“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.

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“Don’t Touch” (1985)

If such a thing can possibly be “trendy,” there was a strange but necessary uptick in TV shows and movies about child molestation during the mid-80s. Like eating disorders and domestic violence a couple years earlier, it was a significant real-life issue that Hollywood just seemed to sort of discover one day. In addition to the critically acclaimed Something About Amelia, normally lighthearted sitcoms like Diff’rent StrokesWebster, and Mr. Belvedere all had episodes dedicated to a young person being sexually abused by an adult they’d learned to trust. Naturally there was an ABC Afterschool Special on the subject as well, as young people with problems to overcome were the very lifeblood of the series.

Needless to say, Don’t Touch is a jarring change of pace from The Day My Kid Went Punk. It’s like eating a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, and then the next bite has horseradish in it. But let us bravely proceed…

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“Can a Guy Say No?” (1986)

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.

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“Schoolboy Father” (1980)

Rob Lowe is the first actor I can remember thinking was so handsome he didn’t seem real. It was while watching The Outsiders, a movie that, while not entirely responsible for my sexual awakening (that would be The Lost Boys, about four years later), was certainly a benchmark moment in it. Though my favorite character was and still is Patrick Swayze as big brother Darrell (responsible, sensitive, and not afraid to cry–yes, please!), Rob Lowe as middle brother Sodapop defined the phrase “eye candy.” Did he even have any dialogue in that movie? Hell, I don’t remember, but hatchi matchi, was he just a thing to behold.

The closest modern equivalent to Rob Lowe in his prime (though Rob Lowe in his 50s is still pretty smokin’ too) is Dan Stevens in The Guest. They’re both so good looking that it seems almost unnatural, not in a “too much plastic surgery” sense but rather in a “DNA splicing in an underground laboratory” sort of way. Humans aren’t supposed to be that good looking. Gazing upon them for too long would be like gazing into the Ark of the Covenant.

With a face like that, Rob Lowe had no choice but to become a movie star. It was either that or making a career out of servicing bored, lonely housewives. The majority of his acting roles, particularly in the 80s, were smug assholes who got away with a lot of nonsense specifically because they were ridiculously good looking. Take St. Elmo’s Fire (please!): his character is a shitty saxophone player with a shitty mullet and not a single redeeming quality other than his chiseled, kissed by an angel face. He abandons his wife and child, gets drunk and crashes his best friend’s car, and indiscriminately sleeps with his female friends, yet when he leaves town to inflict his sax wheezing on another city, everyone is so very sorry to see him go. A wink and a smirk is all it takes for this work of art to be forgiven for his repulsive behavior.

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Because of this, it’s a challenge to buy Rob Lowe as a shy, awkward teen in Schoolboy Father, an ABC Afterschool Special that marks one of his first onscreen appearances. Lowe plays Charles Elderberry, a suburban high school student working as a grocery store bag boy. Does he look like he should be playing someone named Charles Elderberry, a suburban high school student working as a grocery store bag boy? No, he does not, he looks like he should be playing someone named Brad Wainwright III, a rich piece of shit who plies his girlfriends with coke and rides in his Porsche. But, whatever, let’s go with it.

Charles finds out via newspaper announcement (read by his mother in a tone of voice that suggests she’s clutching an invisible string of pearls) that his summer fling, Daisy (Dana Plato), has given birth. After literally counting on his fingers and confirming with a friend that it takes nine months for a human baby to be born, Charles, cute but dumb as a bag of hammers, determines that he’s probably the father.

He spends time doing some moony-eyed reflecting over his relationship with Daisy, which seems to have lasted a week and abruptly ended with her dumping him and ordering him to never contact her again. Daisy is a bit…mercurial, with her moods ranging from “angry” to “unreasonably angry,” and spends much of her time on screen looking as such:

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When Charles visits Daisy in the hospital, she rails at him for ruining her life and leaving her to deal with the pregnancy on her own, which would be understandable, if not for the fact that, as Charles reasonably points out, she never told him she was pregnant in the first place. Daisy has already decided to put the baby up for adoption, and you would think that Charles would welcome the opportunity to put as much distance between himself and this raging lunatic as possible, before she plunges a letter opener into his throat. There’s just one little sticking point: he’s fallen instantly in love with his newborn son, and like no 16 year-old boy anywhere ever, wants the chance to be a father.

