Monday, November 4, 2013

Diff’rent Strokes - The Infamous Bicycle Shop Two-Parter!

A very special look back at a very special episode of the beloved ‘80s sitcom…

“Diff’rent Strokes” was, and still is, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. There was something so contradictorily synthetic and honest about the program, starting with its absurd premise -- a rich white dude feels sorry after one of his African-American employees dies, so he adopts her two kids and raises them to be, more or less, Park Avenue honkies. The general thesis behind the show is pretty weak, but the ensemble cast really made the material come alive -- Conrad Bain as the emotionally dry Phillip Drummond, Dana Plato as the naively optimistic Kimberly, Todd Bridges as the reserved yet charismatic Willis, and of course, America’s favorite black midget child star not named Emmanual Lewis as smart-mouthed Arnold Jackson. The foursome took what was, in theory, pretty bland and hokey and turned it into something that was not only entertaining, but oddly endearing. Of course, it also turned everybody associated with the show into drug addicts, but hey…that’s the price of making fine art, sometimes.

Back in the ‘80s, sitcoms routinely trotted out the occasional “very special episode,” which broke away from the standard situation comedy mold and injected some “serious” subject matter into the program. “Diff’rent Stokes” was pretty much the uncrowned grand champion of the “very special episode,” with virtually every other episode tackling some pressing social issue. Who could forget the episode where Mr. Drummond got amnesia after being hit by a drunk driver, or the episode where the boys learned the ins and outs of epilepsy? Or how about all those wacky adventures Kimberly found herself in, like when it was suddenly revealed that she was bulimic or that one time she was almost raped by a guy who said he was an astronaut? Hell, there was even an episode where Ronald Reagan’s wife showed up and told second graders to not do heroin.

When it came to the “very special episode,” there is no denying that “Diff’rent Strokes” had the market cornered. Of all the “special” episodes, however, one stands out as perhaps the most notorious -- a two-parter that touched (honest to god, no pun intended there) upon one of the most difficult subjects in American culture -- child predators. And if you believe the show tackled the hard material in a very tact and frank manner…well, obviously, you’ve never seen an episode of “Diff’rent Strokes” before.

The episodes originally ran in 1983, under the title “The Bicycle Man” -- although it’s more typically referred to as “the bicycle shop episode” or, depending on how tasteless/straightforward your descriptors are, “the one where Arnold almost gets felt up by that dude from ‘WRKP in Cincinnati.’”

"Good evening, folks. Tonight, we're going to be covering an issue that we have no rightful business covering in the field of situation comedies."

Right off the bat, you know we’re dealing with some serious shit, because the episode begins with Conrad Bain breaking character and addressing the audience directly about a suspiciously vague social issue that he hopes will stir discussion among viewers at home. Following the standard opening credits, we find ourselves in Mr. Horton’s Bicycle Shop, were Mr. Drummond is returning four rented bicycles. Mr. Horton is played by Gordon Jump, the noted TV thespian that’s perhaps best known for his role as Big Guy Carlton on “WKRP,” as well as his fifteen year stint as “The Maytag Repairman” in a series of commercials that ran from the fall of the Berlin Wall all the way up to Iraq, Part Two. From the get-go, you just KNOW that there’s something off about this Horton character, a man who is WAY too exuberant about selling bikes and shit, and his interaction with Arnold in even this, the introductory scene, already borders on unnerving.

Arnold eyes a shiny new bicycle at the shop, and tries to goad Mr. Drummond into purchasing it for him. In an act of sublime foreshadowing, Willis makes a comment about there being too many “strange people” at the park for his younger brother to just go around biking on his own. Mr. Horton, however, manages to convince Mr. Drummond to put the bike on layaway, and Arnold accepts a proposition offered by the owner of the store to pass out fliers for the business at school in exchange for a radio. Mr. Horton brings the creepy when he says he wants a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” partnership with Arnold, who in turn, makes things all kinds of uncomfortable by stating that, for a new radio, he’d let Mr. Horton scratch him all over.

