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A Step Toward Understanding

ABC's `Life Goes On' wins praise for its constructive image of a boy with Down's Syndrome. TELEVISION

IF you can believe early reviews and ratings, the TV trades as well as affiliate station managers, ``Life Goes On'' (ABC, Sundays, 7 p.m.) appears solidly on track as one of the expected hits of the fall season. ``It's the kind of show you are proud to have on your lineup because it's both entertaining and socially responsible - those kind don't come along every season,'' says Richard Warsinske, program manager at ABC affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle.

The hour-long drama chronicles the trials of the Thacher family, in which the son, Corky, has Down's Syndrome (a genetic disorder that results in varying degrees of mental retardation).

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Besides tackling a prickly social issue in an essentially entertainment venue - dealing, among other things, with whether or not people with Down's Syndrome can be taught successfully in normal classes - Mr. Warsinske and many critics say the drama, dialogue, acting, and general production values are the highest in many seasons.

``I can't recall even `Roseanne' getting the kind of response this show generated,'' says John Profitt, general manager of WRTV in Indianapolis.

The show depicts a father (Bill Smitrovich) and mother (Patti LuPone) of a modest, working-class family, who are having a hard time making ends meet. If son Corky can succeed as a student in the local high school, they will save thousands of dollars for tuition in a private institution. The money can go for start-up funds for father's lifelong dream, a construction company of his own. The pair also has two daughters - one of college age, sympathetic to her brother's plight, one outwardly hostile at the prospect of his embarrassing her at high school.

The new series is also being lauded by Down's Syndrome groups nationwide for a realistic portrayal of the condition that both breaks down stereotypes and highlights the educational rights of those affected. Though many doctors feel that persons with Down's Syndrome should and must be institutionalized, federal law (Public Law 94142) says such students are entitled to ``free and appropriate education'' in a ``least restrictive environment'' from ages three to 21. The issue of what constitutes ``least restrictive environment'' is taken up in the series.

``We are very excited about the show, because it helps bring balance to the generally negative image these people have been burdened with,'' says Nancy Hall, executive director of the Down's Syndrome Parent Group in Los Angeles. Members from her group, an affiliate of the National Down Syndrome Congress, were invited to screen the series and offer comments. They came away with unanimous approval.

To see someone with Down's Syndrome ``will be wonderful for mainstream America,'' she says, especially when he or she is depicted ``as a functioning member of a normal family doing more than most people give them credit for,'' she says.

The series is not intended to focus solely on 18-year-old ``Corky'' (played by 24-year-old Chris Burke), according to executive producer Michael Braverman. ``Even though the central character has Down's Syndrome, the design was to have a very strong, funny, dramatic series based on a middle-class American family,'' he says. Mr. Braverman had used actor Burke in an ABC pilot called ``Desperate'' two years ago that was never picked up as a series. Both Braverman and ABC executives liked Burke and decided to design a series around him.

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``That the show has attracted attention because of his character's disorder is a secondary benefit, but not our primary intention,'' says Braverman. ``The show is educating the public that many of those with Down's are capable of great things,'' adds parent group member Sue Davis.

Last week's pilot episode saw the main character placed in a normal high school - known as ``mainstreaming'' - to see if he can make the grade in spite of his lower-level learning skills. Roberta Oser, who has taught Down's Syndrome patients who are considered ``ER,'' or educably retarded, says the series accurately reflects that in the past 10 years there has been a much greater awareness of Down's Syndrome, more information disseminated, and many more parents who claim rights for their children with the disorder. She points out that there are many levels of classification for those exhibiting the disorder; the Corky character is considered highly functioning.

``But the worst thing that could happen'' from watching this series, she says, is that parents dealing with this affliction might expect their child to handle it in the same way ``Corky'' does. These children need to be freed from the limitation of expectation placed on them by others as well,'' she says.

For example, Donna Rosenthal of the National Down Syndrome Society says the issue of mainstreaming Down's syndrome children into regular schools has only begun to be addressed in the last two years.

Because of increased educational opportunities, Down's syndrome children are becoming a more visible part of society, she adds.

``What makes the series intriguing is that the son's condition will be but one of the many true-to-life situations this family will be dealing with,'' adds Warsinske. As such, Corky's condition never deters his family from living life to the fullest. Woven into the pilot were the mother's concerns at turning 40, and the younger sister's need to develop social skills. Upcoming episodes include conflicts between older daughter Paige, who is adopted, and mother Libby over romantic questions; Libby and husband Drew's head-to-head battle over finances; and a visit from Paige's biological mother.

This Sunday's episode surrounds a civics class in which Corky is nominated for freshman class president as a practical joke. The other nominees are the most popular boy in school and a brainy outcast named Lester, who has an ax to grind against his peers. Ultimately Lester drops out of the race to become Corky's manager, figuring his intellect and money will ensure Corky's election.

As in the first episode, sister Becca (played by Kellie Martin) is caught in the pinch, not wanting to support her brother's joke nomination in front of her peers, but pressured by her parents to do so. The subplot includes Paige confronting her mother over Paige's romance problems at college.

``We're intending to make this a very funny, uplifting, energetic show, the kind that will make you feel good,'' adds Braverman. Questioned as to whether upbeat endings might eventually sanitize or oversimplify the hurdles faced by persons with Down's Syndrome, he replies:

``I think it will accurately reflect what happens in real life. We have episodes in which Corky fails at everything he tries.''

Braverman's staff of four writers (Paul Wolff, Jule Selbo, Ron Rubin, Joe Shulkin) consult a staff of technical advisers from Down's Syndrome groups. They also compile story information from first-hand experience. For one upcoming episode on fathers of kids with Down's Syndrome, Mr. Wolff has interviewed fathers from all over the country.

Producers have chosen a winning presence in the highly personable Mr. Burke, who so far seems to be treading a realistic path between the boorish and apathetic on one side, the nurturing and supportive on the other.

And since a stated premise of the show is that the son's condition never deters the family from living life to the fullest, the obvious challenge for creators will be to provide a steady menu of believable situations without resorting to a gratuitous or overly contrived focus on his limitations.

With such a high, built-in sympathy factor - not to mention dramatic novelty - the temptation to do so will be strong.

Other upcoming episodes include Patti LuPone (whose credits include ``Evita'' and ``Oliver'') singing four songs, and a drama involving Indian mythology and wolves. ``We're not going to serve up too neat a package,'' promises Braverman. ``Story lines will ring true.''

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