The Evolution of TV's ‘Very Special Episode’

Family sitcoms once embraced the preachy format to teach teens about important social issues, but more subtle, complex storytelling has since taken over.

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Before Cast Away and Captain Phillips, before he waxed inspirational over boxes of chocolates in Forrest Gump or flirted online with Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks was drunk Uncle Ned on the ’80s sitcom Family Ties. At first, the show played his liquor-fueled antics for comedy, setting the audience at ease—until one episode with an emotional scene in which he backhanded his nephew Alex, played by Michael J. Fox, across a coffee table in front of his family. Chastened by the outburst, Ned joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and audiences learned a valuable lesson about alcohol abuse. When it aired in 1984, “Say Uncle” captured the essence of an expository template now near extinction on TV: the very special episode.

From child molestation on Diff’rent Strokes to Will’s emotional “deadbeat dad” rant on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the very special episodes of ’80s and ’90s sitcoms introduced young viewers to intense, real-world issues. Like carefully crafted public service announcements, they took characters audiences laughed with and cared about—Theo Huxtable, D.J. Tanner, Zach Morris—and put them in close contact with harrowing life events to send a moral message. To sophisticated modern viewers wary of soapboxes, very special episodes are now dated relics that feel excessively earnest and painfully overt. Consequently, after being a small-screen staple for years, this often awkward model of entertainment is nearly nonexistent. And yet while the device itself may be dead, the socially conscious objective at its core has evolved, and lives on in a spate of subtle, cleverer TV series.

In their time, very special episodes were the modern equivalent of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: a sitcom formula designed to foster dialogue, with a serious tone that helped parents talk to their kids about drugs, sex, and violence. VSEs trace their roots back to the Norman Lear sitcoms of the ’70s, such as All in the Family and Good Times, which directly tackled social issues for the first time. Eventually they grew into something more clumsy and predictable. “I think that might have had to do with cynical marketing opportunities as much as a desire to serve the public,” says Arthur Smith, an assistant curator at the Paley Center for Media. “[Very special episodes] were always scheduled for sweeps weeks, and so clearly had ratings expectations.”

Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, says that while very special episodes tend to be artless, condescending, and simplistic, their greater influence is harder to assess. “I do wonder if some VSEs had social impact,” she says. “Just because something is bad art doesn’t mean it’s not effective.” Take, for example, a story line of Growing Pains from 1989, where Carol Seaver’s new college-age boyfriend, Sandy (played by the future Friends star Matthew Perry), drives drunk, crashes, and ultimately dies from the injuries he sustains. After the episode ran, “ABC officials in New York reported ‘several dozen phone calls Wednesday night after the show aired from viewers lauding the drunk-driving theme,’” according to The Los Angeles Times. Parents called into the network to express their approval. Sandy may have died, but he did so off-screen, and Carol survived to learn a valuable lesson after a stern talking-to by her father.

This was the hallmark of the very special episode: The main characters beloved by viewers would inevitably avoid serious harm. The dangers posed by story lines were more threats than actual occurrences, and on the occasion that bad things did happen, they usually happened to ancillary characters whom audiences cared less about. This selective meting of moral justice kept lessons from becoming too morbid, while still allowing episodes to serve as cautionary tales.

This gentle approach, however, was before shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story. In comparison to the darker television of the 21st century, the squeaky-clean endings of very special episodes now seem anodyne and absurd. Given that The Walking Dead, which kills off main characters without batting an eye, is the second-highest-rated show among 9-to-14-year-olds, it’s fair to assume teens no longer have the patience for a tender lecture about eating disorders from Uncle Jesse. With realism so visceral and information so accessible, the entire methodology of very special episodes seems naive and anachronistic.

“Irony has become the default pop-culture sensibility,” says Smith. “Earnestness can’t survive. It’s less exciting if a kid from Modern Family is drinking at a party when over on another channel Walter White is melting someone in a bathtub.”

