December 9, 2013

Let's Talk: Top 10 After School Specials

Oh, the After School Special. In case you're not familiar with the term, these were short made-for-TV movies that dealt with teen social issues such as drug use, pregnancy, abuse and illiteracy just to name a few. The series began when ABC Afterschool Special made its debut in 1972 and ran for a total of 25 seasons until 1997. CBS also had a very similar program called Schoolbreak Special that ran from the early '80s to the late '90s. Although they had that low budget quality, After School Specials did help raise awareness of the problems that teenagers are still facing to this day. Can't forget to mention that these programs also brought us some familiar faces: Ben Affleck, Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, Helen Hunt. Now that we're stuck in the "reality TV" days, it really makes you wish that shows like the After School Special were still around. To show my love for these cheesy specials, I've decided to share some of my favorites.

(Spoilers may ensue)

10. Between Two Loves

Playing violin has always been Susan Adams' (Karlene Crockett) dream. When she arrives at a new school to pursue her dream, she meets another violin player named Doug Henshaw (Lance Guest). With sharing the same passion it's obvious that Susan and Doug fall in love. Trouble soon arrives though when they have to compete against each other for a scholarship. Susan is torn between her career and her relationship. I would be too if my boyfriend was Lance Guest. With the help of her teacher Mr. Forbes (Robert Reed), Susan learns that she needs to please herself instead of trying to please others. Now that's a lesson I think everyone should learn.

9. Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea?

A girl named Andrea (Michele Greene) is raped after hitching a ride from a stranger. She is having a hard time trying to cope with the assault and her family isn't making it any better. Her father is going crazy trying to find her attacker and her mother just acts like nothing ever happened. Andrea feels totally lost and doesn't what to do, but soon finds out that talking about what happened will help her find the support that she needs to overcome it. Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea? is a great special that really shows us about the dangers of hitchhiking. I guarantee you want to walk or take a bus after you watch it.

8. Have You Tried Talking to Patty? 

Patty Miller (Mary Vreeland) is a teenager who has trouble being accepted by others because she is hearing impaired. When her friends start getting asked out on dates, Patty feels that she will never have a boyfriend due to her condition. So she decides to give herself a makeover. Patty is happy that her new look is helping her get attention from the boys, but later learns that it is not for the right reasons. Changing her image has only made things worse for Patty. At least it helps her understand that those who are close to her love her for who she is and that it has nothing to do with her hearing problems. Those who can't see that well... screw 'em! Have You Tried Talking to Patty? is one of those specials that I'm glad was made in the '80s. Gotta love the sad saxophone music, the characters that look like they're ready to audition for a Billy Idol music video and the use of the term "heavy". Also, if you're a fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise like myself be sure to keep an eye out for Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Wes Craven's New Nightmare) and Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge).

7. First Step

First Step aka She Drinks a Little is the perfect example of an After School Special. It deals with an issue that has been tackled many times before: alcoholism. Cindy Scott (Amanda Wyss) is a teenager who doesn't want to face the fact that her mother Miriam (Bonnie Bartlett) is an alcoholic. After being embarrassed at her school play, Cindy decides that she's tired of making excuses for her mother. She also decides to join Alateen after her friend and major cutie Mitch (Michael LeClair) begs her to go. Like Cindy, his parents are also alcoholics. Together they learn that they can't make them stop drinking. They can only hope that one day their parents will see what harm it's doing them and want to seek help. Out of all the specials that deal with this topic, I will say this is definitely the one to watch. It shows a more honest side to what's it's like living with an alcoholic. Just watch the ending. You will want to go roller skating afterwards.

