This is the first in what may be an ongoing look at some of the more melodramatic, socially conscious, politically charged, culturally relevant, righteously pedantic or potentially controversial moments from ‘Growing Pains.’ Today we take a look at the sixth episode of the show’s first season, “Mike’s Madonna Story.”
Kirk Cameron, America’s premier born-again Christian, has gone on record (with Piers Morgan, not Greta Van Susteren) that he opposes homosexuality. Whether he hates gays and believes God hates them too is up for debate, but he certainly disagrees with their lifestyle and believes they’re destructive to “our” Christian civilization It’s a bit jarring then that his television alter-ego Mike Seaver would make light of same-sex relationships, suggesting to his mother in this early Growing Pains episode that the reason that he did not have sex with a young slut (played by the late Dana Plato) is that he’s gay. Of course, the truth was that Mike was just too ashamed to admit that he was scared to go all the way (which is fine, kids!), but we find it weird that in 1985 they included this remark, especially that they used such a sensitive issue as a laugh line. But, perhaps, this was a time that was pre-gay panic, where something like this was not yet politically incorrect or possibly offensive and instead totally acceptable on ABC Saturday night at 8pm. We do know, however, that we never noticed – or perhaps more accurately, understood – the meaning of this reference until we saw this episode as an adult. We were probably five or six when we saw this episode (in syndication), and the concept of homosexuality went way over our very short heads.
Besides the surprising, now distracting, throwaway mention of homosexuality, this scene features the hallmark endemic to any great, quintessential Growing Pains episode, an extremely long, deliberate, wordy scene between two or three Seavers, often concerning some social issue, but usually about love or family or trust or respect, some kind important value. Most Growing Pains episodes actually break down into the same format, jokey opening, set up, conflict, and then a third act that may be comprised entirely of one extended scene. In fact, many of these scenes actually feel like little one-act plays, with dense, measured dialogue and careful, detailed blocking. Just look at this scene above and observe Joanna Kerns as she cuts across the room, then back to the kitchen counter, and then finally gliding over to the kitchen table. She reclines in no less than four places, all the while doing professional scene work with a carton of ice cream (note how she gracefully adds some granola crumbs to her dessert), while Kirk Cameron does his own prop work with a magazine and a baseball. It’s theater, it’s Death of a Salesman, on a hammy, corny 80s sitcom. It’s impossible to imagine a network airing a scene with this kind of glacial pace today, let alone viewers sitting through it. But that’s what Growing Pains did from week to week, and even if it seems positively antiquated today, it does strike us as somehow very brave, very ambitious (including the gay joke, even if it feels in bad taste now). It’s probably just how sitcoms were built then, and when you’re producing TV in a world of hammy, corny sitcoms replete long, melodramatic, sappy teaching moments, it’s hard to step outside that world. And in that world of long, melodramatic, sappy teaching moments, few did it better than Growing Pains. Even if we had no idea what “gay” meant.
But we have to wonder: would born-again Kirk Cameron approved of that joke? Would he be willing, perhaps enthusiastic, to use homosexuality as a punch-line? Or would he have been steadfast against any mention of the “sin” in the show, especially the suggestion, even as a goof, that his character is gay? We can only hope he’ll comment on this post and enlighten us.