I suppose it was too much to hope that someone would run off with carnies. Maybe start a fight club for babies. Or a situation that would teach the twin dangers of playing in traffic and C.H.U.D. baiting. There’s only so many things that can realistically happen to teenage Angelenos in the early 1980s and most of them involve some form of skating. I didn’t know what “First Step” was about when I put it in, but I took one look at the obviously hungover mom in the first scene, and it was deja vu all over again. They even used the same euphemism, “sick,” to describe the alcoholic. The main character, a teenage girl forced into the role of mother to her single drunk mom and younger sibling, even joins Alateen as a method of coping. You know what? Just read the write up of “Francesca, Baby” again. I’ll wait.
That would be admitting defeat. When I started this project, I made a pact with both of my readers: I would watch and review every single Martin Tahse-produced After School Special. Because if I don’t, who would notice?
There are some differences between “First Step” and “Francesca, Baby,” I suppose. “First Step” aired in 1981, so it is beginning to look like a time and place I almost recognize. The styles have begun the subtle metamorphosis from late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, which was the tail end of the period where someone could wear rollerskates for no real reason. It’s also why guys around my age find rollerskates weirdly sexy. Don’t judge us. The neighborhood is recognizable as Venice, which left me hoping to see Fletch running around in the background, but we’re about four years too early.
Cindy is in deep denial about mom’s “illness,” and goes about the enabling behavior like she has a manual. She cleans mom up after benders, puts her to bed, and waking her the next morning. Sadly, we never saw mom puking all over herself or forcing some unibrowed creep to do the walk of shame. I think that layer of verisimilitude would have been too much for the delicate TV audiences of the time. It’s why they cut out that episode of The Brady Bunch where Jan dates Rick James. The purpose seems to be to define enabling behavior to the audience. If beer helmets and predator drones have taught me anything, it’s that humans are incredibly lazy creatures. We will take the easiest route to anything, be it drinking, silencing the voices in your head or setting someone on fire. Cindy doesn’t know that every time you cut the peanut butter out of drunky’s hair is another time she’s going to bed chewing gum.
Instead of the kindly ginger with the mysterious problem, this episode has Mitch, a young man that looks a lot like Seth Meyers and has a pathological need to air his dirty laundry. While Francesca’s young man danced around the obvious alcoholism, Mitch casually relates his father’s recent lost battle against a streetlamp and mom’s near suicidal unconsciousness. He explains that talking about it makes it feel better, but he’s become that horrible person at parties who will not stop talking about the one time the face-painting clown at the carnival had a noticeable erection. This makes their mutual friend, the Jewish proverb spouting Sherrie, intensely uncomfortable. Although you wouldn’t know it from the actress, who appears as though her internal mood monitor got stuck on chipper before the knob broke off.
“Francesca, Baby” advocates using Alateen as a passive aggressive weapon to get the alcoholic to knock it off. “First Step” has a more realistic attitude. Basically, the message here is: “You want to drink? You’re on your own.” Stop enabling and after a couple times cleaning up the house while hungover, the drinker will see the light. Although considering the gorgeous craftsman mansion this family lives in, the drinking can’t be that big a problem.
The best parts of this particular hour involve the periodic hysterical outbursts, culminating in the most embarrassing game of Scrabble ever attempted. With sobbing Cindy comforting recently slapped and crying little brother while Mom collapses against the wall with the best Kirk In Pain impression seen outside a convention hall. It’s exactly the sort of histrionic overacting you’d hope for in something like this. They’re playing to the cheap seats, only this is a living room. The only cheap seats are the folding chairs we only break out for fight night.
Cindy Scott, the young lady with the “sick” mother, is played by Amanda Wyss, who enjoyed a brief flirtation with fame just after this aired, playing the first victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Lisa in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and most importantly to someone like me, Beth in the best ‘80s movie ever, Better Off Dead. This whole time I could pretend that she was only a couple of years away from humiliating poor Lane Meyer by dumping him for ski champion Roy Stalin. All of this led to some rumination on the subject of Monique Junot, but there’s not room for that, and I don’t want to contact a divorce lawyer.
The episode wraps up with Cindy admitting that she is powerless over alcohol and that her life has become unmanageable, the famous first step in AA. Cindy is immediately tested when she comes home to find mom passed out in a sitting position with an empty bottle. Instead of cleaning her up, Cindy takes her little brother out rollerskating. So in the end, the episode managed to tie in the twin obsessions of that era: teenage girls caring for younger siblings and alcoholic moms and skating. Maybe this episode was valuable after all.
Next Up: “Tough Girl” in which a juvenile delinquent is forced to live in the suburbs. Were the suburbs really that bad back then?