6. The Great Love Experiment

Before Clueless and She's All That, there was The Great Love Experiment. Jen Robbins (Tracy Pollan) has it all with her good looks and popularity. To make her senior year more exciting she decides she wants to do a human experiment to see if giving someone a makeover and lots of attention will help them become popular just like her. Jen's target: Maude Harris (Kelly Wolf). Maude is your typical geeky girl who focuses a lot on school and doesn't dress to impress. After a few hangouts, Jen notices that her "experiment" is working as Maude starts getting attention, especially from the boys. Can't forget to mention that some experiments do come with problems, but in the end Jen realizes that she did gain something from it: a great friend. I guess the lesson we learn from this special is to not use people like guinea pigs.

5. Face at the Edge of the World

Also known as A Desperate Exit, you can only guess that this special is about suicide and how it affects everyone. After hearing that his best friend Charlie (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) commits suicide, Jed (Rob Stone) is left trying to figure out why. As he starts to find answers, Jed realizes that he didn't really know his best friend as much as he thought he did. He feels guilty and wishes that Charlie would have talked to him about it instead of taking his own life. You might want to grab a few tissues before you watch this one.

4. The Day My Kid Went Punk

Band geek Terry (Jay Underwood) is in a rut and he wants out. He's tired of feeling like a nobody and thinks that dressing like a punker will help him get noticed by his peers. Well, it works. He's now cool with the kids, but not so much with the adults. They pretty much think he's a freak and even some find him dangerous. Terry doesn't understand and tries to show everyone that he's not that kind of person. We learn several lessons in this special. First, you should never judge a person by their appearance. Second, you should always be yourself. Third, if you're going to dress like a "punk" you better play some punk music. Okay, I might've made up that last one, but I think Terry was going for more New Wave. That's just me. Oh well, at least that's what makes this episode so much fun. 

3. One Too Many

In this special, a night turns to tragedy for four friends Annie (Michelle Pfeiffer), Eric (Val Kilmer), Beth (Mare Winningham) and Tim (Lance Guest) as one of them decides to drive drunk. While it may have a simple plot and twisted ending, this special does carry a strong message about the dangers of drinking an driving. It's funny to me that Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface, Grease 2) and Val Kilmer (Real Genius, Top Secret!) did this around the time they had already starred in big motion pictures. It's also funny that they would later go on to star in Batman movies (Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns, Kilmer as Batman in Batman Forever). If there's one anti-drunk driving movie everyone should see it should be One Too Many.

2. Hear Me Cry

Hear Me Cry is another special that deals with the topic of suicide. This time it involves two people. David Goldman (Lee Montgomery) is popular with his good looks and athletic skills and Craig Parsons (Robert MacNaughton) is a loner who makes good grades. When they're paired up for an assignment in science class, the boys discover that they have a lot more in common than they thought. Both of them are going through hard times in their lives and are looking for a way out. They see suicide as the only solution and decide to make a pact to end their lives together. Hear Me Cry does a great job at sending a clear message to viewers about suicide without trying to romanticize it. Again, you'll probably need to grab the tissue box when you watch this one. I know listening to T.S.O.L.'s "Flowers by the Door" hasn't been the same for me since.

1. Ace Hits the Big Time

There's nothing cheesier than an After School Special that involves gangs. Well, if that's what you want to call them. Horace "Ace" Hobart (Rob Stone) starts his first day at a new school that is supposedly run by a young group called the Purple Falcons. At first, Ace is so terrified of running into the gang that he pretty much starts to have hallucinations. One minute there's a gang member in his closet and the next minute there's a whole group of them that look like they're from Fame performing a dance routine out in the streets. I swear I'm not making this up. Once he meets the real Purple Falcons, he learns that they're not as bad as everyone says. They actually seem to be more intimidated by Ace, because he wears an eye patch. They don't know that he's only wearing it to hide a pimple on his eye. Things even get more weird for Ace and the Falcons when they are offered a part in a movie. This leads to another gang in town called the Piranhas to challenge them to a fight just because they're going to be in a movie. Ace thinks that making a cake for the Piranhas will help make amends and it does. Not sure if there's anything to learn from this episode other than members of street gangs like to dance and eat cake. It doesn't even matter though, because it's the most entertaining After School Special I have ever seen.