Tonal whiplash is the unofficial theme of this year’s Best of selections. They all have it to varying degrees. Tonal whiplash is when the movie (or TV show) your watching does something wildly out of step with the established tone. Imagine if a film like Better Off Dead took a dark turn with Lane actually murdering all of his classmates instead of learning the International Language (of Love), skiing the K-12 and absconding to Dodger Stadium with Monique. The goofy surreal tone of Savage Steve Holland’s classic would be shattered and impossible to retrieve. A real example is in the video release of Showgirls, where the extended rape scene shatters the (intentionally?) campy tone. In fact, lots of campy movies of the 60s and 70s make this same mistake. Only previous Best of Yakmala selection Shanty Tramp seems to whiplash out of it, but that’s largely a product of the film’s complete incompetence.
But if you’re a child of the ’80s, tonal whiplash came best in the form of Very Special episodes of family sitcoms; an occurrence now largely absent from television. At the time, sitcoms were more formulaic than Law & Order and inflexible in the belief that a punchline was required every 60-90 seconds. Still believing they needed to serve the public trust, sitcom producers and writers forced uncomfortable topics into their strict sunny-day-all-the-time formats. Few of these live on in our memories as profoundly as the 1983 episode of Diff’Rent Strokes entitled “The Bicycle Man” in which Arnold and Dudley encounter a sex predator played by WKRP in Cincinnati‘s Gordon Jump (who would eventually become the Maytag Repairman, making it impossible for a generation of kids to ever buy a washer/dryer from that august company).
Just imagine the Law & Order music sting here.
So a little background for those who did not watch an appalling amount of broadcast TV in the 1980s, Diff’Rent Strokes was an NBC sitcom about Arnold and Willis Jackson, a pair of orphaned kids from Harlem taken in and eventually adopted by their mother’s former employer, Phillip Drummond. Though Mr. Drummond already had one child, Kimberly, he had plenty of room in his Park Avenue penthouse for two more kids and housekeeper Mrs. Garrett (or Adelaide or Pearl in subsequent years). The rags to riches premise saw the kids learning to acclimate to their sudden change in economic standing, tackle typical teen troubles and provide excuses for Arnold to say his catchphrase, “What’chu talkin’bout, Willis?”
Like most family sitcoms of the time, it was fairly benign with the occasional blip to confront racism, drug abuse (and guest star Nancy Reagan) and in later seasons, epilepsy.
After several years of nothing more serious than Sanford & Son‘s Whitman Mayo attempting to stop Drummond’s adoption of the boys and crossovers with the now forgotten sitcom Hello, Larry, it was time for the show to take on a weightier subject and being a show popular with kids, they chose pedophilia (or, really, grooming considering the way it plays out) and forever changed the way kids my age looked at Gordon Jump.
The episode opens with the Drummond family returning rental bikes to bike shop owner Mr. Horton (Jump). He tells lame jokes that they all laugh at for some reason and convinces Mr. Drummond to put money down on a bike for Arnold. He also gets Arnold to hand out flyers at his school for an upcoming sale by promising him a new radio for his bike.
At school, Arnold’s ego gets in the way and pal Dudley has to help him with the flyers. Dudley also gets him to put in a good word with Mr. Horton so he can earn something as well. Arnold visits the bike shop to get more flyers. Horton convinces him to come to his back room apartment — that happens to look like a dummy run for the main Silver Spoons set with video games and similar wood paneling — for a banana split. “You know, Arnold, I think we’re gonna have a lot of good times,” he says after convincing the boy to keep the midday snack a secret.
Arriving home late, Willis and Mr. Drummond are surprised to learn that Arnold isn’t hungry after a trip to “the pet store.”
The next day its raining, but Arnold and Dudley visit the bike shop in absurd yellow rain slicks. Horton is happy to see them and invites them into the backroom for a snack. He also ends up serving them some wine, which Arnold initially refuses, but is pressured into drinking. If you’ve ever watched Special Victims Unit, you know where this is going. It turns out he slipped a nudie mag into the pile of comics for the expressed purpose of telling the boys that it’s okay to appreciate the human body. He then shows them photos from a skinny dipping trip he took with some other boys. In retrospect, this dramatization of boys getting groomed for exploitation is pretty accurate (in as much as SVU would have me believe), but is constantly peppered with Arnold’s punchlines about liking food. After a couple of sips of wine, he gets the boys to play Tarzan and take some mostly-clothed photos.
