The (Mis)Education of AIDS Storylines on TV Shows: The Hogan Family

the hogan family, originally titled “valerie” before the title character was killed off at the start of its third season in 1988, was an american sitcom starring jason bateman that revolved around three teenage brothers who were being raised in oak park, illinois by their airline pilot father and their paternal aunt.

like most television sitcoms of the time, the hogan family tackled social issues such as HIV/AIDS to educate and raise awareness. while some “very special episodes” of sitcoms bordered on cautionary tale or very moralistic tropes, the hogan family’s “very special” AIDS episode managed to balance both.

the “best of friends, worst of times” episode aired on world AIDS day, december 1, 1990. the plot follows david, portrayed by jason bateman, as he films a documentary at a hospital for a school project. he then runs into his best friend rich. after exchanging hugs and pleasantries, rich quickly returns to his room. it is then that david finds out that rich is battling AIDS.

david struggles to come to terms with the information that rich is dying from AIDS complications. upon returning home and he shares the news with his aunt sandy who offers to accompany him to hospital to visit rich. but david is polarized by shock and fear.

recognizing the confusion and polarizing fear david is experiencing, sandy discloses how she once allowed fear and paranoia prevent her from showing up for a friend who dying of AIDS complications. she then urges david to visit rich.

the episode concludes with david speaking at a high school assembly on HIV/AIDS. david shared how he worked through fear and preconceived notions about HIV by educating himself. david also dispels myths about HIV and informs students about the importance of safer sex.

in the most touching moment of the episode, david breaks the news that rich died the night before. through tears, david eulogizes rich, the friend that changed his life.

“best of friends, worst of times” didn’t necessarily break new ground in its storytelling. the show doesn’t explicitly disclose how rich contracted HIV, but it also did not reinforce the “innocent person” blood transfusion trope. the episode was one of the very few shows to utilize a recurring character as the person with AIDS.  this was in large part to actor tom hodges, who reprised his role as rich after a year-long absence and co-wrote the episode to provide the character closure. 

the show’s closing credits didn’t use the show’s theme incorporated dionne warwick’s AIDS charity single “that’s what friends are for” as clips of david and rich are shown. interestingly, the song was named billboard’s #1 of 1986, the same year the hogan family (aka “valerie”) made its debut. “best of friends, worst of times” was the last episode to air before CBS canceled the show and burned off the remaining four episodes seven months later. 

the hogan family may not be one of the most memorable sitcoms of the 1980s as it didn’t include catchphrases that became part of the American lexicon but it does hold the distinction of being the first sitcom to mention the word “condom” in an episode. and this was in 1987. so kudos to the show.

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