What do you do when you have 22 invariably terrible essays on morals in an obscure short story to grade, a paper to write, editing to do on December's center spread, a blog post to think up, revisions on the end of your second novel, and an internship journal to write? Duh! You use Wikipedia and YouTube to research Mr. Belvedere and walk down memory lane. This is an hour and a half of my life that I'll never get back. Sure, I was watching West Virginia lay the smack down on Pitt on behalf of the Huskies at the same time, so I won't consider myself a total loser, but it was procrastination at its best; that's for sure.
What sent me down this road is inconsequential, but what I found was freakin' astonishing. Mr. Belvedere was edgy. In just five seasons, Mr. Belvedere was kidnapped and tortured by an obsessed woman, little Wesley was molested by a Boy Scout leader, Kevin date-raped the supposedly trashy girl at school, and Heather was nearly raped herself (not in the same incident; that would be really edgy!).
Apparently, though I barely remember any of these episodes, these types of shows were so popular in the 80s that they had an industry term for them--very special episodes. These were episodes of family situation comedies that took a break from the silly to highlight a serious issue in society. They were promoted far in advance, and they inevitably brought about controversy. There were racy episodes of almost every 80s situation comedy you could think of. We're talking fairly tame--Punky Brewster's friend getting locked in an abandoned refrigerator--to Alex P. Keaton using speed to help him stay up and study. Did Alf ever have to go to rehab? You can see a top ten of these very special episodes here:
While these kinds of episodes, and the lessons they taught, were cutting-edge in the 80s, they are basically nowhere to be found on today's televisions. Wait, that's because we don't have family television anywhere on TV today! Let's sit down as a family and watch CSI or The Good Wife. Yeah, right! Basically, if you want something you can sit down and watch with your children, you need to flip to Disney Channel and watch Hannah Montana or The Wizards of Waverly Place. (Phinneas and Ferb happen to by my favorites!)
Do you think we'll ever see edgy Disney programming like Hannah Montana's abortion episode or Alex on The Wizards of Waverly Place gets drunk and loses her virginity to a vampire/ware wolf hybrid on Halloween? Um...no. Not gonna happen. We even had awesome PSAs that really meant something back in the 80s. Who can forget "this is your brain on drugs?" Classic. Today, if kids want to learn the harsh realities of life and how to deal with situations like your British housekeeper helping you through being molested by a camp counselor, where do they turn?
I imagine if a show like Family Ties or Rosanne existed today, we'd be seeing huffing and cutting episodes--very special ones--all over the place or didactic shows exposing the ills of "the pass out game" or internet predators. What strikes me, though, is that as corny as some of this might sound, I think they really did help. I grew up aware that these things could happen, knew to look out for them, and somehow felt like even if I was going to do something stupid, I at least new it was stupid and could take precautions and know if it got out of hand. Today's kids have nothing.
Some argue that these things are so out there in the media today that they don't need to be educated. Kids know this stuff is going on, and they don't need anyone to show them. Well, maybe so. But it doesn't mean they don't need someone to guide them through it. I have so many students that have deadbeat parents or just no real relationship with their parents, that they could use a Mr. Belvedere or a Heathcliff Huxtable to help them through the confusing times in life. Today, they have Google and their friend Terry that masturbates stray cats for fun to help them understand the complexities of moral America.
Part of the issue is the entertainment industry in general, or at least the way kids choose to get their entertainment today. Video games. Internet. They don't sit and watch TV that much anymore anyway. If there were shows like Growing Pains today--which did an episode on eating disorders--there would be no kids that wanted to sit and watch them. I guess the parents could make them from a young age, but I don't know if that would happen. Ah...how I long for the days when life was simple. When child molestation, date rape, drug use, eating disorders, masturbation, teen drinking, abortion, suicide, and drunk driving could all be solved in a 60 minutes very special episode where families were shocked together, cried together, and then talked about it afterward. Good touch and bad touch were as simple as good TV.
Is this the niche that the edgier young adult fiction is filling? I don't know. I don't know that a ton of kids are reading this type of book and sitting down and discussing the issues with their parents. The reality of the novels also make it hard to have that cheesy moment at the end where we all learn our lesson, where Dr. Seaver makes a difference. Not to mention, I'm sure those 80s sitcoms had better ratings.