A sign of the times: When Don Reo created the characters for the NBC family comedy “Blossom,” he made the title character’s 19-year-old brother a recovering drug addict and alcoholic.
Not exactly “Leave it to Beaver.” Or even “The Cosby Show.”
“The character was part of my original concept for the show,” said Reo, who also is the program’s co-executive producer. “Because I didn’t know any families who hadn’t been touched by this problem one way or another.”
“Blossom,” pre-empted tonight from its usual 8:30 slot, is a half-hour program about a 14-year-old girl (Mayim Bialik) growing up with two older brothers and their single father. The eldest child, Anthony (Michael Stoyanov), is the recovering substance abuser. When the show opened, he had just returned from college to try to start over and battle his addiction from home.
While other TV series have had recovering substance abusers among their regular characters--Sam Malone on “Cheers” and the title character in “Murphy Brown,” for example--"Blossom” is the first to do so with a teen-ager in a series aimed at children and families.
Some of the discussions of Anthony’s problems invoke typical sitcom repartee. For example, while discussing a pottery class in the local high school, the character recalled, “I got suspended for making bongs (water pipes for smoking marijuana) in that class.”
But much of the material is serious. In an episode titled “Tough Love,” the character of Nick Russo (Ted Wass), Anthony’s father, ordered the troubled teen to get a job or move out of the family home. Anthony departed and went to work in a seedy all-night doughnut shop.
The family, meanwhile, struggled through the emotional fallout: Nick had sleepless nights worrying about his son, and his two other children, Blossom and Joey (Joey Lawrence), sharply criticized their father about his decision to throw Anthony out. In the end, Anthony moved back--but not until he had a stable job and agreed to pay rent.
“It’s very realistic, and it’s very tastefully done,” Barbara Mouron, president of Just Say No of Los Angeles County, said of the show. “It really addresses a lot of sensitive issues in a very palatable way.”
Mouron said that drug and alcohol abuse is so pervasive that it is not unusual to have a recovering teen in a family.
What is unusual, according to Mouron, is that the family in “Blossom” does not shy away from discussing Anthony’s chemical dependence problems. In real life, she said, many families are ashamed of drug and alcohol problems, and avoid confronting them.
“In the past, drinking or using drugs has always been hidden by families,” Mouron said. “Rather than try to address the problem when it happens, they try to hide the problem, which makes it even worse.”
Showing a family tackling the problem head-on, Mouron said, might encourage others to do the same.
According to Reo and others involved with the program, telling Anthony’s story requires writers, actors, directors and producers to proceed extremely cautiously.
“It’s not a subject that you can joke about very easily,” Reo said. “The only reason we are able to do any of the jokes that we do is that we have a character who has been through it and survived.”
Scripts for “Blossom” are regularly reviewed by network officials, said Alan Gerson, vice president for program standards and broadcast policy for NBC.
“We have taken upon ourselves to write into a regular series a character who is a recovering substance abuser,” Gerson said. “That means that when you talk about his problem, you want to give a message that is hopeful--that says there is recovery, that people can learn to quit using and lead productive lives--and that, to the extent that it is humanly possible, does not glorify or trivialize the problem.”
In particular, Gerson said, the network is wary of jokes about drugs, which officials worry may glamorize substance abuse.
“Drug humor is an issue for us overall,” Gerson said. “Drug humor could, if done poorly or inexpertly, tend to glorify or trivialize drug use, and that is not what anyone wants to do.”
“They’ve been scared of the character all along and we’ve had a lot of spirited discussions about what the character can say and what he can’t say,” said Reo.
Some jokes have been changed to accommodate NBC’s concerns, he said. For example, one script called for Anthony to describe a boring date. Initially, the character described it by saying, “I’ve known people on Thorazine who were more fun than this girl.”
At the network’s request, the line was changed to read, “I’ve known people who were unconscious who were more fun than this girl.”
Another line, which called for Anthony to respond, “Mushrooms” to a question about what he did to get out of a mental block, was eliminated altogether, according to Reo.
Unlike many other programs that deal with sensitive topics, “Blossom” does not have an expert on chemical dependency as a consultant to the show.
“We have people in our company who have been through programs, people who came to us with problems, whose treatment we paid for,” said co-executive producer Paul Junger Witt. “So between the people within our organization who had firsthand information and information that was readily available to us through research, we were very well covered.”
Stoyanov, 21, said that he reached into his own past to play Anthony. While he says he never developed a serious drug problem, “I was aware of drugs when I was younger. I went to parties in high school. And I had an awareness of being a teen-ager and rebelling against parents and authority, and not wanting to fit in the way the perceived ‘enemy’ wanted me to.”
If the program is renewed for another season (it regularly loses to CBS’ “Major Dad” in its time period), the plan is for Anthony to emerge from his problems and, step by step, venture out into the world.
“I want to say (to the audience) that you can always return, you can always change,” Stoyanov said. “And I think it would be misleading to younger people who are watching the show who may be having problems if they just see this dizzy marshmallow-head who still can’t make a cup of coffee.
“The whole thing hinges on the fact that it should be a positive message,” he continued, “that you can be very confused and very young and very high and you can still turn it around.”