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 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 award-winning PBS animated children's program Arthur has had many very special episodes, which covered such subjects as divorce, the loss of a pet, cancer, dyslexia, asthma, head lice, 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 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.
Television websites such as Television Without Pity and jumptheshark.com deride the phrase. In an episode of Friends, Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) mocked the ubiquitous NBC commercials that popularized the phrase ("A very special Blossom"); Perry himself had appeared in "a very special episode" of Growing Pains earlier in his career, playing Carol Seaver (Tracey Gold)'s teenage boyfriend who dies of injuries sustained in a car accident after a night of underage drinking.
Parodies of very special episodes
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The "very special episode" motif has been featured widely in comedy, and a number of shows have devoted an entire episode to parodies of them:
- American Dad! - "The American Dad After School Special" involves Steve getting a girlfriend named Debbie who Stan disapproves of because she's fat. Meanwhile, Roger falls in love with Debbie and gets jealous of her dating Steve which causes a huge love triangle to happen. Stan also becomes an anorexic and starts getting ridiculously thin, but is hallucinating himself as getting really fat.
- Animaniacs – "A Very Very Very Very Special Show" had the Warners trying to get a Humanitarian Animation Award by dealing with issues such as environmentalism, sexism, smoking, violence, and healthy eating. However, as soon as the award was presented to a different cartoon, they instantly went against everything they had been talking about (i.e. eating cheesecake, hitting a man with a mallet, etc.).
- Beavis and Butt-head - "A Very Special Episode" involves Beavis and Butt-head reluctantly attempting to nurse a wounded baby bird back to health under the supervision of Mr. Stevenson, though they would much rather see it die.
- Clone High – Every episode opens with the phrase "Tonight, on a very special Clone High..."
- Community - "Wedding Videography" includes the plot of an incestuous relationship between cousins. During the after-school-special style end-tag of the episode, the episode's writer Briggs Hatton (portrayed by actor Matt Gourley) addresses the audience, quoting a New York Times article stating that healthy babies can be born from first-cousins. Hatton explains that when pitching the episode to his co-writers (also portrayed by actors) they said they would approve of the episode under the condition that Hatton identifies himself in the episode's end-tag.
- Drawn Together – "A Very Special Drawn Together Afterschool Special" parodies very special episodes in general. To help Xandir prepare to tell his parents he's gay, the other housemates agree to role-play, but they let the exercise get way out of hand and end up enacting an outlandish scenario involving homophobia, murder, adultery, prostitution, and even disposing of a dead body in a swamp.
- The Drew Carey Show – During its fifth season, the series did a spoof episode titled "A Very Special Drew", in which numerous examples of "very special episode" motifs were used. The premise of the show was that the cast, upset about never getting an Emmy Award, 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 (but is alive again at the end of the episode).
- Everybody Hates Chris – Rochelle's father (Jimmie Walker) comes to visit and dies at the dinner table. Besides the casting of Walker, this episode contains direct references to the "very special" Good Times episode "The Big Move". Rochelle is curiously upbeat while the rest of the family mourns.
- Family Guy – The end of "Seahorse Seashell Party" featured Stewie Griffin presenting a Very Special Episode about drug use. He goes on to point out that drugs are no laughing matter and "to learn more about drugs, visit your local library - there's probably a guy behind there who sells them."
- Mr. Show – An episode described as a Very Special Episode opens with David Cross, in a parody of coming out, revealing that although he plays David Cross, a bald character, he, Cross (the actor), is in truth bald, pulling a bald wig off his head to reveal his bald head. The cast then cynically checks their ratings and the remainder of the show follows the regular format. Cross states on the DVD commentary that this was a parody of Ellen's "The Puppy Episode".
- The Powerpuff Girls – An episode entitled "A Very Special Blossom" has Blossom stealing a set of golf clubs, wanting to give Professor Utonium a happy Father's Day. She frames Mojo Jojo for the theft, and is eventually confronted. Blossom flees, and her sisters chase her, tackling her to the ground, forcing her to admit she stole them to make the Professor happy.
- Strangers with Candy – Inspired by the public-service film The Trip Back, each episode parodies after-school-special style stories, including peer pressure, tattling, racism, bullying, and drug use, and the protagonist always ends up making the wrong decision in the end.
- The Simpsons – In the ninth season episode "Bart Star", Joe Namath addresses the camera at the end of the show, in a manner parodying many Very Special Episodes, to "talk seriously about the problem of vapor lock", which he says is the "third most common cause of engine stalling."
- Tropiano, Michael and Stephanie Tropiano. The Prime Time Closet. Hal Leonard, 2002. 232. ISBN 1-55783-557-8.
- Nussbaum, Emily. (2003-04-13). "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.
- Chandler, Chip (2000-05-16). "Chandler: Season finales to spring into television lineup". Amarillo Globe-News. Retrieved 13 January 2009.