the early 1960s, FCC chairman Newton Minnow called television “a vast
wasteland,” accusing the entertainment industry of producing mind-numbing
and mediocre offerings, as gray and dull as dishwater. Even President
Kennedy agreed that the medium was not reaching its full potential, and in
effort to balance things out he passed legislation for the expansion of
this brave new world of the modern age, in which our competition, the
Soviets, were one-upping us in the space race, our children were not being
educated by the boob tube as much as being passively entertained into a
coma-like trance. They were subjected to the most mundane programming and
commercial brainwashing on a daily basis (including Saturdays – especially
Saturdays!): one-dimensional cartoons drawn on the cheap, local cowboys and
spacemen shamelessly begging young baby boomers to open mom’s pocketbook for
money to buy spy glasses and cap pistols, and not-too-subtle advertisements
for sugar-heavy cereals with practically no nutritional value.
The “vast wasteland” comment was troublesome for the industry, and it packed
a lot of punch. It was the phrase that reverberated throughout the country
and stirred debate. The networks suddenly became self-conscious of what they
were putting out there. The dollar still ruled, but the message
now had to be
more subtle – less intrusive.
the 1970s, of course, the world had changed in all directions. Television
was slow to follow, but eventually programming for children became – if not
100% -- then at least a partially positive force, and at times a great deal
more well meaning. Landmark specials like Marlo Thomas’ Free To Be You
and Me showed what TV could do for a child’s self-esteem. Public
television introduced innovative, enlightening fare such as Sesame
Street, The Electric Company, and Zoom, and advertising aimed at
children, though still despicable, was toned down considerably.
One of the breakthrough projects of this era was the ABC After School
Specials. Showed semi-monthly on ABC affiliates that could bear to go
even one day without Merv or dopey game shows, this special series actually
struck a chord with a generation; many of these programs remained in their
hearts years after they were broadcast, usually only once.
The one-hour stories, often based on popular juvenile novels of the time,
were touching, thought-provoking and extremely well-acted. Most importantly,
they entertained while teaching lessons in such new-to-TV topics as the
meaning of beauty, the importance of family, and the most sensitive of all
70s concerns: being sensitive.
Some of the most memorable of these specials are now compiled in this
no-frills DVD. The focus is on those shows created by Marin Tahse, the most
prolific and successful producer of the After School Specials. In
all, Tahse created 26 productions, and won 18 Emmys and a Peabody Award,
among many other deserving honors.
This first volume features four of his best:
The 18th Emergency (originally titled “Psst…
Hammerman’s After You!”)
This story puts an odd twist on the age-old “bully versus victim” saga.
Here, the victim is the one who hurts the bully’s feelings; the victim is
the bully, and therefore it’s the smaller guy who has to learn to atone (are
you following this?). Don’t touch that dial: it’s not as complicated as it
sounds, and it goes down easily.
Mouse Fawley (an incredibly appealing Christian Juttner) writes the bully’s
name under an exhibit of Neandrathal Man as a joke. The bully, Marv
Hammerman (the hulking Jim Sage), does not take well to this type of humor,
especially when the snide remark involves himself. Mouse spends the episode avoiding
getting his ass kicked, or at least obsessed with the idea that he is about
to get his ass kicked.
While cowering in fear in his urban-apartment-building neighborhood, he
busies himself learning about self-respect from old-world neighbors,
including a gray-wigged lady with an Italian accent straight out of Central
Casting and an elderly man who suffered a stroke.
Mouse’s best buddy (played by Lance Kerwin, who would go on to play the lead
in the terrific but short-lived James At Fifteen) provides him with a
list of emergency survival skills, including: if it’s natural to scream, be
perfectly quiet. Willie Ames (Eight Is Enough, Charles In Charge) and
Louise Foley (Kristy McNichol’s best friend on Family) each have one
The lesson: just because someone is bigger than you are doesn’t mean that
they don’t have feelings too. We learn this, and are touched by this, and
then we forget it and never apply it to real life ever again.
Summer of the Swans
Attention Brady Bunch fans: this is the long-lost special that you’ve heard
about for thirty years, featuring the just-barely-Brady-graduated
Christopher Knight and Eve Plumb. Be warned, though: you will be
disappointed. Their roles are minor (in fact, Plumb has a whole forty-five
seconds playing against type as a bubbly blonde; Knight is the sensitive
heartthrob who offers such provocative gems as, “who is to say what’s good
looking?” and “if you don’t think that’s a beautiful thing, then you don’t
know what’s beautiful,” and the clincher, “You’re different, and I think
The real story revolves around the uber-adolescent Sara (Heather Totten),
all awkwardness and attitude, who wishes she could be born beautiful, like
her sister (a nurse who actually wears a starched, white nurse’s uniform.
Remember nurse’s uniforms?). When Sara is not thinking of herself as a
“ninny,” she wishes she were a swan (hence the title). After complaining
that “I’m nothing but a second-class citizen around here,” and mistaking
Chris Knight’s character as a “basic, common garden variety fink,” Sara
learns about life. Her oddball little brother, Charlie, gets lost in the
woods, and Sara mobilizes into action, subsequently getting some
action from Chris Knight.
