“Special” means “different,” not necessarily “better.” And when you add the modifier “very,” you’ve got something else entirely. As seen on TV from the late ’70s to the mid ’90s, “very special episodes” typically mean “special” as in “after school special” — some Hollywood screenwriting team’s got a lesson to teach you, and they don’t care if they have to break the fourth wall to do it, either.
Arrow recently shot for a similar mark, taking aim at gun control in an ineffectual way, but the uncomfortable classics in the “VSE” genre pack an entirely different caliber of awkward. These bizarre episodes ranged from attempted child molestation accompanied by canned laugh tracks, drug abusing Muppets going aggro, and child actors talking directly into camera to tell you, the viewer, how to live. Pre-fame guest stars doing things recurring characters wouldn’t dare, the effects of drugs and alcohol exaggerated beyond all reason, and 1-800 hotlines where operators are standing by are all signs that the episode you’ve unfortunately happened upon is going to be “very special.”
If you like your nostalgia extra preachy and unsettling, take a tip from the 15 Weirdest “Very Special Episodes” Of TV.
15. Saved By The Bell – “Jessie’s Song”
Other “very special episodes” of Saved By the Bell offered heavy-handed lessons about ecological issues (“Pipe Dreams” and its oil-slicked dead duck) and hypocritical pot-smoking teenage actors (the-name-says-it-all: “No Hope With Dope”), but “Jessie’s Song” is especially special for its over-the-top portrayal of the effects of caffeine pill abuse. According to one of the episode’s co-writers, the disparity between Jessie Spano’s scenery-gobbling meltdown — which would anticipate Elizabeth Berkley’s camp-classic turn in Showgirls by several years…and the actual effects of taking the pharmaceutical equivalent of a Red Bull — is due to the fact that NBC’s censors wouldn’t let them show a high school student abusing amphetamines on Saturday morning TV.
So instead, Spano, spread thin between her constant academic perfectionism and the newfound pressures of fronting the band Hot Sundae, turns to demon caffeine to keep her energy up. “We might as well have had Jessie get addicted to Earl Grey, or breaking into The Max to snort coffee grounds,” writes executive producer Peter Engel in his memoir I Was Saved by the Bell. “But hey, we had to start somewhere.”
14. Boy Meets World – “Cult Fiction”
Airing slightly less than a month after San Diego police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who committed mass suicide in an effort to hitch a ride on a spaceship they were told was concealed in the tail of Comet Hale-Bopp, this season four episode of Boy Meets World finds Shawn under the influence of an enigmatic and sinister cult leader, Philip Mack. After Mr. Turner pressures Shawn to commit to a college-bound course of action, a classmate lures him to The Centre, promising no one will judge him there. Corey and Mr. Feeny both try to convince Shawn that Mack is manipulating him, but only Mr. Turner’s near-fatal motorcycle accident finally convinces Shawn that he should think for himself.
Fun fact: After winning an argument while comatose, Mr. Turner disappeared from Boy Meets World continuity for 18 years until the “Girl Meets the New Teacher” episode of the follow-up, Girl Meets World. Must’ve been some motorcycle accident.
13. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Beer Bad”
Often considered one of the worst episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Beer Bad” finds Xander employing a fake ID to get a job tending bar at a local pub, pouring a brand of beer — the warlock-brewed Black Frost — that reverts drinkers to a neanderthal state, complete with cave paintings and mate clubbings. Reportedly written in an unsuccessful effort to cash-in on a grant offered by the U.S. government’s Office Of National Drug Control Policy, this season four episode features Buffy grunting lines like “Want beer. Like beer. Beer good.” and fighting with devolved college bros, but it doesn’t really make a definitive statement on young adults drinking, which might explain why the ONDCP rejected the episode’s request for funding.
“What did we learn about beer?” Xander asks. “Foamy,” Buffy answers. She’s right, of course, but somebody like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, might have more to say on the subject. The 1999 episode was nominated for an Emmy, however — for “Outstanding Hairstyling.” They may not have delivered an informative take on underaged drinking, but at least the Slayer’s hair looked nice.
