A Look Back at After-School Specials

December 4, 2017 · CLASSMATES FUN

If you grew up in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the after-school special. In fact, we’re betting you watched at least a few of them.


Created especially for adolescent television viewers, the ABC Afterschool Special was the original. Airing from 1972 to 1997, this anthology series won over 50 Daytime Emmy Awards (we were surprised, too!). Other networks also ran similar programming.

Each episode was intended to be educational as well as entertaining. Subjects ranged from lighter fare — such as crushes, magic wishes, and selling toothpaste — to serious and sometimes controversial topics like racism, bullying, broken homes, drug abuse, death, and teen pregnancy. We’re guessing that more than a few parents, reluctant to bring up certain issues with their children, circled specific episodes in their TV guides in hopes that their kids would watch.

Many different actors and actresses appeared in after-school specials over the years. For many, the roles were some of the earliest in their careers. Today, it’s fun to look back and see which future big names got their start covering tough teen topics. We wonder how many kids watching 1986’s “Wanted, the Perfect Guy” realized that the barely-teenaged Ben Affleck would eventually become a movie icon. And how many people recognized future greatness in young Jodie Foster in her several 1970s appearances?


Some of the other future celebrities who were not yet household names when they appeared in an episode include: Rob Lowe, Sean Astin, Meg Ryan, Marisa Tomei, Sarah Jessica Parker, Vince Vaughn, Rosanna Arquette, Anthony Kiedis, and Viggo Mortensen.

Admittedly, the concept of the after-school special has become a bit of a cliché in popular culture. While we often loved them as kids, we have a slightly different perspective when we look back on them with grownup brains. Some of the things that can make us chuckle now:

  • The stories and dialogue were often heavy-handed. (“High School Narc” comes to mind.)
  • The plotlines could be far-fetched. (Exhibit A: “Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid”)
  • The topics were sometimes cringe-inducing, especially if your parents insisted on watching with you. (Anyone remember “My Mom’s Having a Baby”?)
  • Some of the episodes seem laughably tame by today’s standards (“The day my Kid went Punk” is a prime example.)

Many after-school specials had epic – and quite descriptive — titles. A few of our favorites:

  • “The Magical Mystery Trip Through Little Red’s Head”
  • “Reading, Writing and Reefer”
  • “The Day the Senior Class Got Married”
  • “Just Tipsy, Honey”
  • “My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel”
  • “Mom’s on Strike”

It’s easy to laugh, but deep down, we’ll always have a soft spot for the after-school special. Here’s why:

  • This was television that you were actually encouraged to watch (it was sometimes even classified as “educational”).
  • We got to learn about topics that normally were not covered at the dinner table.
  • Drama. Lots of drama. (After-school specials were basically mini soap operas for teens.)
  • Something we definitely appreciate in hindsight: the opportunity to see budding stars early in their careers.

Did you watch? If so, which story made the biggest impression on you?