There’s this conception of the ‘70s that it was like Caligula’s Rome with uglier clothes. People skied to work on mountains of cocaine, banged sweaty Puerto Rican hookers in men’s room stalls, then engaged in elaborate dance numbers before swapping wives, children and pets for a neighborhood fuckfest. Based on this week’s entry “The Skating Rink,” that’s either a gross exaggeration or there was a vast gulf between the ‘70s as they happened and the ‘70s on television. I have wanted to discuss the earnestness of these early After School Specials but none really hit the nail on the head like “The Skating Rink.” Why?
Because it’s about a middle-aged man who wants to fuck a teenage boy.
I can hear the voices of both my readers raised in a mighty chorus: “Of course, the molestation episode! We knew that was coming soon! Now pay up, Billy Ray.” It should be noted that in my head, one of my readers is a hillbilly and a bad country western musician. Anyway, you’re wrong you two. Had “The Skating Rink” been made a mere decade later, it would be a harrowing descent into perversion where innocence and anuses are torn apart like spring lambs. Because it was made in 1975, “The Skating Rink” is about a kid who becomes an ice skater without ever once risking his cornhole.
The fascinating part is viewing this episode through the lens of my oppressively ironic generation. We find we can’t express anything real without a thick layer of detachment. We live in fear of ridicule and connection, existing in our little prisons of straitjacketed cool. The younger generation is already rebelling against this, which is the only way one can explain the baffling popularity of emo music, something that I can’t begin to discuss rationally without first laying down a solid foundation of puberty jokes. It’s just possible that the younger generation could watch “The Skating Rink” and see only the plot as it is presented: young man with a speech impediment, traumatized by his mother’s tragic drowning death, becomes an ice skater and gains the confidence to be accepted by his family. It’s possible that they could be swept up by young Tuck Faraday’s struggle, be moved by his plight, and rejoice in his triumph. All I can see is a kid that’s gonna get the shit raped out of him.
I grew up in the ‘80s. By then, pedophiles were an established problem. Probably an overhyped one, since with all the Very Special Episodes and the like, I felt like Darwin Joston in Assault on Precinct 13, only instead of gangbangers trying to crawl through my window it was mustachioed men in tracksuits with perpetual erections and missing puppies. On the positive side, I was well aware that any older man expressing serious interest in me was a clear indication of stranger danger. I knew about grooming behavior, where a pedophile will start with harmless games before graduating onto the stuff you have to repress. I knew how they like to target vulnerable kids, with few friends and troubled home lives. I also knew to be concerned if any adult talked about “our little secret.”
It’s not like the story of Tuck Faraday raised one of these red flags. It raised all of them. At age five, Tuck got to watch his mother drown in a flood. After that, he developed a stutter, which makes him an object of ridicule at school. Tuck’s dad Myron doesn’t like Tuck because he’s odd and quiet. Tuck’s older brothers are semi-retarded alpha males. Few friends? Tuck has none. Troubled home life? The person who likes him best is his stepmother. Meanwhile, Pete Degley, the weird guy who just bought the local ice skating rink is obsessed with Tuck. From the first moment Pete slaps eyes on the stuttering boy, he has to know more. Pete is consumed with the desire to show Tuck around the rink, then offers to teach Tuck how to skate, pointing out that the young man has “the height, the strong legs and the limber joints” to be a champion. Seriously, he says this. Fortunately not while shirtless.
The weirdness of the episode hinges on the character of Pete Degley. Jerry Dexter, primarily a voice actor (he was the original Alan M. on Josie and the Pussycats), plays Pete with an oppressively enthusiastic edge. Pete is just super-duper psyched at everything, whether it’s Tuck’s limber joints or some classical music on the rink’s sound system. Pete is also an over-sharer, happily telling his secret origin story to Tuck the second time they talk. It turns out that Pete used to be a champion figure skater before he blew out his knee. This helps explain why he would be obsessed with Tuck and his strong legs, but the creepiness was already in full force and I could barely hear it over the sound of my brain screaming. Pete’s wife Lilly, a toothy ‘70s beauty and champion figure skater in her own right, shows up to be Tuck’s skating partner and unfortunately forces me to digress into the peculiarities of ‘70s softcore porn.
The porn industry as we know it was still in its infancy in the ‘70s. While there was a demand for softcore, it was generally produced overseas with bad dubbing, grainy cameras and odd-looking people. There were attempts at plot, usually involving sexual liberation or some such nonsense. It was mostly just an excuse to see a tiny Italian girl get naked and grind on some bald guy. Here’s my point: with the introduction of Lilly, the episode begins to feel like era-appropriate softcore. It begins with the pronounced age differences: Pete is in very late thirties, while Lilly is in her early twenties. There’s a scene when they have a picnic and Pete relates Lilly’s secret origin, that she’s a product of foster homes (and clearly found the daddy figure for which she was desperately looking). Through the scene, I kept expecting Pete to shift awkwardly, give a Lilly a “this is gonna happen” look, then turn to Tuck and say something along the lines of, “Tuck, the wife and I are swingers. Do you know what that is?”
The episode would then be about Tuck’s sexual awakening under the tender tutelage of Lilly and the somewhat rougher hands of Pete. This did not happen. Instead, they take the easy way out. Tuck and Lilly skate together in front of the whole town and for some reason, this helps smooth out Tuck’s relationship with his father. I suspect this is mostly because Tuck’s two brothers are such idiots that even Tuck’s involvement in a bisexual threesome was a substantial upgrade.
I believe that Mildred Lee, the writer upon whose novel this was based, intended Tuck’s journey as a metaphor for homosexuality. Myron doesn’t like Tuck because he’s “different,” Tuck shows only superficial interest in local girls, and let’s face it: figure skating is really gay. It’s Jerry Dexter’s performance, and possibly only when seen through the lens of generations, that turns this into terrifying allegory of child abuse.
Next up: “Dear Lovey Hart: I Am Desperate,” which deals with the problem of writing an advice column. These early episodes were very specific.