While watching an After School Special I usually have the relevant IMDB page open, in order to confirm character names or determine if someone looks familiar because I’ve seen them in something else, or if they were the clown who touched my swimsuit area in the Burger King bathroom last week. The episode is often hard to locate, since nearly every single one goes by multiple titles, and I have to do a little detective work based on plot synopsis and cast. When “Trouble River” rolled around, I couldn’t find it for the life of me, until I learned of something called the ABC Weekend Special (“The Dog Days of Arthur Cane” was another of these), which aired after Saturday morning cartoons and were aimed at a slightly younger audience. This week’s, 1985’s “Ace Hits the Big Time,” was a ghost. I went through the list of specials all through the ‘80s, trying to find it to no avail. I started thinking this might be a lost episode, never aired because of onscreen drug use, or maybe the lead actor got caught up in an illegal cockfighting ring, or maybe the sound guy would not stop shouting “clitoris” during every take. Finally, I looked up Martin Tahse, the man who produced every special in the set, and learned something terrifying.
“Ace Hits the Big Time” is not an After School Special. It’s a CBS Schoolbreak Special. Which means that ABC had such a hit with the original, CBS felt the need to get in on that sweet, sweet action. For anyone who wonders what the ‘80s were actually like, there you go. There was so little on television, a network ripped off an anthology series that has since become a punchline. But this is also what makes “Ace Hits the Big Time” great. Look to the lesson of RobertCop: sometimes a knock off is so much more fascinating than the real thing.
Because “Ace Hits the Big Time” is an After School Special made by fucking mental patients.
Horace Hobart (Rob Stone of Growing Pains, which I still refer to as “Groin Pains,” because mentally I am six) has the kind of name that only curses Young Adult protagonists and old prospectors. He has just transferred schools, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a problem with his eye. What this problem is is never addressed. Could be a zit. Could be the onset of leprosy. Could be the eye herp. No idea. To deal with this, he wears an eyepatch. You know, like people do. While he frets over his appearance, his Cindy Brady-looking sister warns him that the new school is run by two opposing gangs: the Purple Falcons and the Piranhas. She does not advise him to kick someone’s ass or become someone’s bitch, but you can totally tell it was on the tip of her tongue.
Anyway, a terrified Horace looks out the window and sees a guy in purple dance gear. This is when the time frame really matters. Nowadays you see that and you think, “oh, gay guy waiting for his parade or something,” but back then, gay people were still mysterious beings, out of the public eye. This made many things we now think of as blowing-six-dudes-at-a-Cher-concert level gay were things totally straight guys would lube up and do. Gayness was ambient in the ‘80s, just floating around, ready to sprinkle the world with its fabulousness. This is how something like Top Gun happens, and why Horace sees this man who, if he were dressed any gayer, would be wearing a couple guys having sex. And just to prove that this is all completely hetero, this is when the first musical number happens.
Yep. There are several musical numbers in this one. They’re all god awful. They’re what happens when when you throw Andrew Lloyd Webber into a bit of carnivorous pigs and set his screams of mercy to music.
So Horace goes to school and immediately charms a young woman named Raven. She likes the eyepatch and thinks his name is Ace. She’s down with the Purple Falcons, and soon Horace is as well. It also turns out that the Falcons aren’t actually a gang. They’re a bunch of posers who… well, it’s never clear what they do or why they’re pretending to be a gang. I don’t know who they think they’re fooling. Their leader is James LeGros for God’s sake and to anyone of my age he will always — always — be Sensitive Ponytail Man. Here’s the thing, they give Horace a written invitation to join the gang. This should have been his first clue that these guys aren’t legit.
Meanwhile Horace gets pursued by some people he initially takes for mobsters, but turn out to be a film crew, cursed with the world’s creepiest casting director. She basically molests Horace through a casting session. The scene mercifully ends before she inserts her fingers into his mouth. They hire Horace and the rest of the Purple Falcons as extras in a musical love story for that dash of verisimilitude all musical love stories strive for.
So anyway, Horace and Raven start romancing, presumably because Raven’s already been passed around the rest of the gang like a prom night dumpster baby. The Piranhas, none too keen on the Falcons being in a movie somehow manage to kidnap Raven, mostly because no one was keeping an eye on her. Horace’s bold plan to get her back? He bakes a cake for the Piranhas with the words “Make Peace Not War” written on the top. (He probably didn’t say “Make Love” because that sends the wrong message.) If you think that I glossed over some earlier lecture in home ec where Horace learns to bake, or some scene where he used to bake but now he can’t because his stripper mom got baked into a cake, I didn’t. This comes out of nowhere. Along with some timely assistance from the mob-looking movie people, the Piranhas return Raven. Horace pats himself on the back in a final, bizarre musical number (intercut with the Piranhas bare-handed cramming bright pink cake into their maws), and freeze.
So what did we learn? Sweet fuck all. Horace joins what he thinks is a gang, which is something you’d think an After School Special would frown upon. And maybe it does, but we know that CBS Schoolbreak Specials are intimately familiar with the manifold joys of thug life. Not only does everything turn out fine for Horace, he actually ends up with a cute girlfriend and a possible acting career. “Ace Hits the Big Time” is pure insanity, lacking a moral, a plot, and even consistent characterization. Throw in the numerous musical numbers and the bizarre twists, and you have one of the more enjoyably terrible episodes.
Next up: “Face at the Edge of the World.” At long last, the suicide episode. I can’t wait.