Monday, March 17, 2014

Mom’s Drunk, Dad Left, and the Homecoming Queen is Pregnant: The ABC Afterschool Specials

Television’s first executives and programmers had high aspirations for the medium. They believed this new technology could be used to inform, enlighten, and raise the standards of American culture. But then TV networks found they got higher ratings with wrestling than the New York Philharmonic, and all those hopes and dreams perished.
Still, every so often somebody tries to do something right: Omnibus, Sesame Street, Life is Worth Living, and yes, though they earned their share of derision then and now, the ABC Afterschool Specials

If you grew up with them as I did, they may seem like relics of the 1970s and early ‘80s; but the network kept making them long after you stopped watching. The first show aired in 1972; the last one in 1997! That means all those troubled teens from season 1 were over 40 by the time school finally let out forever.

I have no memory of any of them after 1982 or so. And my guess is that the kids and teens of the 1990s don’t share the episodes of that time as a generational memory – by then there were already dozens of cable stations, and issue-driven stories for younger people were no longer a novelty.

That’s what made the first shows so revelatory– no one else in the 1970s was aiming this type of content directly at teenagers at an hour they were more likely to be watching TV. Just as Phil Donahue was bringing family skeletons out of the closet – alcoholism, drug use, teen pregnancy – and discussing them on his daily talk show, the Afterschool Specials turned them into earnest 45-minute dramas that won dozens of Daytime Emmys.

Of course, not every Special featured such heavy subjects – others looked at how our times were changing. Remember Jodie Foster in “Rookie of the Year,” about a girl who wanted to play for a boy’s little league team?

Here are my picks for the 10 most memorable Afterschool Specials (which isn’t the same as the 10 best, as you’ll discover from the reviews). Some are among the 24 shows released on DVD. The sets are long out of print but worth seeking out – the nostalgic Trapper Keeper-style cases were a particularly inspired touch. 

Sara’s Summer of the Swans
It’s my blog so I get to start with my favorite. Based on the book by prolific, award-winning novelist Betsy Byars, “Sara’s Summer of the Swans” explores the challenges of growing up with a special needs sibling. But it’s really also about learning to let other people into your life, even if you’re not sure they’ll like it there. That message resonated with me when it first aired, and it’s one I still need to hear from time to time. This is a simple, heartfelt story that exemplifies how enriching these shows can be at their best. And for classic TV fans it has two ex-Bradys (Eve Plumb and Christopher Knight) in supporting roles.

Psst! Hammerman’s After You
The two preeminent school bully dramas of my generation are this Afterschool Special and the 1980 film My Bodyguard. What makes “Hammerman” a little more interesting is that the victim, nicknamed Mouse, is not completely blameless for his plight; in fact, he was pretty much asking for it.

Me and Dad’s New Wife
Adjustment to divorce and stepparents was a frequent Afterschool topic.  I thought it was handled better in other installments, such as “The Bridge of Adam Rush” and “A Family of Strangers,” but more people seem to remember “Me and Dad’s New Wife.” This may be due to a cast regularly featured on Tiger Beat covers – Kristy McNichol, Lance Kerwin and Leif Garrett.

It Must Be Love (Cause I Feel so Dumb!)
Anyone who has ever suffered though unrequited love will identify with poor Eric, a short, awkward 13 year-old who’s got it bad for cheerleader ‘it’ girl Lisa. We’ve all been there, kid. The ending is a bit of a cop-out, though.

Schoolboy Father
The young people on these shows often take on adult responsibilities faster than their peers, either from their own transgressions or someone else’s. Such trials also inspired “Francesca Baby,” the heartbreaking “A Matter of Time” and the unfortunately titled “Daddy, I’m Their Mama Now.” But “Schoolboy Father” became the quintessential treatment, if not the quintessential Afterschool Special. Rob Lowe plays the title character, opposite Dana Plato and Nancy McKeon. 

It Isn’t Easy Being a Teenage Millionaire
Usually you wouldn’t want to trade places with the characters on these shows; here’s the exception. Melissa, 14, wins the lottery, but discovers that sudden wealth isn’t the answer to every problem. And before you ask, yes, minors can legally win lotteries if they receive the ticket as a gift. 

Dear Lovey Hart: I Am Desperate
This is another of my favorites, partly because there’s more humor than is typically found in these shows, and party because of Susan Lawrence, an appealing young actress who should have graduated to bigger and better roles (if you know her at all, it’s from Dr. Shrinker). Here, she plays a student who writes an ill-fated advice column for her high school paper.  

Stories of drug and alcohol abuse among teens are synonymous with Afterschool Specials, but surprisingly the series didn’t broach either topic until its eighth season. One year later, Stoned starred Scott Baio as a popular teen jock who tries marijuana and graduates to cocaine and LSD. Reefer Madness overtones aside, Chachi can act and helps keep the story grounded. And this is still better than “Desperate Lives,” in which Helen Hunt cooks up some PCP in her high school chemistry lab and jumps out a high-rise window. 

Which Mother is Mine?
Melissa Sue Anderson plays Alex, a popular teen living in a happy home with her adoptive parents – yeah, you know that’s not going to last. Sure enough, Alex’s biological mother has finally kicked her booze problem and sues for full custody. At first you’ll hate her as much as Alex does, but the observant script is fair and honest in portraying all sides of a difficult issue.

What are Friends For?
New girl in town Amy begins an awkward friendship with eccentric neighbor Michelle Mudd, who like Amy is a child of divorce. “What are Friends For?” makes the list for one scene, which was shot and edited like something out of a horror movie. The first time it aired, it made a whole generation of kids jump back from their TVs at the same time. 

Did I miss your favorite? Let me know!


  1. "My Mom's Having a Baby," the one that told us the facts of life (after a kid I knew beat it and my parents to the punch). There was also a weird "Fantastic Voyage" type episode in which two children shrink and end up inside their grandfather.

  2. Did you see "Tough Girl," Mr. Hofstede? Laurence Lau, who played Greg Nelson on "All My Children," was in that one. Darnell Williams and Debbi Morgan, who respectively played Jesse Hubbard and Angie Baxter on "AMC," both appeared in "The Celebrity and the Arcade Kid."

  3. There are still quite a few I haven't watched or don't recall - sadly the odds of more coming out on DVD are remote. But both of these sound interesting.

  4. I actually use to show an old after school special "The Wave" to my history class once in's based on a classroom experiment on fascism.