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‘Special Bulletin’: Ground Zero for ‘My So-Called Life'?

In which we duck and cover with the best of them.

Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker tackle a catastrophe in 'Special Bulletin.'

Tracing the history of My So-Called Life means, in part, exploring one key aspect of the early collaborations between executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz: the simulation of real life on the small screen.

While I think most would agree that the dry run for MSCL was Thirtysomething,* their first real foray into “tele-vérité” was actually a 103-minute NBC TV movie called Special Bulletin. Aired on March 20, 1983, it was arguably one of the ballsiest productions in American TV history.


*We get a heaping helping of actor David Clennon – Miles Drentell from Thirtysomething – in Special Bulletin as the leader of the terrorist group.

Special Bulletin begins like a typical “breaking news” interruption of that era, cutting to TV news anchors John Woodley and Susan Myles as they bring viewers footage of an intense standoff at a Charleston dock between the Coast Guard and terrorists on board a tugboat. The TV reporter on the spot goes in for a closer look with his cameraman in tow, only to be captured by the insurgents and taken aboard the vessel.

It turns out the terrorists are actually anti-nuke activists who threaten to detonate a nuclear bomb of their own making inside the boat unless all of the nuclear bomb triggers from the local navy base are delivered to them.

Oddly, The Day After, another TV movie, came along in November of this same year (1983) on future Zwick/Herskovitz home ABC. While that production enjoyed more buzz than Special Bulletin – mostly because of the gory depictions of life after a nuclear detonation – it never tried to pass itself off as a real event. That it starred Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow and Jason Robards – all familiar faces of the day – further distanced The Day After from any sense of reality. [You can watch The Day After here.]

From there we watch the situation deteriorate through a series of broadcasts from inside the boat intermixed with interviews with in-studio experts, and the tag team reporting of the news anchors.

Despite the appearance of the word “dramatization” on screen at several points, as well as bumpers at the beginning and end of each commercial break explaining that the show is fiction, these things did little to defuse the at-times uncanny feeling of realism that it achieved. Deliberate stuttering of lines, simulated technical difficulties, and the fact that it was all shot on videotape rather than film made for a convincing, disturbing television event.

The movie won Zwick and Herskovitz a number of prestigious awards, including Emmys for "Outstanding Directing in a Limited Series or a Special" (Zwick) and "Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series or a Special" (both), opening the door to new opportunities for them both in Hollywood.

As would become typical of several Zwick and Herskovitz productions to come, what viewers would remember long afterward wasn’t the plot of Special Bulletin so much as its haunting displays of emotion – in this case the somber mood of the newsroom following the inevitable tragedy.

The one thing the film could not do was make us care about the people on screen. It would take My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman to move the Zwick/Herskovitz sense of reality to that next crucial level.


'So Beautiful it Hurts' is neither endorsed by nor affiliated with ABC, The Bedford Falls Co., or anyone involved with the making or distribution of "My So-Called Life."  


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