Veteran TV dependable Priscilla Morrill is on hand as the eccentric aunt,
who, when desperately calling the police on the telephone, asks, “hello, is
this the police?" (why
do people on TV do this all the time? Doesn’t every police precinct answer
the phone with the informative greeting, “Police Department?”).
She also gives her telephone number as 555-4456 (remember a
simpler time when phone numbers had no area codes and most of us didn’t
realize that the 555 exchange was reserved for television characters only?).
The lesson: Sara learns that it isn’t how you look that’s important – it’s
how you are. Of course, it’s we the audience who learn the lesson
along with her and are deeply touched by the lesson and then proceed to
forget the lesson a moment later and never remember it again.
This may quite possibly be the darkest and most serious of all the After
School Specials, and also the most enlightening. Tuck Friday (Stewart
Peterson) lives in the rural South with his super-rural family. We know this
because they are chicken farmers who can't afford television. Tuck also
lives with his debilitating stutter, which immediately makes us feel
protective of him against the ignorant students and townspeople who are not
as sensitive and enlightened as we are.
While ostracized at school and considered a second-class citizen by his
family, we relate to Tuck because we’re shown in a major way that he is
withdrawn and lonely. He never speaks for fear of being teased (except when
a dopey teacher forces him to talk in front of the class, which is painful
for both us and Tuck.).
There’s more about ice later, but the icing on the cake is when a girl
spends some quality time with Tuck, only to admit that she was involved in a
bet to get him to talk (which he barely ever does, because of bitches like
this). Her mean rejection of him is the last straw, and we want Tuck to find
happiness and to find his center and to find a hit man for this chick. But
His life changes when an abandoned factory gets converted to an ice skating
rink. The owner is a former ice-skating champion, Pete (Jerry Dexter), who
screwed up his knee and destroyed his promising career. He wants
desperately to share his love of not only ice but of
skating too with this
simple country community (who probably have never seen ice or skating or
grown men who have a passion for it).
Understanding what its like to be an outsider (probably because of his
unnatural love of ice skating), Pete develops a close friendship with Tuck.
Tuck comes alive as a result of his new adult after-school pal. Pete teaches
him how to skate and Tuck takes to it like a duck to water.
Just when you think this relationship is getting a little strange, Pete
introduces his hot-as-hell wife, a Peggy-Fleming-type skating babe who takes
to Tuck like – well -- a duck to water. They work out an Olympic-style dance
routine, and the whole town (including Tuck’s family) is sure surprised on
Opening Night when Tuck shakes his booty for the world (or at least the
local version of the world). Everyone -- including the kinfolk
-- has new
respect for him, and we feel like we have a little something to do with it
because we stuck with him when everyone else shunned him. We not only
congratulate Tuck – we congratulate ourselves.
Lesson (which will touch you deeply but you will never apply practically):
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Still waters run deep (and get iced over).
And even though Tuck’s family can’t afford a television or to fix the
refrigerator, they can afford to attend Opening Night at the ice skating
Dear Lovey Hart: I Am Desperate
This may be the most memorable of the After School Specials, and also
the funniest and most literate. It takes place in an upper-middle-class high
school (we know this because the main character writes on an electric
typewriter rather than a manual one and the feisty newspaper editor’s name
is Skip Custer).
Carrie (Susan Lawrence) becomes a secret lovelorn advice columnist for her
high-school paper. Carrie’s column becomes the biggest thing ever to hit the
school (we know this because we get an endless montage of students crowding
around one issue of the paper). Her guidance-counselor father is opposed to
the idea of a teenager dispensing counsel, saying, “The thought of some
mixed-up kid giving advice to other mixed-up kids is unsettling if you ask
me (although nobody asked him).”
His fears are realized when the advice columnist (named "Lovey Hart")
advises Fat Girl to diet. Fat
Girl lands (with a thud) in the hospital due to her diabetes, which
forbids desperate dieting (“now there’s a weighty
problem for you,” Carrie comments). Carrie is freaked out
by this stupefying situation. She wants to pull
the plug on the column, but it becomes bigger than herself, bigger
than the school, and bigger than her life-size poster of Henry Winkler.
The backlash begins, and Carrie learns many lessons, not the least of which
is, "I’m just a sophomore. What do I know about
This special is also notable for featuring Dobie “Drift Away” Gray’s record
being played at a teen party, in which he instructs the dancers to “get on
down” to Mexico. The kids, decked out in bell bottoms and feathered hair,
don’t make it to Mexico, but they sure as hell get on down.
Lesson: Giving advice is dangerous, especially if you’re under age. Also:
there are no easy answers. Get touched by this and internalize it and try to
apply it, though you never will.
The most intriguing aspect of these After School Specials is that a
good many of the actors in these fine productions were never heard from
again. That’s showbiz. However, the novels on which these programs are based
are as deserving of being reread as watching this DVD.
If you’re old enough to
remember these specials, you’ll be amazed at how well they hold up.
You'll journey back to a time in your life when
you were desperately seeking direction,
Hey, just like now!
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
November 30, 2004.