Television is a window into the past, and one of the goals of this project was to look through that window. These twenty-six After School Specials would show me what concerned the audience in the fifteen year period spanned by the Tahse collection, or at least what Martin Tahse believed concerned the audience. And if there’s one thing he was one hundred percent certain was bothering everyone, it was alcoholic moms. According to the world of After School Specials, those drunk bitches were everywhere, like a bipolar alcoholic God.
1989’s “Picking Up the Pieces,” the final entry in my series on these odd little time capsules, is about yet another alcoholic mother. If you want, go back and check out the write ups of “Francesca, Baby” or even “First Step,” because this is almost the same episode. It’s one of the truly unexpected quirks of this project. Not only are there a preponderance of alcoholic episodes, they all hit the same beats. A drunk mother makes life hell for her enabling teenage daughter, who meets a helpful, usually redheaded young man who pressures her to go to Alateen. You have to make a few decisions on the particulars, such as the presence of younger (never elder) siblings, whether or not dad is still in the picture, and the exact tipping point that sends our heroine to Alateen (though it usually involves fire).
The episode opens on the most inexplicable scene both in and out of the context of the show. In the middle of the night, a woman we later learn to be drunk mom Carolyn Adams comes into her daughter Patty’s room, cuts up some jeans with scissors and leaves. The only reference to this is next morning, when Patty tells Carolyn that the jeans cost thirty dollars, to which Carolyn responds, “What’s that mean?” I’ve been drunk many times and I have never once attempted to destroy anyone’s clothing. I have to chalk this up to Carolyn’s TV alcoholism, which manages to be both painfully obvious and somewhat avant-garde.
The Adams family (no relation), anchored by Chris (Lyman Ward, you know him as Ferris Bueller’s dad), has moved around frequently. Chris is an architect, and he was supported through school by Carolyn, who is a cosmetics saleswoman. Eventually, Carolyn’s drinking results in some horrible embarrassment and the family has to move. The details are never shared, so I’m left to assume Carolyn breaks into people’s homes and cuts up their jeans with scissors.
On Patty’s first day at a new school, she makes her First Day Friend, who is dating Rick (the basketball playing vampire from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie). Rick has some weird energy with his friend, Dennis the obligatory redhead. The relationship between Rick and Dennis is a weird subplot throughout the episode. Knowing the rules of the Drunk Mom episode, I pegged Dennis as a member of Alateen, and figured Rick probably would be as well. Don’t get me wrong; I really wished they were gay, I just knew that was not very likely. Rick is weird and intense, running for student body president, being a star athlete, and making uncomfortable eye contact with anyone and everyone. He acts like he wants to sell insurance to your insides. Patty thinks he’s amazing, which leads to a truly bizarre conversation. While Patty talks to her First Day Friend (the only one of this stock character who actually remains in the episode), the Friend says that she and Rick have been together for a year, then asks if Rick has asked Patty out yet. What the hell? Is this how dating used to work? Rick eventually does ask her out, but she shoots him down. I’m glad someone realizes this guy is a creep.
Meanwhile, Carolyn is getting worse. At home, she passes out before an important dinner party that will somehow help Chris’s career. Later, she gets blitzed at some kind of makeup selling party thing (which is coincidentally at Dennis’s house, for no reason I could determine). Making matters worse is the fact that Chris bounces between blissful denial that anything is wrong and misplaced gratitude for Carolyn taking care of the family when he was in school. Patty’s only support system comes from the confrontational Dennis who, after watching Carolyn plow her car into a trash can, tricks Patty into attending Alateen. Dennis tries to get Patty to understand about enabling behavior, but Patty isn’t having any of it. Eventually, Dennis badgers Chris about the whole thing, leading me to conclude that someone kicked that ginger one too many times.
Eventually, in the subplot no one cared about, Rick returns to Alateen and is horrible. See, Rick is a drama queen. Not only does every eye need to be on him, he tends to treat lectures as personal conversations. If Rick’s life weren’t an After School Special, rest assured he would turn it into one. I mean, this is the guy so desperate for people to like him, he has to act like an overbearing turd in every scene, excel in school government and sports, and, oh yeah, ask his girlfriend’s friends out on dates, and she’s too cock-whipped to dump his ass. If there is one thing I have learned in my time on earth, it is this: drama queens should be shunned at every opportunity.
So Rick opens up at a meeting, and it’s just as awful as we feared. Mom and dad are drunks and have kicked him out of the house. The only time his father ever touched him was to knock him out. He lives with Dennis, has been kicked off the football team and is no longer running for student body president. Partly because of the actor’s stilted performance and partly because I know the rules of drama queens, I immediately wondered how much of this was actually true. Rick muses, out loud, who will love him if he’s not doing all these great things. Someone needs to explain to Rick what qualifies as great. Curing ass cancer? Great. Hitting some 11th grader so hard he forgets math? Not so great.
For final proof that Drunk Mom Episodes have a formula, the final straw involves fire. Unlike Francesca’s mom who insisted on smoking in bed, Carolyn leaves an iron on a blouse. Dad wants help putting mom into bed because arson is exhausting, but Patty refuses to help. Our heroine has learned enabling behavior helps no one. She ends the episode as she must, at an Alateen meeting, saying the words, “Hi, my name is Patty.” Just like Francesca and Cindy before her, Patty has come to accept her mom’s problem is exactly that: her mom’s problem. The interesting part is the evolution of endings. In 1976 with “Francesca, Baby,” mom realized she had a problem and was getting into a program herself. In 1981 with “First Step,” mom’s drinking was uncontrollable, but Cindy ended the episode by taking her little brother rollerskating. In 1989, Patty is left with a father in denial and a trainwreck of a mother, living in a crappy apartment. Patty’s victory is entirely her own, and there’s no hint her life will get any better. It is by far the most realistic of outcomes, and a fitting down note on which to end the series.
Next Up: We talk about what I learned.