12. What’s Happening!! – “Doobie or Not Doobie”
Judging by the name of this two-part episode of heavily punctuated late-’70s sitcom/time capsule What’s Happening!! you might suspect it features Rerun and co. learning about the ill-effects of smoking marijuana. But “Doobie or Not Doobie” addresses an even specialer issue — the evils of bootlegging concerts, specifically those of the Doobie Brothers. While contemporaneous acts like the Grateful Dead actually encouraged fans to record their shows and trade the tapes with others, the Doobie Brothers (of “China Grove” and “Jesus Is Just Alright” fame) made a guest appearance on this 1978 episode to guilt trip the What’s Happening!! gang for making an unauthorized tape-recording of a charity concert at a local high school.
Bullies initially coerced the boys into taping the show, but the Doobie Brothers — featuring future yacht-rock legend Michael McDonald — turn out to be even more intimidating than the bootleggers, even getting the LAPD involved. You’d think a band named after marijuana cigarettes might be a little more chill. FYI: The Facebook page for “That Episode of What’s Happening!! Where Rerun Bootlegs the Doobie Brothers” currently has 574 likes. That’s a win in our book.
11. Diff’rent Strokes – “The Bicycle Man”
For a show that’s probably best remembered for introducing the catchphrase “What you talkin’ about, Willis?” into the American lexicon, NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes must’ve prompted many an uncomfortable conversation. An episode about drug trafficking in schools featured then-First Lady Nancy Reagan commanding kids everywhere to “Just Say No,” and other episodes dealt with eating disorders, epilepsy, alcoholism, and kidnappers. But the most special entry will forever be the two-part season five episode “The Bicycle Man,” in which a bike shop owner attempts to (gulp) seduce Gary Coleman’s Arnold and his friend Dudley.
Far from the heroic bicycle repairman depicted in the famous Monty Python sketch, Mr. Horton (played by future Maytag Repairman Gordon Jump) serves wine to two young, unaccompanied boys, shows them an X-rated magazine, and encourages them to pose in suggestive photographs — all of which he recommends they keep a secret. “The Bicycle Man” deserves credit for depicting a serious danger in a realistic way, but probably loses a few taste points for keeping the laugh-track going.
10. Good Times – “J.J. in Trouble”
Comedian Jimmie Walker’s character J.J. is famous for working an upbeat “Dy-no-mite!” into a wide variety of situations on the 1970s sitcom Good Times, but the circumstances of this third season episode prompt him to utter a much darker exclamation. “I’ve got V.D.,” he yells, pounding the kitchen table. After a former girlfriend tells J.J. she’s tested positive for an unspecified STD, our bucket-hatted hero must brave a visit to the free clinic. While waiting there, he meets a not-yet-famous Jay Leno, who laments that venereal disease often goes undiagnosed because those infected are too embarrassed to seek treatment.
“A germ’s a germ, ain’t it?” Leno philosophizes, in his TV debut. J.J., meanwhile, pretends he’s just got a cold — an ailment with less stigma attached, even though it’s (unlike many STDs) incurable. There’s nothing “dy-no-mite” about sex shame. Fortunately, J.J. tests negative, and, like many special episodes, only the newly introduced characters end up affected by the hot-button issue du jour.
9. MacGyver – “Black Rhino”
Nothing MacGyver can concoct from household objects can combat the ill effects of poor environmental stewardship, so despite his best efforts at DIY defense against poachers, we’re left with the somber knowledge that less than 4,000 Black Rhinos survive in the world at the end of this season five episode, which finds MacGyver on a manhunt in Africa. Richard Dean Anderson’s majestic mullet nearly stands on end when he sees one of the titular creatures in mortal anguish after a poacher chainsaws off its ivory horn and leaves it for dead. And with good reason — the graphic depiction of this unpleasant scene is intense enough to merit a “no animals were harmed” disclaimer after the opening credits. According to an interview CNN aired in advance of this 1989 episode, the realistic animatronic rhinoceros featured in this scene was created by some of the same special effects wizards who worked on E.T.
