A “very special” Diff’rent Strokes that’s terrifying for all the wrong reasons

A “very special” Diff’rent Strokes that’s terrifying for all the wrong reasons

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This is the seventh of eight installments to focus on “controversial episodes.”

Diff’rent Strokes, “The Bicycle Man” (season five, episodes 16 and 17; originally aired 2/5/1983 and 2/12/1983)

(Part one available on YouTube here, and part two available on YouTube here.)

In which Arnold is asked to keep a secret…

Ryan McGee: When I learned that “controversial episodes” would be the focus of this round, my mind immediately leaped to the era in which televised controversy first made itself known to me: the 1980s. Plenty of dramas in this decade dealt with some fairly heady topics. But so too did the world of sitcoms, through the proliferation of an institution that both preceded and outlasted the decade: The very special episode. But while the very special episode isn’t singular to this decade, the 1980s were rife with them, and almost no sitcom short of Blossom went to the very special well as often as Diff’rent Strokes.

To analyze “The Bicycle Man” is to analyze the mechanics of the very special episode trope, although there’s far more substance to this iteration than, say, Jessie Spano taking caffeine pills on Saved By The Bell. I both love and loathe episodes that attempt to deal with issues such as drug use, alcoholism, sexuality, drunk driving, racism, and death. They mean so damn well, and yet usually come off so damn corny. I chose “The Bicycle Man” over an episode such as Growing Pains’ season-two episode “Thank God It’s Friday” because not only does it illustrate a good example of the trope, but also (hopefully) provides an interesting counterexample to Brass Eye’s “Paedogeddon,” which we discuss earlier in this round.

The central element that connects every very special episode is earnestness, a quality that undoubtedly brings undue snark and derision upon the genre. And trust me: I understand what makes these episodes such easy targets. They mark their solemnity early, usually with an onscreen assurance from an actor in the show indicating that the following episode will function less as entertainment and more as instruction. Dialogue is often replaced by platitudes, as onscreen figures declaim to those in the fictional world and those at home simultaneously. Afterwards, the number for a hotline usually appears, with the understanding that those suddenly educated on the issue would spring into action. When done poorly, it’s back patting and didactic.

To this day, “The Bicycle Man” makes me incredibly uneasy, due to the largely genial way in which the titular bicycle shop owner Mr. Horton (played by WKRP In Cincinnati star Gordon Jump) leads Arnold (Gary Coleman) and his friend Dudley (Shavar Ross) to the precipice of hell. Each step is a small, seemingly logical one derived from the previous decision. Arnold barely escapes before recognizing what’s going on, and Dudley never picks up on the danger he’s in. Why? Because friendly Mr. Horton never drops his veneer to reveal the sinister monster underneath. He’s ever and always jovial, whether serving the boys ice cream or having them watch X-rated cartoons. 

At this point, it’s probably necessary to summarize the plot: The Drummonds arrive at Mr. Horton’s bike shop after another Sunday riding through the park on rented bicycles. We quickly surmise this is a common occurrence, with a greater deal of familiarity and friendliness between the family and Mr. Horton. Mr. Horton suggests that Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) buy bikes in order to save money over the long haul, and even promises to give Arnold a radio for the bike free of charge if Arnold hands out fliers at school. Soon, Arnold recruits his friend Dudley to help distribute the fliers, both with dreams of radios in their minds. Those dreams are so omnipresent that they are unable to see how repeated trips to the bicycle shop (and to Mr. Horton’s apartment, which is in the back of the store) get increasingly problematic. Mr. Horton, who eventually insists that the kids call him “Curly,” plies them with food and alcohol while also pressuring them to keep their visits a “secret” in order to give both sides plausible deniability.

