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TV Lexicon: Very Special Episodes

By Wikipedia

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 special Blossom..."

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 and Family 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.

Examples

  • All in the Family Edith is attacked by a rapist on her 50th birthday.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Tara's family is shown to be misogynist bigots who call witches demons, in an analogy to real-life homophobia.
  • 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.
  • Diff'rent Strokes - Gordon Jump (of WKRP fame) plays the owner of a bicycle shop and attempts to seduce and molest Arnold and his friend, Dudley.
  • Diff'rent 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.
  • Family Ties - Alex uses pep pills to get enough energy to keep up with his schoolwork.
  • Family Ties - Alex's friend Greg dies in a car accident.
  • Family Matters - Eddie is pulled over by white policemen.
  • Family Matters - Eddie is beaten up by a street gang.
  • Family 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 protection.
  • 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 "sell-out".
  • Full House - Jesse accuses D.J. of drinking beer at the school dance. But there is a comic relief subplot involving the song "Baby Beluga".
  • Growing Pains - Carol's boyfriend Sandy dies after a drunk driving accident.
  • Welcome Back, Kotter Boom-Boom Washington is hooked on pills, and a nave 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.
  • The Simpsons - Homer meets his mother for the first time since he was an infant, but she is on the run from the police.
 

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It uses material from this Wikipedia article, which is probably more up to date than ours (retrieved August 12, 2005).

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