The Afterschool Special was a type of anthology program that dealt with socially relevant issues of interest to teenagers 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 unexpectedly and adversely affects the main protagonist, and he and others deal with the consequences before the moral or other resolution (not always good) is presented. Often, A- and B-list celebrities — including teenage and adult actors who starred in popular TV shows of the day, and others well known to youth audiences — were cast in the roles of the main characters affected by that particular special's issue. 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. Other later episodes took the form of documentaries or news magazines.
ABC coined the phrase when it aired its first special — Hanna-Barbera's "The 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).
Oprah Winfrey actually hosted several documentary-styled After School Specials in the mid-1990s. However, when fans of her daily talk show began to complain about pre-emptions and station managers complained about lost revenue and the shows getting in the way of their local news once 4 p.m. newscasts became popular, 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 to 1986. In addition to its own Afterschool Special, ABC aired a Weekend Special from 1977 to 1997, although these were far less heavy-handed and tended to be adaptations of children's stories; as the name would imply, it usually aired on the weekends typically at the tail end of the Saturday morning lineup (though sometimes it would be pre-empted for sporting events). That series got its own mascot, Cap'n O.G. Readmore, a cat in a ship captain's outfit that encouraged kids to read.
The "afterschool special" genre in general was well received by critics and audiences alike, at least at the time. Many times, high school teachers would tape a given broadcast 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.) In more recent years, however, many of them have been seen in less favorable lights for various reasons.
Compare and contrast Teen Drama and Lifetime Movie of the Week (a genre that has been characterized as "Afterschool Specials for wine moms"). See also, Lifestories: Families in Crisis, and Family Video Diaries, which both originally aired occasionally on HBO (as a sidenote, both HBO and Showtime reran old Afterschool Specials under their own banners in the 1980s and early 90s, like the HBO Family Playhouse).
"Very special" topics addressed in the "afterschool specials":
- Abusive Parents: A wide variety of stories — physical, verbal and sometimes sexual.
- Attending Your Own Funeral: One special was an adaption of John J. Berrio's "Dead at Seventeen," stressing to teens the importance of observing safe driving rules all of the time, and that the consequences of failing to do so even once, even for a split second, could be deadly and have far more social, familial and legal consequences.
- 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 teenagers 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 teenage suicide and its effects.
- Harmful to Hitchhikers: A 1983 ABC Afterschool Special called "Andrea's Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy" was about a girl dealing with the aftermath of being raped while hitchhiking.
- Missing Mom and 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 teenager who raised her younger siblings after both parents had died.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: The 1981 Afterschool Special The Wave (1981), where a high school history teacher's classroom project to illustrate the realities of Nazi Germany and fascism turns ugly. Inspired a novel and a German feature film.
- 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).
- No Fair Cheating: The Cheats is all about this.
- The Quincy Punk: The Day My Kid Went Punk (ABC)
- 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.
- Teen Pregnancy: Schoolboy Father (ABC) and Babies Having Babies (CBS)
This show provides examples of:
- '70s Hair
- Aesop Collateral Damage: Sometimes was used to drive home the moral of the story.
- An Aesop: Virtually every one had them. The discussion driver of many a "social issues" junior high or high school class.
- Bittersweet Ending: More bitter than sweet for The Cheats, the tale of a high school cheating scandal, wherein an otherwise outstanding student is trying to get into a prestigious university: Beth, the straight A-student, is expelled while the principal, Dr. Daniels, is forced to resign; one of the main instigators, Holly, becomes a Karma Houdini initially for getting away with cheating on her test. Then Dr. Daniels gets another administrative position and vouches for Beth at Cornell admissions, so she gets into her dream university. Beth makes it clear, however, that she will never forgive Holly for what she did.
- Can't Get Away with Nuthin'
- Character Witness: In The Cheats, Dr. Daniels is harsh on Beth when confronting her about the test answers found in the library book that she checked out. She also believes Beth when Beth honestly tells her that she got her grade fairly and didn't cheat. Beth reveals in the epilogue that Dr. Daniels fought tooth and nail to get Beth into Cornell after the latter got expelled from high school.
- Children Raise You: Shows up in specials like Francesca, Baby (1976) and She Drinks a Little (aka First Step) (1981). In both, a parent's alcoholism means the eldest daughter serves as head of the household, cooking, cleaning, and caring for her younger siblings.