Those visits involve photo shoots (featuring Dudley as Tarzan and Curly as a lion), drinking wine, playing trampoline on the bed, and watching the aforementioned adult cartoon. But what starts everything off is a pornographic magazine that Horton plants before the boys enter his apartment for the first time. It’s essentially the first of many steps in which he attempts to lure them into a place in which telling the truth would seemingly incriminate them more than him. And given how goddamn nice he acts the whole time, it’s not terrifically surprising that no one’s Spidey sense goes off until the second half of this two-parter. It’s worth stating again how important it is for this script not to turn Horton into some overtly maniacal figure. Arnold and Dudley aren’t dumb kids that didn’t read the signs correctly. Horton simply understood the signifiers and bent them toward his own desires.

Now, as subtle and creepy as most of this is, this is still a very special episode, which means the last six or seven minutes of the two-parter ends not with Horton’s arrest, but a long discussion between the Drummonds and a local police officer about What This All Means. The current Golden Age of television would be perfectly happy to let a figure like Mr. Horton represent unknowing chaos in an increasingly dysfunctional age. But very special episodes insist there are no unsolvable problems, only things we just haven’t spoken enough about yet, gosh darnit. I don’t want to slam the information deployed in this last bit of the episode, but the artlessness of it does make me wince all the same. “The Bicycle Man” posits that children are smart, but the final act undercuts that by underlining the themes in lines that came not from the writer’s room, but from the same script police officers use in classrooms to share the same information.

Turning it over to you, fellow Roundtable members: Do the lessons of these very special episodes trump the way in which they are delivered? And did the laughter that accompanies this episode make you as distraught as it made me?

Genevieve Koski: That laughter made me distraught all right, Ryan, and I’ll tell you why: Throughout the episode, including when Arnold and Dudley are staring goggle-eyed at nude photographs being proffered to them by a middle-aged man, the hysterical laughter of children is audible in the studio audience (laugh track?). Now, granted, the idea of an audience of any demographical makeup (real or digitally induced) laughing at that moment is discomfiting, but hearing the bubbly, innocent laughter of children in the mix heightens it even further, taking it almost to the realm of the surreal. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t surprise me that when I told my friend about watching this episode, he perked up in recognition and said, “Oh yeah, they showed that on Adult Swim one time.” I can find no evidence online that such a thing occurred, but it’s definitely the sort of thing I can imagine Adult Swim airing, apropos of nothing, for an added punch of weird in its late-night lineup. 

I suppose I could be projecting and imagining the creepy laughter of children during those “jokes,” but I don’t think I am. (My roommate suggested it could just be women with really high-pitched laughter, whatever.) It sort of—sort of—makes sense that whoever’s in charge of these things would want to highlight that “The Bicycle Man” is meant to be experienced by the whole family, together, in order to foster their own Important Conversations at home about the subject matter. Diff’rent Strokes was a family show, a sort of precursor to the TGIF lineup that would spring up on ABC three years after it went off the air, which means that adolescents were a part of its target audience. That makes it both understandable that someone would think it was a good idea to air an episode about the dangers of child-molestation, and also horrifying that someone would think it was a good idea to do it in this way. 

As we saw with Brass Eye, it’s hard to laugh at jokes about pedophilia under even the best, most self-aware circumstances; seeing it handled so clumsily by Diff’rent Strokes is downright mortifying. Sure, the laughter dies down just in time for the episode to deliver its moral/family-meeting talking points, but right up until the moment it becomes necessary for everyone to shut up and listen goddammit, it’s as if Diff’rent Strokes had been pumping laughing gas onto the soundstage. Granted, that’s true of pretty much any show of Diff’rent Strokes’ ilk, but it’s especially glaring in this context. Even if you get behind the idea that we, the audience, are not supposed to quite get what that nice ol’ Mr. Horton is up to until it’s too late—which is horse pucky, given the furrowed-brow warning from Conrad Bain that opens the first part of “The Bicycle Man”—the laughter continues way beyond the point it reasonably should. Even Saved By The Bell had the decency to throw in a worried-sounding “oooooh” from the “studio audience” when things got too glaringly suspicious. 