Though Daisy, a social worker, and Charles’s mother all push hard for adoption, he stands firm. He’s going to raise his child on his own, even if his best explanation for how the child was made in the first place was “We didn’t know she could get pregnant!” Sure, he might end up putting the diaper on the baby’s head or trying to feed it Totino’s Pizza Rolls, but at least it would have a real father.

His insistence on not giving up his son eventually wears down the social worker, and she agrees to let him take the baby home for a few days to see how it works out. I’m not sure if social workers normally allow helpless infants to be taken care of on a trial basis, like someone trying out exercise equipment, but fine. As long as he doesn’t give it a bath in the dishwasher, what could go wrong?

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Not surprisingly, this turns out to be a terrible idea and everything immediately goes to hell. Losing just one night of sleep renders Charles incapacitated. His grades plummet. He loses his lucrative bagging career. His social life suffers. An invitation to a cute classmate’s birthday party isn’t a good enough reason for Mom, who works all day and goes to school at night, to drop everything and babysit for him. He yells at the baby when it refuses to stop crying. This poor kid is barely capable of taking care of a hamster, let alone a human being.

Now, a single father as devastatingly handsome as Rob Lowe should have every woman between the age of 16 and 40 within a 20 mile radius offering to help him, whether it involves changing the baby, cooking meals, or giving Dad a soothing, shirtless massage. But alas, no, all Charles has is his mother, who isn’t nearly as willing as he expected her to be to take on all the unpleasant aspects of baby care, such as anything that doesn’t involve just smiling at it or talking about how it will surely play for the NFL someday. Charles discovers, accurately, that good intentions aren’t enough to make parenting an easy task.

He returns the baby to the social worker, thankfully in one piece, and signs the adoption paperwork. The social worker sticks it in and breaks it off by saying “He will have a father, Charles. It just won’t be you.” The episode ends, like the previously reviewed What Are Friends For?, on a bummer note, with the main character weeping in despair, the right decision having been the most painful one.

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As was usually the case with ABC Afterschool Specials, Schoolboy Father is charmingly corny and well-meaning, and its ending is surprisingly moving. It may seem that everyone is unnecessarily hard on Charles, but really, leaving a baby to be raised by a teenager, let alone a teenager who has to use his fingers to count to nine, is just a dreadful idea. Yes, yes, we all know stories about someone, a grandmother or a high school friend or whatever, who was a teenage parent and managed to raise the child to adulthood without accidentally setting it on fire. Nevertheless, the show makes it abundantly clear that Charles is ill-equipped for the task, especially since his desire to be a parent is driven mostly by his issues from being abandoned at a young age by his own father. This kid doesn’t need to be taking care of a baby, he needs to be working out his absent parent angst through bad poetry, like normal teenagers.

As for Rob Lowe, while not entirely believable as a dork who doesn’t know how to talk to girls, he does offer the role a certain appealing earnestness. He doesn’t realize he’s incompetent, ergo you find yourself rooting for him to get it together and figure it out. And who knows, maybe one day Charles Elderberry, now a weathered but still fabulously attractive man in his fifties, will be walking somewhere and pass a younger, equally attractive man on the street. They’ll look at each other, and they’ll nod in recognition. My god, that is a good looking man, they’ll both think. And he looks so familiar!

 

Original airdate: October 15, 1980

Watch it here

“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

“Wanted: the Perfect Guy” (1986)

Precocious adolescents are the best, aren’t they? They’re just so smart and insightful, and they know what’s best for everyone, including their own parents. I wish I could go back in time to meet middle school me, she’d help me get my shit together like no one else could.

Wise-ass kids save the day in Wanted: the Perfect Guy, a 1986 ABC Afterschool Special notable mostly because it starred a pubescent Ben Affleck, in one of his first acting roles. Affleck plays Danny, who, in lieu of having any suitable hobbies, takes a disturbing interest in his mother’s love life.

After his mother (Madeline Kahn, maybe kinda slumming here) declares that she is done with dating, 13 year-old Danny, aghast at such a notion, completely defies her wishes and sets out to find her a man. With the help of his best pal, Melanie, first he answers a series of personal ads, posing as his mother, but when he finds all of the potential matches to be duds, decides to submit his own ad instead.

