While the words “after school special” are commonplace enough, it’s possible you may not know their origins.
In the early 1970s to the late 199s, ABC released a series of movies, called The Afterschool Specials. These films were meant to instruct kids and teens about so-called modern dangers like drugs use. These specials were designed from network TV and if you remember them, you probably remember cracking jokes about them. The fact is, the most famous after school specials didn’t always land with the earnestness the network intended. Hokey, awkward, and sometimes downright weird, after school specials wanted to change lives, and they did…but probably not in the way the creators wanted.
In fairness, because there were so many After School Specials between 1972 and 1997, there’s obviously good, well-meaning stuff in there. But, the absurd, over-the-top moments are what we remember. So, let’s look at the most ridiculous after school specials ever made, with bonus appearance from a “very special episode” of one of your favorite ’90s shows.
As the title might have hinted, this after school special is all about the dangers of drug use. Particularly the dangers of marijuana! Forget a simple case of the munchies, Scott Baio stars in this story about a kid whose casual use of marijuana eventually leads to a calamitous boating accident.
5. Daddy Can’t Read
Did you know that John Travolta has a brother named Joey? Well, he does, and Joey is an actor, too. He starred in this 1988 after school special wherein his kids learn that their dad can’t read, a reveal thoroughly spoiled by the title (for everyone except the dad, who, as we mentioned, is illiterate).
4. High School Narc
This ABC classic tells the story of a young cop who has to go undercover at a high school. His mission? Discover which of him new teen classmates is responsible for the influx in drug sales on campus. The dealer? He turns out to be Viggo Mortensen, proving that “one does not simply narc on their classmates.” Both the series 21 Jump Street and the Channing Tatum-led 2012 film make more sense.
3. Desperate Lives
This is one of the more wild specials on this list. In a high school chemistry lab, a young man is somehow able to make PCP with ease. He gives some to his girlfriend (a young Helen Hunt) who then goes nuts and flings herself out of a window, falling to her death. Naturally, there’s a school assembly following her death. The dangers of drug use are the menu for discussion, in addition to the ham-fisted screaming lecture of the school’s counselor.
But wait, how did he make PCP so easily? Was this a real problem? Seems like Breaking Bad was perhaps a slightly better afterschool specail.
2. The Day My Kid Went Punk
A “typical” white suburban family is rocked when their son, a classical violin prodigy, gives up his instrument to start wearing eyeliner and sporting a mohawk! That’s right, he’s gone punk, and it’s tearing the family apart. Why the kid going punk is a bad thing is never made clear with any kind of clarity. Watching this now is like watching a sketch from Mr. Show with all the punchlines removed.
1. Saved by the Bell; “Jessie’s Song”
Remember how many kids you knew in high school who were addicted to caffeine pills? If your answer is, “I only knew about Jessie from Saved By the Bell,” you would be among those of us who are not living in an alternate reality. In the 1990 Saved By the Bell episode “Jessie’s Song,” the beloved and bizarre teen comedy got weirder than normal by positing a fake addiction as a really big deal. In order to get more school work done, Jessie becomes addicted to popping caffeine pills, and now she’s an addict. The idea here was to teach kids a hard lesson about addiction, but all that really happened is for an entire generation, The Pointer Sisters’ song “I’m So Excited,” was given the extra lyric, “I’m so….scared!”
Still, even if “Jessie’s Song” scans as a little bit absurd, in 2020, Elizabeth Berkely told the Today Show that the existence of this episode on Saved By the Bell was a risky departure. “A lot of the episodes dealt with who was gonna ask who to the dance or, you know, the love triangle. And this one was something that we were, like, ‘OK, we’re ready for this. Let’s go for it.’ And it had all of that kind of adolescent pent-up emotion that is so authentic. Some people might say it was over the top. But it was intense.”
Was this technically an “After School Special?” Because it’s the first thing that probably came to your mind when you thought of “After School Special” the answer is yes.
Most of these long-forgotten jarring artifacts are on YouTube, but “Jessie’s Song” from Saved By the Bell is streaming for free on Peacock.