The disconnect between what we’re seeing on screen and how we’re hearing people react to it underscores the mercenary intentions underneath the well-meaning façade. The very special episode conceit allowed the shows that employed it to flout these episodes as “must-see” events under the guise of service—they’re not begging you to watch, they’re simply trying to help, you see. It’s an approach that has thankfully died out (or at least taken on a slightly subtler form), which is why “The Bicycle Man” scans as hilariously off-base and absurd to modern sensibilities. But once you stop and think about it—once you’re confronted with the gleeful laughter of children as Arnold exclaims, bug-eyed, “That mouse just lost his pants! And he’s not wearing any undershorts!”—it all feels a little nefarious, doesn’t it? Or am I just feeling residual squickiness after watching this episode?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I can’t agree that TV shows like this have been treated with undue snark and derision because they’re so earnest. I’m not sure there’s enough snark and derision in the solar system to give “The Bicycle Man” its full portion, and it has it coming not because it’s so earnest, but because it’s so bad. 

I don’t think an over-abundance of earnestness is its problem, either; I think shows like this are cynical in a way that’s borderline obscene. Diff’rent Strokes was always a terrible show, but in its early years, it was content to try to rub up against an audience by exploiting the cuteness of the child actors and the sweet fantasy at its core, of a couple of orphaned (black) kids being magically rescued by a selfless, rich (white) dude. But then the show overstayed its welcome, and the ratings declined, and the people responsible for it had the inspiration to fall back on these sleazy publicity stunts to make the show still seem relevant. In the process, they managed to turn a harmless, forgettable little ratings sponge into an abomination.

I get it; I can sympathize with what Conrad Bain, director Gerren Keith, and writer Blake Hunter, and the others that felt like they had to do this. They didn’t set out to debase themselves and their audience by trivializing a serious subject. They didn’t care about child molestation as an “issue,” any more than “The Reporter” episode—when Nancy Reagan shows up to promote her anti-drug campaign”—was born of some deep commitment to The War On Drugs. These are people who weren’t very talented, got into show business, hung in there and made it to the middle, and then had to keep making the payments on their condos, despite the fact that they hadn’t gotten any more talented, and were a lot more tired than they used to be. So, they shoehorn the current burning issue, whatever it is, into a script—and, if they’re feeling especially ballsy, bloat it out to twice the usual length. This week, the subject happens to be adults preying on children. For some reason, it was in the air around that time. Later in the same year, on the same network, Daniel J. Travanti would be playing John Walsh in Adam, the highly touted TV movie that set off waves of media hysteria about a supposed “epidemic” of murdered and missing children. That led to episodes of epic scale, pure craziness—like the McMartin preschool trial—and made the actual John Walsh a TV star. 

I don’t have a lot of respect for Adam, but at least it knows what it is. “The Bicycle Man” takes a subject that’s fit for drama or pitch-black comedy (and nothing much in between) and turns it into an episode of Diff’rent Strokes with a special-guest pedophile. Jump’s performance is jarring and queasy-making not because he goes so deep into the character, but because he’s Gordon Jump, doing the same lovable-goofball mannerisms he did on Soap and WKRP, except in the context of playing a man who likes little boys. We’re not talking Bogart as Dobbs here. The jokes and staging are the exact same kind of dumb, mechanical crap you’d be getting if the episode was about Arnold wanting a puppy. That’s all the people who ground this thing out knew how to do, so that’s what they do, even encouraging the audience to laugh (and punching up the sweetened laugh track) when the kids are looking at the porn rag the pervert has left out for them. “Ha ha, that’s our adorable, naughty Arnold!”

Then, at the end, when it’s time to put the joke book away and collect their Emmy nomination, some guy who learned to act by watching Dragnet reruns comes on and starts reading from the study guide, because that’s the only level on which these hacks know how to discuss something when the laugh track is off. Ryan says he doesn’t want to slam the information deployed in this last bit, so I’ll do it. The way the show just dials back on the hilarity to ladle out some tips from the Crime Stopper’s Handbook to the parents who’ve been patiently waiting for the ammunition they’ll need to have that “discussion” Conrad Bain wants them to have is an insult to the whole idea of using a TV show to educate and stimulate debate, just as the “funny” part of the show is an insult to comedy itself.

