Educational use: Discussion of the 1980's AIDS crisis, 1980's recession
So we just started tapping into the treasure trove of 1988 TV episodes we have stashed away on DVR, Netflix, DVD, etc. Picking randomly between The Golden Girls, Married with Children, and others, we settled upon the episode of Highway to Heaven that was running this week in 1988, "Aloha". I must admit, I was feeling slightly nostalgic when the opening twinkle came on after the prologue...it is a song that always reminds me of the crane shot that opens up The Muppet Movie. However, I am sad to report that my nostalgia quickly faded, by the creeping possibility that HTH doesn't hold up against time. In the last 27 years, we have been saturated with TV that drips with irony and anti-heroes, and here was a show with very little of either. There is no irony, no smug agenda with Johnathan (Michael Landon) and his constant companion Mark (Victor French). Both of these men are famous for working together on another piece of family value Americana, Little House on the Prairie. Even Landon's character name, Jonathan Smith, is so treacly and dripping with "apple" pie wholesomeness that is hard not to want to laugh with a condescending Gen X giggle all over the whole thing. Would we watch a show today about two good Samaritans traveling the earth in a car, fulfilling "missions" that Smith needs to complete as an angel? Would we be able to watch the show without reading into the undertones about two grown men traveling about as companions? Could we sit through a long term show that does not hold some kind of meta-mystery about Jonathan and his future? Where is the violence? Where is the larger meaning of humanity as seen by zombies vs humans, or ad execs vs humans, or smoke monsters vs humans?
Still, I watched on because this is my assignment. The general plot revolved around Jonathan and Mark traveling to 1988 Vegas to help a former Hawaiian hula dancer/singer find her way back into humanity. She runs a Hawaiian based apartment complex in Vegas, existing in a Norma Desmond mental state of bitterness toward the world and towards the trucking company that took her legs in an accident. We find out that she only has one friend left, a former backup singer named Danny who came to the mainland with her. He takes care of the maintenance of the building...when he has time. Naturally Jonathan and Mark interject themselves into all the aspects of their lives and the apartment complex. As the episode unfolds we find out more about Aulani's back story, her rise to fame in Hawaii, her bookings in Vegas, and the accident that left her never wanting to go back to face her former island home. On the other side of Vegas, we travel around with Mark and Danny to find out about Danny's back story, a back-up singer who stuck around and now works at a Hawaiian show in Vegas to make ends meet. My excitement level got a little higher, as I realized they were probably performing at the Polynesian's Luau, an event I attended for my friend's wedding rehearsal dinner back in 2004. So, this episode is filled with a tremendous amount of back story and whenever a new secret was revealed, there would be a rise in a music, a pained look of realization on one of the character faces, a pan to the other character- and commercial. We find out that Aulani has been getting checks for her injury, we find out the company hasn't been sending the checks, we find out Danny has been sending checks. (Music, stare, pause, commercial).
My jaded, present world of watching TV excludes backstory episodes because loyal watching of the show will give you those elements over time as the show unspools until its pre-announced finale. The long narrative beginning was a little off putting. I suddenly realized how much our mental programming has changed in the last 27 years. Shows like this were designed to give you a general synopsis of the main characters, but you could hop aboard at any time and still get a satisfying hour of TV. Today, you have to get on the train right away or binge watch to catch up. My modern world also excludes commercials, so I opted to watch this 1988-style and catch the commercials. Happy bubbles of 1988 nostalgia upon seeing Alyssa Milano speaking for UNICEF and for the realization this was on a religious channel. The channel is the kind I remember seeing a lot at the high water mark of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker before their falls from grace in 1988 (see, 1988 is everywhere kids). I was reminded of the evangelical campaign in 1988 to boycott The Last Temptation of Christ. I began to think that Highway to Heaven must have been another arm of the 1980's conservative coalition, using television to endorse the Reagan nuclear family dynamic. After all, it was endorsed by a religious network in syndication. It would be like a lot of television programs of the late 80's I suppose, ending with a neat wrap up, all problems solved, all people satisfied with their redemption. What if The Walking Dead resolved itself every episode? Would it have half of its viewership?
The second half of the show, obliterated my thoughts. Its slow-burn beginning gave way to the 1-2-3 gut punch that Danny was visiting a clinic and that he suddenly had to leave Vegas. It gave us scenes where the calm, smiley Jonathan grows furious with Aulani about feeling sorry about her disability- something to the effect of "millions of people around the world have a handicap, but they don't sit around feeling sorry for themselves!" A real sentiment by show runner Michael Landon who hired disabled writers to work from HTH, years before the ADA. They confront issues of race in regards to how people treat Hawaiians and the word "Howlie" is used more than a few times. They confront issues of poverty and friendship-and then the biggest reveal of all-DANNY HAS AIDS!
In a 1988 America, where the government had only just begun to hand out pamphlets, publicly acknowledging the crisis that had already taken thousands of lives (eventually including Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Robert Reed, and puppeteer Richard Hunt) and millions of Americans still saw it as the "gay plague", HTH set out to dispel the myths. The character is a straight, middle aged man who gained the virus through a blood transfusion, similar to the same information we were learning about Ryan White. The looks on the characters' faces tell us the sad truth of the 80’s with the same passion and despair as the characters in Rent-in 1988 AIDS was a death sentence! Then, as if to stick it to the rumormongers and paranoid individuals who tossed Ryan White from school, Jonathan puts his hand on Danny's shoulder. In a world that thought sitting in a chair would give you AIDS, this was a powerful unwritten statement. The episode examines what happens when you love someone, as Danny does for Aulani, and then have to face the moment you have to tell them you are dying of a disease that carried the stigma of the Bubonic Plague. I saw in this, the moment Tom Hanks takes the stand in Philadelphia, the moment in Rent where Mimi's alarm goes off, the moment Magic Johnson appeared at the podium to tell the world about his HIV. It is this disease that leads Aulani's bitterness to melt and she decides to go home with Danny and spend her life taking care of Danny during his last days, a televised, biblical reminder to the Conservative Coalition that although they spent the 80s claiming AIDS was brought by God to destroy American sin, Jesus said, "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends".
I guess I have become so jaded in my perception of TV and my hunger for never ending stories, that I had forgotten the power of what TV was able to accomplish in an hour episode of HTH, M.A.S.H., or any other number of drama shows. This episode would be a fine send off to a cancelled rest of the season due to the writer's strike of 88, and must have strived to build a bridge between its conservative audience and those suffering from the "shame" of AIDS. Well played Michael Landon, well played.