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The Afterschool Special was a type of anthology program that dealt with socially relevant issues of interest to teen-agers and young adults. The specials were often aired during the afternoon (usually after school, hence the name), a time when most adolescents were arriving home from school or otherwise able to watch television.
Many of the specials fall under the Very Special Episode trope: A problem that unexpectedly and adversely affects the main protagonist, and he/she and others dealing with the consequences before the moral or other resolution (not always good) is presented. Oftentimes, A- and B-list celebrities -- including teen-aged and adult actors who starred in popular TV shows of the day, and others well-known to teen-aged audiences -- were cast in the roles of the main characters affected by that particular special's dilemma. While most episodes were highly dramatic, some were played largely for laughs (although still having an important message), and even the darkest dramas had moments of light comedy.
ABC coined the phrase when it aired its first special -- "Last of the Curlews," a program about animal extinction -- in the fall of 1972. Roughly four to six specials aired per season during the school year (roughly, September to May), with repeats of previous seasons' specials providing additional airings. The last original Afterschool Special aired in 1997. The specials would pre-empt local programming (or, in the 1970s through mid-1980s, the regular network schedule when game shows still aired in mid-to-late afternoon). However, when fans of shows such as Oprah begin to complain about pre-emptions and stations complained about lost revenue, the networks began to rethink the concept.
The success of the Afterschool Special led CBS and NBC to air their own "afterschool specials." CBS began its own Schoolbreak Special in 1980 and continued until 1996, while NBC presented its own Special Treat from 1975-1986. In addition to its own Afterschool Special, ABC aired a Weekend Special from 1977-1997, although these were far less heavy-handed and moreso adaptations of children's stories.
The "afterschool special" genre in general was well received by critics and audiences alike. Many times, high school teachers would tape a given show and show it in class, after which a discussion might ensue about how the characters dealt with their adverse situation. (Sometimes, the tape might be paused at each commercial break to spark a discussion on what the students think should happen, before the actual resolution is shown.)
"Very special" topics addressed in the "afterschool specials":
- AIDS: Unlike many sitcoms where it was The Disease That Shall Not Be Named, several Afterschool Specials were very frank about the effects of AIDS on teen-agers.
- Abusive Parents: A wide variety of stories -- physical, verbal and sometimes sexual.
- Book-Burning and other censorship-related stories. The latter sometimes involving stories meant for publication in a school newspaper but are deemed unflattering or incriminating by the school administration (rather than unfactual). The book-banning stories usually related to a well-known work whose language (rather than the subject matter) resulted in a ban request, only for someone to invariably point out that the Bible had numerous instances of coarse language, sex, violence, etc.
- Date Rape: Several specials dealing with rape and attempted sexual assault.
- Death Row: A 1984 CBS Schoolbreak Special titled: "Dead Wrong: The John Evans Story," the true story of a death row inmate who went on a crime spree that ended with the murder of a pawn shop owner in view of his daughters. Evans agreed to be interviewed, with his comments providing a strong message to teen-agers about making good choices, choosing good people as friends and staying away from drugs. Evans was executed in the electric chair just days after his interview was recorded, with a re-enactment shown in the closing moments of the special.
- Driven to Suicide: Usually dealing with teen-aged suicide and its effects.
- G-Rated Drug: Sometimes, although more often the harder drugs (marijuana, etc.) are used.
- Missing Mom / Disappeared Dad: Several, including one where a non-custodial mother kidnaps her children and brainwashes them into believing their dad had died in a car accident. Another involved a young teen-ager who raised her younger siblings after both parents had died.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: The 1983 Afterschool Special "The Wave," where a high school history teacher's classroom project to illustrate the realities of Nazi Germany and fascism turns ugly. Inspired a novel.
- Never Learned to Read: "The Hero Who Couldn't Read," about a high school basketball star who is illiterate and has friends help him with his homework ... until the day his little brother loses his eyesight after an accident at a coin-operated laundry (the tyke spilled liquid soap in his eyes, and the stud couldn't read the directions on what to do in case said situation arose).
- The Rainman: Numerous episodes dealing with mental retardation, with situations ranging from the family adjusting to a newly de-institutionalized mentally-challenged person now living with them ("Welcome Home, Jellybean") or a person seeking social acceptance.
- Swapped Roles: Usually involving people of different generations, the goal (as always) being both sides getting a greater understanding of the challenges faced by the other.
- An Aesop: Virtually every one had them. The discussion driver of many a "social issues" junior high or high school class.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Mainly during the first two or seasons, which talked about more general "all-ages" issues like extinction. Some specials were even animated.
- Follow the Leader: The ABC Afterschool Special begat NBC's Special Treat and the CBS Schoolbreak Special ... and even ABC's Weekend Special.
- Very Special Episode: A dramatic version thereof, with characters dealing with such situations as abuse, alcholism, divorce, drugs, teen pregnancy ... the list was limitless!