I have a special hatred for sitcoms that twist themselves into a pretzel reaching for unearned seriousness instead of putting what energy they have into actually being funny. I’ve felt that way since the episode of Good Times in which J.J. announces he’s going to marry the serious girlfriend he’d never mentioned before—a girlfriend with a heroin habit who throws herself out the window in the last scene of a two-parter because she couldn’t get a fix. (Then she was never mentioned again.) And that was Drugstore Cowboy compared to this shit. What makes me angriest about a show like this is that the people who made it probably can’t understand how it might make someone angry. This show is the work of untalented people who feel no commitment to the art of comedy, who are so insensitive and tone deaf they can’t even begin to treat their subject matter or their audience with anything like respect. They just reached for an important subject off the high shelf, and in the process, showed themselves to be a bunch of half-bright 6-year-olds playing with fire. But in their sleazy, slimy, inept, mediocre way, they’re bringing the overexposed important subject that they don’t understand and have no coherent take on to people’s attention, and isn’t that what really matters?

Donna Bowman: I have to disagree, Phil. Call me crazy, but I think this actually works. Granted, it takes a while to start working; the disconnect between Bain’s portentous introductions and the standard-issue jokes and japes are as creepy as it gets. But the actual interactions between Mr. Horton and the kids are handled impressively. I went from being skeeved out by the existence of the show, to being skeeved out by what was happening within the show, to being genuinely frightened for the kids. In my notes I find “Don’t show them dirty cartoons! DON’T LEAVE DUDLEY BEHIND!” It may be a scare tactic, but it’s incredibly effective. 

And I don’t think it’s a scare tactic, actually, in the sense of drumming up needless hysteria. This isn’t stranger-danger, “Paedogeddon” fear mongering. It’s much more nuanced, and much more real than that. The time that the show takes with the repeated, escalating scenes of Mr. Horton grooming the children, gaining their trust, persuading them to keep the secret—that humanizes the whole situation, and makes the (didactic, granted) summary statements at the end ring a lot truer. From the outside, it’s horrific to take an actor we like and make him into a leering diddler. Actually watching the show, though? It emphasizes that he’s not an evil person, and we’re not credulous, blind dupes for trusting him. 

And it demonstrates something quite subtle and interesting, I think. This two-part, very special episode has a couple of secret themes. First is performance, or playacting. Mr. Horton not only charms the kids with his juggling and funny voices, but he charms the adults as well. It’s fun! And that’s why Arnold and Dudley so readily accept that the shirtless games of pretend he wants them to play are harmless. Haven’t they seen their own dad complimenting Mr. Horton on the same thing? The other theme is safety. Mr. Drummond worries about weirdos in the park, and Arnold promises to wear bright colors so he’ll be visible when he rides. They’re not oblivious to danger. They just think it’s all out there in the big, scary world. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking there’s no safe refuge, but I also think it’s extra-tragic when people (family members usually, and that’s the one place I’d fault this presentation) take advantage of the assumption of safety to victimize others.

It may be bizarre in many ways to use a laugh-tracked, high-concept sitcom to give this warning, but you know what? They did the best they could. They seized a chance that they had precisely because Arnold was so cute and adorable; he’s entering puberty, but his diminutive size and fat cheeks mask the onset of some confusing, sexually charged times. And maybe it’s the parent in me talking, but I think they did very well. Maybe it’s the parent in me reacting to a show that hasn’t earned it, but when Dudley’s dad tells him immediately that he’s not to be blamed and that he is loved, I got a little choked up. I’ll be unhip enough to say it, fellow Roundtablers: “The Bicycle Man” doesn’t deserve its infamy.