An image made even creepier when you realize Arnold was actually a 35-year-old man at the time. 

The next day at school, Arnold is hanging out in he courtyard, trying to rile up some would-be costumers for Mr. Horton’s shop. At this point, Arnold’s best pal Dudley enters the fray, and does a much better job of getting the word out to his fellow students. Afterwards, Arnold returns to the bike shop, asking if Dudley could also get a radio for his free of charge advertising. Horton agrees, and then asks Arnold if he wants to go in his “backroom” for a banana split sundae.

Horton’s backroom is basically a mini-apartment, filled with all sorts of kooky, kid-friendly paraphernalia, with toys, comic books and junk food aplenty. He even appears to own his own Pac-Man cabinet. There, Horton tells Arnold that he can come by his shop every afternoon after school and ride the bike Mr. Drummond plans on purchasing for him…as long as he remains mum about being invited into Horton’s back room. Before Arnold heads home, Horton tells him that he really likes him, as a collective chill suddenly zips down the spine of every single person watching the show.

"Y'know who else liked Sundaes, Arnold? The Romans. Know anything about their culture, by any chance?"

The next day, Arnold and Dudley show up at Horton’s shop, wearing bright yellow rain slickers. Horton spies them from his backroom, and decides to slip a girlie mag into a smattering of comic books laid out on the coffee table. Horton ambles out of his den, calls the two boys “ducks” and does this weird “You Are My Sunshine” rendition, and the kids catch a whiff of pizza.

What do you know, Mr. Horton has baked some pepperoni pie for them! The kids get lured back into the apartment, and start poring through the comics. The boys find the verboten reading material, and the audience -- for reasons that are beyond comprehension -- start laughing as their eyes widen at the discovery.

"Now, to stealthily slip this copy of Beaver Hunter Monthly in between two issues of ROM and Ambush Bug..."

Mr. Horton then gives them a lecture about how the naked human form is nothing to be ashamed of, going as far as to tell them that one can actually have quite a bit of fun without clothing on. Horton breaks out some nude photos of himself, and asks Arnold and Dudley if they’ve ever tried wine before.

They take a few sips, and Horton tells them he wants to take a few photographs of them, “playing Tarzan.” Despite the fact that the entire studio audience is watching two children about to get horrifically abused, they still laugh when, peering at a shirtless Dudley, Arnold remarks that his friend is “built like a pipe cleaner.” And then, a super-ominous “TO BE CONTINUED” message flashes on screen, and the end credits of the first episode start rolling.

Pepperoni pizza, underage kids having some wine, toys all over the place...yet, oddly, Michael Jackson is nowhere to be seen!

Episode two begins with a similar, out-of-character introduction by Bain, which is followed up by an incredibly spooky recap of the first episode, utilizing still photos and perhaps the most intimidating voiceover you’ve ever heard in your life. As the episode formally begins, the kids are still playing Tarzan, with Mr. Horton offering to be a “lion” that Dudley can ride. Horton gives the kids some more alcohol, and they start jumping on the bed. Horton then tells them that he wants them to call him “Curly,” so they can be a new and improved “Three Stooges” troupe.

While the trio are pretending to bop each other on the nose, Mr. Drummond enters the store -- apparently, he’s there to make the final payment on Arnold’s bicycle. Horton tries to rush Drummond out, but he keeps wanting to recount every single bicycle-related story that’s ever happened in his life.

Good lord, the horrible irony of a scene in which DANA PLATO and TODD BRIDGES chide another person for substance abuse...

The kids decide to sneak out of the building to avoid being detected by Arnold’s adoptive father; however, when Arnold gets home, both Kimberly and Willis smell wine on his breath…which Arnold tries to mask by chewing a really big wad of gum. After being reprimanded by his older siblings, he agrees to lay off the wine from here on out, even swearing such on his E.T. alarm clock. Mr. Drummond comes home, and wants to hug Arnold; ever the smart cookie, Arnold manages to keep him at a distance, and none the wiser about his new after-school haunt.

