When I started this project, there were a number of problems I expected the After School Specials to tackle. Substance abuse. Teen pregnancy. Sexual predators. Cheating on tests. Clowns. You know, the standard array of threats that form the basis of any Very Special Episode. What I was not prepared for was this. 1984’s “The Dog Days of Arthur Cane” addresses something I never, ever thought was a problem.
That’s right. “The Dog Days of Arthur Cane” is about a boy getting turned into a dog because of an African curse. Despite “What Are Friends For?” I didn’t think magic had much place in After School Specials, but after a soul-searching walk around town to “Dust in the Wind” I was able to understand what was happening in the larger context of metaphor.
The special opens with twelve year old Arthur Cane (played by Ross Harris — you remember him as “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” from Airplane!) and his buddy James skateboarding. Arthur is a rich white kid who dresses like Rick Santorum, and James is a black kid in a dashiki. When James falls off his skateboard, Arthur suggests James pick up a good skateboard. It’s only eighty bucks! James, quite reasonably (and in an African accent that made me think maybe he had a run in with Kony) explains that his family can’t afford to get him one and asks to borrow Arthur’s. Arthur refuses, snotting that what’s his is his, and then asks James about the locket around his neck. James says it’s an amulet that is supposed to have magical powers. Etched in some African language, the amulet warns against selfishness. Arthur, not absolutely positive he has pissed off James’s antediluvian gods, mocks the amulet and heads home.
That night, a howling dog keeps Arthur awake. In the morning, Arthur wakes up… and he’s the dog. Still in his pajama tops (he wears actual, button down pajamas, which I’m not sure anyone did — also, no idea what happened to the bottoms), he talks about what’s going on in “funny” voiceover. It’s exhausting. It’s like Quigley, minus the gleeful insanity. Arthur’s mother freaks out at the sight of the dog, insisting he’s a maneater. Now, I might be able to understand if Arthur was a huge rottweiler or mean looking pit bull, but he’s this cute little black and white border collie mix. Maybe fifty pounds of canine, so a little small for my taste, but still a good dog. My point is that this is not an intimidating animal unless you’re a tennis ball.
Mrs. Cane calls animal control on her son. Duane the dogcatcher (played by That Guy Alex Henteloff, who once received the secret of transparent aluminum from Mr. Scott) manages to capture Arthur, adding him to the hundreds of hash marks drawn on the back of the truck, but Arthur shortly escapes. At this point, being an LA native turned against me. Arthur heads over to MacArthur park, which is an awesome place to go if you ever want to get gang raped. I’m serious. That place is like fucking Thunderdome. He finds a blind musician who somehow has not been stabbed, shot, or captured by gypsies, and after protecting the man’s hat o’ money from a thief, gets adopted.
The blind musician, Tyree, needs an operation to restore his sight. He used to be a painter but now busks for cash with a brand of indie folk that even Zach Braff would find a little girly. The funny part that the episode never comments on is the fact that either Tyree doesn’t have insurance or his insurance refuses to cover an operation that will restore his sight. And lest you think Tyree uses his sight frivolously, remember, he is a painter by trade. That shit is a business expense.
Everything is going well when Mrs. Cane is randomly at one of Tyree’s performances. Arthur goes to say hi, and Mrs. Cane promptly loses her shit. Duane also happens to be there and quickly captures Arthur. However, when Duane gets to the pound, Arthur has turned human. Confused, Duane takes Arthur home. Arthur makes the rounds, apologizing to his mom for taking things for granted, loaning his skateboard to James, and resolving to never ever doubt the terrifying powers of witch doctors. In the final scene, Arthur returns to MacArthur Park to find Tyree painting. He has his sight back. Somehow, Tyree has managed to paint Arthur as a dog, despite being blind the whole time they knew each other, and we never saw anyone photograph the dog. Arthur buys the painting, and there’s a little moment where it’s hinted that Arthur barks or something. And freeze frame on happy Arthur’s smile.
It would be easy to take this episode at face value. Share your stuff with your less fortunate friends. Don’t take your awesome life for granted. And maybe it’s not the best idea to piss on cannibal gods. But that’s not what’s really going on here. The episode really came into focus in a single horrible moment, explaining what was actually happening. I glossed over it in the summary, but when Duane delivers Arthur to the pound and opens up his truck, he finds Arthur, now human. Naked. Wearing a leather collar. In a cage.
When Arthur returns home, no one believes him. Of course not. He spent several days in Duane’s sex dungeon. This is Arthur’s way of coping! This isn’t some silly voodoo curse turning some kid into a werecollie, this is a descent into madness, a desperate coping mechanism so Arthur Cane no longer weeps uncontrollably whenever he smells chew toys. Arthur, trying to keep his psyche intact, returns home, his mind mercifully feeding him this ridiculous dog story. Meanwhile, Duane is free to do it again.
And that’s when I remembered that Duane’s truck is covered in hash marks.
Next up: “Ace Hits the Big Time” which is actually a CBS Schoolbreak Special! What will the vicar say?