I’ve never known anyone who took their lives willingly. I have had a couple friends who killed themselves accidentally. I knew one of those kids you hear about who found some grown-up’s gun and shot himself in the head. He was a little older than me, and I knew him during that time when a couple years makes all the difference. For years, in the stairway of my mother’s house, there was a group picture of (I think) my nursery school during a field trip to the Spruce Goose, and he was in the background, peering over the heads of the kids in front of him, as though he was peeking in from some other frame while the living tried to crowd him out.
In college, a friend of mine died from bulimia. While she was doing this, no one knew anything was wrong. In retrospect, there were signs, but we were all blind to them. One evening, while house sitting for our Residence Hall Director, her heart gave out. When our RHD opened the door to her home, she knew something was wrong immediately because of the smell. That little detail has haunted me since the moment I heard it. My friend had turned herself into spoiled food.
This week’s After School Special is about suicide. Unlike my encounters with self-directed mortality, in “Face at the Edge of the World,” the suicide is purposeful. When it opens, Charlie Curtis (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) has already taken his own life. His best friend Jed (Rob Stone, in his second and vastly superior appearance) is left to try to figure out why. There is a lot of what you expect from something like this. The feelings of anger over the betrayal of being left behind, guilt over not recognizing the signs, and that eerie feeling of expecting to wake up from a dream to find that person still alive and well; all of these emotions are perfectly natural. Considering that not dying until one’s genetic material is passed on is the biological purpose of life, teen suicide is a stunning act of self-negation. Not only is it the desire to erase oneself from the world, it eradicates all potential, killing a line stretching back to the beginning of life on the planet.
Teen suicide has recently become a larger issue, because of the epidemic of Christian bullying targeting LGBT teens. While liberals fight for stricter anti-bullying laws, conservatives want to protect religiously motivated bullying, which amuses the hell out of me. If your religion commands you to bully someone, maybe that religion isn’t worth following? Just a thought. Anyway, despite some light homoeroticism in flashback, Jed and Charlie are not gay. The reasons behind Charlie’s suicide are not immediately apparent, and that’s where shit gets weird.
As a writer, I’m often most inspired not by works done right,but by things with weird or interesting flaws. Nothing sparks the imagination so much as squandered potential. About halfway through “Face at the Edge of the World,” I excitedly scrawled in my notes, “This feels like a noir story. I’m stealing this.” The first moment was subtle, though it definitely felt weird and out of place. One of the stoner kids (painted as the big bad ass troublemakers in the school, even though they look like Duran Duran), approaches Jed and says that he’s sorry about Charlie. “He was a nice guy. I saw her face and maybe he saw it too.” The conversation abruptly ends, and Jed never gets a chance to find out what the hell this character was saying. Eerie encounters like this are a staple of neo-noir, the genre’s version of Obi-Wan handing Luke the lightsaber. It’s worth noting that this is a rather large plot hole, since once we learn what really happened, the boy’s line makes zero sense.
As the school mourns Charlie (who was an honor student and talented writer, thus making his suicide all the more baffling, and for someone like me, indicative that Charlie was leading a double life), a mother keeps popping up like a weepy apparition, desperately passing out missing posters of her daughter Iris who vanished two weeks ago. By the laws of the pocket universe in which After School Specials exist, we know Charlie’s suicide and Iris’s disappearance are linked, even though Iris was one of the stoners and moved in different circles. I was filling in the blanks with an underground teen fight club, or some vast drug network, or possibly some grimy child porn studio. Jed follows the breadcrumbs Charlie left, slowly realizing he never truly knew his best friend, I kept hoping this would turn into an episode of Veronica Mars.
No such luck. Eventually, Jed finds Charlie’s suicide note hidden in a pile of old newspapers, and it has to do with his weirdly guilty ex. Charlie and girlfriend Dominique were from different worlds. Charlie was working class, while Dominique had an ironically Cosby Show-like existence. Her parents never approved of Charlie, so they would meet in secret “on the edge of the world,” literally the cliffs over Leo Carillo Beach (which you remember from The Karate Kid and numerous other films). During a romantic picnic, a drugged out Iris nearly falls over the cliff. Charlie wants to take her to the hospital, but Dominique, fearful that the subsequent police investigation will reveal their relationship, convinces Charlie to leave Iris behind. Charlie drops Dominique off at home and returns immediately, but the damage is already done. Iris has fallen over the cliffs. In one of the more haunting images of the series, we see Iris’s hand, covered in the yellow dust endemic of the Los Angeles seaside, limp and lifeless.
Despite the odd noirlike flourishes, this is extremely close to what I thought After School Specials were when I started this project two years ago. It has the Very Important Lesson, along with dry and practical lectures on how to recognize danger signs. Aired in 1986, it has fantastic ‘80s fashions, including Malcolm-Jamal Warner in a pastel turquoise windbreaker over a canary yellow shirt, an extra with a jheri curl, and a stoner who proves his badassery with an intimidating Denmark t-shirt. Frequent references are made to Charlie’s typewriter, which I think is some form of primitive computer. Most bizarrely, Charlie drives Dominique home in her car, proving that women were not allowed to pilot automobiles until the ‘90s. Most importantly, it has two sitcom stars cross-pollinating, earnest and terrible acting, and a plot just idiosyncratic enough to be memorable.
It is appropriate that the second-to-last entry in my increasingly unwieldy series should be this one. I was beginning to think our image of what the After School Special was was cobbled together, Frankenstein-like, and given life via a jolt of pure nostalgia. As it turns out, this perfect After School Special might be hazy memories of “Face at the Edge of the World.” Appropriate then, that it was directed by none other than Martin Tahse himself.
Next up: the final entry in my series, 1989’s “Picking Up the Pieces” which is about a girl and her alcoholic mother. What? Again?