Typical subjects were alocholism ("The Boy Who Drank Too Much," 1980, with Scott Baio), teenage pregnancy ("Schoolboy Father," 1980, with Rob Lowe), and illiteracy ("The Hero Who Couldn't Read," 1984, Clarence Williams III & Michael Dorn). The plots - and the problems - almost always revolved around a teenaged protagonist, even if the crux of the story involved adult characters (such as a mother's drinking problem or a father who molests his daughter). The young protagonists, however, were expected to find their own solutions to their dilemmas. Sometimes characters died as a result of their actions.
The After School Special practically hit viewers over the head with each episode's message, and - while they may look hokey now due to older film stock and dated fashions - the show was particularly hard-hitting for its time. Not all the Specials were dreary melodramas, however; there were comedies and occasional cartoons as well. 'Timer,' the cellulitic cartoon figure mainly remembered for quick between- show spots wherein he advocated healthy eating (by combining crackers and a hunka cheese to form "a wagon wheel!") was the star of an hour-long animated trip through the human body, The Incredible, Indelible, Magical, Physical Mystery Trip. The series is fondly remembered, though; many people who grew up during that period remember various episodes featuring Kristy McNichol ("Me and Dad's New Wife") or Melissa Sue Anderson ("Beat the Turtle Drum").
As a kid, I personally hated the ABC After School Special series - in fact, I was always furious whenever I came home to find my beloved reruns of Gilligan's Island or Bugs Bunny preempted by the show. I didn't like being preached to - and it was obvious this is what was happening - and the stories themselves, being 'straight' drama, didn't interest me (i.e., they weren't cartoons or science fiction). Some of the subjects, such as drug-taking and bullying, frightened me - I had seen enough of the episodes to know that sometimes the kid didn't live long enough to learn from his mistakes, and I guess that bothered me. Today, however, I can remember them with a bit of pleasure. The shows are great encapsulations of the period in which they were created. Modern teens may laugh at the clothes and funky music, but my guess is they would still be enthralled watching kids like themselves struggle to deal with real-world problems - problems that hadn't existed on afternoon television until shows like this came along.