Thursday, July 16, 2015

Well isn't that special?

Since the dawn of the family sitcom, television writers have had a weird hard-on for sneaking in important moral lessons and cautionary tales along with the requisite wisecracking kid characters and canned laugh tracks. This phenomenon is widely known as the Very Special Episode (or VSE) and the 1980's were rife with them. 

Some Reagan-era sitcoms were more "special" than others. I remember learning about leukemia, epilepsy, racism, child molestation, drug addiction, bed-wetting, rabies, teenage gangs, gambling, hitchhiking, kidnapping, runaways, gun violence, and grand theft (and that was just on Different Strokes!). 

While sitcoms of the eighties seemed particularly obsessed with teaching us impressionable latchkey kids about how fucking dangerous and evil the outside world was, the VSE trend seemed to continue into the 1990's. Although I had long outgrown family-friendly sitcoms by that point, I understand there was a Full House episode where one of the daughters decided she was too pudgy and put herself on a crash diet, prompting her parental figures to take her aside and say something like "But honey, it's what's on the inside that counts!" (like that's ever worked on any teenager, anywhere) and the infamous Saved By the Bell ep where future Showgirl Liz Berkeley took too many "caffeine pills" and had her sad little meltdown. Oh, please. These coddled Gen-Y/Millennials wouldn't know a Very Special Episode if it got them hooked on crack. In the touchy-feely nineties, no one in TV Land was being pummeled by alcoholic relatives, or getting "special hugs" from scary uncles, or offing themselves with pills, or being groomed by fat pedophiles. They didn't pull any punches with us in the eighties. That's why we're all hardcore, and these youngsters are so damn soft. 

Check out the shit we grew up with.   


This is the heartwarming episode where Uncle Ned (Tom Hanks!) comes for a visit. Turns out that Uncle Ned Donnelly has a wee problem with the drink (oh those Irish stereotypes). After Drunkle Ned runs out of whisky and beer, he chugs a bottle of vanilla extract and says "It's not Miller Time, it's vanilla time!"then smacks Michael J. Fox's stunt double across the room like he's auditioning for Laurence Fishburne's role in What's Love Got To Do With It. Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

"I learned it from watching YOU, Uncle Ned!"
Careless Memories: This is where I got confused, because I remember that Family Ties had quite a few guest stars who went on to have big careers--River Phoenix, Christina Applegate, Courtney Cox, Geena Davis, Crispin Glover, and Hank Azaria, among others--but I could have sworn that in this particular Very Special Episode the visiting alcoholic relative was played by Michael Keaton. A reasonable mistake, I guess, since the family of Family Ties were--duh, the Keatons--but I think it was also because Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks played a lot of the same type of characters during the eighties; hyperactive funny guys whose cheerful personas concealed a darker side.

Funnily enough, there are actually two Family Ties episode involving a weird uncle. The other one is family fuck-up Uncle Arthur, who makes a pass at Mallory. (Alex: "But Uncle Arthur's known you all your life. He used to bathe you when you were a baby." Mallory: "Yeah, well, I think he wants his old job back." )

The episode is titled "Give Uncle Arthur a Kiss." Yeah, they went there.
I don't remember seeing the Uncle Arthur ep at the time of airing, because it's from season 1 of Family Ties and I wasn't watching the early seasons at the time because they were really lame; it wasn't until season 2 or 3 (around the time of Meredith Baxter-Birney's pregnancy) that the show got a lot better. I'm thinking that Michael J. Fox's growing popularity gave them more freedom (and a bigger budget maybe) to fire the hacky writers and hire good ones. I tried to find internet articles supporting this claim, but no dice. I do remember a write-up in People magazine calling Family Ties "The most improved show on television," so it seems that at the time the general consensus was that the show started out bad and then surprised everyone by getting funny after it had been on a few years.  

*kids, get an old person to explain that joke to you.


I wasn't that into Facts of Life in its heyday. I guess the travails of a group of teenage girls at a private boarding school were a bit beyond me at the age of eight. Ironically, of course, I would end up going to a private boarding school when I was fifteen. But that's another story. As a young 'un, sitcoms like Different Strokes and Silver Spoons were more my speed. I do, however, recall watching The Facts of Life at my friend Heather's house, because her older sister Shannon (the most sophisticated middle schooler I'd ever known) was a big fan of the show. 

This VSE--which I see after Googling "The Facts of Life + suicide episode"--is called "Breaking Point." In it, a girl named Cynthia who we've not seen before and won't be seeing again, is the new golden child of Eastland. She even looks set to defeat class princess Blair Warner in the student council elections. Oh, the humanity! So there's a big build-up to Mrs. Garrett tabulating the election results while Blair divas around, kvetching about having to settle for Vice President if Cynthia wins the coveted title. Meanwhile, this Cynthia chick modestly proclaims how winning isn't important and how she's happy just to be nominated President and blah-dee-blah. She seems vaguely distracted by a bunch of phone calls from her rich parents, and keeps retreating to her room for privacy. Then it turns out that Cynthia is the big winner after all, and Blair is shattered and Cynthia is sort of blase about the whole thing. No one can figure out why she isn't more psyched. 

