'Life Goes On' reaches final AIDS-centered episode


Television's most forthright handling of the AIDS issue draws toward a resolution this weekend as ABC's "Life Goes On" prepares to leave the air before a probable series finale due in May.

But contrary to some earlier predictions, the AIDS-afflicted teen character of Jesse (Chad Lowe) does not die in tomorrow's final episode of a four-show "arc" dealing with the issue (7 p.m., WJZ-Channel 13). Instead, he resolves to fight his disease through diet and other treatments.

"The story is not the story of someone dying from AIDS, but of someone living with AIDS," Mr. Lowe said earlier this week.

And so this series proves again it ranks among the best and least conventional dramas on the air, although it has also been among the least heralded during its four-season run.

The show initially gained attention for its casting of Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, as teen Corky Thatcher, who proves the birth defect is not necessarily a handicap to living a full life. And the series has dealt sensitively with a variety of family issues.

"We're sort of seen as a kind of sweet, safe family show," concedes co-executive producer Michael Nankin.

Yet no program has dealt more openly with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, especially in the area of teen-agers' ignorance of and vulnerability to AIDS.

Mr. Lowe originally was signed as a guest for eight episodes last season, playing the new boyfriend of teen daughter Becca (Kellie Martin). He discovers a previous unprotected sexual episode with a girl has infected him with HIV.

Jesse was to die. Instead, his character has survived to explore such AIDS-related issues as tough talk about safe sex, blunt presentation of the initial rejection and gradual acceptance of Jesse by Becca's family, and the current plot line, in which Jesse suffers full-blown AIDS symptoms as his health insurance expiration leaves him in the AIDS ward of a county hospital.

And last week's show found Jesse, an artist, invited to do art therapy with AIDS-afflicted children in the hospital by a dying patient.

Mr. Nankin agreed that such material might have caused significant controversy had "Life Goes On" been airing in a more prime-time slot.

"Frankly, we're not perceived as a prime-time show," he said, noting the 7 p.m. Sunday slot airs opposite the highly rated "60 Minutes" on CBS. "I think it's a wonderful show. I think it's very realistic about not just AIDS, but family life in general," says Alexander Baer, a co-founder of Lifesongs, the Baltimore organization that raises funds to support AIDS organizations.

Yet initial inquiries to Lifesongs about the program indicated the show has not drawn a wide following even among those involved in AIDS issues.

"I think that its time period means a lot of people have never seen it," says Kathy Hillman, Lifesongs publicist, who recently saw the show for the first time and raved, "I don't think I've seen anything that deals with [AIDS] quite so sensitively."

"It's a show that unfortunately really hasn't catapulted as a mainstream hit," acknowledges Mike Easterling, program director of WJZ-Channel 13, who also praised the show for its forthright presentation of the AIDS problem among teens and heterosexuals.

Mr. Nankin said "Life Goes On" appears unlikely to return in the fall, in part because co-star Patti Lupone, who plays the mother in the show, is leaving to star in Andrew Lloyd Weber's new musical, "Sunset Boulevard."

"But I've ended every season expecting that's it, and I've been pleasantly surprised," he said.

An ABC spokesman said the show has not been officially canceled, and its future will not be known until the network's fall schedule is announced in May.

In the meantime, said Mr. Nankin, a two-hour season finale in May will adopt an unusual format, aimed at projecting plot lines for all its characters. The show will be in two time frames: the first four years from its current time and the second 10 years from now.

"We'll learn what happens to everybody," he promises.

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