Plato’s Theory of Forms posits that for every object, there is an infinitely pure ideal of that form that exists only in the mind. For example, the word “dog” can mean any number of canines. Some of them might be missing legs, or be blind and incontinent, or could be chihuahuas – any number of things that make them less than exemplars of the species. But on the mental plane, there exists the idea of “dog.” And this thing is perfect. Glossy coat, good teeth, lacking all signs of hip displasia. It’s probably a Rottweiler or a Bernese Mountain Dog, because they’re naturally superior to all other breeds. It is loyal, friendly, not terribly bright and fucking loves tennis balls. When Plato, probably drunk on cheap wine and young boy ass, advanced this theory, he couldn’t have known that two thousand years later, there would be something called After School Specials. This week’s episode is “Schoolboy Father” is as close to the Platonic Ideal of the medium. And not just because it stars Dana Plato.
You remember her: one third of the Diff’rent Strokes curse, the late night punchline of two decades ago. Knocked over a video store, fell into addiction and softcore porn and eventually killed herself with an accidental overdose. She was pretty much the blueprint for the E! True Hollywood Story before it became nothing more than an extended commercial for the network’s loathsome reality stars. After School Specials are known for featuring TV stars, especially those in the early days of their career (the part of the E!THS with the Meteoric Rise to Fame, right before the second act Nightmare Descent into Booze and Pills). Not content with a single ‘80s icon, “Schoolboy Father” also features Rob Lowe in the titular role, and Facts of Life stalwart Nancy McKeon as popular girl Lucy.
It’s not just the fact that this has three recognizable faces (one of whom is, against all odds, still working), but the that they are those specific faces. To paraphrase Lowe’s Parks and Recreation character, the casting is literally perfect from an ironic standpoint. In this story, improbably named Charles Elderberry (Lowe) knocks up Daisy Dallenger (Plato – Dana, not the ancient Greek dude) at camp. Daisy wants to give the baby up, but Charles, lacking a father of his own, wants to be a dad to his adorable little accident. Plato was fired off her sitcom Diff’rent Strokes for getting knocked up, and was herself born to a teenaged mother and given up for adoption. Lowe’s career nearly ended after he became one of the first celebrities to have a leaked sex tape (for those too young to remember, this used to be a way to end a career, not begin one – and the fact that she was sixteen didn’t help matters).
That perhaps unfairly reduces both actors to the status of pop culture Falstaffs. Yes, it’s hilarious that a man infamous for banging a sixteen-year-old girl starred in an hourlong special, in which he sleeps with a fifteen-year-old girl. Yes, it’s deeply ironic that a girl whose pregnancy would help derail a promising career played a girl whose pregnancy nearly derails her life. But what is equally obvious, and in Plato’s case, delicately tragic, is what would make both young actors into stars. Lowe’s character is a bit of a tightrope walk, since he has to convincingly portray someone who has obvious motivations (be a father because his father abandoned him), and be in deep denial of the same. Also, he has to yell at a baby and not be horribly unlikable, yet he manages to be a winning presence. For those of us that remember her chiefly for her prematurely aged appearance in that final interview, Plato being fresh faced and pretty is highly disconcerting.
Recognizable faces aren’t enough to elevate this to Platonic Ideal. We need the Very Important Lesson with which the term After School Special has become synonymous and in “Schoolboy Father” we have a doozy: teen pregnancy. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t attack the problem from the obvious angle, namely the plight of the unfortunate mother, used and discarded by an immature jerk. Instead, the mother has already dealt with the emotions and has made the decision to give the baby up for adoption. Charles, still smarting from his father abandoning the family when Charles was two, desperately wants to be a father to his child. Refusing to sign the adoption papers, he instead bargains with the social worker for a trial period of being a dad.
Things don’t go well. It’s almost like having a kid is basically a full time job. As my friends steadily reproduce, and I see once vivacious people turned into hollow-eyed husks, I get a terrifying object lesson in the importance of birth control. Charles is woefully unprepared, going from an opera singing A student with a part time job to an unemployed narcoleptic. Things come to a head when Nancy McKeon invites him to the party of the year. He’s understandably excited to meet Tootie and Blair, and begs his mother to skip class (she’s back in school) so he can attend. This does not fly, and ends up with spilled formula, a crying baby and Charles yelling at it. Which you’re not supposed to do. Says so in all the non-German baby books.
Of course there were certain things that I take for granted were treated like the knowledge of Atlantis to the characters in this special. Early on, trying to figure out if the baby could be his, Charles asks his friend if it takes nine months to have a baby. Who doesn’t know this? In 1980 was this really secret? If Charles really didn’t know how long babies gestated, it makes his other brainfart slightly more understandable, namely that he seems utterly baffled that she wouldn’t have “taken precautions” and yet took none himself. I came of age in the ‘90s, when they wouldn’t let you shake hands without three condoms and a dental dam. Of course, the ‘90s were part of Congress’s controversial War on Boners, so it’s possible we were somewhat overeducated. Still, getting a glimpse into a time when condoms were considered optional was jarring.
The common sense of one generation was the learning of the previous and the witchcraft of the one before that. Condoms were optional to the teens of 1980. Now teen pregnancies are at record lows. That’s the power of “Schoolboy Father.” One moment, Rob Lowe is singing opera and the next he’s yelling at an infant. The choice is simple, kids: wear a condom now and go to Nancy McKeon’s party later. It’s just common sense.
Next Up: “A Matter of Time” in which a girl learns to cope with her mother’s terminal cancer. It’s a feel good episode!