Wednesday, August 05, 2015

What'cha Talkin' 'Bout, Child Molester? The Diff'rent Strokes "Bicycle Man" Episode


Much has been written online about the creepy Diff'rent Strokes "Bicycle Man" episode -- like the episode of Too Close for Comfort where Monroe was kidnapped and raped by a woman and a transvestite, "The Bicycle Man" seems to have taken on a life of its own. I'll try, however, to maybe add my own thoughts about this "very special episode" which I watched for the first time on Video Dailymotion last night (some parts of it were removed from YouTube for copyright violation.)

I've mentioned on Go Retro before how fascinating it is to me that many situation "comedies" of the 1980s would occasionally cover a controversial topic to try to teach the viewer some moral lessons all within 23 minutes -- such as Punky Brewster being bullied into trying drugs or Carol Seever's boyfriend dying after a drunk driving accident in Growing Pains. These "very special episodes" as they would come to be labeled, are part of the reason my TV generation fondly remembers these shows decades after they originally aired. Can the same be said for many current sitcoms such as Modern Family or Two Broke Girls? Today's cowardly television writers would never take a chance on such heavy stuff. 

However, of all of the 1980s sitcoms, it seems those pesky Drummond kids managed to get themselves into trouble the most! Let me just copy and paste a key sentence on Wikipedia about the icky topics that Diff'rent Strokes addressed during its 8-season run: "Diff'rent Strokes featured some very special episodes that involved child molestation, child pornography, pedophilia, hitchhiking, kidnapping, epileptic seizure, bullies, racism, bulimia, drunk driving and drug abuse."

Holy &*%$.




I have quite a bit of catching up to do on these very special episodes but as I mentioned, last night I delved into the "Bicycle Man" episode, co-starring Gordon Jump of of WKRP in Cincinnati and Maytag Man fame. He plays the owner of a bicycle shop who gets close -- too close -- to Arnold and his friend Dudley by luring them with ice cream, pizza, and...wine. He also has Dudley remove his shirt before conducting a photo shoot (commenting on his physique and patting his back), introduces the boys to porn via a girlie magazine and a cartoon, then tells Dudley (after Arnold wisely takes off) about a game he has planned for him that involves the shower called Neptune, King of the Sea. 

Diff'rent strokes, indeed. 




In the two part episode Jump plays Mr. Horton, the owner of a bicycle shop that the Drummonds regularly rent bikes from. After Mr. Horton advises Mr. Drummond that he could save money by just buying bikes, Arnold begs for a bicycle of his own. Mr. Drummond gives in, saying that he'll get it for Arnold's birthday. Mr. Horton tells Arnold that if he can help get the word out about a sale the shop is running, he'll throw in a free radio for his new set of wheels. 

Arnold recruits the help of his friend, Dudley, and eventually the two of them discover Mr. Horton's apartment at the back of his bicycle shop, filled with video games, toys, and treats. (Arnold discovers it first. "You know something Arnold, I like you. I really like you. You and I are going to have a lot of good times together," says Mr. Horton to the boy after making him a banana split.) Events escalate with the boys being introduced to alcohol, porn, and pictures of Mr. Horton skinny dipping with other kids. (He tells the kids his nickname is Curly; maybe it should be Horny Horton.) He has a secret hole in the wall where he can view who's in the shop--I found this detail to be the scariest, for some reason, especially the scene where he spies Arnold and Dudley waiting in the shop wearing yellow slickers. 

Eventually, Arnold confessed to Mr. Drummond what's been going on, who contacts the police and discovers a dazed and drugged Dudley in Mr. Horton's apartment, just moments away from being diddled. The episode concludes with Mr. Drummond and one of the detectives explaining to Arnold that kids often get blamed for these situations, and that no one is allowed to touch someone where they don't want to be touched. 



One of the first things I noticed about this episode were the colorful lines which may or may not have been intended as double entendres: 

"What's that old saying? You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."
"This sounds like a job for Captain banana split." (pointing at himself)
"You like bananas, don't you?"
"We'll make this a three dipper job here."
"Chocolate sauce, huh?"
"I'll bet you're a whipped cream man."
Arnold: "My tongue is faster than a hummingbird's wings"
Arnold: "I'm back for another load."



The second uneasy detail I noticed was the audience's reactions to inappropriate moments in both parts, such as when we see a close up of the girlie mag in Mr. Horton's hand before he sneaks it into a pile of comic books on his coffee table. More laughter ensues at the boys' reactions and quips made about seeing pictures of naked ladies for the first time and the cartoon involving a frisky mouse. I will admit that as uncomfortable as the topic presented is, even I felt amusement by Arnold's and Dudley's reactions to experiencing porn for the first time. What is unsettling, however, is that you can hear what sounds like children's giggles mixed in with the adults. 



To be fair, the laughter was probably from a laugh track and not a live audience--the episode aired in February 1983 during the show's fifth season; I could only find info online that confirmed season 7 was filmed in front of a live studio audience. But given the seriousness of the topic at hand (as indicated by Conrad Bain introducing each part with a "heads up - this is a heavy episode!") speech, perhaps it would have been best to leave out the laughter all together. 

I will say that Jump's portrayal of a disgusting kiddie rapist here is a standout performance; you can totally picture him delivering all of his lines in a scary clown costume, especially when juggling, singing, and hamming it up in front of the boys. 

I've probably said on here before that for me personally, the '80s were the era that ended childhood innocence. For several years my friends and I always felt comfortable going someplace in the neighborhood by ourselves without phones and any way for our parents to contact us. I'd ride my bicycle to a friend's house and we'd walk down a few streets to get ice cream and were never scared. After Adam Walsh was kidnapped and his body discovered without his head, however, our world changed a little bit for the worse. I'd have to surmise that that incident rubbed off on TV producers and writers as well which spawned so many worst-case scenarios for viewers. 

Would this episode hold up today? Well, it would never be aired on television today and it if were, would most likely involve Mr. Horton conversing with Arnold and Dudley online and via social media. I wonder if it was ever shown in classrooms in the '80s. 

As for that pervert Mr. Horton, we can probably assume he ended up in the same prison as "Bill", a creepy character from another Diff'rent Strokes very special episode, "The Hitchhikers." Stay tuned for an assessment of that two-parter!

Watch part 1 and part 2 of "The Bicycle Man."

3 comments:

  1. I have a vague memory of this episode and one from Good Times where, I think, Janet Jackson's character was sexually assaulted (long time ago, memories muddled). TV show creators/writers seemed to have less restrictions placed on them in the 70s and 80s as opposed to now. Scripts like these (and those from Archie Bunker, Soap, Maude, etc.) would simply be rejected today.

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  2. Yep those "Very Special Episodes" were code words for - super creepy subject that you really don't watch a sitcom for but have to under the current social meme in order to "fit in" with the cool kids. Now we don't have "Very Special Episodes", we have "Reality" TV which is usually creepy from start to finish!!

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  3. Wouldn't be aired today? Maybe not on a sitcom, but dramas like Law and Order SVU have dealt frequently with child molesters.

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