Guy Say No?, which aired in 1986, attempts to strike a balance between both light and serious, but mostly falls on the side of light. Based on a book called A Very Touchy Subject, the episode focuses on Scott, a soon to be high school senior. Scott is played by Steve Antin, best known for playing smarmy jerks in such 80s classics as The Last American Virgin and The Goonies. In a full 180 from his role in The Last American Virgin (notorious for being the most depressing teen sex comedy of all time), here he’s a naive goofball who just can’t seem to get laid. As per Wikipedia, Antin was 27 when he appeared in this, and looks it, thus unintentionally lending the scenes where he laments his virginity an air of creepy tragedy.
I had mentioned in a review a few months back that I miss the days of melodramatic made for TV movies. Lifetime picked up what network television left behind, but there’s a distinct sense of self-awareness to their movies, not quite parody, yet still with a clear message: “We know this is corny, you know this is corny, let’s just accept that and have a good time.” And yet, the seriousness was what made those old movies so much fun! A movie like The Babysitter wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if it came off like it was poking fun at the slasher genre. Cloris Leachman was 100% sincere when she performed the theme song for Someone I Touched, which makes it far more of a good time than stuff with titles like From Straight A’s to XXX or Stalked By My Doctor (let alone its sequel, Stalked By My Doctor: the Return).
Never again will we see anything as earnestly hokey as 1976’s The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Starring John Travolta in one of his first major dramatic roles, it was loosely based on the true stories of David Vetter and Ted DeVita, both of whom suffered from illnesses that so severely compromised their immune systems that they had to permanently live inside sterile isolation tents. Though Vetter was barely five and DeVita an adolescent when the film was made, Travolta’s character, Tod Lubitch, is seventeen, presumably so much of the plot could focus on an interminable love story.
One my least favorite well worn movie and TV tropes is the love triangle. You want to lose my interest almost immediately? Have a couple of characters pretzeling themselves into all sorts of humiliating poses for the love of a third person, who rarely seems worth the effort. It’s the lazy writer’s tactic for injecting some extra drama into his or her script, despite it being a situation in which very few people in real life will find themselves. At least when a movie is entirely about a love triangle, as is 1983’s Baby Sister, you can revel in the inevitable melodrama and delicious cheese.
Some fine aged Gouda is served up right at the beginning, with the fantastic Laura Branigan-esque theme song, which goes “When the pressure is rising/and the heat comes down/it gets too sticky/to stick arooooooound/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool dowwwwwwwn/when it gets too hot.”
If you’ve been following my writing here long enough, then you’ll know that I often enjoy mocking people my age who wax poetic, to an absurd degree, about their childhoods, insisting that they were far better than the selfie and participation trophy laden childhoods of the present. Why, we drank filthy creek water and bought cigarettes for our parents, and it was great! Who needed the internet when you had a stack of ten year-old National Geographics in the back of the library?
It’s a little hard to maintain the illusion of goodness and purity of Gen X childhoods when you consider teensploitation. Teensploitation is exactly what it sounds like, a thankfully brief film genre of the late 70s-early 80s in which young people, usually girls, found themselves in dangerously adult situations. Sometimes they were runaways, sometimes they were prostitutes, sometimes they were runaway prostitutes. Sometimes they found themselves in prison, or stalked by a murderer. Whatever it was, two things always held true: the girls were always very innocent, and always wore very skimpy clothing, acting as both a cautionary tale for young female viewers, and wank fodder for male viewers of all ages.
Though Linda Blair in Born Innocent is probably the best remembered example of the genre, Eve Plumb had a good run at it too, with 1976’s Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway.Dawn was such a hit that it got a sequel just a year later, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, focusing on her kind-hearted boyfriend.