This is where we get some of that tonal whiplash. In syndication, where most of us saw the episode, it is split into two parts. Episodes customarily end with audience applause and this one is no different, accidentally making it seem as though they’re cheering Horton on as he gets Dudley to take his shirt off.
It’s a fantastic example of the problem this episode has and why it became a Best of selection: the format is uncomfortable with the material. Throughout the first half, Arnold makes jokes that are easily read as unfortunate double entendres. (“No thanks, I’d rather get bitten on the teetsi.”) While making the banana split, Horton relishes the use of words like “ooey” and “gooey.” I suppose in 1983, when the episode was fresh and its true aim unknown, the jokes wouldn’t seem so odd. Now, they’re just icky. I’d like to the think they’re the product of the writers having a difficult time working this theme into the show. Unlike episodes where the family faces racism and Mr. Drummond learns about his real privilege, this is a tough subject to joke about. Nevertheless, the format of the show required punchlines and this is the end result.
… but Horton’s plans are interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Drummond in the storefront. Horton goes to deal with him and gets inadvertently cockblocked when Arnold discovers his dad is out front. He and Dudley, fearful of getting caught drinking, run out the back door.
Kimberly and Willis find Arnold arriving home with an enormous wad of chewing gum in his mouth and liquor on his breath. Arnold tells them that Dudley’s father let them have a sip of wine, but not to make a big deal out of it. They let it slide.
When Arnold and Dudley visit the shop the next day, Horton turns up the creep factor by showing the boys a pornographic cartoon. At this point, Arnold’s had enough and leaves Dudley behind to play “Neptune, King of the Sea” with Horton. Meanwhile, back at home, Dudley’s father Ted comes over to have a chat with Mr. Drummond about letting the boys drink. He’s surprised by this and Willis and Kimberly mention that Arnold told them Ted let them drink. All get suspicious when Arnold arrives home and finally tells them what’s been happening at Horton’s. Mr. Drummond calls the police before heading down there to confront him.
When they arrive at Horton’s, Dudley is in the bathroom, having had a bad reaction to a pill Horton gave him to make him “feel good.” He also tells the detective on the scene (the first appearance of a Manhattan SVU cop on NBC?) that Horton tried to touch him. Dudley is reunited with Ted and, luckily, nothing too terrible occurred.
In a post-game wrap up back at the penthouse, the detective tells Mr. Drummond he did the right thing by calling them in. He said parents often go on their own to confront the child-molester, which gives him time to dispose of any evidence. Willis mentions his dismay that Horton was gay and the cop corrects his thinking, telling him that pedophiles are not really homosexual. It’s a surprisingly well-informed scene and free of having too many punchlines, a rather good one. Well, except for the fact that it’s happening on Diff’Rent Strokes.
In the amazing short film, A Very Special Episode, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio warns the protagonist of the dangers in mixing “solemnity with a laugh track.” That phrase gets to the meat of the tonal whiplash on display in “The Bicycle Man.” In the decades that followed, sitcoms became nimble enough to confront these issues and not feel as pressured into a punchline every 90 seconds. The traditional sitcom format is meant to be easy-going and reassuring, but nothing is less reassuring than the presence of sex offenders. Hell, NBC turned around and created a nearly twenty-year series on the same topic. But for us, it’s the tension of a serious topic handled as callously as a sitcom must handle it that made “The Bicycle Man” a shoe-in for Best of consideration. Even though it redeems itself in the second half hour, its setup is just too strange and uncomfortable to serve its intended purpose. In that, it becomes a perfect choice for a television series’ first seat at our table of champions.
Within a month, the show doubled down on Very Special-ness with the anti-drug episode featuring Nancy Reagan and would continue to make Very Special episodes in subsequent years, but none of these remained in the memories of viewers who have any recollection of the program. Some thirty years on, any mention of Diff’Rent Strokes will lead directly to this episode. That speaks to the power of the tonal whiplash on display.
Or the power of cheesy punchlines.