Dwight Hurst follows up on World AIDS Day with a #TBT to that time Mr. Belvedere clued him on the mysterious world of HIV.
With World AIDS Day being this week, my thoughts turned to Mr. Belvedere. Not Mr. Belding, that’s an entirely different #ThrowBackThursday. No the stout, stoic and oh-so-British Mr. Belvedere it was for me.
That was a bit unusual, as I honestly don’t find myself thinking of Mr. Belvedere very often. At the same time it wasn’t very surprising. Mr. Belvedere once made me feel weird about AIDS.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know, Mr. Belvedere (CLICK HERE for the opening credits) was a sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1990 Seriously, I just looked it up on IMDB, and it ran for 5 years! How did that happen?
It was pretty much the typical family situation: two parents, one of which was a TV sportscaster played by Bob Uecker, an older angst-ridden-self-discovering teen boy, similarly angsty teen girl, and a pre-Bart-Simpson-but-otherwise-Bart-Simpsony little boy named Wesley (he’s the only one who needs a name in this recollection).
Oh, and the middle-aged British man who moved in with them and worked as their butler, or possibly indentured servant. I don’t recall there being any attempt at explanation as to why he was there. You can read the comments for angry corrections, but as I recall he was just a inexplicably omnipresent Jeeves character, one who filled the family’s boring suburban life with dry snarkiness and well-timed poignancy. It was a simpler, less questioning time. Also I think cocaine was still a big thing in Hollywood. Whatever the reason, backstories weren’t that important.
In the episode titled “Wesley’s Friend,” Wesley has a friend named Danny who is discovered to have contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. The kids at school immediately shunned the boy, refusing to come in any contact with him and spreading weird rumors about how you can catch AIDS from (apparently) even talking to him. The school officials react to the situation by expelling the boy.
You read that correctly. This episode had a storyline where a 9-year-old boy is kicked out of school for having AIDS.
In an edgy style Mr. Belvedere was definitely NOT known for, the characters on the show even joked about it. When asked, “How are you doing?,” at one point, Danny replies, “Well I have AIDS, but other than that I’m doing pretty good.” Cue laugh track.
Not a joke by the way, a kid said that and then they played studio laughter.
As a 9 or 10 year old myself at the time, I only knew two things: 1) That AIDS was some kind of a disease, and 2) that I did not know anyone who had it.
I remember being confused as to why the school would kick someone out for being sick. I remember being afraid that someone so close to my demographic could catch something so scary. It was probably the first time I had seen myself in the light of mortality, as a person who could contract something life threatening. It was uncomfortable.
Toward the end of the episode Danny gets to be in a school play where he plays Abraham Lincoln. I remember feeling like it was unfair that a nice kid like that could both portray such a beloved historical figure while being shunned by his classmates and teachers. It seemed like they were the ones who should have supported him.
The most interesting thing about my discomfort was the talk it caused me to have with my mother.
After the show she explained to me in greater detail what AIDS was, and that it had been particularly tragic for the Gay people, which was something I had not known. In response to my fear of catching AIDS, she helped me understand that it was unlikely to catch AIDS from a blood transfusion, and impossible to catch through typical day-to-day contact which was also one of the points of the episode.
This conversation was how I first learned about STDs. It was the first time I remember thinking about the topic of sexual orientation and how people react to it, even if I didn’t fully appreciate Wesley’s friend as a metaphorical stand-in for the plight of the Gay community at the time.
Looking back at this episode I now understand that it was a thinly veiled metaphor for the plight of Gay individuals suffering from the disease without the support of the society around them, at a time when producers wouldn’t have dared to insert a Gay character into the world of Mr. Belvedere.
It was the type of “very special episode,” that was uncomfortable to think about, not what you were expecting from a brainless sitcom viewing. It was the type of thing that makes people roll their eyes and complain about having to “explain this to my kids.” I am reasonably sure my mother was not planning out that conversation when the opening sequence rolled out images of the titular Belvedere creepily meeting the family.
Activism by its nature makes people feel uncomfortable. In order to raise awareness your perceptions of the world need to be adjusted, causing a type of cognitive dissonance that can be a psychologically painful process. This is especially true if you are a member of a group favored by societal power differentials. Those in power are always uncomfortable when they learn of the plight of the less powerful.
I am glad for that discomfort, as I have learned to be glad for similar philosophical discomfort in my life. I’ve learned since that allowing myself to be challenged always leads to learning, a new perspective, or at least greater empathy for others. Going through this emotional journey with Pre-Bart-Simpson Wesley made young Dwight want to be a little less judgmental, and a lot more kind.
So I have to toss out a #ThrowBackThursdayThanks to Mr. Belvedere for making me uncomfortable that one time.
Who would have thought such a weird cheesy show could have touched me emotionally.
Of course there was that other “special episode,” when the older teen in the family reacted to loosing his virginity. And the time Bob Uecker’s character got his job back through clarifying his true emotions about a situation. Or the time Wesley blackmailed Mr. Belvedere with threats of deportation to get him to do his chores. Or the hurricane episode where they hid in the basement hoping to survive…
On second thought, maybe Mr. Belvedere taught me everything I know.
Photo credit: Flickr/nJzKmU