After writing about many shows on AIDS during the last several years, I was starting to feel as if I had built up a resistance to being affected by them. I feared that I'd been numbed out and wondered if a show on AIDS would ever get through to me again.
"A Conversation With Magic," which airs at 8 tonight on cable's Nickelodeon channel, got through to me. The half-hour show with basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson talking to a group a kids about AIDS and what it feels like to be HIV positive got through to me like no other shows since HBO's award-winning documentary "The AIDS Quilt" in 1989 and NBC's "An Early Frost" in 1986. Such a simple show to pack such a powerful, emotional punch.
The show isn't even intended for adults. Nickelodeon is cable TV's kids' channel. It's owned by MTV, cable TV's teens' channel. In the last two years, Nickelodeon has started doing news specials for kids, which are produced by Linda Ellerbee, the best-selling author and former NBC news correspondent. "A Conversation With Magic" is one of those specials. Ellerbee produced and moderates it.
The format is as simple as this: Ellerbee and Johnson sitting with about a dozen kids gathered around them and talking. The kids ask most of the questions. "What was your first reaction when you found out you had the HIV virus?" "Did you know right away that you had to retire [from basketball]?" "How do you learn to live with it? I mean, like if I got HIV, I'd probably be crying and screaming all over the place." "Does it hurt you that some people don't like you now because you have HIV?"
That part of the show works OK, not because the questions are great -- some of them aren't -- but rather because Johnson's answers seem so direct.
But then Johnson asks the kids a question. He asks if they know anyone who is HIV positive. A boy named Trent says that his brother is, and he nervously, emotionally, self-consciously tells a very sad story about how their playmates ostracized his brother.
Ellerbee asks whether any of the kids on the set are HIV positive. Of course, Ellerbee knows the answer. But the testimony she elicits from one little girl about her hurt and anger will break your heart. "I just want people to talk to me and play with me and hold my hand," the girl says bravely.
"I just want people to know that we're just normal people," another child with HIV, a tiny girl in pigtails, says at that point. Then she starts sobbing with her whole body. The camera shifts to her as Johnson awkwardly tries to comfort her by touching her on the back with his huge hands. "We are just normal people," he says quietly to her. His effort is all the more moving because of its awkwardness.
The testimony from the three children is what makes this such a special show. But it is probably not what will be most talked about by some today, and in the wake of its cablecast tonight on Nickelodeon (with simulcast on the Westwood One radio network) and broadcast next month on PBS (through a special arrangement with the cable channel). There will likely be some concern over a segment about halfway through the show in which Ellerbee shows a condom to the kids and unrolls it over two of her fingers to show how it is worn. "That protects the man when his penis is inside the woman's vagina," she explains.
Parents who don't want their kids to know about condoms, how they are supposed to work and how heterosexuals perform the sex act, shouldn't let their kids watch. It's as simple as that. When it comes to AIDS, this kind of clarity and candor has a place on television -- especially on kids' and teens' television.