Grown-ups of a certain age will remember the feeling of coming home from a hard day at school and just wanting to watch some cartoons only to be bamboozled by the after-school special, cheaply-made “serious dramas” that aimed to keep kids on the straight and narrow. ABC aired the first one in 1972 and stopped in 1997, and in those 25 years a whole lot of bizarre stuff went down. We watched the entire after-school special library and picked out the weirdest and worst of the lot.
With a title like Tattle, you’d think this would involve tweens and some mild naughty behavior. Think again, friend – this 1988 after-school special is about a quartet of female high school swimmers who do cocaine! Complete with gouts of blood gushing out of nostrils and bitter recriminations from parents, this is a classic of anti-drug hysteria. Nowadays we have much worse things to think about than teens getting into a little nose candy, but in the 80s it was serious business.
On the surface, the 1980 After-School Special What are Friends For doesn’t seem like much – two girls, each the daughter of a different divorcing couple, meet in an apartment building and form a friendship. But things get real weird, real fast as one of the girls (played by Dana Hill) is completely batcrap insane. The scene of her drowning one of her dolls in a blood-filled bathtub is primo crazy, like a bizarre KISS meets Santeria ceremony.
In an attempt to compete with ABC, CBS aired its own series of specials, called “CBS Schoolbreak Specials.” They might be even worse than their inspiration. 1985’s Ace Hits the Big Time is a perfectly idiotic example – when a new kid goes to his first day at a New York high school wearing an eyepatch(!) he’s sucked into the fruitiest gang fight of all time. The rest of the show doesn’t live up to this level of insanity, but what could?
Usually after-school specials dealt with down-to-earth issues like teen pregnancy and hating your parents. 1975’s The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon, however, leaves the planet behind to engage on a journey of pure insanity. When sixth grader Duffy Moon gets tired of the short jokes, he buys a magical book that enables him to “think big.” He does this by talking like a robot, puffing his cheeks out and taking care of an injured crow. Oh, and then he gets superpowers, because why not?
Another top-notch anti-drug after-school special, this one features Helen Hunt as a seemingly perfect teenager who smokes PCP that her boyfriend somehow makes in the school’s chemistry lab and then jumps out of a window. This one ends with one of the most unintentionally funny scenes ever, as the school guidance counselor interrupts an assembly to scream at the kids about drugs, which has never worked ever.
Most of the child actors in after-school specials had little to no experience with the issues they were re-enacting, making their attempts to fake being drunk or high that much more laughable. 1989’s 15 and Getting Straight went in a totally different direction. Set in a drug rehab facility where the counselors are also recovering addicts, this CBS Schoolbreak Special cast real-life alcoholic junkies Tatum O’Neal, Corey Feldman and Drew Barrymore, who brought creepy realism to the hokey script.
One common contrivance in after-school specials is setting up a main character who seems to have it made, only to reveal their crippling flaw. Freddie Ellis is a star high school basketball player who, for some insane reason, hasn’t learned to read. This isn’t a big deal until his little brother spills bleach in his eyes at a laundromat and is blinded for life because the big dummy couldn’t read the instructions on how to rinse it out.
After-school specials usually took the hokiest situations from the hack’s playbook as the basis for their drama. This one… is different. CBS aired Dead Wrong: The John Evans Story as the first Schoolbreak Special ever, and it set a pretty weird tone. Evans was a petty thief and drug addict who eventually murdered a pawn shop owner in front of his two daughters. Re-enactments of his life were interspersed with death row interviews, and the show ended with his death in the electric chair!
While most after-school specials were live action, animated ones showed up every once in a while. The first-season Incredible, Indelible, Magical, Physical Mystery Trip was just too weird for real people to deal with. A weird little blob named Timer shrinks down two kids and takes them inside their uncle’s body to show them the havoc he’s wreaking on his bloated, aging body with fatty food and lack of exercise. So they basically get to watch him die from inside. That’s awesome.
We had to close with this classic 1987 after-school special, in which an ordinary suburban family is rocked to the core when their teenage son abandons his classical violin in favor of a Mohawk and eye makeup. It’s a laugh riot from beginning to end, with the lead kid being probably the most unconvincing punk rocker of all time (he even tries to get a job at a day care center). I wonder what a modern version of this would be – The Day My Kid Twerked, maybe?