Looking through the lens of the After School Special in an attempt to understand the world of thirty years ago is both futile and probably the way Tommy Wiseau wrote The Room. The groovy fashions, smoggy streets and cars that are maybe one modification from post-apocalyptic battle barge are probably spot on, but the issues can’t be that much of a time capsule. Beyond the time it takes to buy the rights to a bestseller and turn it into an hour of television, there is also the gulf between what a culture is willing to discuss and what is actually bothering it.
Were foster children a big problem in the late ‘70s? Based on the meager evidence I’ve gleaned from Tahse-produced After School Specials, the answer is a resounding “hell to the yeah.” This week’s episode is “My Other Mother,” (also known by title “Which Mother Is Mine?” and based on the book by Joan Oppenheimer, who previously gave us “Francesca, Baby”), and it is the second installment dealing with the plight of foster children in the San Fernando Valley. If this were an accurate representation of the late ‘70s, foster children must have been something akin to a natural disaster flooding the greater Los Angeles area in halter tops, hair clips and snippy asides.
Alex Benton (Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House on the Prairie and more importantly to me my favorite After School Special, “Beat the Turtle Drum”) is turning sixteen and her life is as good as LeBron James’s regular season. Her foster family has taken care of her for ten years, and they’re on the verge of adopting her. Suddenly her life morphs into LeBron James in the Finals when the mother that gave her up suddenly wants to have a relationship. This mother also threatens to block the adoption and might even retake custody of her estranged daughter. Alex is not thrilled about the situation. Coincidentally, she begins to have nightmares about a woman screaming at her to shut up. Instead of this being a normal anxiety dream (you know, the kind you might get if someone you didn’t know was going to take you away from your family), this turns out to be a repressed memory in perhaps the least surprising plot twist since Jake Sully decided he’d rather be blue.
Alex’s biological mother is nearly always referred to by her full name: Jill Benton. Mrs. Supermarket is already chuckling knowingly, so I’ll explain to the rest of you what’s so fucking funny. Jill Benton was the name of a professor of mine in college. I took two of her classes, mainly because I enjoyed her reading lists, yet she had the amazing ability to misinterpret anything. The woman never understood a single book she assigned. She would inevitably latch onto the laziest, most stereotypically touchy-feely sentiment she could find, then heroically mangle the text to support it. For the record, a friend of mine took one of Benton’s interpretations to another English professor (a terrifying intellect who taught the shit out of Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible). His response: “That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.” After hearing that, I got tired of pulling Cs for understanding the English language and decided to write a parody essay. I perused the text, thought of the most facile possible reading, and defended it. I interpreted an SF story about the physics of black holes as a feminist rebellion against patriarchy. I had never been that deep in horseshit in all my life. I needed a goddamn snorkel just to write my thesis statement. I also received the only A I ever got from her. Every time a character mentioned Jill Benton, I laughed and shuddered at the same time, the way you do when getting sexually propositioned by a clown.
Because this is an Oppenheimer episode, there has to be either alcoholism or references to Hindu scripture. Jill Benton is a recovering alcoholic. Relating her origin story over a tense dinner, Jill Benton explains that she started drinking heavily when her husband Jack was killed in the war. Yes, this means that they were named Jack and Jill. This is not referenced. This is not mentioned. It just hangs there like a booger from a traffic cop’s nose. Jill Benton confesses that she stayed away until she felt she had the right to be back in her daughter’s life. Good thing she thought of that before bringing a life into the world.
Frustratingly, “My Other Mother” refuses to take sides. On one hand, you have a loving and responsible family headed up by Mrs. Cunningham (seriously, Marion Ross plays Alex’s foster mom) who wants nothing more than to make Alex a legal relative. On the other side, you have an (admittedly recovering) alcoholic known for abandoning her daughter and a little mild child abuse. What happens when the most statistically likely thing happens and Jill Benton backslides? Maybe Alex can find Francesca Baby and pretend to burn the house down. There’s very little that can’t be solved with arson. Instead of nourishing her inner firebug, Alex pleads with the judge to give them six more months without a decision to try to get her families to come to an accord? That is where the episode ends, with Alex realizing that there’s a silver lining to having two different families that love you enough to drag you through court.
It should be obvious that I came down solidly on the side of Mrs. Cunningham. This is not just because of my deep respect for the latitude she has shown troubled Italian-American motorcycle enthusiasts. This is because of my firm conviction that a person’s past behavior accurately reflects what they will do in the future. Expressions of remorse and a sincere desire to change are fine, but the fact remains that the vast majority of people don’t change. Forgiveness can often cause the opposite result: a person whose behavior is excused sees no reason to change. I’m not suggesting that one should refuse apologies. Accept them, but realize that an apology is worth the paper it’s printed on. And to think, my mother called me heartless! (True story. After I explained that position, she looked like I had just vigorously sodomized some roadkill in front of her.)
There is no wacky misunderstanding to back up Alex’s ambivalence. She eavesdrops on her foster parents twice, and each time it’s the most benign eavesdropping in television history. Usually when a character overhears another conversation, it’s to set up a misunderstanding that will underscore why it’s wrong to listen in on people. In “My Other Mother” all Alex overhears is how much her foster parents love her and want to adopt her. I wonder if Alex normally goes slinking around the house because all her parents ever discuss is whether they plan on baking cookies or buying ponies or going to puppy parades.
Meanwhile, all Jill Benton can offer are the tantalizing similarities of sharing a good portion of the genetic code: a love of plants, an interest in astrology, and presumably a predisposition for drinking and child abandonment. It disturbed me how willing Alex was to forgive her deadbeat mom. That there was any question at all of where Alex would end up speaks to the bizarre commitment our custody laws have to blood. Is there anything else that this applies to? We decided over two hundred years ago that this was a crappy way to pick a leader, so why should it be the most important thing when determining parenthood? If you went into the DMV tomorrow and demanded a license based on the fact that your parents had one, you’d be laughed at. Actually, they’d probably see you out of the corner of a glazed eye and suggest you try your luck at Window 23A, and after six hours and three suicide attempts you’d find that Window 23A only exists in the Matrix. Dance with the one that brung you, Alex. Or in this case, the one that raised you like her own flesh and blood for ten years and spends her spare time worrying that she might not get to make it legal.
The intent of “My Other Mother” seems to be a lesson about forgiveness and alternative family structures. Accept apologies on faith and arrangements other than one dad and one mom are okay. It’s tempting to say that Alex has two mommies, but that’s untrue. Alex has one mommy and one ovum donor. It paints the most attractive portrait it can on child abandonment, but the fact is this: Jill Benton walked away from her child for ten years. That’s the length of a sizable prison term. That’s the length of time between first and eleventh grades. That’s enough time to miss out on a life. I know it’s silly to get so worked up about a thirty two year old hour of television, but this is a pet peeve of mine. The misguided desire for balance that’s presently destroying political discourse in this country.
There aren’t always two sides to every story. Not when one side is a loving home and the other is a drunk English professor who doesn’t understand Ursula K. LeGuin.
Next Up: “Gaucho” which is about something called a “Puerto Rican.” That’s a thing, right?