So in the next scene everyone is sitting around the kitchen and Tootie runs in and screams that she just found Cynthia unconscious in her room next to an empty bottle of pills. Chaos ensues, an ambulance is called, and the girls subsequently hunker down to wait for news. Later, Mrs. Garrett answers the phone and it's the hospital, calling to report that Cynthia is dead as a doornail. Everyone is like, "Why did she do it? She was pretty and popular and smart and she just won the student election!" 

The girls and Mrs. Garrett start packing up Cynthia's room and discover that they're to send her belongings to her mother's new address in Nevada. But why Nevada? Blair wonders. "The only person who lives in Nevada is Wayne Newton!" Heh. Y'know, that's funny, because as you might know, I happen to live in Nevada now. Anyway, they deduce that Cynthia's mom has set up residence in Nevada because she and Cynthia's dad are divorcing. Everyone's like, "Oh! That's why Cynthia seemed all weird and distant!" And this is when I call bullshit, because it was the 1980s, not the 1950s and the days of people going off to Nevada for divorces was ancient history by that point. But okay, whatever. 

Mrs. Garrett then gives all the girls a pep talk, saying "If you find yourself at the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on!" One of the girls suggests setting up a suicide hotline at Eastland. And everyone hugs and all that crap and thus the Melancholy Ballad of Cynthia comes to an end. 

Careless Memories: Not many, although I do remember thinking, "Wow, divorce sucks. I'm glad my parents are never going to break up." Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. We'll see how long that delusion lasted. 

(a.k.a. "The One With the Pervert," "The One Where Dudley Gets Molested" 
"That One Fucked Up Different Strokes Episode," etc.)

Bicycle Man pours the kids a little vino.
And yes, Dudley is shirtless.

This one is the mother of all VSE's. If you were a child in the eighties, this episode is seared into your retinas like footage of the Challenger disaster. You can't forget it, no matter how hard you try. Years of therapy couldn't erase this one. In retrospect, it's no wonder we Gen Xers are known for being cynical and disenfranchised. Dude, we've seen things. Things you don't even know about. Things you couldn't handle. You think that stupid Saved By the Bell episode with the weak caffeine pill story arc was intense? Whatever, man. You don't even know.

First of all, this was a two-parter, so you knew shit was gonna get real. Part 1 of "The Bicycle Man," introduces Mr. Horton (Christ, they gave him such a molest-y name, too. Why not just call him "Chester"?) He's a funny, friendly bicycle shop owner that the Drummonds are suddenly really tight with. The episode opens with the fam (Mr. Drummond, Kimberly, Willis and Arnold) returning their rented bicycles to Mr. Horton's shop after a ride through Central Park. Mr. Horton--who juggles oranges and jokes around with Arnold because he's just a fun guy!--tells Mr. Drummond he hates to see him throw away his money on bike rentals when it's more economical to just buy some for the kids. Drummond is hesitant (like the Park Avenue millionaire can't spring for a damn kid's bike? What a cheapskate!). After some browbeating, Mr. Drummond agrees to buy Arnold a bike. Mr. Horton offers to toss in a free radio if Arnold passes out flyers for his bike shop to the kids at his school. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," he tells Arnold, who replies, "You keep coming up with these presents, you can scratch me all over!" 

Uh oh.

So Arnold gets his best friend Dudley to help him promote the shop, and the next thing you know Arnold is popping by the bike shop to pick up more flyers. As he comes in, Mr. Horton is seen escorting a little tow-headed boy out the door, saying, "Don't tell your parents I gave you all that candy. Let's make it our little secret," painting Horton's pre-vert status with a pretty broad brush (the show wasn't known for its subtly). Arnold gets there, exchanges some jokey banter with Mr. Creepypants, who invites him to his apartment in the back of the shop (WARNING! DANGER WILL ROBINSON!) to eat some ice cream and check out all his cool toys and video games. "Gee Mr. Horton, you sure understand kids!"

The clue phone was ringing. No one answered.

The next time we see ol' Horny Horton, Arnold has brought Dudley by the shop to see about a free radio for his pal. Mr. Bike Man is, of course, delighted to meet Dudley and immediately brings them to his sketchy backroom apartment to have some pizza and look at comic books. But--oops--Horton has "accidentally" left one of his porno mags out with all the comics. Yup. So Horton comes back from the kitchen with the pizza and the kids are all bug-eyed over the nudie book. But Bike Man's not mad! No, he explains to the kids that there's nothing wrong with the human body and that "you can have a lot of fun with your clothes off." (Oh God. Hold me.) To illustrate this, Horton brings out a bunch of photos of himself skinny-dipping with some young boys and holy shit I'm not even kidding about any of this. Then he gives the kids some red wine, produces a camera and suggests that Arnold and Dudley play "Tarzan" with him. This involves Dudley taking off his shirt and posing with Arnold in front of a house plant, then the words TO BE CONTINUED flash ominously across the screen.


