The ABC Afterschool Special was like everything else that’s good for you. Some kids eat their vegetables with a smile, others eat them in tiny bites with huge swallows of water in between. Ditto with Afterschool Specials. For some, they were heaven-sent, offering an understanding shoulder, a kind word, a little empathy for the confused kid in all of us. For others, they were, well, kind of hokey. It was all a matter of taste.
In the beginning (1972), there was a cartoon: Hanna-Barbera’s “Last of the Curlews.” And the kids saw the cartoon, and the cartoon was good. Not just “good” in the “we liked it” sense, but also in the “hey, there’s a lesson in this for you” sense. In this case, the lesson was on ecology (a race of birds slowly going extinct), and a cartoon parable was simply the pleasantest method of delivery. And thus, the Afterschool Special was born.
Over a span of decades, the Afterschool Special would cover nearly every type of lesson conceivable, from the science of the human body (Timer’s starring role in “The Incredible, Indelible, Magical, Physical Mystery Trip”) to history (illustrating the Nazis’ rise to power through a teacher’s object lesson in “The Wave”) to literature (Hanna-Barbera’s animated “Cyrano”) to politics (“Winning and Losing,” a documentary covering the 1974 Senate race in South Dakota) to the ever-popular social issue.
It was in this latter area—the social drama—that produced the Afterschool Specials that most of us remember. Sometimes, the titles let you know up-front what you were in for: “The Boy Who Drank Too Much,” “Please Don’t Hit Me Mom,” “Me & Dad’s New Wife,” “Just a Regular Kid: An AIDS Story,” “My Dad Can’t Be Crazy… Can He?,” and the ever-popular “Stoned,” starring Scott Baio. These were the Afterschool Specials that everybody talked about (and/or made fun of) at school the next day. Some specials even made it into the school curriculum, popped into the VCR any time an overworked teacher either liked the message or needed a break.
At the start of the 1990’s, the Afterschool Special started to get Oprah-ized, as the megapopular daytime host moderated specials like “Shades of a Single Protein” (focusing on racial issues) and “I Hate the Way I Look” (self-explanatory). With or without Oprah, the ABC Afterschool Special continued its attempts to expand the social consciousness of young TV viewers until the late 90’s, when it went the way of the Curlews.
USA / ABC / Broadcast 4 October 1972 – 1997