8. Punky Brewster – “Accidents Happen”
Only ’80s kids remember watching in horror in classrooms across the United States on January 28, 1986, as the space shuttle Challenger exploded a little over a minute after take-off, killing its seven passengers — including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. Then, less than two months later, many of them watched that tragedy recreated on an episode of Punky Brewster. Delivering a class presentation on what she wants to be when she grows up, Punky enthuses about her future as an astronaut, encouraging her teacher to show the Challenger launch live in class. The disaster, which prompted a presidential commission inquiry that exposed shortcomings in NASA’s safety procedures, also causes Punky to second-guess her career aspirations.
Luckily, guest star Buzz Aldrin (aka, the second person to set foot on the moon) stops by to convince her that some risks are worth taking. “You’ve got to take risks when you’re doing something that nobody’s ever done before,” Punk eventually concludes,”‘If’ is a word smack in the middle of ‘life.’ Isn’t that deep?”
7. Quincy M.E. – “Next Stop, Nowhere”
The murder victim in this eighth-season episode of autopsy procedural Quincy, M.E. is technically killed by an ice pick to the neck, but Jack Klugman’s crotchety medical examiner points his accusatory finger just as sternly at a popular boogeyman for 1982 worrywarts — that darn punk rock music the kids are all slam-dancing to nowadays. Charging that the music of local ne’er-do-wells Mayhem (who were onstage at the time of the stabbing) incites violence, Quincy takes to a TV talk show to call the youth of the day to task for their apathy and nihilism.
Less than a decade later, an actual band named Mayhem would make international headlines for the gruesome circumstances surrounding their lead singer’s suicide and their bassist subsequently stabbing their guitarist to death. One can only imagine what the easily outraged Quincy would’ve made of Norwegian black metal with its overtly Satanic lyrics and real-life links to church burnings and murders. Dancing to swinging big band music at the end of the episode, the cranky coroner ponders, “Why would anyone listen to music that makes you hate, when you can listen to music that makes you love?”
6. The Facts of Life – “The First Time”
Euphemistically, “the facts of life” is a phrase that’s synonymous with “the birds and the bees” and “where babies come from,” but this Diff’rent Strokes spin-off took nine and a half seasons for one of its young female characters to actually get around to finding out what the facts of life are all about. Even then, it caused some considerable controversy in the process. When Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn) — who by this point in the series is in her early 20s — decides to sleep with her boyfriend Snake Robinson (Robert Romanus, previously seen in the much racier Fast Times at Ridgemont High) on their one-year anniversary, her housemates are shocked and disappointed.
Actress Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair Underwood (the character the show’s writers originally intended to have her go through with it), said the episode so offended her moral sensibilities that she refused to appear in it at all. Natalie takes precautions against unwanted pregnancy and STDs, so the biggest consequence she faces is having to reconsider the nature of her relationship, which is never a bad move when you’re dating a guy named Snake.
5. Family Ties – “Say Uncle”
Of all the lessons learned in the episodes on this list, perhaps the most “special” is the one imparted in this second season episode of Family Ties — namely, that you can totally get hammered by downing a bottle of vanilla extract. The 70-proof concentrated dessert ingredient is one of many unconventional beverages Tom Hanks attempts to imbibe as Uncle Ned on an alcoholic bender. Ned was previously seen fleeing from justice after embezzling money from his bosses in “The Fugitive,” a two-parter from season one that concluded with him turning himself over to the authorities. Though Ned says he stole the money to prevent his firm from entering into an unethical merger in his original appearance, there is no excuse for the behavior he exhibits in “Say Uncle.” In this outing, he drains the juice from a jar of maraschino cherries (which, despite being named for the liqueur, typically haven’t been preserved in alcohol since before Prohibition) and slaps his nephew Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox). He also shows up for a job interview without any socks on, but that seems to be a lesser offense, comparatively.
