Groaning Pains: Matthew Perry Goes On to a Better Place; Or How We Learned About Drunk Driving

With the proper premiere of Go On this week and its promising ratings, it seemed like the appropriate time to revisit our Groaning Pains series, specifically Go On star Matthew Perry’s short stint as Carol’s ill-fated boyfriend, Sandy. In other words, it’s time to discuss how we learned about drunk driving (and that a guy could be named “Sandy”).

When Friends premiered back in 1994 we may have been the only eleven-year-old in the country who thought to himself “there’s the guy who was in the Married with Children backdoor pilot and there’s the guy who was Carol’s boyfriend on Growing Pains that died from drinking and driving.” The former is Matt LeBlanc, whose Married With Children character Vinnie Verducci – Joey Tribbiani’s spiritual predecessor – was spun off with his father Charlie  (the immortal Joseph Bolonga) into the very short-lived series Top of the Heapand the latter is, of course, Matthew Perry. For years, Matthew Perry stuck in our mind because of his role on Growing Pains – 1) because his arc ended so tragically, and 2) because we never could quite wrap our heads around the fact he was named Sandy – and it would take a little while for us before we thought of Perry as Chandler Bing and not as Carol Seaver’s love lost, a cautionary tale.

We’ve already discussed how Growing Pains was our well-after-school-special, teaching us about racism, drugs, and homelessness, and it was Matthew Perry in the form of Sandy (we’re not sure if his last name was given, so let’s just say it’s “Duncan”) Duncan who taught us about drinking and driving, and showed us just how devastating its effects could be. We learn in Sandy’s first appearance that he favors a drink or two, and while asking someone if she wants to grab a beer seems totally commonplace now – normal even – it was a clear indication to our 1989 self that this guy had a drinking problem. Big time. And our gut (or already refined television intuition) did not prove us wrong, and Sandy continued to enjoy a few beers, even roping underage Carol into the debauchery. Our sweet little Carol, goody two-shoes Carol, not only lying, and not only drinking, but getting in the car with someone who had been drinking. It was so unlike the principled, responsible, even prudish, Carol we had come to know and, if not love, respect. But the lure of alcohol, the adrenaline rush of the danger, the pure ecstasy of breaking the rules, was too much for even Carol, who was normally the strongest and most steadfast of character.

And it wasn’t long (three episodes) before Sandy and Carol’s actions and wonton flouting of the law resulted in dire consequences. After a night out and a few drinks, Sandy drops Carol off at home (but not before some smooching on the porch, caught by Ben’s budding filmmaker eye), and gets back behind the wheel while still intoxicated. If you’re like us, you expect a text when a significant other or good friend gets home after a late night out, or at least the late-80s version of this, the “one-ring.” But Carol gets neither of these notifications that Sandy (still can’t believe he’s a dude named Sandy) made it home safe, and when she finally receives a call it’s not from Sandy, but from his roommate Doug (Family Ties’ Skippy‘s cooler young brother), bearing bad news. The reason Sandy did not call was not because he had lost interest in Carol, or because he was waiting three days to call his baby, but because he had crashed his car and was laid up in the hospital. The lesson? You drive drunk you drive stupid and you drive into a tree (disregarding the fact that Sandy and Carol spent nearly an hour French kissing on the porch, as confirmed by Maggie’s surveillance notes, giving Sandy some time to sober up, and ignoring that Perry doesn’t act the slightest bit inebriated at any point in the scene. Doesn’t matter. You drive drunk you drive stupid and you drive into a tree). But worry not! Carol arrives at the hospital to find Sandy alive, Perry’s trademark Chandler Bingian sarcastic wit still intact. He’s a little worse for the wear, and his dad won’t be happy, but he’s learned his lesson and gotten his second chance.*

But, it was not to be. Carol and Sandy, the Romeo and Juliet of Growing Pains, are indeed two star-crossed lovers, fortune’s fool, and just as it seems they will be together forever, they are ripped apart for all eternity. Carol arrives home from the hospital to find Mike, for perhaps the first time, at a loss for words, the bearer of bad news. What then unfolds is perhaps the most dramatic, emotional scene in all of Growing Pains and the best acting of Tracey Gold’s career. For your consideration.

Give us a second to dry our eyes.

And then the episode ends, not with a laugh line, not with a joke from Mike or a chuckle from Jason or a motherly gaze from Maggie, but with a hug in total silence. This is how we imagine most bad plays end, with a tableau of the main actors in sad embrace, the lights fading out around them, not a word uttered, which only reinforces our view of Growing Pains as television’s greatest work of theater, the Seavers commanding the set as if it were a stage, playing out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the guise of a generic network sitcom. And the family hug, whether one of comfort, gratitude, appreciation, sadness or love, is perhaps the quintessential Growing Pains ending, finding peace in the arms of another Seaver.

But Matthew Perry’s Sandy doesn’t get such an ending, although he presumably rests in peace. No, he doesn’t get to participate in the next week’s hijinks. Instead he serves as a teaching lesson, the fable of Sandy the alcoholic. If you drink and drive you will die. Even if you seem totally fine afterward and are cracking jokes and telling your girlfriend you’ve learned your lesson, you will experience internal hemorrhaging and you will die. That, according to Growing Pains, is a fact. And it’s no stretch to posit that the reason we grew up so averse to drunk driving is directly related to this episode and Sandy’s heartbreaking end.

In fact, we can go even further. This very special episode may have scared us off of drinking entirely. As a child we viewed alcohol as a terrible, vile evil, a deadly sin to be avoided at all costs, and looking back we can at least partially attribute this stance to Growing Pains and Matthew Perry. Because of Sandy we considered anyone drinking a beer to be self-destructive and reckless. Anyone drinking a beer and then getting behind a wheel? Well, that’s someone with a death-wish and a complete disregard for the gift of human life, someone who has no remorse for the things he does to himself and the anguish and pain he brings upon others. For not only did Sandy’s bad, selfish judgement lead to his premature passing, it left poor, sweet Carol Seaver devastated, an immeasurable hurt that may never heal.

Certainly, his death made an impact on us, one that we carry to this day. Just take a look at our spotless driving record.

RIP Sandy Duncan

*And it’s interesting to note that this episode is titled “Second Chance,” which coincidentally (or perhaps not) was also the name of Matthew Perry’s weird, quasi-supernatural 1987 Fox sitcom, later retooled without the paranormal elements into a run-of-the-mill boys will be boys sitcom called, well, Boys Will Be Boys


Filed under Growing Pains, Makes You Think, Nostalgia Corner, Sha la la la

3 responses to “Groaning Pains: Matthew Perry Goes On to a Better Place; Or How We Learned About Drunk Driving

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