In the next scene, Arnold and Dudley are once again hanging out at the bike shop, where Horton persuades them to re-enter his “man cave” with the promise of cartoons and Boston crème pies. Horton puts on a video cassette of Murphy the Mouse, which, as it turns out, is kinda’ X-rated.

Go ahead...feel free to make your own horribly tasteless child abuse joke here!

A disgusted Arnold says he’s heading home afterward, while Dudley is convinced by Horton to stay with him. There’s a really fun game called “Neptune” that he wants to play with Dudley…which involves a bathtub, to some capacity.

Back at the Drummond’s palatial apartment, Dudley’s father, Mr. Ramsey, confronts Mr. Drummond. As it turns out, he smelled wine on his son’s breath, and believes that his kid got the hooch from their place. At that point, Willis and Kimberly crack and tell their two elders what the know about Arnold and Dudley’s new after school activities, with Willis making a joke about the two “going from the nipple straight to the ripple.” Conveniently, Arnold enters the picture, and tells the adults about the wine and cartoons. As would anyone that’s not a mental retard, the adults call the po-po, and we have ourselves some dénouement on the horizon.

"Maybe you're next venture can be a music shop, Mr. Horton. After all, I hear you are...quite the fiddler."

Mr. Drummond and a couple of police officials show up at Horton’s shop, where the owner tries to keep them from barging into his backroom. Inside, they find Dudley walking out of the bathroom, complaining about nausea from a pill that Horton just gave him. Dudley then tells the officials all the gory details about what happened to him, and his father hugs him up. He’s not mad at him, Mr. Ramsey says, for just getting molested a little.

The final scene of the episode involves the kids sitting around in the Drummond’s apartment, with the police detectives and Mr. Drummond talking about the dangers of predators in a way that’s also sorta’ lending indirect advice to parents at home. At one point, Willis said he couldn’t believe that Mr. Horton was gay, and one of the detectives corrects him and says that most paedos aren’t necessarily homosexual, which is really sort of progressive for a show that came out in the midst of the AIDS crisis.

Arnold concludes the two-parter by saying that his experiences have made him “one disillusioned dude,” but agreeing that consensual hugs and kisses from trusted individuals are still OK. And before the credits roll, we get one more message about child abuse, and that’s the end of that.

"C'mere, son. Let daddy help you get over the lifelong trauma of being touched against your will by touching you against your will for awhile."

Thirty years after the episodes originally aired, it’s still one of the most memorable sitcom story arcs ever, and for most people, their single defining recollection of the entire series. Hell, even people that have never actually seen the program can identify it as “that one show about the bike owning child abuser,” if only because of a gag on “Family Guy." Much like “Diff’rent Strokes” as a collective television series, the episode really runs the gamut, at times being an incredibly cheesy affair to being one of the most unsettling things ever aired on television. Gordon Jump’s performance as Mr. Horton, while pretty outlandish, also rings a lot truer than it should have -- needless to say, if one of my kids wanted to go over to the Jumps’ for a birthday party, I’d probably do so with a keen eye on Mr. Gordon the entire time I was there. Really, the episode is downright Hitchcockian, in a way, building up a lot of dread in route to the big finale -- a suspenseful slow broil that isn’t even sidetracked by some of the episodes’ goofier humor and absolutely incomprehensible audience reactions (seriously, the kid just got assailed by a predator -- how the hell COULD you laugh when Arnold goes back to wisecracking a minute later!)

Really, the entire arc  -- a lot like “Diff’rent Strokes” as a whole -- exists outside the objective boundaries of “good and bad.” Yeah, you could criticize the two-parter for its awkwardness here and there (and perhaps even more so for it’s suspicious sure-handedness regarding the tense subject matter), but you remain transfixed to the plotline regardless. It may not be “great television,” or even enjoyable television for that matter, but “The Bicycle Man” is without question one of the most unforgettable TV moments of the Reagan Years. I mean, shit…are there are any episodes of “Rubik, the Amazing  Cube” or “Manimal” from 30 years ago that you still recall as vividly today?


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