Looking Back at "Life Goes On" - The Groundbreaking TV Show

Herbie J Pilato

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The original cast of "Life Goes On"[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

In the history of classic television, there are many shows that address the issue of diversity and prejudice (e.g. All in the Family, The Golden Girls). None, however, so directly tackle the topic more than Life Goes On. The unique flavor of this series (which debuted on ABC in 1989, and remains popular on cable’s F/X channel) went straight to the heart of the American public.

Life episodes about the disabled, disease seminars and anti-gay-bashing have done more to inform the viewing audience than current events. Issues are genuine. High-school locker scenes are authentic. Family dinner sessions remain true to, well, life.

When Goes’ parents Drew and Libby Thacher (Bill Smitrovich and Patti Lupone) believe their son, Corky (Chris Burke), is out of line, they reprimand him. If this was any other television program, such behavior would be par for the course. But that’s not the way Life goes. Corky has Down’s Syndrome (as does Burke in reality), and is a high-school student with a challenging life. Corky’s younger sister, Becca (played by the ever-capable Kellie Christy Martin) then falls in love with Jesse (the Emmy-winning Chad Lowe), who is HIV-Positive, and later develops AIDS. Down’s and AIDS: traits certainly unusual for weekly characters on television, a medium infamously circumspect of figures that viewers find jarring.

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Kellie Martin and Chad Lowe[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

Life Goes On was legitimate from the onset. Corky’s particular adjustments are presented as filaments in the functional family component. He was unveiled to viewers without affectation or manufactured uplift. The series never set out to beat the viewer over the head with the idea that Corky was saccharine. The portrayal of the character was realistic, based upon his legitimate condition and feelings, not ideally, on what he should have said or how he should have behaved. It would have been irresponsible to make him either too distressed or too unaffected.

In 1991, as Magic Johnson revealed in real life that he was HIV-positive, Chad Lowe’s Jesse contacted the virus. Life imitated life? No. Just a parallel incident. But after Life creator/executive producer Michael Braverman interviewed small focus groups and discovered that many teens thought AIDS could be contracted through casual interaction, he set out to dispel that ignorance, as well the scorn aimed at those like Jesse and Corky.

Themes such as diversity and the respect for other peoples’ truths were explored on other Life avenues.

In an episode from the third season, Corky’s father, Drew, who owns and operates a successful restaurant, finds his hopes and dreams up in smoke. His enterprise is destroyed by fire shortly after the birth of his new child. Wife Libby wonders how she can help in the crisis. Jerry Berkson (Ray Buktenica), her usually greedy advertising boss, pays to rebuild the Thacher house. At once grateful and surprised, Libby asks Jerry, who is Jewish, to be godfather to her son at a Catholic baptismal. Jerry declines. Libby reminds him of a note that he thought he anonymously delivered with the money to reconstruct the restaurant. It reads: “Generosity of spirit is the measure of a man.” He agrees to the ceremony, vicissitude and munificence are held in mutual regard, and a television show once pegged a failure by some, files itself as a classic.

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The "Life Goes On" cast from a Christmas episode[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

Once misunderstood, those with Down’s and AIDS are now perceived more clearly because of Life. “It’s nothing short of a miracle,” Michael Braverman once said about the show’s influence. Burke has become a spokesman for the National Down Syndrome Congress and Ronald McDonald Charities. He has received numerous awards from various organizations, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor In A Drama. He’s a favorite feature on the talk show circuit, and in several anti-drug commercials. In one of its final seasons, Burke joined the cast of the CBS hit, Touched By An Angel, playing, what else: a heavenly messenger.

Today, Burke and the show’s diverse eye on the family remains wide-open. Setting the standard for quality television programming, Life Goes On has become the most popular family show since The Waltons. [The show is a hit in several foreign markets, as well, including Spain, Italy, Greece, Australia, and Germany, while TV Guide once reported it’s “huge sensation in Latin America. [It was also chosen as one of the top three American programs to be screened in Russia.]

As Kellie Martin and Chad Lowe prepare to reboot the series for a new network, Life Goes On continues to inspire viewers, and reaches beyond the realm of average entertainment with superior production values and credible, yet compelling, universal stories, each delivered with a sincere dedication in presenting good television. Life goes on to say more than, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” It affirms: “I’m great and so are you. And though we may be unique unto each, together aren’t we grand.”

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, writes for the Television Academy and Emmys.com, and is the host of THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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