Careless Memories: A little backstory. I was nine years old when this episode aired and my parents had just split up (told ya!). I remember that little detail because I watched Part 1 of "The Bicycle Man" at my mom's new apartment (it was a weekend visit; Different Strokes aired on Saturday nights). Needless to say, my mom was a bit freaked out by this episode and made a point to have a Serious Talk with me afterwards, saying something along the lines of "Um, you know it's not okay for a grown man to invite children over to his place for wine and dirty magazines and 'Tarzan' games, right?" Despite being a rather naive and sheltered kid at the time, I confirmed that, yeah, I got it. I mean, the show was pretty obvious in setting up a "That boy ain't rahhht" vibe about Mr. Horton. Helen Keller would have sensed something rotten in the state of Denmark with that guy. So the next weekend I was back at home with my dad, who was warned by my mom in advance that I was going to want to see Part 2 of the Creepy Bike Man Different Strokes episode. I know my Dad was like, "Oh, great. This will be awkward." (My dad didn't handle awkward very well.)

Anyhoo, back to the nightmare.

Part 2 of "The Bicycle Man" opens with a solemn-voiced narrator describing scenes from last week's Very Special Episode, complete with creepy freeze-frames of Arnold and Dudley drinking wine, Mr. Horton showing the boys his "skinny-dipping pictures" and convincing Dudley to get shirtless to play "Tarzan" with Arnold while he snaps photos. I really cannot convey in words how much more disturbing the narrator recapping the previous week's scenes makes this already disturbing episode. Check it out if you want to see for yourself, but I wouldn't advise it.

Trust me, it's not for the faint of heart.
We dive right in, back with Mr. Horton and the boys and the Tarzan game, and the show wastes no time in ramping up the creepiness, taking it to a whole new level now with Horton getting the bright idea of handing the camera to Arnold so Horton can get down on all fours to allow shirtless Dudley to hop on his back (in case it's unclear, Horton's pretending to be the lion that Tarzan Dudley "wrestles." Oh my God.) So that happens, and then Mr. H decides it's time for another round of libations to really get the party started. He pours Arnold and Dudley some more wine, prompting Arnold to make the "L'chaim!" toast (I love when writers throw in some random Hebrew). Then the door to the shop out front rings and Mr. Horton is like "Oh, it's a customer. I'll get rid of them." Right. Be sure to get rid of any potential customers in case they want to give you money in exchange for goods and services in order to keep your goddamn piddly-ass bike shop open, Genius. It just shows what a dedicated pervert this Mr. Horton is. Don't interrupt him with store business when he's in the back cavorting with prepubescent boys!    

Horton goes out front to discover that the customer is--Duh duh DUH--Mr. Drummond, dropping by to pay for Arnold's bike. Shit! Drummond gives him the money and Horton tries to hustle him out of the store, but Mr. Drummond seems to want to hang around and reminisce about the time his old man bought him his first bike and Horton is like sweating bullets and keeps trying to blow him off, but Drummond won't take the hint and leave. Arnold peeks out into the store, sees his dad, and panics. He and Dudley flee out the back door (oh, of course there's a back door).

A while later (a few days? A few months? It's not clear) Arnie and Duds are back at the bike shop again, because it's a Very Special Episode and the script requires them to be a bit dense when it comes to middle-aged dudes who want to be their super-special-secret friend. Mr. Horton's like, "Hey guys! I got some Boston creme pie and cartoons! Come on back!" But the cartoons he shows them are the X-rated variety in the vein of Fritz the Cat. At long last, Arnold realizes there's Something Not Quite Right about all this and gets the hell out of there, leaving Dudley to watch dirty cartoons with Mr. Horton, who tells him that after the video is over they can play "Neptune, king of the sea" in the bathtub. Oh dear.

Yeah, okay. Let's cut to the chase because I seriously need a Silkwood shower after revisiting all this shit. Arnold gets home, spills the beans about Horton, then Drummond, Dudley's dad and the police all converge on Horton's bike shop to find Dudley in back, coming out of the bathroom all dazed. Duds tells the cops that Horton gave him a pill that made him feel kinda funny (translation: he slipped him a quaalude) and then "he tried to touch me." Thank Godfully, that's as Special as things get in this Very Special Episode. Dudley's dad hugs him and tells him it's not his fault and he's not going to punish him. Later, back at Casa Drummond, Arnold tells his dad he's disappointed and feels like he can't trust anyone now. This leads his father to assure him that most people are okay, but (basically) any adult who plies him with gifts and sweets and wants to get overly familiar is Stranger Danger! and to tell an authority figure ASAP. Then Arnold concludes that "some hugs and kisses are okay" and hugs his dad and everything is peachy and normal again.

Wow. As I alluded to, this is all so much worse as an adult, reading between the lines and seeing all the plot machinations and subtext. I now need to binge-watch some Seinfeld to recover my snarky, detached Gen-X sensibility.

Deliver me from this evil, O Mighty Kramer.

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