While we associate most sitcoms with laughter and good wholesome entertainment, many have incorporated serious issues into their storytelling. Inspired by everyday struggles, social issues, and moral panics, these “Very Special Episodes” have used comedy as a means to explore thought-provoking subject matter,
The “Very Special Episodes” trend gained prominence during the ’70s and reached their peak the following decade. The term was coined as an advertising tool to indicate when an otherwise lighthearted show would highlight controversial issues. During the Golden Age, some of these shows preyed on the fears of the zeitgeist to push a political agenda. Additionally, some were morality plays and their hearts were in the right place.
The trend gained traction thanks to shows like All in the Family, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life, though it is an umbrella term which includes everything from edgier fare to kids’ shows which employ a sitcom format. Some went to dark places that would shock viewers to their very core. That was the point, of course, but which episodes went a step too far?
So, without further ado, here are 15 Shocking “Very Special Episodes” of TV Shows.
15. Saved By the Bell – Jessie’s Song
By the time “Jessie’s Song” aired for the first time in 1990, addiction had been explored a few times in television shows aimed at younger viewers. That being said, what makes this such an effective episode to this day is that it connects addiction to an issue most young people face eventually — the demand to succeed in school.
In the ninth episode of the second season of the teen sitcom, gifted student Jessie Spano resorts to taking caffeine pills as she pursues her dream of getting into Sanford University. This all culminates in what is arguably the greatest meltdown in the history of television, performed expertly by a scenery-chewing Elizabeth Berkley.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to be the best student possible, but sometimes that has ramifications. This episode in question paints an effective portrait of the pressures faced by young people to meet high expectations — sometimes to an unhealthy degree.
14. Roseanne – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Roseanne has never been a show to shy away from society’s hot-button topics, so much so that the upcoming revival has already attracted backlash since it was revealed that the titular character is pro-Trump. Fans know that the show is all about context, though.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t the most taboo-breaking sitcom episode of all-time, but it did tackle the issue of homophobia. Here, Roseanne shares a kiss with a woman and it weirds her out, even though she pretends that it’s no big deal.
While she’s not hateful by any means, it is evident that she’s worried about internalized homophobia and the stigma attached to being gay. Portrayals of gay characters on television have come a long way since Roseanne’s heyday, but this episode is a prime example of society’s attitude back then, as well as how progressive the show was for its time.
13. Blossom – The Date
If film and television has shown us anything, it’s that dating can be awkward and difficult. In this scenario, however, it was portrayed in a much more sinister light.
Blossom is another show that featured regular episodes which dealt with darker subject matter. In this one, Blossom finds herself the victim of the predatory advances of her date, who also happens to be the hottest and most popular guy in the school. As we find out here, though, he’s actually a creep.
We then Blossom wrestling with her conscience as she somehow blames herself for the attack. Fortunately, she eventually comes clean to her dad and realizes that it wasn’t her fault at all. Maybe it didn’t change the world, but it contained a powerful message nonetheless, and one which unfortunately feels more relevant today than it did in 1995.
12. The Golden Girls – 72 Hours
During the ’80s and ’90s, the AIDS epidemic was at the forefront of widespread hysteria — mostly in association with homophobia. Therefore, it cannot be understated just how important The Golden Girls examination of the subject was at the time, as it showed that there were other ways of becoming infected.
In “72 Hours”, Rose fears she’s been infected with HIV following a blood transfusion. What ensues is a period of panic as she comes to grips with the possibility of living with the disease. Thankfully, she didn’t have to, but it was a learning experience.
11. Family Guy – Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q
Whether you love or hate Family Guy, there’s no denying that the show has earned its reputation as one of the most controversial sitcoms of all time. At its best, the show’s more offensive elements are complemented with its ability to provide smart social commentary and satire. At its worst, it tries too hard to stir the pot and offends for the sake of offending.
This episode, however, made headlines for the wrong reasons due to its insensitive portrayal of domestic abuse and the physical and mental effects it causes. The story here follows Quagmire’s sister as she suffers torment at the hands of her rotten boyfriend, which results in Peter and co. plotting to kill him.
10. Family Ties – Give Uncle Arthur a Kiss
Sometimes family friends are so close that they’re basically regarded as an extended memory of the family. With that in mind, we can at least acknowledge that the creepy uncle factor featured in this episode of NBC’s popular ’80s sitcom Family Ties is slightly less shocking than it would have been if he was a blood relative.
Here, a co-worker of the family patriarch makes some advances on his teenage daughter, Mallory. At first it’s just some passing creepiness, but it’s worsened later on when he assaults her.
Given that the episode focuses on a grown man with a disturbing and illegal crush, this isn’t exactly lighthearted stuff. Unfortunately, there’s no satisfying resolution either as Arthur is ultimately let off the hook.
9. Diff’rent Strokes – Sam’s Missing
As you’ll find out, Diff’rent Strokes crops up more than once here. That’s because when it set to shock viewers, it really delivered the goods with the subtlety of a blow to the head. “Sam’s Missing” marked the first episode of the first season of the show following its move from NBC and to ABC, and it was a memorable introduction to its new network.
This particular episode revolves around the topic of kidnapping after the titular Sam is lured by a grieving gentleman who’s mourning the death of his own offspring. It’s not the most cheerful content for family comedy, is it?