"Yes, I'd like to have 100 pizzas delivered to the Damon household, 123 Park--"

“Yes, I’d like to have 100 pizzas delivered to the Damon household, 123 Park–“

In the midst of all this, Danny ponders the sad state of adult romance, lamenting how lonely and desperate someone must be to post a personals ad (this kid’s mind is gonna be blown straight to Mars and back in about fifteen years). Though the show would have ended in ten minutes if Danny had simply suggested the idea of placing a personals ad to his mother, then left it alone if she said no, it would have certainly saved the absurd amount of hassle he and Melanie go through. Thanks to Danny’s refusal to respect that his mother knows what she does and doesn’t want, they’re forced to lie, spy on people, scramble around to hide the huge response their ad got, and answer calls and letters while pretending to be an adult woman.

Oh, and let’s not forget meeting strange men alone in a park, specifically Peter (Keith Szarabajka), a would-be suitor whom Danny and Melanie immediately deem to be cool, for no discernible reason other than he’s wearing one of those silk button-down dress shirts that were all the rage in the late 80s. Peter is curiously unruffled that a teenage boy shows up for a “date” with him instead of a 35 year-old woman, and is all too eager to discuss his personal life with Danny. “I’d love to meet your mother, especially if she’s anything like you,” Peter says (???? !!!!).

Danny missed "Stranger Day Day" at school.

Danny missed “Stranger Danger Day” at school.

Although that should ring enough alarms to make the dead rise, Danny is still convinced that Peter is the titular perfect guy for his mother. However, when she finds out about what’s been going on behind her back, she’s understandably angry at Danny and refuses to go on the date. Though when next we see Danny’s mother she should be looking through military school brochures, it seems she’s had a change of heart, and agrees to go out with Peter after all.

Peter and Melanie, who earlier had a fight with Danny that seemingly ended their friendship, show up at Danny’s house at the same time, with Melanie dressed in toned down, yet somehow more revealing clothes than her previously loud, funky wardrobe. Danny’s mother leaves for the date, and is gone not even thirty seconds before she returns to tell him not to wait up for her, complete with a knowing wink. Danny and Melanie, about to embark on their own romance (I guess?), have a good laugh. Alright, Mom’s gettin’ laid to-night! **high five**

Alternate title: How Danny's Mom Got Her Groove Back

Alternate title: How Danny’s Mom Got Her Groove Back

Eesh. I don’t think I’ve ever described an Afterschool Special as “off-putting” before, but this is really off-putting. There’s an oddly cruel undercurrent to it, with Danny and Melanie mocking the sad sacks who get stood up under the guise of meeting Danny’s mother for a date, and Danny haranguing his mother into going along with his plan to get her to meet Peter. Also, more than any other show in the series, it tries aggressively to be “hip,” with its artsy downtown Manhattan setting, deafening faux-reggae music playing over nearly every scene, Danny’s “punk” wardrobe (which consists mostly of ripped t-shirts and heavily Dippity-Do’ed hair), and Melanie’s increasingly distracting headwear (in one scene she looks like she’s wearing a pair of underpants on her head). I don’t want my Afterschool Specials to be hip, I want them to be bland and corny and nice. Danny isn’t nice; frankly, he comes off as a pushy, melodramatic little asshole, who is rewarded twofold in the end for his pushy, melodramatic little asshole behavior, and thus will not learn anything valuable from it.

Or maybe it was that super icky ending. I honestly thought that when both Peter and Melanie showed up, it was going to end with the adults and kids going on some sort of Freudian double date, which, no. No. God, no. Or maybe it’s because Melanie, who is black (not that it’s relevant to the plot), in order to win back Danny as a friend (and possibly a boyfriend, I guess?), dresses in a more “feminine” manner, even straightening her hair. It’s all a little weird and unpleasant, and seems to send the unhelpful message of “Don’t worry about what other people think, it’s what you want that matters.”

On the other hand, every scene with Madeline Kahn is a joy, as is everything involving Madeline Kahn, God rest her soul. Her character does deserve love and happiness with the right man, but probably would be better off finding it on her own, rather than through her obnoxious son.