Television addicts who grew up in the '70s and '80s should have at least a passing familiarity with ABC's weekly After School Special series, but whenever the topic pops up on Internet message boards, posters invariably get confused, mentioning favorite episodes that are actually made-for-TV movies or very special episodes of Quincy. Even though the phrase "like an afterschool special" remains part of the pop lexicon, people are starting to forget what the comment literally means.
Over the past year, BCI Eclipse has tried to keep the After School spirit alive via DVD collections of episodes produced by Martin Tahse. The individual two-disc sets have come packaged in replicas of lockers, yearbooks, and Trapper Keepers; now, the complete 13-disc, 26-episode Tahse run comes packaged inside a miniature cardboard school bus. The super-sized set offers a rare chance to take a scalpel to the form, so future generations may revive it. In the interest of preserving our television history—in formaldehyde, if necessary—The A.V. Club presents an annotated, step-by-step guide to constructing an After School Special.
The best of Tahse's specials, like Summer Of The Swans and The Pinballs, were adapted from popular young-adult novels of the era, which explains why the heroines seem more well-rounded and even pricklier than common kid protagonists. They behave like junior-lit narrators—a naturally self-absorbed lot. Even when a friend commits suicide in Face At The Edge Of The World, or a mother gets cancer in A Matter Of Time, the leads' first thought is, "How will this affect me?"
Granted, Summer Of The Swans' lead actress Heather Totten never went on to anything more substantial than a supporting role in Sarah T.: Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic (which is not an After School Special, no matter what the message boards say). But The Pinballs' Kristy McNichol had the bulk of her movie career ahead of her when she played a sassy foster child for Tahse, and Little House On The Prairie's Melissa Sue Anderson would use her performances in Beat The Turtle Drum and My Other Mother as a stepping-stone to leads in Skatetown USA and Happy Birthday To Me.
More impressive than Tahse's willingness to rent TV personalities like The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb and Chris Knight (for Summer Of The Swans) and The Cosby Show's Malcolm-Jamal Warner (for Face At The Edge Of The World) was his eye for budding talent. The period drama Thank You, Jackie Robinson features future David Mamet regular and desperate housewife Felicity Huffman in a small role. The Wonder Years' Jason Hervey shows up in The Night Swimmers, and Growing Pains' Kirk Cameron haunts the background of Did You Hear What Happened To Andrea? And when Rob Lowe appeared as the heroine's well-meaning best friend in A Matter Of Time, he rode his banana-seat bike with such genuine intensity that Tahse signed the kid up for another hitch, as the title character in Schoolboy Father (alongside schoolgirl mother Dana Plato).
The home interiors in After School Specials generally look nice, but Tahse and company apparently couldn't get permits to shoot exteriors in the fancier neighborhoods, because as soon as the characters step outside, they're on smoggy streets cluttered with banks, fast-food restaurants, and car dealerships. Or as the natives call it, "Greater Los Angeles."
One clear edge that After School Specials have on current TV fare is that the characters can hang up pictures of real people and wear clothes with real logos without some network bean-counter demanding that it all be digitally blurred. Are those posters of The Fonz and Pablo Cruise on the wall in Dear Lovey Hart: I Am Desperate? Is that the Thriller-era Michael Jackson in Face At The Edge Of The World? And does that girl in Summer Of The Swans have a sequined marijuana leaf on her T-shirt?
Yes, yes, and maybe.
Remember the scene in Barton Fink where fledgling screenwriter John Turturro agonizes over whether to pair his wrestler hero with an orphan or a dame? In an After School Special, the choice tends to be "absent parent" or "trouble in school." Unsurprisingly, given the divorce-wracked suburban milieu in which these shows were birthed, episodes like A Matter Of Time, My Other Mother, First Step, and Francesca, Baby deal with moms who are either dying or drunk, while in Summer Of The Swans and The Night Swimmers, busy fathers find out how much their kids need them when the youngsters wander off to the creek alone or almost drown in a neighbor's pool. (Jason Hervey, no!)
Educational woes factor into The 18th Emergency (in which a boy learns to stand up to a bully) and Dear Lovey Hart: I Am Desperate (in which a high-school advice columnist learns she can't handle the responsibility). And Tahse frequently brings his two favorite themes together in episodes where competitive young people pursue an interest in music, ballet, or skating—two episodes about skating!—over the objections of their parents.
People vividly remember some After School Specials because they were often traumatic. It's hard to forget Melissa Sue Anderson's younger sister falling out of a treehouse to her death in Beat The Turtle Drum, or future L.A. Law star Michele Greene getting into a stranger's car and hearing, "We're going for a little ride," as a prelude to being raped in the woods in Did You Hear What Happened To Andrea? Equally painful were moments of more relatable humiliation, like when Susan Lawrence gets outed as the anonymous Lovey Hart in Dear Lovey Hart, and the whole school screams for her head.
Even now, the After School Specials are reliable emotion-stirrers. There's something inescapably heady about the adolescent universe in which they take place, where every other child is a special-needs child, and legal guardians disappear or die with astonishing regularity. These aren't cartoons or I Love Lucy reruns. These shows had kids crying into their chocolate milk.
So your mom just kicked off, your foster parents can't adopt you, you've just had to face your rapist in a police lineup, you realize you never really knew your suicidal best friend, you blame yourself for your sister's accidental death and your brother's accidental drowning, and the boy you've known since third grade has confessed that he loves you. That's rough. But we're at the 38-minute mark, so you'll have to get over it quick.