TV Lexicon: Very Special Episodes
A very special episode is an term meaning an episode of a
television sitcom or drama which deals with a serious and often
controversial social issue, usually meant to inspire viewers to talk to
family or friends about the issue discussed in the show. While some very
special episodes have simple premises, such as problems with honesty, more
recent very special episodes have been known to tackle such subjects as
interracial marriage, homosexuality, abortion, or cancer. On sitcoms, or
shows with younger viewers, many very special episodes revolve around drug
use, eating disorders, or pre-marital sex.
The controversial topic is often not dealt with directly by the
principal characters of the show. Usually, friends of the main character
deal with the topic. These friends often have never been heard from before
the episode or episodes in question, and are never heard from again
afterward. For this reason, some critics deride the use of such episodes,
as it tends to create problems with continuity.
Still, this is probably for the best, since characters with established
backgrounds tend to be butchered when jammed into the character template
required to showcase the "issue" at hand.
Coining the term
Because the phrase promises much more than the episodes usually
delivered, the phrase can no longer be used without evoking, either
intentionally or unintentionally, a sense that the words are ironic.
The phrase became popular when it was spoofed on such television
sitcoms as Friends, when Chandler (played by Matthew Perry) mocked
the ubiquitous NBC ads of the day. (Ironically, Matthew Perry appeared in
a Very Special Growing
Pains episode earlier in his career.)
The term was first used in the early 1990s to describe topical issues
on such shows as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Blossom.
The announcer on the network would describe such episodes to the audience
in a somber tone, telling them, for example: "Tonight, on a very
The whole idea of the very special episode was pulled to pieces in Clone
High, where every episode is called a very special episode.
The Drew Carey Show, in its fifth season, also did a similar
spoof entitled "A Very Special Drew", where numerous examples of
Very Special motifs were used. The premise of the show was that the cast,
upset about never getting an Emmy, decided to throw together a show so
schmaltzy they had to win the prize. In the course of a half-hour, every
possible issue, from eating disorders to homelessness to illiteracy to
kleptomania, is addressed, while one famous character passes into a coma
and dies (though he/she is alive again at the end of the episode).
Very special programs before the 1990s
However, shows that had very special themes certainly predate
the early 1990s. In fact, shows like Bonanza
used many plot devices reminiscent of the 1990s-era very special episode.
For example, Bonanza used guest stars to illustrate a problem in
any given week. In one episode, Hoss's friend Susan (whom we never saw
before said episode, and whom we would never see again) wanted to drive
her father's buggy, so she begs Hoss to let her. They end up in an
accident with Susan paralyzed from the waist down. The dubious faith
healer (played by Ed Nelson from Peyton Place) comes to town and
convinces Hoss to let him help her. At first, it was solely an attempt to
rob her of her considerable fortune. However, he becomes brainwashed into
believing that he really can heal her. In the end, Susan walked, but
because her injury wasn't as bad as was previously believed. The problem
solved, Susan and the faith healer were never heard from again.
On more melodramatic series such as Family, the stories were
more controversial. Arguably, the most notable very special episode of the
series is when Buddy (played by Kristy McNichol) is pressured into sex by
her boyfriend (played by teen idol Leif Garrett). Although she is tempted,
she ultimately decides that she is not ready for the responsibility just
yet, teaching viewers that they, too, can say no to sex if they are not
prepared. Family was one of the first television shows to deal with
very topical subjects in this manner.
in the Family – Edith is attacked by a rapist on her 50th
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Tara's family is shown to be
misogynist bigots who call witches demons, in an analogy to real-life
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Willow is corrupted by her
witchcraft and becomes the equivalent of a drug addict, even literally
rising to the ceiling when she gets high.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Buffy's mother dies from cancer,
in an episode almost devoid of the usual references to the
supernatural and filled with experimental director tricks.
Strokes - Gordon Jump (of WKRP
fame) plays the owner of a bicycle shop and attempts to seduce and
molest Arnold and his friend, Dudley.
Strokes - When Arnold is offered drugs on the playground,
Nancy Reagan comes and speaks to his class about drugs and pushes her
"Just Say No" campaign.
Ties - Alex uses pep pills to get enough energy to keep up
with his schoolwork.
Ties - Alex's friend Greg dies in a car accident.
Matters - Eddie is pulled over by white policemen.
Matters - Eddie is beaten up by a street gang.
Matters - Urkel drinks spiked punch at a rooftop party and
almost falls from the roof.
- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - Will gets shot in the back during
an attempted robbery and Carlton considers buying a gun for
- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - Carlton is hospitalized after
taking amphetamines he finds in Will's locker.
- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - Will's mother refuses to support
her sister's being engaged to a white man.
- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - Will and Carlton pledge a black
fraternity, but Carlton is victimized while pledging for being a
House - Jesse accuses D.J. of drinking beer at the school
dance. But there is a comic relief subplot involving the song
Pains - Carol's boyfriend Sandy dies after a drunk driving
Back, Kotter – Boom-Boom Washington is hooked on pills, and
a naïve Horshack childishly refuses to believe his friend needs help;
Gabe and the other Sweathogs believe Boom-Boom has a problem.
- Saved by the Bell– Jessie Spano takes speed in order to
keep up with school and her social life.
Simpsons - Homer meets his mother for the first time since he
was an infant, but she is on the run from the police.