TSOF Note: This review is Part 1 of a three part series examining various sitcoms' use of social learning theory to address the behavior of drinking and driving.
The archetypical sitcoms of the 1980’s, widely considered the golden age of the form, often employed lessons or messages as a cornerstone of their story telling. The network would regularly advertise such a showing as “a very special episode.” While scholars have long debated the impact of television on learning and behavior, very special episodes have their roots in the theories of social learning. Social learning is learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining, and either replicating or avoiding behavior executed by others. Dr. Albert Bandura, perhaps the most outspoken and influential social learning theorist, has concentrated much of his work on the effects of television. In his 1977 book Social Learning Theory, Dr. Bandura wrote: “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
Social learning theory postulates that there are four key processes of social learning. The intended audience must observe behavior and its consequences, retain that memory, be able to reproduce the behavior in a similar circumstance, and, perhaps most importantly, the observer must be motivated to act on the learned behavior. It is this last element that poses the greatest challenge for a sitcom and one that very special episodes almost universally fail. Dr. Bandura wrote, “Because people can learn from example what to do, at least in approximate form, before performing any behavior, they are spared needless errors.” In their efforts to spare the audience “needless errors,” sitcom writers repeatedly cross the line from cautionary tale to ridiculous melodrama.
“Second Chance,” originally airing on April 19, 1989, qualifies as a “very special” Growing Pains. Almost completely bereft of comedy, “Second Chance” delivers its socially important message with all of the subtlety of a ball peen hammer to the skull. In the process of establishing the all-important motivation for the audience, the episode drifts irretrievably into dreadful melodrama. The plot is straightforward and predictable. Carol is dating Sandy, a recurring character played by Matthew Perry in three episodes. Sandy is Carol’s college-aged suitor and the action opens on the family waiting for Sandy to pick Carol up for their date. As Sandy arrives, the audience is presented with a charming, attractive, and respectful young man. The date concludes with Sandy and Carol necking on the front porch. Sandy calls Carol his girlfriend and invites her to his Dean’s List luncheon the next day. At the end of the date, Carol tells her mom that she really likes Sandy. The writers are clearly striving to have the audience emotionally invest themselves in the relationship.
The next day, however, Sandy does not pick Carol up for the Dean’s List lunch. Carol, hurt and confused, waits by the phone. When it finally rings, it is not Sandy on the line but Sandy’s roommate Doug, who informs Carol that Sandy was in a car accident the night before and is in the hospital. Carol, Jason and Maggie rush to the hospital where Carol is able to visit Sandy. Sandy has tubes up his nose, some cuts and bruises, and a broken leg, but otherwise appears to be fine and in good sprits. It is at this point, however, that the audience learns that Carol and Sandy had been drinking before the accident. The intoxicated Sandy apparently hit a tree on his way home from the Seaver’s house. Worse, Sandy will be charged with drinking and driving. Carol leaves the room both regretful for the consequences but thankful for Sandy’s second chance. After Carol leaves, she informs Jason and Maggie about Sandy’s condition and the cause of the accident. Jason then delivers a speech condemning drinking and driving. The episode has now delivered both an observable behavior, drinking and driving, and a motivation for the audience to avoid that behavior – hospitalization, arrest, and the disappointment of parents.
Unfortunately the episode continues and descends into loathsome melodrama. When Carol, Jason, and Maggie arrive home from the hospital, a somber Mike confronts them. Apparently Doug has just called from the hospital with horrible news. Sandy is dead. Carol breaks down crying, cursing the heavens, “What happened to his second chance?” The episode ends with this chilling line still hanging in the air and the family embraced in a group hug. The message is clear, however. Drunk drivers do not get a second chance. It is too grave of an error.
Worse, the episode concludes with a statistic stating the number of people who were killed in a drunk driving related accident during the time the episode aired. Considering “Second Chance” went to great lengths to make the drunk driver relatable, even likable, the statistic seems to be at cross-purposes with the episode’s message. Based on the episode, the statistic’s message seems to be that the audience should become shut ins, fearing the tyranny of the road by well-meaning college kids coming home from a date after one too many beers.
Despite its roots grounded in social learning theory, “Second Chance” is an abject failure.