“What Are Friends For?” (1980)

The 80s seemed to be a golden era for “that kid,” young actors whose familiar faces, if not particularly familiar names, always seemed to pop up on one TV show or another. There was Meeno Peluce (Silver SpoonsThe Bad News BearsThe Love Boat, countless other sitcoms), Ronnie Scribner (Fantasy IslandLittle House on the Prairie, Ralphie Glick in the TV movie adaptation of Salem’s Lot), Matthew Labyorteaux (The Love BoatLittle House on the PrairieAmazing Stories), among many other names that nowadays are only brought up in advanced bar trivia competitions.

Then there was Dana Hill, who appeared in neither The Love Boat or Little House on the Prairie. You might not immediately recall her name, but you’d definitely recognize her–her best known role was probably the second Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but she also had memorable dramatic roles in Shoot the Moon and Fallen Angel, the first TV movie to address the scourge of child pornography. If Dana Hill seemed like a world weary adult in the body of a kid, she sort of was–type-1 diabetes stunted her growth, allowing her to play characters years younger than she actually was. Sadly, by the late 80s the illness began to take a toll on Hill’s appearance, limiting her to voiceover work, and in 1996 she passed away from a diabetes-related stroke. Unlike her male counterparts Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, Hill wasn’t aggressively cute and cuddly, instead giving her roles, even in light comedies, a uniquely melancholy touch.

That melancholy touch is downright unsettling in 1980’s What Are Friends For?, one of the more bizarre episodes of ABC’s Afterschool Special. Essentially a cautionary tale for parents–don’t get divorced or your kids might lose their fucking minds–it’s about two mismatched young girls who (at least temporarily) ignore their differences and bond over their respective broken families.

The episode opens with lurid, 70s era horror movie music and shots of someone’s spooky antique doll collection. The dolls belong to Amy (Melora Hardin, who grew up to become Jan Levinson, Michael Scott’s boss turned lover turned nemesis on The Office), a recent transplant to the West Coast after her parents’ divorce. Amy is taking the divorce way harder than her mother, hiding a picture of her father and refusing to speak with him. She’s in her new apartment barely ten minutes before she makes the acquaintance of her neighbor, Michelle (Dana Hill), a quirky loner who’s also a child of divorce.

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Oh, did I say “quirky”? I meant Michelle is pushy, obnoxious, a thief, a liar, and kind of creepy. Actually, she’s really creepy. Really, really creepy. She is gravely serious when she makes Amy swear eternal loyalty to her, saying “You realize that if you break our bond of friendship, you’ll probably die.” The remarkably laid back Amy doesn’t seem bothered by this, nor does she bat an eye at Michelle burning candles, chanting, and claiming that she can cast a spell to make both her own father’s girlfriend, and Amy’s father’s new family disappear.

Much to Michelle’s dismay, Amy also spends time with Barbara and Nora, two other neighborhood girls who snub Michelle. Michelle insists, and Amy initially believes, that it’s because Michelle’s parents are divorced (the word “divorced” has the same sort of dramatic intonation here as “the plague,” though it’s highly unlikely that in 1980 Southern California it’d still be a subject of shame and secrecy). However, Barbara reluctantly hints that it might be for other reasons, which take Amy a lot longer to figure out than the audience.

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Friendship with Michelle is quite the rollercoaster ride, with lighthearted trips to the beach interspersed with Michelle faking illnesses and yelling at Amy that she doesn’t understand what “being loyal” means. Obviously, all this behavior is a cry for attention, from a workaholic mother and a father who uses her birthday celebration as an opportunity to announce that he’s marrying his girlfriend, but it’s readily apparent that there’s also something deeper and more disturbing happening.

Amy finally realizes this when she walks in on Michelle in her bathroom, chanting, wearing a cloak and death metal makeup, and submerging a doll Amy had earlier given her as a birthday gift into some sort of red liquid. I’m not kidding, this actually happens. With what looks like an Illuminati symbol painted on the bathroom wall, this is some Aleister Crowley shit, and it is without a doubt the weirdest, most jarring moment in any Afterschool Special ever, besting even the “Of course, that’s why they call it body paint” scene in Don’t Touch.

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Initially Amy is more upset that Michelle is using a doll she gave her in the ritual, rather than the fact that the ritual seems to involve holy shit is that bathtub full of blood where did it come from. Their friendship falls apart after that, until a weeping Michelle pleads for forgiveness. Things return to normal for a brief time, and then Amy very nearly gets caught with a pair of stolen earrings that Michelle inexplicably plants in her pocket. Michelle is shocked and angered at Amy’s anger at her, because why should a little a thing like breaking the law come between friends? “You’re not loyal! You don’t know what friendship means!” Michelle shouts at Amy, with rage and maybe even a tiny bit of murder in her eyes.

The friendship seems to be over for good, though Michelle does make one last ditch effort at repairing it, when she sneaks into Amy’s apartment holding an object wrapped in newspaper. With that lurid music from the opening credits playing, one legitimately fears that it might be a mutilated cat, but thankfully, it’s just an expensive doll Amy had been earlier admiring in an antique store, with a note reading “Please be my friend” (which is, let’s face it, pretty eerie enough on its own). It’s unclear if Michelle bought the doll or stole it, but it’s enough for Amy to realize just how far around the bend this kid is. She tells her mother what’s been going on, and when next we see Michelle, she’s packing up to go live with her father, which could possibly be shorthand for “locked away in a psychiatric hospital for the next six months.”

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Amy compares the end of her friendship with Michelle to being like a divorce, saying “I guess some people just can’t work it out…I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.” The show ends with Amy, who earlier insisted that she would never speak to him again, tearfully calling her father and telling him she misses him.

Wow, what a bummer, huh? This is definitely one of the more downbeat Afterschool Specials, especially considering it plays like Michelle might eventually snap out of whatever psychological issues she’s having so that she and Amy can enjoy a normal friendship. But no, she’s genuinely disturbed, and Amy is forced to make the very adult decision to tell someone about it.

My parents divorced when I was the same age as the characters in What Are Friends For?, so I can say with some authority that it’s a tad heavy handed. It’s unlikely that Michelle’s considerable emotional problems (seriously, this kid is one step away from setting her apartment building on fire) stem solely from her parents’ divorce, and yet the show seems to posit that that was what sent her spiraling into the abyss. Perhaps that would be possible if the adults acted like vindictive, self-centered shitheels towards each other (as many people do in real life divorces), but the girls’ parents are all nice, and good providers, if not a bit distracted. Michelle seems destined to be a mess regardless of what kind of home life she has, and it’s unfair for the show to wag a finger at parents who have the nerve to refuse to stay in a loveless marriage for the sake of the children. Better you should suffer in silent resentment, like your parents did.

Original airdate: March 19, 1980

Watch it here

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