4. Blossom – “Blossom Blossoms”
As evidenced by this memorable Saturday Night Live sketch, Blossom had enough “very special episodes” during its five-season run to merit an entire list of its own, but the series set the tone almost immediately out of the gate with “Blossom Blossoms,” the first episode aired after the significantly different pilot. While Blossom’s seemingly unfounded fears about her parents getting a divorce figured heavily in the pilot, part of the show’s retooling has her mother abandoning the family altogether, leaving her father (now renamed Nick and recast as Ted Wass) to raise young Blossom (always and forever played by Mayim Bialik) on his own.
As the semi-redundant episode title suggests, Blossom becomes painfully aware of her lack of female role models when she experiences that time of the month for the very first time. As a result, she’s forced to turn to her friend Six (Jenna von Oÿ) for advice, even though she’s barely reached puberty herself. Fortunately, Blossom gets some helpful advice from a hallucination she has of Phylicia Rashad drawing a diagram of the female reproductive system in frosting. As brother Joey would say, “Whoa!”
3. Dinosaurs – “Steroids to Heaven”
Among the factors contributing to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, drug abuse is rarely mentioned, but this season-three episode of Dinosaurs is the second in the series to take on the topic. While season two’s “A New Leaf” satirizes the “special episode” by concluding with an impassioned plea to say no to drugs in order to “help put a stop to preachy sitcom endings,” the series’ second foray into dino drug culture is probably even more “special,” if only for featuring a ‘roid-raging Robbie Sinclair flexing on a romantic rival after gobbling a handful of performance-enhancing small mammals.
Thornoids, spiky little wise guys who cause extreme swelling (and swoleness) when devoured, are also addictive and attitude altering, making Robbie unappealingly aggressive toward friends, family, and even the girl he’s been taking them to impress. Since Robbie’s not the Baby, nobody has got to love him, and he eventually realizes those two tickets to the Jurassic gun show come at too high a price.
2. Star Trek: Enterprise – “Stigma”
From prehistoric high schools to futuristic spaceships, TV characters seem unable to escape the kind of “very special” issues that work as obvious analogs for present-day problems. Following a forced mind meld from which she had to fight to free herself, Vulcan Sub-Commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) is diagnosed with Pa’nar Syndrome, a degenerative mental disease with an AIDS-like stigma attached to it. Because melding is considered an unnatural act by 22nd Century Vulcans, T’Pol finds herself shunned by her species in an episode that aired as part of a campaign to increase HIV awareness in 2003.
Since Spock seemed to mind meld without shame a century later on The Original Series, Vulcan society must’ve undergone a sort of melding revolution following the discovery of Pa’nar Syndrome’s cure. The remedy was apparently inscribed on the Kir’Shara, an ancient Vulcan artifact imparting the lost teachings of philosopher-scientist Surak. If you follow this metaphor to its logical conclusion, we should be checking the Dead Sea Scrolls for cutting-edge medical advice.
1. Family Matters – “Life of the Party”
Many shows targeting young viewers spend a very special episode or two detailing the dangers of underage drinking, but few if any of these episodes also drop a funky beat to cut a sober rug to. In an effort to convince the guests at Laura’s friend Maxine’s rooftop party that they can get down without getting drunk off the bottles of booze in Waldo Faldo’s overcoat, constant buzzkill Steve Urkel teaches everyone to “do the Urkel dance” in a musical number that makes the previous year’s “Do the Bartman” seem like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” by comparison.
Unfortunately, Waldo’s jealous buddy Willie Fuffner gets revenge by spiking Steve’s punch, and Urkel — never famous for being graceful on his feet — then drunkenly stumbles off the roof and nearly falls to his death. Aunt Rachel’s amateur high-wire act saves the day and Waldo and Willie get busted, but apparently, no one thought to record what was sure to be the latest nerd-driven dance sensation. No one even attempted, a la Marvin Berry, to call their cousins Daft Punk to tell them they found the hot Homework sound they’d been looking for.
We’ve had a lot of fun today discussing “very special” episodes, but, all joking aside, only you can tell us about your favorite sitcom soapboxes in the comments.
But seriously, can any of them top Jesse’s caffeine freak out or a young, drunk Tom Hanks?