They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore
Long before the days of shows like Felicity, Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill, teens and preteens flocked to their television sets to watch afterschool specials as often as Michael Jackson ran to his plastic surgeon. For those of you who are too (gasp!) young to remember or simply were living under a rock, afterschool specials were these Lifetime moviesque, hour long programs that used to air of all times, after school. They involved a teen or teens and tackled everything from drug abuse to anorexia to everything in between. In a nutshell, afterschool specials were all about exposing the downward spirals that VH1's Behind the Music were to make so well known years later.
There were so many great things about afterschool specials, so I've taken the liberty of compiling a top 5 list:
1. Cheesy melodrama
Afterschool specials, for lack of a better word, specializied in taking everyday problems and making them meaningful. My personal favorite was an episode entitled, When We First Met about a guy who ended up dating the daughter of the woman who killed his sister in a car accident years prior. It starred the other girl from Square Pegs and it was just simply melodramatic sap at its finest. Technically, this was not a true "afterschool special" (I believe it aired on HBO) but if you will recall, at the time, there was an "everybody's doing it" vibe about ASS and so everyone and their mother had their hands up in it, if you know what I mean.
2. Lessons learned
When afterschool specials were in their heyday, I was just a kid. This, however, made me a prime target for the "scared straight" approach they utilizied. While older kids were able to laugh at the overdramatic depiction of a girl storing her upchuck in jars and keeping them in her closet (see: HBO's Lifestories Families In Crisis circa 1992, The Secret Life of Mary Margaret: Portrait of a Bulimic), I, on the other hand, was traumatizied. Now I can look back at such a program and all I see is the irony as Calista Flockhart played the lead role.
3. Glorious guest stars
This brings me to my next point, the before they were stars factor. Anyone who was anyone in the late '70s, '80s and early '90s showed up in an afterschool special or two. It was quite simply, the thing to do at the time. Then, 5 or 10 years later when said actor made it big, some interviewer somewhere had the extreme pleasure of reintroducing the world to their early years. At this point the actor either fell into one of two camps: willing to go along and make fun of themselves, or two, getting pissed that anyone would bring up such crap in light of their newfound craft. Either way, there was a whole biting the hand that feeds you feel about it. The Actor's Studio with James Lipton it was not. But was it enjoyable? You bet Helen Hunt's career it was!
4. Satisfaction Guaranteed
Afterschool specials took hard hitting issues and packed them tightly into an hour of fun. But they also served as great all purpose entertainment. Sometimes they were a treat for the whole family. Other times you could watch them while doing your homework. Hell, even the health teacher could pop one in whenever he had a hangover.
5. Buy the book tactics
Most of the afterschool specials were like the ingredients to an easy bake oven cake. Simply take a teen novel written by the likes of Norma Fox Mazer or Francine Pascal, add water and voila!, you were good to go. But unlike the movie makers of today, afterschool special makers really did capture the glory of these teenage novels pretty accurately for only having, at the most, 55 minutes worth of time. Take that, Great Expectations.
So why did they stop making afterschool specials you might ask? For awhile there, I think it was because they simply ran out of things to say. I knew the end of an era was punctuated with 1990's episode called Stood Up all about a girl who was stood up by a guy. With this episode, and a few others, they started entering the, "if you don't have anything to say, don't say anything at all" phase of programming and thus, the curtain was drawn soon after.
But that's why now, more than ever, afterschool specials need to make their comeback. For one thing, yesterday is soooo today. In other words, retro is where it's at. Don't believe me? Just check out these reissues of afterschool specials, complete with Trapper Keeper-like packaging.
And then there's the matter of teenage issues. Think about it. Teenagers have invented zillions of new ways to get messed up over the last fifteen years! They could do an afterschool special on the hazards of doing ecstasy or a young girl who is cutting. We could even give the goth movement their day in the sun since they've been shortchanged for ages. The kids from the likes of Summerland, Seventh Heaven and 8 Simple Rules are simply waiting for YOU to make it happen.
Last but not least, there's the leftovers factor. You know how some foods just seem better when they're nuked the second time around? Well, the same holds true of entertainment. Think about all the kids who have no clue what an afterschool special is. How sad is that? This is why I propose an afterschool special network, devoted to airing ASS and all of it's offshoot comrades in the process. If they could create entire networks devoted to soaps and shopping, they could pull this off as well.
So there you have it, my feelings on the afterschool special programming. A revolution that should be televised.
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