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After School Specials 1974-1976 (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: May 5, 2021

Afterschool Specials 1974-1976

Afterschool Specials 1974-1976

After School Specials

1974-1976 (BCI Eclipse-2004)

In 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 public television.

In 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.

By 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 line.

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 it’s great!”).

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.

The Skating Rink

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 how? How?

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 rink.

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 love?”

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, not just from Lovey Hart but fromall of these characters worth knowing.

This was a time when you looked to television for answers and for fleeting but touching life lessons.

Hey, just like now!

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Posted: November 30, 2004.

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