I’ve talked a bit about the earnestness displayed in the After School Specials. There’s a temptation to believe that this was because irony hadn’t been invented yet, that it somehow sprang into being on the set of Robocop when the family was playing “Nuke ‘Em!” This would be forgetting about irony pioneers (ironeers?) like Jonathan Swift, Machiavelli and Alexius “Kill All Them Violent Muslims” Comnenus.
Maybe people forgot about irony, the way that no one remembers that 1500-mile hedge that used to divide India in half. First off, that’s entirely true. The British East India Company, hoping to cement their legacy of horticultural dickery, grew a gigantic hedge down the center of India to prevent salt smuggling. The hedge was taken down in the 1880s, presumably at the behest of the Knights Who Say Ni, and everyone simply forgot it was ever there. I’m guessing because it once molested literally everyone on the Asian Subcontinent. Did irony share something with the Great Hedge of India? Other than supplying its name.
But no, “The Pinballs” aired in 1977, which was two full years after Saturday Night Live debuted. So they clearly knew about irony. They just didn’t use it, probably still smarting over Ford’s soul crushing pardoning of Nixon. “The Pinballs” is one of the most painfully earnest forty-odd minutes yet, but without the benefit of the hilarious subtext of “The Skating Rink.” Instead, what were left with is a dark piece of storytelling with a clipped-on happy ending just to avoid the spate of suicides that was sure to follow its airing.
You know that SPCA commercial? The one with the Sarah MacLachlan song? The one so depressing your eyes are welling up just thinking about it? Well, foster kids are like that, only with people. “The Pinballs” is about foster kids and instead of instant-ovulation Lilith Fair music, the episode has a theme song that sounds like it was written for a porn movie targeted at six-year-olds.
The nominal heroine of the piece is Carlie, a grouchy 15-year-old who really needs a summer of the swans to sort out her untargeted hostility. She is sent to live with the Masons, an aging couple that takes care of foster kids without being all creepy about it. Two more children, Harvey and Thomas J., soon join them. Mrs. Mason asks Carlie to be nice to the others, but Carlie instead delivers the central metaphor of the episode. She can’t help Harvey and Thomas J., because they’re pinballs. She explains that at some point, someone came along with a dime and sent them into the world. Pinballs don’t help each other. This is a good metaphor, except for the part where Carlie implies that all of their mothers were hookers that only charged a dime.
As anyone with even the slightest background with dramatic formula can figure out, this is the story of how Carlie learns to care about something other than All My Children. Her change isn’t really organic and seems to revolve around an aborted attempt to run away that no one notices. Also, I probably shouldn’t use the word “abort” or any derivations thereof in this write-up. Except, you know, that it would have solved a problem or two fifteen years in the past. Just sayin’.
Carlie bonds with Harvey and Thomas J. over the fact that they’re all foster kids. Now this is where my ignorance got me into trouble. I assumed that foster kids were almost all orphans with the few exceptions being kids horrifically abused and repossessed (that’s the term, right?) by the state. All three kids have living guardians of a sort. Thomas J., who shows up looking like an 8-year-old college professor, was abandoned as a child. Twin nonagenarians found him and have given him a home but skimped on the affection. Because they’re almost deaf, Thomas J. shouts like Garrett Morris on “Weekend Update” (which would have been a current reference when the episode aired, once again hammering home the suffocating earnestness of it all). Being ninety is hazardous to one’s health, and to prove it, the Benson Twins fell down and broke some hips. While they stay in the hospital, Thomas J. is in foster care.
Carlie is in foster care while her mother and stepfather work out some unspecified problems. Normally when a teenaged girl mentions a stepfather, the mind jumps immediately to sexual abuse. That doesn’t seem to be happening here, although Carlie has a weird fixation on her homemade halter tops. Carlie dismisses her stepfather as a bum, but doesn’t have any tearful breakthroughs in the third act, so it’s safe to say that her stepdad isn’t a pervert. Or if he is, he’s too lazy to do anything about it, which is the next best thing.
Harvey is more what I have in mind when I think foster kid. Confined to a wheelchair, both of Harvey’s legs are in casts. He lies to Carlie initially when she asks about his legs, telling her that he broke them playing football. Harvey’s depressing origin story comes out in the middle of the episode. He explains that his mother abandoned him to live in a commune in Virginia, which was apparently a thing back then. He broke his legs when his drunken poker-playing dad ran over both of them in a fit of anger. It’s not explained how or why Harvey just lay there waiting for dad’s AC Cobra to crush his legs. Maybe he’s a real sound sleeper.
Harvey’s dad decides to be a colossal dick when he takes Harvey to lunch and explains that Harvey’s mom never called or wrote after she fled for Virginia. Harvey loses the will to live and that, coupled with an infection in one of his legs, sends him to the hospital. This pushes Carlie to stop being so much of a bitch. Remembering Harvey’s wish for a puppy, she somehow gets one and smuggles it into the hospital. It should be said that I’m a firm believer that enough puppies can solve any problem, but this seems particularly half-assed. Especially since the episode just stops right there. Are the adults going to let Harvey keep the puppy? Will Harvey go home with dad, who has already shown a willingness to run over his own child and probably would be okay doing the same to an animal? It’s the end of Carlie’s story, since her life really isn’t that terrible. It’s not even close to a stopping point for Harvey.
Though this episode is a structural nightmare, the acting is fairly good as these things go. Kristy McNichol stars as Carlie, Sparky Marcus is Thomas J. in his third and final Tahse-produced After School Special, and Priscilla Morrill, who previously appeared as Aunt Willie in “Summer of the Swans,” is Mrs. Mason. All three of them seem accustomed to the rhythms of the episodes and do fine work. The best moment belongs to television stalwart Walter Brooke as Mr. Mason, who has a bizarrely poignant speech about not being able to tell his mother he loved her on her deathbed simply because she never said the words to him. It wasn’t spite that kept his mouth shut, but rather the profound alienation of being asked to say something that he doesn’t understand, let alone believe. Brooke undersells the speech, delivered in the car to Thomas J. on the way to the hospital to visit the Twins.
The fascinating part of the episode is that it would never be made today for several reasons. Carlie is far too unappealing a heroine to pass an executive’s test, the abuse isn’t up to the Grand Guignol standards of today’s Lifetime movie and the best moment doesn’t involve the protagonist. It’s an oddity of a bygone era. There is no place that better demonstrates it than when Carlie wants to cut Thomas J.’s nerdtastic hair. Thomas J. agrees, but only if she’ll make it look like Harvey, who is sporting the kind of shimmering ‘70s do that made everyone’s head look like an unkempt blonde seagull. Thomas J. took one look at that ‘do and thought to himself, “Now all I need is a van with a wizard on the side and I’ll be neck-deep in babysitter poontang.” Or maybe not. I mean, he was eight and all.
“The Pinballs” is lurching toward something recognizable as what we would call an “After School Special.” There’s child abuse, but it’s not about child abuse. There’s nascent sexuality, but it’s still perfectly innocent. Solid performances place it in the middle of the pack and it delivers an important message: There’s no problem that can’t be cured by a puppy and a girl in a halter top. Amen to that.
Next up: Period piece “Trouble River.” Period piece as in it takes place in a different time period, not that it’s about a girl nicknaming her time of the month “trouble river.” Because that would be gross.