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‘Growing Pains’ Takes a Surprising Turn

Viewers who tuned into “Growing Pains” Wednesday night expecting their usual dose of escapist fare got a sobering surprise.

Sandy, the ABC comedy’s newest regular character, got into a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol and had to be hospitalized. He was seen propped up in bed, apparently on the road to recovery as he joked that he was hooked up to so many tubes and wires, “I get HBO now.”

Then, two scenes later, viewers learned he had died.

Sandy (played by Matthew Perry) was the amiable college student with whom the Seaver family’s teen-age daughter Carol (Tracey Gold) was seriously smitten. He was handsome, funny, on the dean’s list--designed to be everything an average teen-ager might want in a dream date or a pal.

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The character had been brought into the show in January--specifically so that his death in Wednesday night’s segment would hit hard.

“We didn’t want this to be strictly a utilitarian character,” said executive producer Steve Marshall. “We wanted it to be somebody that the audience knew a little bit, maybe had grown to care about.”

ABC officials in New York reported “several dozen” phone calls Wednesday night after the show aired from viewers lauding the drunk-driving theme. Early response at the “Growing Pains” production office in Burbank was, however, very low, with just one congratulatory viewer message by late Thursday morning. By contrast, last year’s drug-abuse themed “Growing Pains” episode generated “phone calls from across the country all day long,” said one production company staffer.

According to Marshall, he and fellow executive producers Dan Guntzelman and Mike Sullivan decided to center this season’s “issue” show on teens and drinking after he found that his 14-year-old daughter had been “experimenting with drinking.” They quickly settled on the idea of sacrificing one of the series’ regular characters, concluding that a “sugar-coated ending” in which the character recovered and promised never to do it again wouldn’t work.

Initially, they thought of “doing away with one or both” of the young girls who have appeared in about a dozen “Growing Pains” installments.

“But then we thought, ‘Gee, that would hurt us . . . because you see them in so many reruns and you begin to feel uncomfortable.”

The solution came with the development of a farcical episode that had Carol alone at home with a boy, against her parents’ wishes. “We looked at that and we thought, ‘Why don’t we make this the guy who gets killed?’ ” Marshall said.

The writers subsequently planted a scene in his first episode that showed “Sandy was no stranger to having a drink now and then"--an episode which, by no coincidence, was rebroadcast last week.

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The character was also seen as part of an anniversary gathering in a later show, and there were lines of dialogue “that let viewers know Carol was dating him exclusively . . . everything moving toward this episode, which is where we were leading the character all along.”

Just how much good is the show likely to do?

“Millions of young viewers will experience the loss of this character,” Jay Winsten, assistant dean at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the university’s Center for Health Communication, said.

“I think the show will succeed in breaking through young people’s feelings of immortality and their sense of denial that drinking and driving could ever hurt them personally,” said Winsten, who also has been the driving force behind the consciousness-raising Harvard Alcohol Project.

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Harvard-affiliated psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, who saw a preview of the episode’s ending, in which Carol reacts with tears and disbelief to the news of Sandy’s death, said he thought it would be upsetting to children and to some parents.

“But children hear about these kinds of things on the news every day,” Poussaint said, “and they also view dramatic shows that are violent as hell--with people getting killed and maimed all the time. At least with this they’re getting a very valuable message (from witnessing Carol’s grief).”

Marshall said that the only problem the producers had in making the episode concerned the printed epilogue, saying that 31 people had been injured or killed in alcohol-related accidents in the time it took to watch the show. ABC’s broadcast standards department initially balked at that postscript.

John Barber, vice president of current programming at ABC, chalks up the epilogue disagreement to overcautiousness on the part of network attorneys.

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“The important thing is, it was used,” he said.

Other than that, Barber said, the network strongly supported the episode from its inception.

ABC plans to air drinking-driving public service announcements featuring “Growing Pains” teen stars Gold and Kirk Cameron in order to augment the effect of the special episode.

Message shows are nothing new for “Growing Pains.” The series won awards from two suicide-prevention groups for a 1987 episode that showcased Alan Thicke’s psychiatrist character trying to help a suicidal teen. And last season’s sole issue show, in which Cameron’s popular character rejected a cocaine-snorting clique, earned a Scott Newman Foundation drug abuse prevention award.

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