8. The Facts of Life – Dope
The Facts of Life is synonymous with the “Very Special Episode” trend. They explored a myriad of topics that ’80s conservatives frowned upon. But for now, we’re going to focus on “Dope”, an episode with a title that’s pretty self-explanatory for indicating the subject matter on display.
There’s a cool clique in most high schools, and usually they aren’t as cool as people think they are. However, sometimes teenagers go out of their way to be a part of such groups and become tempted to change who they are as people. In this instance, the characters Blair and Sue Ann get into an exclusive club, but it just so happens that they’re all substance users.
7. Night Court – Caught Red Handed
In the 75th episode of the classic NBC series Night Court, the milestone was punctuated with what is undoubtedly the most shocking of the entire bunch. In this one, the show delved into the issue of predatory bosses.
The premise is simple; Christine’s boss is a nasty piece of work who doesn’t see her so much as a colleague as he does a plaything for him to harass. When she accuses him of harassment, however, it’s her word against his and he wields more power.. Therefore, to catch him in the act, Harry and Bull participate plan an elaborate scheme to catch him in the act.
6. Punky Brewster – The Perils of Punky
While Punky Brewster dealt with more realistic subject matter with a disturbing bend (at least for a kids’ show) in other episodes, this one is arguably the most nightmare-inducing. It’s pretty freaky to the say the least.
“The Perils of Punky” lives up to its name, as Punky is forced to contend with monsters and all manner of supernatural hocus pocus. What makes it a “Very Special Episode”, however, was the horrific ordeal experienced by the cast. While it’s all childish nonsense, it did explore the notion that kids could could find themselves in scary predicaments at any time.
5. Growing Pains – Second Chance
The pains of growing up can lead to occasional trouble. Many of us disobeyed our parents rules and tried alcohol before it was legal per se, but in Growing Pains we witness the dark side of such acts of teenage rebellion.
In “Second Chance”, the teenage Carol sneaks out for a drink with her college boyfriend (played by a young Matthew Perry, prior to finding his own sitcom stardom a few years later). The silly fool decides to drive after consuming a few too many, though, resulting in a car accident which sees him hospitalized. But it isn’t all doom and gloom as Carol learned a valuable lesson, at least.
4. Mr. Belvedere – The Counselor
Summer camp is a great national pastime for young people looking for some innocent fun and games during the school holidays. That said, slasher films have taught us that they’re places of death. Sitcoms, like this one, meanwhile, would lead you to believe that they’re seedy places full of disturbing debauchery.
Camp counselors are the guardians of these places, but in this episode of the classic sitcom, the counselor in question is a vile abuser who acts inappropriately. It’s no laughing matter by any means, but by the end of the episode the innocent Wesley seems to have recovered from the experience at least.
3. Diff’rent Strokes – The Bicycle Man
The more harrowing aspects of Diff’rent Strokes’ legacy pertains to the behind-the-scenes drama and real-life problems some of the cast members faced when the show ended. However, while the show itself promotes good values, sometimes it entered darker terrains. Case in point: “The Bicycle Man”.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this one. It’s a story of individuals who catches the eye of an adult predator. The episode was made to raise awareness for abuse, and it certainly accomplished that. Very few episodes of family-friendly sitcoms are this twisted, though it is so for the right reasons and never feels like it’s exploiting serious issues for comedy.
2. Too Close for Comfort – For Every Man, There’s Two Women
Based on the British sitcom Keep It in the Family, this show, which aired between 1990-1993, was short-lived, but it’s quite underrated in the grand scheme of things. Raunchy humor was a recurring motif for generating laughs, but in this case the sexual element was nefarious.
“For Every Man, There’s Two Women” is one of numerous “Very Special Episodes” to assay the issue of assault; only in this case the tables are flipped as Monroe, a male character, is assaulted by two women.
To many guys, this probably sounds like a fantasy. The episode in question here even features a debate asking whether or not women can assault men. While the show can be considered low brow at times, Too Close for Comfort is one of the few TV comedies to ask these questions.
2. All in the Family – Edith’s 50th Birthday
All in the Family featured several “Very Special Episodes.” The show in general was quite edgy due to lead character Archie Bunker, whose right-wing and racist views are a far cry from what people consider politically correct. In the show’s most notorious episode, however, his not-so-offensive wife who was the main focus.
Here, the Bunker family matriarch gets an unwelcome surprise on her birthday when a man posing as a police officer invades her home and attempts to attack her. Needless to say, it’s not one of the more laugh-out-loud funny episodes in the series’ canon, but it is arguably the most memorable.
“Edith’s 50th Birthday” was one of the first episodes to tackle the issue of assault, and it’s since been used by the New York Police Department to shed some light on women’s experiences with attackers.
1. Maude – Maude’s Dilemma
Norman Lear was no stranger to creating controversial television, hence why his work has cropped up on this list more than once. Maude, a spin-off of All in the Family which ran from 1972-1978, is no different.
In the two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma”, our titular character wrestles with the idea of terminating her pregnancy as she’s worried that she’s too old to raise a child. Even today, the subject of terminated pregnancy is divisive, but back in 1972 it wasn’t often featured in mainstream American television.
The episodes naturally caused a stir, with network CBS receiving thousands of letters protesting their decision to air it. Furthermore, no corporate sponsors bought commercial time as they didn’t want their brand to be associated with the show. However, it did confront viewers of prime time television with an issue other shows weren’t discussing.
What “Very Special Episode” has stuck with you? Let us know in the comments.
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