Very special episode
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"Very special episode" is an advertising term originally used in American television promos to refer to an episode of a sitcom or drama series which deals with a difficult or controversial social issue. The usage of the term peaked in the 1980s.
The term was generally used in reference to sitcoms as a way of highlighting that the normally lighthearted show would be dealing with a more serious topic. During these episodes, the laugh track was largely absent, or, in the alternative, the live studio audience present during the taping of the show rarely responded with laughter. Often a "very special episode" concerns a moral issue.
Diff'rent Strokes featured some very special episodes that involved child molestation, child pornography, pedophilia, hitchhiking, kidnapping, sexual assault, epileptic seizure, bullies, racism, bulimia, drunk driving, and drug abuse.
The Facts of Life, which was a spin-off of Diff'rent Strokes, often featured very special episodes that involved drug abuse, teen suicide, teenage marriage, breast cancer, abortion, cheating (relationship), divorce, illiteracy, hearing problems, prostitution, a teenage mother, drunk driving, interracial marriage, virginity, and cerebral palsy.
Some sitcoms often addressed the growing concern about HIV/AIDS at that time by featuring a very special episode. On an episode of The Hogan Family, David Hogan (Jason Bateman) struggles to comprehend that a friend of his is fighting with the disease and eventually dies from the complications. To make people aware of the disease, David and Sandy (Sandy Duncan), who has informed David that her father died of AIDS, put together a high school assembly on the subject. In an episode of Mr. Belvedere, Wesley Owens (Brice Beckham) has a friend who has HIV/AIDS and is shunned by other people and the school due to their ignorance of the disease which leads to Wesley questioning if he should be around him. However, Mr. Belvedere (Christopher Hewett) helps Wesley overcome the fear of the disease and accept him as a friend.
Other notable sitcoms that used the very special episode concept to address an issue were Silver Spoons, Punky Brewster, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Charles in Charge, Small Wonder, Webster, Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step, Boy Meets World, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, A Different World, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The award-winning PBS animated children's program Arthur has had many very special episodes, which covered such subjects as divorce, animal loss, cancer, dyslexia, asthma, and a two-part episode that was made in response to the September 11 attacks. After Hurricane Sandy, an episode titled "Shelter from the Storm" was aired, showing the characters dealing with a similar storm (Idina Menzel made a guest appearance as Brain's therapist).
Sometimes, as with the 1990s NBC sitcom Blossom, the network wanted to find a way to warn viewers that the upcoming episode would be about a serious issue without directly putting a "parental advisory" message.
Sesame Street has also covered serious subjects. The most famous of those discussed the death of Mr. Hooper in an episode that aired on Thanksgiving Day of 1983. In addition, Sesame Street covered such issues as: 9/11 when Elmo visited a fire station; a hospital stay, with Big Bird as the patient; and a hurricane visiting Sesame Street, with massive damage to Big Bird's nest.
The sitcom Seinfeld, famously "about nothing," was also diametrically opposed to very special episodes. The on-set motto among writers and cast was reportedly "No hugging, no learning." One writer commented, "There will never be an advertisement for 'a very special episode' of Seinfeld, for its humor is of a more practical and parodic nature." In fact, in one scene during the episode "The Secret Code", Kramer tells Jerry, "Well, at least you learned something." Jerry replies, "No, I didn't."
The Drew Carey Show parodied very special episodes in the season five finale "A Very Special Drew," in which the cast, in a facetious attempt to win an Emmy Award, battles illiteracy, kleptomania, obsessive compulsive disorder, and a coma.
The Fox series Family Guy sparked some controversy when the episode "Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q" aired, as it treats spousal abuse and domestic violence in a serious nature, which is unusual for the series.
- Tropiano, Michael and Stephanie Tropiano. The Prime Time Closet. Hal Leonard, 2002. 232. ISBN 1-55783-557-8.
- Nussbaum, Emily. (13 April 2003). "When episodes could still be very special", The New York Times. Retrieved on 13 January 2009.
- Ben Silverman."A very special episode of... When sitcoms get serious", MSN TV. Retrieved on 13 January 2009 (Internet Archive)
- on YouTube
- McWilliams, Amy. "Genre Expectation and Narrative Innovation in Seinfeld." In Seinfeld: Master of Its Domain: Revisiting Television's Greatest Sitcom. David Lavery with Sara Lewis Dunne, eds. New York: Continuum, 2006. P. 82. ISBN 0-8264-1803-1.