Last season on Fox’s teen soap, The OC, the show’s nerd-chic hero, Seth Cohen, skipped out on his interview for Brown University in favor of getting stoned. When confronted about this lapse in judgment by a well-meaning friend, the quippy Cohen replies, “We’ re getting dangerously close to an After School Special here.” Cohen—and many of The OC’ s fans—is too young to have ever watched an After School Special himself, but the shows stand for everything that the sophisticated (and always meta) OC is against. The After School Special, which dominated teen TV-watching during the 1970s and ‘80s, has now become a cultural shorthand for tedious morality plays.
Anyone who grew up in the pre-Internet age is bound to remember the 4 p.m. showings of After School Specials on ABC. The melodramatic teen cautionary tales always contained an awesomely literal title—”She Drinks a Little” (alcoholic mom), “My Other Mother” (foster parents), and “Schoolboy Father” (teen pregnancy)—and a Life Lesson by the 44-minute mark. If you can’t remember your “Trouble River” from “It’s a Mile From Here to Glory,” Brentwood Home Video has a 28-episode box set (that comes packaged in a school bus) of the specials produced by Martin Tahse, who was responsible for more episodes than anyone else.
Tahse’s specials, which debuted in 1974, were clearly a product of an era committed to exploring taboos. This is a time when the feminist DIY health guide Our Bodies, Ourselves was in its first edition; when Free To Be … You and Me taught us that it’s OK for boys to cry; and when Judy Blume’s teen heroines in books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret were animatedly discussing tampons and sex.
After School Specials dealt with plenty of hot topics, including: bullies, inner beauty, stuttering, foster care, physical abuse, dropping out of school, death, racism, and disabilities. But they also explored lighter fare such as what would happen if you turned into a dog for a day, how to deal with curmudgeonly grandmothers, having a crush on your teacher, and how hard it is to anonymously write an advice column for the school newspaper.
The plots, which were mostly adapted from young-adult fiction, are an exercise in worst-case scenarios: If your mother has a sore throat, surely she has terminal cancer with just three months to live; if your only love is ice skating, you will certainly be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and never be able to set foot on the rink again; if your mom is an alcoholic in recovery, she will without a doubt fall spectacularly off the wagon the night you star in the school play. There’s not a lot of nuance to be found. Tahse and company were never after subtlety, they were after operatic displays of emotion. After all, these shows were supposed to elicit a visceral reaction in apathetic teenagers.
With the divorce rate rising during the ‘70s and ‘80s, many episodes dealt with broken homes. Tahse provides a whole cosmology of absent parents: single moms, dead parents, widower dads, divorced parents, deadbeat dads, moms ditching the family for communes in Virginia, and multiple fathers out of town on business all the time. Here’s a handy crib sheet: If there’s not an absent parent (by my count in 18 of the 28 episodes), then there’s probably a dead sibling (“Francesca, Baby,” “Beat the Turtle Drum”). But if there’s no dead sibling, then there’s definitely a bratty sibling (“Daddy, I’m Their Mama Now,” “Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea?” “Tough Girl”).
Tahse had a special fondness for stories about teens whose passion in some creative pursuit—ballet, two episodes about ice skating, violin—goes against the traditional working-class values of their parents. Many of these episodes, like 1979’s “A Special Gift,” are set on farms, as if your dad’s disapproval over your role in The Nutcracker is that much more trenchant if he raises sheep for a living.
After School Specials do have a silver lining: The more tragic your story is, the hotter the guy will be who has a secret crush on you in your typing class/drama club/school newspaper/Alateen meeting (there are in fact two episodes featuring Alateen crushes). Thus, if you’re a city kid who got falsely busted for pot and have to live in the suburbs with your dad and stepmom (“Tough Girl”), you will flirt with a no-name actor who plays a deaf wannabe veterinarian, but if your WASPy artist mom dies of cancer before your high school graduation, your love interest will be Rob Lowe. Lowe was a perennial favorite, starring in two episodes while still a relative unknown. The specials have a parlor-game element in spotting future stars like James LeGros, Felicity Huffman, and Kirk Cameron.
The unintentional laughs are so abundant that the writers must have been adding in their own elaborately dry humor. “Daddy, I’m Their Mama Now” features a hit country song about the heroine’s dead mother called, “My Honey Went to Heaven in a DC3.” Or, consider the unforgettably strange bathroom scene in “What Are Friends For?” where troubled shoplifter Michelle Mudd is found drowning her antique doll while wearing a hooded cape and goth makeup. The gang violence musical from 1985, “Ace Hits the Big Time,” makes Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo look like Boyz N the Hood,with its Jerome Robbins-style choreography and “Make Peace Not War” cake that manages to end a turf rivalry.
Despite the abundance of tragic hair, ominous background music, and shag carpeting, After School Specials stand out for a particular form of understatement: the total lack of miracles. Each teenager has to come to his or her own resolution. Take “Schoolboy Father,” where Rob Lowe lobbies to have custody of his baby even though he’s 16. He’s granted a one-week trial period and, after screaming at the bassinet one night, exhausted and clueless about caring for his son, he decides that he can’t raise a baby.
It’s a much more realistic ending than the countless, neat teen-pregnancy plot lines of Beverly Hills 90210, 7th Heaven, and The OC, all of which borrow heavily from the mold that Tahse created. But these teens are worldly miniature adults. Even when they mess up, the consequences of their coke habits and eating disorders only seem to last an episode or two. When Tahse’s run of After School Specials ended in the late ‘80s, talk-show hosts such as Oprah, Rikki Lake, and Jerry Springer began to air their own highly sensational accounts of adolescence in the same after-school time slots, instantly making After School Specials seem naive and retro.
Decades later, they do feel dated but they still seem relevant. Fitting in, peer pressure, drugs, family drama—those are problems for teenagers regardless of era. More often than not, teens in After School Specials made bad decisions, but they were treated as an essential part of growing up. Underlying all of Tahse’s shows is an appealing faith that everything would eventually work out, both for his protagonists and viewers at home. So, when Seth Cohen worries that he’s stuck in an After School Special, he could actually do a lot worse.