They don’t know how lucky they have it. In some ways, I don’t really know how lucky I had it. My family had cable. The real old days with only 13 channels on a dial, where “there’s nothing on” came near to a literal truth, was something for motels or Grandma Elaine’s house. In those days, the networks couldn’t go after niche audiences. The television landscape of yesteryear is what the movie landscape is today: only a couple shows in town and they have to be as bland as possible to appeal to everyone. This is the cultural wasteland that spawns Avatar and After School Specials.
It’s possible that neither one of my readers knows exactly what an After School Special is. It’s become a cliché, describing a mawkish attempt by an older person to connect on an issue important to teens: pregnancy, drug use, VD, hunting humans, etc. Before that, it was a blanket term for anything on TV that attempted to do this (“very special episode of Blossom” has a similar meaning). Before that, it was an actual thing: an ABC series of one-hour movies adapted from young adult novels.
That’s right, After School Specials took two hundred pages of book and turned them into roughly forty-two minutes (without commercials) of what can charitably be called action. This is apparent in the bizarre pacing, especially in the earlier ones. The Specials seemed less like forty-two minutes convincing me that drugs were bad and more like a bunch of stuff that happens. The lessons are there and delivered in all-caps, but they seem more like side effects of the action rather than its impetus. “Wow, Sara’s having a weird summer. Bullies suck. Oh yeah, and then she gets drunk, raped and pregnant and her little gay brother dies the end.” It owes a lot to the American New Wave method of storytelling.
I’m not sure what’s possessing me to do this, but I’m going to watch twenty-six After School Specials and write about every single one. Why twenty-six? Because all twenty-six Martin Tahse-produced episodes were collected on DVD and the packaging looks like a short bus. If you have to wonder why I would watch something in a short bus, you clearly don’t know me. I will be watching them in order, from 1974’s “The 18th Emergency” to 1989’s “Picking Up the Pieces.” Maybe it’s naïve, but I hope to get something out of the experience beyond “wow, feathered hair must have been the result of some kind of follicle plague,” but I don’t know what exactly. I like looking for meaning in trash culture. I’m obsessed with pop history, and if nothing else, the older After School Specials are time capsules to a more earth-toned time.
First up: “The 18th Emergency,” where a kid is bullied by MC Hammer.