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.
It’s not as if Scott isn’t making some effort to get some action: he keeps trying to pressure his girlfriend Alex (played by Khrystyne Haje, redheaded Simone from Head of the Class) into it, using the foolproof combination of whining and passive-aggression. Alex isn’t having it, though, telling him “I don’t think making love means just doing that one thing.” Before Scott has a chance to ask her to explain what it does mean–handjobs? sensual massages?–Alex breaks up with him.
Luckily, Scott discovers that the key to his deflowering may be closer than he realized. While having dinner one night, he and his family spy a young man climbing out the bedroom window of their teenage neighbor, Paula Finkle (Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Heather Langenkamp). Scott’s mother laments “Oh, that cute little girl,” while Scott smugly remarks “Come on, Mom, she’s nobody’s little girl anymore.” Paula, we soon find out, has a BAD REPUTATION. And we’re not talking the cool Joan Jett style bad reputation, but the kind of bad reputation where if someone wants to date you, they have to keep it a secret from their friends and family. The kind of bad reputation where your phone number gets written in Sharpie on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, perhaps with a picture of a spurting penis accompanying it. You see where I’m going with this.
When we return from a commercial break, Scott and his buddies, who literally talk about nothing else except their shared virginity and how to get rid of it, are hanging out at the local soda shop. Paula is there as well, and just the sight of the gum snapping, miniskirt-wearing siren renders Scott and his friends slack-jawed and silent. “Scott, do you know Paula Finkle?” one of his buddies asks in disbelief, as if she’s a pop star who just happened to roll into town that day, rather than a classmate and neighbor they’ve presumably been aware of for years. The friend then proclaims her to be the town tramp, and slyly suggests that Scott use her like the worthless whore she is. Well, he doesn’t exactly say this, because this is an ABC Afterschool Special, and even the most difficult of subjects are treated with gentleness and tact, but he does all but lean over and elbow Scott while yelling “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you know, you know.”
Though Scott chides his friend for trafficking in rumors, and claims that he’s still hurt over the breakup with Alex, seemingly the very next day he shows up at Paula’s house to chat her up as she sunbathes by the pool. Scott’s idea of flirting with Paula is telling her about his former job as a pet cemetery attendant, while Paula speaks in a bizarre sing-songy voice. “You’re always working! You should be a million-trillionaire by now!” These two don’t seem like they could manage solving a 50 piece jigsaw puzzle together, let alone have sex with each other.
Scott is evidently so driven to madness by the sight of Paula rubbing tanning lotion on her bare leg that when she invites him to use her pool, he dives in fully clothed. She mistakes his mental impairment for being playful, and seems to find it adorable. Paula is only supposed to be 15, which would make Scott, played by a 27 year-old actor, ogling her all the more unsettling, but Heather Langenkamp herself, done up in skimpy outfits and big, crunchy 80s hair, doesn’t look like she’s seen the inside of a high school recently either.
We get hints about Paula’s home life: her mother emotionally abuses her, her father isn’t around, she’s been left back a year in school for cutting too many classes. It’s fairly obvious from go what the show is implying: that Paula’s BAD REPUTATION is borne of a desire to be wanted and loved.
When next we see Scott, he’s wearing an incredible leather ensemble that makes him look like a member of Duran Duran, complete with a zebra striped neckerchief. He tells his parents he’s spent the evening at a place “where all the nymphomaniacs hang out,” but still couldn’t manage to get lucky. His mother seems less shocked at that than with the leather cuff Scott is wearing, which he hilariously refers to as a “stud band.” After Scott’s dad (“special guest star” Beau Bridges) expresses dismay at his desire to join a British new wave band, Scott admits that he’s still a virgin, and that his new look and aggressive pursuit of women is an attempt to remedy that. Dad tells Scott that he shouldn’t be so hasty, as one’s first time should ideally be with a person they love. Scott is unconvinced. “I’m a serious person! I’m deep…I don’t fall in love every day,” he proclaims. Dad uses the phrase “making love,” and Scott, to his credit, doesn’t immediately vomit and push him out of his room.
Scott’s next attempt at wooing Paula results in his accidentally flipping her off a raft in her pool, then getting attacked by mosquitoes. Scott is an idiot, and, bad reputation or not, Paula is a saint for tolerating him. Seemingly later the same day, Paula shows up at Scott’s house and asks him to help her leave town to escape her cruel, overbearing mother. Scott instead suggests that they go fishing. They have a nice time, with not one single pair of pants gotten into, and we learn a little more about the lonely heart that drives Paula’s trampy ways. As the show carefully telegraphed fifteen minutes earlier, Paula admits that she sleeps around mostly to feel important and special, but wouldn’t have if she had known what a terrible reputation it gave her.
Though Scott sympathizes with her, his personality disorder acts up and he blows off Paula’s attempt at chatting with him in front of his friends later. Curiously, Scott seems to believe that acting like an icy asshole towards her will quash any rumors that he’s slept with her–not surprisingly, his friends aren’t convinced, because who would be?
Scott is working valet at a big community dance where Paula is in attendance, but–uh oh!–his ex-girlfriend Alex is there too, and all too happy to see him. Scott literally turns his back on Paula to speak to Alex. Paula is undaunted, however–sneaking into his van later in the evening, she tries to fire on all sexual cylinders with Scott, which he reacts to first with discomfort, then abject terror. He later admits that while he likes Paula, he’s not interested in a relationship with her, and thus doesn’t want to sleep with her. Three cheers for Scott, he’s a good egg after all! However, Paula is stung by the rejection, believing that Scott has deemed her unsuitable girlfriend material due to her reputation. So Scott would have been a jerk if he had slept with her, and he’s still a jerk even if he didn’t. Do teenage boys played by 27 year-old actors often run into this conundrum? I really don’t know.
All is forgiven by the next day, though, when Scott apologizes to Paula for hurting her feelings. Paula is a bit preoccupied, though, what with gathering her things together to run away from home. Scott talks her into calling her father, who agrees to let Paula stay with him for a while. Scott and Paula proclaim themselves to be BFFs 4-ever, though one can assume that uptight, virginal Alex might not be too keen on that. Stay tuned for the sequel, Can a Guy Say Honey, It’s Not What You Think?
So, can a guy say no? And the answer is…maybe? He certainly can to his troubled neighbor, and that’s a good thing. If the only message teenage boys got from this is “Hey, try not to fuck girls that sleep around because they’re lonely and have daddy issues,” then it was reasonably successful. That’s valuable advice one should take long into his adult years. Of course, the show’s suggestion that a teenage girl would only sleep around if she’s emotionally troubled is questionable, but had it implied otherwise every Home Depot across the country would have been cleaned out of its torches and pitchforks. It was the 80s, teen sexuality was as terrifying to adults as…well, as it is now, really.
Original airdate: February 12, 1986
Not currently available online 😦