- A Family Again: After eldest sibling Beth drowns, Lindsey is forced to become a mother/homemaker to younger sister Billie.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: Mainly during the first two or three seasons, which talked about more general "all-ages" issues like extinction. Some specials were even animated.
- '80s Hair
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: In the '80s and The '90s, as the series progressed it developed a penchant for prosaic titles that summed up the episode's content, such as "What If I'm Gay?", "Please Don't Hit Me, Mom", "The Day My Kid Went Punk", and "The Girl With the Crazy Brother."
- Fun with Acronyms: One special was about a girl whose boyfriend has a venereal disease. Its title was A Very Delicate Matter. Platypus Comix also suggested the alternate title A Super Totally Delicate Matter.
- Heel–Face Door-Slam: Happens twice to Holly in The Cheats. She goes to Dr. Daniels to wish her goodbye on graduation, only for Dr. Daniels to tell her she knows that Holly let Beth get expelled to save her own skin, and that Holly only cheated herself. Two years later, Holly goes to catch up with Beth, who tells her that what she did was unforgivable and nothing Holly does can fix that.
- I Know You Know I Know: On graduation day in The Cheats, Dr. Daniels has a frank talk with Holly before the principal has to leave. She knows that Holly cheated and can't prove it because Beth refused to give up Holly to save herself. But she tells Holly that whatever happens, Holly cheated herself and will have to live with that.
- It's a Wonderful Plot: Amy and the Angel, with the twist being that the Clarence had killed himself and was forced to roam the earth for years after, before being given a second chance.
- Karma Houdini Warranty: It at first seems that Holly is a Karma Houdini in that her college admissions aren't affected by the cheating scandal. Her adult self admits, however, that she is plagued by guilt that Beth ended up paying the highest price for it, and nothing she can do will fix it.
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- In The Cheats, Holly as an adult feels incredibly guilty for letting Beth take the fall for the cheating scandal. Robin and Lynnie confessed on their own terms and were suspended, but Beth really had nothing to do with it and she makes it clear that what Holly did was unforgivable.
- Geri in The Late Great Me begins to realize how serious her alcoholism has gotten after it leads to the death of her beloved cat, Sophie. However, it just leads to her drinking more to numb the pain, and it takes a while for Geri to reach her "bottom."
- The Scapegoat:
- Beth is expelled for having known about the cheating scandal but not saying anything about it proactively, while getting caught. The irony is she's the only one who didn't cheat, and Dr. Daniels knows that.
- Meanwhile Dr. Daniels, being the first black principal at their school, gets forced out of her position despite the fact that she takes a hardline response towards the cheating scandal. She takes it in stride and finds another administrative position.
- The Show Must Go Wrong: In She Drinks a Little, Cindy, who las the lead role in the school play, ends up embarrassed by her alcoholic mother, Miriam, during the curtain call, when Miriam walks onstage uninvited and drunkenly slurs her pride for her daughter.
- This Is Unforgivable!: In the epilogue of The Cheats, Beth consents to talk with Holly for a few minutes, two years after that fateful senior year. But that's all Holly gets for letting Beth get expelled, a few minutes. Holly tries to break the ice, only for her face to fall when Beth said she had to go to a state school for a year and was accepted into Cornell for sophomore year because Dr. Daniels kept calling admissions and vouching for her, explaining the circumstances behind the cheating scandal. Beth also says, in a rather cold but calm voice, that she's never going to forget or forgive that her best friend threw her under the bus to save her own ass while getting away with stealing test answers. She then walks away, and Holly can't bring herself to apologize.
- "Too Young to Die" Lamentation: A 1992 episode was a dramatic adaptation of John J. Berrio's "Seventeen" essay, again focusing on his post-mortem reflections and promising to heed driving safety and traffic laws (as he was supposed taught to but chose instead to ignore) if God would grant him a second chance.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: One example is in The Late Great Me (1979), an adaptation of Sandra Scoppetone's 1976 novel. Geri, still only a senior in high school, starts drinking to impress a boyfriend and in very little time is drinking so heavily she's regularly blacking out and making a fool of herself in public while intoxicated.
- Very Special Episode: A dramatic version thereof, in which characters dealt with such situations as abuse, alcoholism, divorce, drugs, teen pregnancy... the list was limitless!