ABC aired the chilling, and controversial, movie The Day After on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1983. It depicted a conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union that escalated into nuclear war, and the consequences suffered by a family living in Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear bomb was dropped nearby. I watched it with my ex-boyfriend Rick at his apartment. (We had broken up a few months earlier but would reconcile and move back in together a week before Christmas.) I have to admit it was weird watching a movie depicting Armageddon just as the holiday season was getting underway.
The movie (starring Jason Robards) had a grim storyline with no happy, or even hopeful, ending. It was even more sobering because of real-life tensions that had been building between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the first Reagan administration. Despite the fact that it was expected to attract a huge audience, the movie aired with limited commercials (and none after the missles were launched) as very few advertisers were willing to air in it. This apprehension prevented ABC from charging high rates for advertising time; therefore, the few advertisers who took advantage got extremely good deals. One ad I remember seeing was for Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn. I thought the juxtaposition of a nuclear blast and corn popping was amusing in a black humor sort of way.
By the standards of today the special effects are quite cheesy and have a slap-dash look to them, but even today the five minutes showing the attack are sobering. As expected, the movie delivered a huge 46 household rating/62 share, making it the highest rated TV movie of all time and 3rd highest rated program of the year (behind the final episode of M*A*S*H and the Super Bowl). Soon afterwards a parade of TV movies with "socially relevant" storylines would follow, including Something About Amelia (incest); The Burning Bed (wife beating); and An Early Frost (AIDS).
Upon the movie's conclusion a special episode of Nightline aired to discuss the movie with a studio audience. I had seen enough and didn't need to immerse myself further in the grim subject so I walked home in the rain to my apartment in Manhattan's East 20s. After what I had watched tonight I was looking forward to spending time with my family back in Pittsburgh for the Thanksgiving holiday.