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Video: Troubles on the Home Front

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Rick and Lonnie are misunderstood teen-agers whose parents have forbidden them to see each other. The predicament may sound familiar, but Rick and Lonnie are hardly stock figures from a TV sitcom or sentimental drama in which love conquers all. In an upcoming ABC movie called Surviving, the youths feel increasingly beleaguered and estranged from the world. Depressed and hopeless, they take a drastic step. One night they sneak into her parents’ garage, huddle together on the front seat of the family car and start the engine. The next morning they are dead.

Deeply troubled youths like Rick and Lonnie (played by Zach Galligan and ^ Molly Ringwald) are cropping up in unprecedented numbers this season. Another depressed teen killed himself last fall on the CBS movie Silence of the Heart. The roles were reversed earlier this month in NBC’s A Reason to Live, in which a well-adjusted 14-year-old (Ricky Schroder) tried to talk his despondent father out of suicide. Last week, in CBS’s Not My Kid, two parents were shattered to discover that their 15-year-old daughter (Viveka Davis) was a drug abuser. Still to come: a college student (Barry Tubb) will tell his unsuspecting parents that he is homosexual in ABC’s Consenting Adult, and a family will grapple with the problem of child molestation in CBS’s Kids Don’t Tell.

TV movies, of course, have long been partial to contemporary and often controversial social issues. But families in crisis have become especially hot topics since last January, when Something About Amelia, an ABC movie about incest, won both critical applause and big ratings. In October, viewers proved again that they will watch sober-minded dramas dealing with unpleasant family matters: NBC’s The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett as a battered wife, drew the fourth highest ratings of any TV movie in history.

Social-issue movies have always been good for a network’s prestige; now they seem to be good for its profit-and-loss sheet as well. Advertisers who once shied away from controversial or downbeat programs (like ABC’s nuclear-war movie The Day After) are increasingly willing, even eager, to sponsor them. Moreover, in the face of growing competition from cable, social-issue dramas take on a new programming significance. Explains Perry Lafferty, a senior vice president at NBC: “How do the networks fight back against cable? We can’t do it by putting on more violence and sex, but we can probe the social issues that haven’t been explored. The issue movie is the most effective weapon we have; it’s our big gun.”

Increasingly, these issue dramas are being accompanied by elaborate public education campaigns, featuring such devices as study guides and toll-free “hot lines.” A groundbreaking film on this front was Adam, a 1983 NBC movie about a family’s search for its kidnaped child. Following each of the movie’s two airings, the network broadcast a series of photos of missing children. Some 30 were found as a result, and the increased public awareness helped spur the establishment of a permanent national center for locating missing children. In conjunction with next month’s telecast of Surviving, ABC * has produced a 30-minute program on teen suicide, a series of short news features and other educational material. The movie will also be followed by a direct appeal to troubled youths. “We end on a positive note that resonates in people’s minds,” asserts Executive Producer Frank Konigsberg. “This movie will be preventive medicine.”

What conclusions are these TV treatises reaching about the family problems they tackle? One message is distressingly familiar: Mom and Dad, more often than not, are at fault. If parents have not overtly caused the problem (like the molesting father in Something About Amelia), they are, at the very least, insensitive or inattentive to the gathering storm clouds. In Not My Kid, the fact that the parents are completely surprised to learn of their daughter’s drug problem is seen as proof that they have fallen down on the job. They are forced to send her to an institution, where group-confrontation tactics (“Get honest! Just get honest about it!”) are directed at parents and children alike.

Surviving is even more damning in its indictment of the suicidal teen-agers’ parents. Lonnie’s folks (Marsha Mason and Paul Sorvino) offer little understanding or support for their daughter after an earlier attempt to kill herself. Rick’s father (Len Cariou) puts undue pressure on the boy to do well in school; his mother (Ellen Burstyn) is obliviously wrapped up in her work with foreign-exchange students. In the scope and ferocity of its family suffering, Surviving approaches the proportions of a Greek tragedy. Unfortunately, it lapses into bathos in the final hour, as the bereaved parents wade through scenes of guilt and recrimination that Medea might have found excessive.

Consenting Adult, based on Laura Z. Hobson’s 1975 novel, is considerably less extreme. The parents are hardly enlightened about their son’s homosexuality, but at least they are restrained. The boy’s father (Martin Sheen) is crushed and humiliated at the news, and retreats into silence. His mother (Marlo Thomas), though more tolerant, gropes for explanations. “What did we do? What didn’t we do?” she cries. The message of this quietly affecting TV movie is that there is no “blame” to be affixed. It is a valuable lesson, one that future TV families in crisis should heed.

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