The central convention of teen-message dramas has always been to make the least likely character victim of the sin or danger at hand. It's the "A" student government president who gets pregnant, or the football hero who succumbs to beer and drives his car into a truck.
Viewers should know that "In the Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story" fulfills the convention. Indeed, the title alone suggests that. But the show also fulfills the other worthwhile goal of dramas conceived with preaching in mind: offering blunt, firm information in a realistic setting.
In an unusual collaboration, the hourlong PBS drama airs at 8 tonight on Maryland Public Television and then again as an "ABC Afterschool Special" at 4 p.m. tomorrow (Channel 13).
ABC plans to offer a parental discretion advisory, and MPT will follow tonight's airing by offering a list of local and national AIDS hotlines which teens can call in confidentiality.
The show's message is a double one. It demonstrates that anyone, not just homosexuals and drug users, is at risk of contracting AIDS through sexual contact. But it also says that anyone can prevent it, simply by not using intravenous needles and not having sex.
In recognition of reality, it further stresses that sexually active teens must at least use condoms. In particular, the strong message is that females must insist.
"What if I refuse?" says one young man to his girlfriend when the issue is raised.
"Then I refuse," she replies.
Jennifer Dundas plays Katy, a high school senior who wants to be a television reporter. For a journalism contest project, she needs a subject for a documentary. Lisa Vidal is a new student paired with Katy as her camera operator, and suggests a local support group for AIDS and HIV-positive teens is a great story. But her interest is personal, for her brother is infected.
Katy and her U.S. Naval Academy-bound boyfriend, meanwhile, are "doing it" unprotected, thinking they are not at risk for AIDS.
Those bare plot elements pretty much predict the developments to follow, and there is the danger that teens who watch will find it all too pat. But there are worthwhile messages here against prejudice and for responsible behavior, as well as helpful information upon which concerned teens could act.
Playwright/AIDS activist Harvey Fierstein has a small role, for example, as head of a clinic which provides confidential AIDS testing. But he also urges that parents be involved, too.
* WELCOME BACK -- Returning series premiering for the season tonight include: "Unsolved Mysteries" (at 8, Channel 2), "Dinosaurs" (8, Channel 13), "Growing Pains" (8:30, Channel 13), "Night Court" (9, Channel 2), "Jake and the Fatman" (9, Channel 11), "Seinfeld," (9:30, Channel 2) and "Quantum Leap" (10, Channel 2).