Very special episode
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“”These excursions into rougher areas were all the more jarring because of the setting, where viewers used to cackling audiences wooing over the appearances of the wacky neighbor suddenly found themselves faced with sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, and death by drunk-driving, all played out in front of a live studio hush. Characters who'd barely had to emote further than shrugs of exasperation were suddenly left upset or afraid, leaving you trapped in the terrible no-man's land of feelings, with no laugh track to cling onto. It was like having your wacky uncle interrupt an armpit fart to tell you about the time he saw a dead body and that's why he drinks.
Very special episodes were a television meme prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, where an episode in an established series — frequently a sitcom — dramatically highlighted some perceived social ill such as drug abuse or bullying. Such an episode would typically be prepended with an announcement in which a serious and deep voice warned the audience that "Tonight's episode is a Very Special Episode of >name of show<", followed by a silence or fade-to-black. The episode then jumped into the world of whatever moral panic issue was the topic of the day.
The topic was always a dramatic, emotional, and even sometimes dark attempt to address a perceived problem that was apparently not getting enough attention according to a huddled cluster of scriptwriters and producers. The issues were often, if not always, totally out of character for the sitcom, and always intended to cause a shock to the audience with the mere mention of such a thing on television.
It is likely that "Very Special Episodes" were more attempts to boost ratings than to address the chosen issue, although some of the actors or writers may have had real concern behind their efforts.
As with all good TV, the crisis that had to be dealt with was investigated, discussed, analyzed, then resolved all within one 30-minute long episode (unless it's a "Very Very Special Episode", where it might be a 2-parter.)
“”At the end of the episode, the protagonist is Enlightened, and the guest character with the Very Special Problem is never seen or heard from again.[note 1]
History in sitcoms
It is generally acknowledged that the first "Very Special Episode" was an episode of Diff'rent Strokes that involved a child molester.[note 2]
Soon after that show (and the associated ratings hike), it became all the rage for sitcoms to do "Very Special Episodes." These should not be confused with "Afterschool Specials" which were just as corny, and dealt with similar topics, but were not associated with famous shows or actors.
"Very Special Episodes" generally dealt with topics that were hot issues of the day, whether they were valid problems in society or not. And of course, the trope of a "Very Special Episode" dictates that no one from the main cast ever actually get harmed themselves. All dangers were "near", "almost" and "but he was my best friend even though the audience had never seen him before...".
By today's standards, they were not moralizing lectures, but they did often have a larger moral theme to them, beyond their chosen topic; normally it was an implied admonition to "listen to the adults, and do what they say; they have your best interest at heart." Another popular larger theme was about "the big bad boogie gay man."
Some famous Very special episodes
- Diff'rent Strokes has probably the most famous VSE two-parter, "The Bicycle Man", which involves a child molester.
- Punky Brewster
- A character gets locked in an abandoned refrigerator, detailing knowing the importance of first aid procedures such as CPR.
- A drug dealer in school tries to get kids hooked on drugs—a VSE that more-or-less kicked off Nancy Reagan's "Say No to Drugs!" campaign.
- Maude (not officially a VSE, but generally credited as one of the first) decides to get an abortion. (1970s)[note 3]
- All in the Family The family's matriarch suffers an attempted rape while everyone is oblivious next door.
- Family Ties
- Alex Keaton loses his best friend in a car crash.
- Alex deals with drug addiction (diet pills, ohhh, scary).
- Tom Hanks himself comes and plays a hard core alcoholic, frightening the innocent children (an important feature to all "Very special episodes").
- Saved by the Bell
- Many episodes were Very Special, but most prominent is the one in which Jessie Spano becomes addicted to caffeine pills and has a breakdown. While seen as spectacularly campy in the modern age, this was one of the first attempts to address the drug problem and was seen by the producers of the show as both important and groundbreaking.
- Facts of Life
- Jo goes to a dance and has to fight off a grabby boy in a car. She comes home torn, bruised, and scratched. Ah, the memories...
- "A friend" (who is an important member of the school, though we've never seen her before) kills herself. Over not being a cheerleader. Oh, dear.
- A club calling itself "The Group" tries to recruit the girls into smoking marijuana, but after one of them acts all giggly and writes a nonsensical stream of consciousness for her school report, they learn that marijuana is bad.
- Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers — Even these two were not immune, as Sesame Street took on the death of Mr. Hooper (whose actor had actually died) and both dealt with the 9/11 aftermath. But in reality, both cases were really focused on help, and so they sorta escape the VSE trope.
- Family Guy, in the most recent decade, offered up "Partial Terms of Endearment", an episode that Fox refused to air and was released straight to DVD. It definitely covered moral issues that were in the news, but because it was Family Guy, it didn't exactly do it in a way intended to be educating.
- The Dukes of Hazzard — an atypically preachy episode about the evils of pirated music, "Daisy's Song", almost derailed the series early in season 1.
Seeing the potential of squeezing a few laughs out of this ubiquitous trope, the writers of a few series have occasionally spoofed the conventions of the VSE:
- Dinosaurs — At the end of an episode all about drug addiction, the now strung out dinosaur declares "Help us stop kids from doing drugs, and stop preachy sit-coms."
- That '70s Show — During its first run on Fox, an episode was promoted as a VSE, with the implication that the main character might have some sort of dreaded disease. It turned out that his girlfriend caught him masturbating in the bathroom. All the other characters then spent the rest of the episode treating him like a flasher-in-the-park-style pervert.
- Strangers with Candy - Promoted every single episode as a VSE.
Today's "Very Special Episodes" are a bit different, as hot-button issues can cover long story arcs lasting many episodes, making it possible to
harvest get more viewers. These "special episode" topics are frequently the principal plot of many of today's teen dramas (such as 13 Reasons Why) - making them not very "special" at all. While they take on problems of society here or there, they mostly are used as catalysts to drive either a plot or the development of a character. Because of this, the classic "Very Special Episode" has ceased to exist as such.
Other media's versions
In 1971, before Very special episodes became a fixture on television, Stan Lee wrote a Spider-Man storyline in which Spidey's friend, Harry Osborn, gets addicted to ambiguously-described 'pills' which, despite a clear anti-drug message, was refused approval by the Comics Code Authority. That same year, DC comic book series Green Arrow/Green Lantern showed the sidekick of Green Arrow "Speedy" >insert stupid wordplay here< had a drug problem.[note 4] The first issue this was tackled in actually had written on its cover "DC attacks youth's greatest problem...drugs!", which is basically the same advertising trick.
The topics and positions the Very Special Episode explored weren't exactly wrong (except for the aforementioned scary gay pedophile episodes) so much as inept and/or clueless. They were by and large an attempt to give marginalized subgroups and ignored social issues a fleeting voice. The Very Serious Episode was more undermined by its presentation than content, as more sophisticated television drama in the 90s and 00s were able to pick up many of the same topics without it being so ridiculous. Yet no matter how heartfelt and sincere the writers were, the fact remains that no one would have taken the Declaration of Independence seriously if it was delivered by Thomas Jefferson in a clown suit. C'est la vie.
- As well as said Very Special Problem when it affects one of the main protagonists instead
- For the inappropriate giggle value of watching 80's sitcoms try to deal with such issues in a world of censors, I'm proud to offer the classic episode, right here from YouTube.
- Ironically, I doubt you'd find anyone willing to address that today.
- Ironically, the Comics Code Authority forbade them actually to show the needle entering the body.