It’s important, however, to distinguish between the moral lessons of very special episodes and the packaging of those lessons. Today, their melodramatic tone comes across as trite, in the way that special effects from even 10 years ago now seem laughably unsophisticated. Art, just like its technical elements, tends to get more polished over time, and so what was once weighty material becomes ridiculous: The gravitas of “The Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes, in which the owner of a local bike-repair shop tries to coerce pre-pubescent Arnold to take off his clothes, was at the time sincerely scary. Now the episode is parodied on Family Guy.

When the episode of Saved By the Bell in which Jessie gets addicted to caffeine pills first aired in 1990, it tried to make a profound point about substance abuse. Now her “I’m so excited” breakdown is a meme. The very special episode format no longer resonates—it’s too neat, too tame, and too clichéd. “The very special episode—a simpler package for progressive ideas—is gone,” says Nussbaum, “but what we have is more varied and mostly better ways of expressing political ideas in comedy.”

One contemporary sitcom that overtly channeled the VSE format was the recently wrapped high school aca-dramedy Glee. The Fox hit lured in young viewers with renditions of pop songs, while its story lines took on issues like bullying and LGBT relationships. The show sustained a self-deprecating edge, while maintaining an air of authenticity by employing real actors—who had Down’s Syndrome, were gay or ethnically diverse—who could accurately represent the issues addressed. “It was very up front with what it was trying to say about tolerance and acceptance,” says Smith. “It did it in a very fizzy, 21st century-irreverent, tonally adventurous way, which kept it from being marginalized as strictly moralizing.”

But later in its run, Glee became less oblique in its messaging, asserting a tone that was at times inspired, but frequently felt overbearing. In 2013, less than four months after the Sandy Hook shooting, Glee aired an episode titled “Shooting Star.” The show opened with a disclaimer: “This episode of Glee addresses the topic of school violence. Viewer discretion is advised.In it, any semblance of comedy was immediately shed as the sound of gunshots in the hall forced the members of New Directions to seek cover in the choir room. But in line with the VSE form, no characters were actually injured and, after much suspense, it was revealed that the gun was fired by accident.

The VSE homage was to the show’s detriment: The episode was met with a fair amount of derision from critics. Lauren Hoffman of Vulture wrote, “It seems far more respectful to point to real stories with real consequences as a means of generating awareness, rather than making up a story where everything turns out just fine in the end.” The message fell flat and Glee’s viewership continued to decline. Perhaps a different approach, in which the show either embraced the comedic energy that propelled it through its first two seasons or committed to a darker ending, would’ve helped preserve its relevancy.

It was the fundamental formula of VSEs to temporarily drop the comedy aspect of sitcoms to deliver a serious message. Today that feels disingenuous—an about-face that makes no sense. Instead, shows that are successful use comedy as the vehicle of delivery, employing satire to reflect a fun-house mirror on the absurdity of society. Just think of The Simpsons, South Park, and The Daily Show. Even relatively recent episodes of South Park (such as “The Hobbit,” which dealt with body image issues among young girls, and “You're Getting Old,” which dealt with divorce and depression) effectively juxtapose laughs with heavy-hitting issues. During a recent appearance on The Daily Show, Senator Al Franken told Jon Stewart, “You’ve taken this platform, and with your hard work, judgment, and intellect have engaged a generation of young people in public policy and politics.”

Though the aforementioned programs aren’t necessarily traditional family-friendly sitcoms, their function in society—employing humor as a mechanism to convey morals to young people—can be traced back to the tradition of very special episodes. In fact, the past year has seen a renaissance of major network family sitcoms, such as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, in which social issues are woven seamlessly into the comedic fabric of the show’s narrative. “They don't do anything as cheap as a ‘now let's stop being racist’ plot,” says Nussbaum, “but they do explore messages about family and identity.”

It’s the subtlety of humor that makes complicated issues more palatable—addressing controversy with an appropriate balance of gravity and hope. Comedy can openly acknowledge that things aren’t okay, but through a filter that makes the world’s woes seem like less of a lost cause and possibly even incites action. “These shows have ideas built into the premise,” Smith says. “If you’re just starting with that agenda, then no particular episode is going to feel particularly didactic or like it’s trying to be ‘very special.’”

In any case, the very special episode is now more tombstone than touchstone. But its existence was a necessary step in the growth and development of the more sophisticated programming audiences can see today.