Erik Adams: Speaking anecdotally, the unfortunate fact about very special episodes is that the conversations they spurred in my household were never any less stilted than what’s presented at the end of “The Bicycle Man.” My particular sensitivity to this type of TV formed at an early age, when my mom plopped me in front of the profoundly strange Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue (inadvertent message: Animation and recreational drug use go hand in hand), but not before explaining, Conrad Bain-like, the importance of the  “just say no” points being made by Bugs Bunny, Baby Kermit, Garfield, and friends. Partial credit for my square, drug-free adolescence goes to the utter discomfort I experienced talking with my parents about not using drugs—I mean, how bad would it be if I actually tried the stuff. Mission accomplished, I guess.

If the message of a very special episode makes its intended recipients so ill at ease, imagine how it must of felt to be the kids making “The Bicycle Man.” I couldn’t help but scoff at the episode’s “Unfortunately, child molesters prey on the innocence of children”—because, hey, isn’t that sort of what Diff’rent Strokes did for 189 episodes? And didn’t all three of its young stars come out of the experience extremely worse for wear? I don’t mean to imply that the production was exploiting its teenaged talent, per se, but the message of “The Bicycle Man” certainly sounds mixed coming from a production that—through the very premise and promotion of the show—took advantage of kids.

Because of the makeup of its cast and the demographics of its audience, it’s arguable that the show’s heart was in the right place with regard to “The Bicycle Man.” In moments like the ones Donna points out, the episode hits its marks—I was particularly pleased to hear Mr. Ramsey tell Dudley that he wouldn’t blame him or punish him for what transpired at the bike shop, a gentle reassurance that doesn’t sound like it’s ripped from some sort of manual.  Yet that line comes immediately after the episode uses a drugged Dudley to let off a flushing-toilet gag. TV shouldn’t be compartmentalized: A good comedy can produce wrenching drama under the right circumstances, and there have been times in recent years when the medium’s finest dramatic programming is also among its funniest. The problem with “The Bicycle Man” isn’t that it tries to have it both ways—the problem is that it doesn’t have the brains to properly back up that heart.

Todd VanDerWerff: I saw this one a couple of years ago and found it very, very odd. When re-watching it, I didn’t find it any less odd, but I could sort of appreciate its… construction, if you can call it that. Mr. Horton’s plan is so meticulous and thoughtful that it becomes oddly terrifying, particularly when the surreal element of the audience screaming in laughter (and I think it must be a studio audience) is placed atop the action on screen. People come down on studio audiences a lot, and I’m always defending them, but “The Bicycle Man” reminds me that they can be used to add an element of the threatening and unreal, even if that’s completely unintentional. Oliver Stone attempted to use this effect in Natural Born Killers, but I don’t think there’s anything as interesting as when it arises in the normal sitcom setting and nobody’s thinking about how it will be perceived.

That’s the other fascinating thing about “The Bicycle Man”: How could no one have sat down and realized what a strange idea this was? Maybe they did! Maybe everybody involved in the episode wanted there to be this weird disconnect between the form and content, between the usual safety of the multi-camera sitcom and what existed within that safety. In some ways, it ends up being the ultimate comment on child molestation—in that children are far more often molested by someone they trust, someone who has built up that trust over time. Drop this plotline into an episode of a contemporaneous drama, like St. Elsewhere or even Magnum, P.I., and it would seem to fit, almost, particularly once Magnum put the molester behind bars (as he almost certainly would). But place it into the context of a sitcom, and it starts to feel as if a carefully constructed world is falling apart.

Granted, I don’t think anyone intended this. And I think it’s fascinating how the ’80s are defined by the idea of creating safe spaces that the dark world couldn’t touch, safe spaces where it was possible to talk about scary subjects in evenhanded tones. (I’d say this was just because I was a kid then, but David Lynch’s career rose in that decade as well, so I suspect I’m on to something.) “The Bicycle Man” is also, like Amos ’N’ Andy, something that seems more controversial to us now than it did in the ’80s, when it first aired and was largely seen as just another important episode helping kids learn to deal with important issues. Today, it seems so strange that anyone could think this was a great idea. Which means I can’t say this “works,” like Donna does, but I also can’t condemn it as harshly as Phil does. I think it’s best appreciated as a kind of found object, as a kind of art that pokes at uncomfortable truths, but only accidentally.

