Old refrigerators. Through a very special episode of Punky Brewster I learned that, at some point in life, I would come across an abandoned refrigerator, and I would, for some reason, be compelled to climb into that refrigerator. You may remember the following very special episode: Punky’s foster father, Henry Warnimont, dumps an old refrigerator in the backyard of the apartment complex in which he, Punky, Cherie Johnson, and Grandma Johnson live. Punky, Cherie and their friends Margaux Kramer and Allen Anderson then decide to play hide-and-seek and Cherie inevitably crawls into the fridge, locking herself inside. After searching hither and yon Cherie is finally discovered in the fridge where Punky and Margaux, having just learned CPR in school, are able to revive their BFF. Allen, who hadn’t been paying attention during the CPR lesson, is shamed, and learns a valuable lesson about listening to teachers. The moral of this story: listening to teachers = being able to save your friends from predatory refrigerators. This has come in handy exactly zero times during my life, thanks, NBC. (ed. note: one of my very favorite episodes. Learn CPR! Way to mess it up, Allen!)
Thermoses. Through a very special episode of Our House (starring a less old, but still pretty old, pre-diabeetus Wilford Brimley; a middle aged Deirdre Hall of Days of Our Lives fame; and a not quite nubile Shannon Doherty) I learned that once I hit late middle/early high school a number of my friends would begin filling their Scooby thermoses with hooch. Plucky teen Kris Witherspoon (Doherty) learns this very special lesson when her BFF Bonita (“Bonnie”) starts acting strangely. Kris enters the girls lavatory to confront Bonnie, who’s sucking down a Scooby thermo o’ stolen gin. When Kris asks her pal why she’s hitting the sauce, Bonnie explains that the pressures of being bonita (espaÃ±ol for beautiful) have driven her to drink. The two commiserate over the pressures of attractiveness. Nothing is to be learned from this episode. Though, in college I realized a Scooby thermos would be a good way to transport booze around campus. I still refer to a screwdriver of cheap orange juice and cheaper vodka as a “Scooby snack”.
Dirty cartoons. Several very special episodes of Different Strokes center on learning to avoid pedos. I could reference the episode in which Kimberly and Arnold are stolen by a pervert at the mall and kept duck taped in an apartment, but since I’d like to keep this light, I’ll instead focus on the dirty old man in the Drummonds’ building who invites children over to watch pornographic cartoons. I believe this episode involves Sam (Gary Coleman’s shark jumping cute kid replacement) and his buddy who both get invited by the building perve to watch cartoons. At first the kids think watching cartoons at the old man’s house is really cool, but then they start to question why the cartoons’ wieners are hanging out. The kids get wise in the nick of time and avoid molestation, but since this VSE provides no real info on how to spot a perve, except for porn cartoons, this basically just taught me that all old people are probably molesters, and I should steer clear of any and all VHS cartoons.
Rabies. Diff’rent Strokes’ Arnold Jackson got rabies, My Two Dads’ Nicole got rabies, Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher got rabies, ALF both got and carried rabies (I made most of that up, but Arnold definitely got rabies), if you watched TV in the 80s you, like me, were probably convinced that every animal in your neighborhood was rabid. As an adult I now realize that, contrary to popular 80s television, most household pets are not rabid. This realization has come too late though, as I already spent most of my childhood avoiding friends’ guinea pigs.
Shriners. Shriners; Rotarians; Pubas; Royal Orders of the Elk, Jester, Camel, Marmot, etc. were highly featured in the 80s sitcom genre as a vaguely threatening presence. I unfortunately don’t have a great example episode to present because the Shriner/Shrineresque character was never at the forefront of the very special episode (this version of 80s fear mongering was, I believe, meant to be subtle), but my point remains: Though I’ve never actually met anyone who’s participated in a club involving weird (yet sometimes fabulous) hats, the 80s tried to tell me that EVERYONE’S father was a Shriner. And that the Shriners were, in fact, watching me.
Epilepsy. The 80s sitcom didn’t teach me that epilepsy was something to be feared, quite the opposite, the 80s sitcom taught me that epilepsy was something decidedly not to be feared. But it also taught me that everyone has epilepsy. I kept waiting for my best friend to have a seizure. I would have been prepared.
Russians. Most episodes of Scarecrow and Mrs. King were very special AND most of them involved scary KGB agents, but one particular VSE comes to mind in which Mrs. Amanda King is kidnapped by Soviets and held for ransom (this touches on not just the 80s sitcom love of Russian spy storylines, but the love of kidnapping storylines as well, see aforementioned Diff’rent Strokes mall kidnap reference). Ultimately, Mrs. King is rescued by Scarecrow, aka Lee Stetson (I like to think of the 80s as “The Age of the Stetson”, what with the cologne and the popularity of the primetime soap, Dallas, all things Stetson really experienced a heyday during the decade), but even though Mrs. King survives the ordeal, the following week we were right back to avoiding capture by scary Russians. I think the main takeaway from Scarecrow and Mrs. King is that if you meet a new person, and she or he appears to be from an Eastern bloc country, she or he is probably on the run from the KGB, so be careful, you could get unknowingly swept into the scheme.