David Sims: Oh Phil, your takedown was quite a blast to read, I must say. I tend toward your side on this one, although my knowledge of Diff’rent Strokes’ wider oeuvre is pretty much non-existent outside of the Gary Coleman spoofs that will echo through eternity. But I had seen clips of this episode before, and read about its weird status as the very special episode that’s too creepy to even make fun of. My experience watching the whole thing was pretty much tortuous. As Genevieve and others noted, the laugh track starts to feel insidiously fake after a while, and then it’s even worse when you hear knowing murmurs and groans when things really start to turn south. I’m thinking especially of the moment where Mr. Horton retrieves the skinny dipping photos. Half the audience is going “ohhh” and I just don’t know what to do.

As a cultural artifact (which so many of the episodes we’ve watched are), this is fascinating. But because Diff’rent Strokes was a generally bad show as I understand it, it’s harder to take “The Bicycle Man” even remotely seriously. I knew what I was getting into right away, but the two-parter telegraphs its horrifying plot pretty clearly, which makes watching the whole thing completely wrenching. Unless, I suppose, you’re a kid who really does need to learn a lesson about avoiding predators. Maybe there are kids who this very special episode was actually very special for—in the way intended, without the mocking connotations the term picked up over the years.

If this episode was at all funny, I might give it a little more credit, because that’s such an amazing balancing act to pull off, even if the landing is stuck. But it’s not, and the punched-in laugh track seems designed just to try and relieve tension, because the writers know this is going to be a horrible, horrible experience for everyone. And indeed, props to Gordon Jump, who pretty much nails the role. He’s convincing enough that you can get why the whole thing lasts two episodes and the kids don’t immediately call him on his antics. At the same time, well, he’s super, super creepy. 

God, what a weird experience watching this is. It’s not close enough to reality to be truly terrifying, but it’s a reasonable approximation, filtered through the ’80s sitcom soundstage, one of the more surreal environments in American culture.

Stray observations: 

Talk of very special episodes reminded me that Noel Murray’s “A Very Special Episode” series (which focuses on standout TV episodes in general, not just the “very special” ones) stillexists in this site’s archives, and still awes me with its scholarship and approachability. [RM]

As mentioned at the outset, this was far from the only time that Diff’rent Strokes went to the very-special-episode well: Nancy Reagan’s cameo came just a few weeks after “The Bicycle Man” aired, and in 1985, Arnold’s new stepbrother Sam got kidnapped in “Sam’s Missing.” [RM]

Ryan, you forgot all about the hitchhiking two-parter, which is some dark, nasty shit. Alan Sepinwall pointed it out to me, and though only clips are available on YouTube, they give a great sense of its deep weirdness. [TV]

Believe it or not, the image below is one of the least disturbing elements of "The Hitchhikers" (via Nick Nafpliotis, who has an entertaining recap of the two-parter on his blog). [EA]

No home decor has ever been creepier than the three giant, wooden hearts next to Curly’s refrigerator. [GK]

Someday I want to say “Hey everybody! Listen up!” and have everyone in a 50-foot radius gather around me, just like Dudley does while handing out the bike-shop fliers. It’s one of the ways I wish life were more like television. [DB]

No, Diff’rent Strokes, you can’t have Arnold make a joke early on about Mr. Horton scratching him all over and have the laugh track go crazy and expect me not to want to puke. [DB]

Most of Arnold’s laugh lines are way overwritten—I guess that was the metajoke, huh, these one-liners coming out of a precocious kid?—but I loved “We only look adult because we worry a lot.” [DB]

Gordon Jump is really good as Mr. Horton, which is severely discomfiting. [TV]

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