Free crack. Basically every sitcom produced between 1983 and 1989 had an episode your family can’t afford to miss addressing teenage substance abuse. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that teenage substance abuse is unworthy of the VSE, or that crack is unscary, however, 80s sitcoms, in tandem with D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) left me with the distinct impression that drug pushers were going to hunt me down, hold a gat to my head, and force me to smoke crack. I did not really understand that if I wanted to smoke crack I’d actually have to, at least a little bit, go looking for it. In hindsight, the drug VSEs and D.A.R.E. mentors should have just pointed out that teen brokeness is the best line of defense against drugs. If you have no money, drug pushers will not stuff drugs in your gullet.
Killer bees. This wasn’t really a common VSE topic, but it was a topic commonly covered on children’s news programs like Nickelodeon News with Linda Ellerbee (which was probably a 90s show, but since the early 90s were really just an extension of the 80s I’ll allow it). Killer bees had me scared shitless. Thanks to Linda I was pretty sure that while playing on the swings in my backyard a swarm of African killer bees would fly thousands of miles to Seattle just to sting my face. Linda also instilled in me a healthy fear of acid rain. Now, mind you, like most children of the 80s and 90s I recycle obsessively, but did I really have to be told that acidic rain drops would melt me and poison my beloved pets in order for me to form good recycling practices?
Tarantulas. Like Africanized honey bees, tarantulas don’t live in Seattle, but that didn’t stop the 80s sitcom from injecting my life with all kinds of tarantula horror. Even seemingly benign shows like The Wonder Years featured tarantula episodes. Kevin Arnold’s square dance partner, Margaret Farquhar, for example, had a totally unnecessary affinity for tarantulas. WTF 80s TV?! Incidentally, the Margaret Farquhar episode of The Wonder Years also instilled in me a fear that 7th grade gym would involve square dancing, but that fear actually came to fruition, so good on ya Wonder Years for prepping me for that one.
Robots next door. Small Wonder. The less said about that show, the better. But here’s the gist, if you’re playing at your neighbor Jamie’s house and he takes a break from Legos to open up a door on his sister Vickie’s back and make a few adjustments on her circuit panel, RUN. And make sure the robot next door comes nowhere near your meemaw, robots eat old people’s medicine.
Alien Life Forms next door. ALF, Out of This World, Mork & Mindy. Hide your cat. (ed. note: Hide ya kids, hide ya wife and hide ya cat cuz they’re eatin’ errbody out here)
Accidentally making out with your best friend who’s cleverly disguised him/herself as a member of the opposite sex. This honestly came up so often in 80s sitcoms I’m, to this day, surprised I haven’t unwittingly made out with my best friend. Example #1: Out of This World. Evie’s best friend Lindsay can’t get a date for the prom so, naturally, the young alien Evie turns herself into a boy so that she can escort Lindsay to the big dance. Despite Evie’s alien powers, her turning herself into a boy basically results in her looking exactly like herself but with short hair and a Sonny Crockett suit. Lindsay invariably falls in love with Evie, who’s forced to break Lindsay’s heart. Had the 80s had any gumption whatsoever, this episode might have been a vehicle for a discussion about sexuality, gender roles, or something of substance, but nope, just hijincks (way to go 80s). Example #2: Mr. Belvedere. Kevin pledges a fraternity which involves him dressing up like a sexy woman. His fraternity brothers are, of course, totally unaware that it is Kevin in drag and they instead believe he’s a sexy woman who they proceed to “make passes at” (to use the 80s parlance). This does not lead to a serious discussion about whether some of Kevin’s male friends might be attracted to men, instead, just hijinks (great job 80s, once again). FYI–in a different VSE of Mr. Belvedere, Mr. Belvedere is kidnapped by a lonely and deranged woman who ties him up with duct tape. This episode had relatively little impact on me since I’d already been warned, via Diff’rent Strokes, against hitching a ride from the mall (which would absolutely have ended with me duct taped in a deranged pervert’s apartment).
Marauding army ants. Like killer bees, tarantulas, and acid raid, army ants want to eat your face. NOW. If Angus MacGyver, mild mannered secret agent, taught me one thing, it’s this: however much I may want to help a kindly plantation owner defend his land from an army of ants that threaten to destroy his livelihood, before I proceed I must consider that doing so will involve great personal risk”¦not to mention the use of my remaining dental floss.
AIDS transmission via blood brother/sister pacts. Both Our House and Mr. Belvedere reminded viewers, through VSEs, that everyone had AIDs in the 80s, especially little kids. The best way to avoid contracting HIV/AIDs: don’t become blood brothers with your BFF. Sure, it’s tempting to poke a hole in your finger and poke a hole in your friends finger using the same needle and then smoosh that blood together to signify the foreverness of your BFFing, but don’t. You will get the HIV. This was the extent of my 1980s HIV/AIDs education. Thankfully, the 90s involved more comprehensive curriculum.
And on that very special note, I think I’ll conclude this overview of the things 1980s television taught me to fear. I realize I’ve made just a small dent today, and I’d like to quickly name a few honorable mentions: diet pills, steroids, throwing two parties on the same day, inviting two dates to homecoming, and sullying of one’s permanent record, but we’ll have to discuss those further some other time.
Yes, that fridge is looking at you sideways. Stay safe out there, kids.