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Very special episode

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"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.[1] The usage of the term peaked in the 1980s.[2][3]

Overview and legacy[edit]


Traditionally, very special episodes contained either a brief message from the cast or a title card reading either "Viewer Discretion Advised" or "Parental Discretion Advised", alerting viewers to the potentially graphic or disturbing nature of the episode and giving them time to decide if they wanted to watch it.[4]


Popular topics covered in very special episodes include abortion, birth control, sex education, racism, sexism, death, narcotics, pregnancy (particularly teenage pregnancy and unintended pregnancy), asthma, hitchhiking, kidnapping, suicide, drunk driving, drug use, sexual abuse, child abuse, child abandonment, sexual assault, violence, cults and HIV/AIDS.[3][5][6][7][8][9]


How a topic is portrayed can vary drastically from show to show, and its portrayal is influenced by a number of factors, including the personal beliefs of those involved in the show, advertising concerns, cultural attitudes, and the show's format, genre, and broadcasting company.[6][7][8] The Atlantic summarizes the core values of a very special episode as thus:

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.[7]

Public reception[edit]

The purpose of a very special episode is generally to raise awareness of an issue and encourage those affected to seek help if necessary. For example, the Diff'rent Strokes episode "The Bicycle Man", in the same year it was released, influenced a child in La Porte, Indiana, to inform his mother of a pedophile in the area, and the LaPorte police department credited the episode for the man's arrest.[10] The Washington Post called the episode "a calm, careful and intelligent treatment of a difficult and potentially traumatizing subject. There seems little possibility that watching this program would do children harm, and considerable likelihood it could do them good."[11]

In popular culture[edit]

Comedian Frank Caliendo spoofed this concept with "TV Promos" and "A Very Special Seinfeld" on his 2002 album Make the Voices Stop.[12]

Notably, Larry David, producer and co-creator of Seinfeld, was reportedly strongly opposed to having a very special episode in the series, with the motto of writers and cast being "No hugging, no learning".[13][14][15]

The concept was also spoofed on the 1996 Animaniacs episode "A Very Very Very Very Special Show" where Yakko, Wakko and Dot attempt to teach politically correct lessons in order to win a Humanitarian Animation Award.[16]

Notable examples[edit]

  • All in the Family (1971–1979)
  • Boy Meets World (1993–2000)
    • "Dangerous Secret" (Season 4, Episode 8, aired November 8, 1996), Cory Matthews and Shawn Hunter discover that one of their classmates, Claire Ferguson, is being abused by her father. After confiding in Cory's parents, the boys inform the police of the situation and send Claire to live with her aunt, in order to keep her safe.[20]
    • "Cult Fiction" (Season 4, Episode 21, aired April 25, 1997), Shawn is under the influence of a sinister cult.[21][22]
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990–1996)
    • "Mind Pollution" (Season 2, Episode 1, aired September 14, 1991), Linka visits her cousin Boris in Washington, D.C., and soon finds that he is under the influence of a street drug known as "Bliss", peddled by the Eco-Villain Verminous Skumm. Boris gets Linka addicted to Bliss by sneaking it into her food. In the episode's climax, Skumm offers Boris a bottle of Bliss in exchange for destroying the Planeteers. Boris agrees and swallows a handful of pills; just as the Planeteers stop Linka from doing the same, Boris overdoses and dies on-screen. This tragedy is what causes Linka to break free of her addiction.[23]
    • "A Formula for Hate" (Season 3, Episode 11, aired November 21, 1992), A high-school basketball player named Todd Andrews (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) finds out he has tested positive for HIV; Verminous Skumm uses this opportunity to spread untrue rumors about HIV/AIDS, which turns Todd's schoolmates against him.[24][25][23]
    • "'Teers in the Hood" (Season 4, Episode 22, aired May 14, 1994), When an old friend of Gi, a teacher, is caught in the middle of a gang war and is nearly killed, the Planeteers infiltrate the two feuding gangs to put an end to the violence. The likenesses and speeches of peace activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy are used within the episode.[23]
  • Diff'rent Strokes (1978–1986)
    • "The Bicycle Man" (Season 5, Episode 16/17, aired February 5, 1983, and February 12, 1983, in two parts), Arnold, along with friend Dudley, are targeted by a pedophile who owns a local bike shop and has sexually abused children in the past. Arnold's would-be abuser is arrested after Arnold confides in his father.[5][3][17][26][27][22]
    • "The Hitchhikers" (Season 6, Episode 14/15, aired January 28, 1984, and February 4, 1984, in two parts), Arnold and Kimberly hitchhike home for their father's birthday party. They are picked up by a man who plans to rape Kimberly. Arnold manages to escape and alert the police just in time to arrest the man.[26]
  • Full House (1987–1995)
    • "Shape Up" (Season 4, Episode 8, aired November 9, 1990), DJ, in preparation for an upcoming pool party, stops eating and start exercising vigorously, both common symptoms of anorexia nervosa.[28]
    • "Silence Is Not Golden" (Season 6, Episode 17, aired February 16, 1993), Stephanie learns that her classmate is a victim of child abuse by his father and feels conflicted as to whether she should tell an adult.[29][22]
  • Maude (1972–1978)
    • "Maude's Dilemma: Part 1" (Season 1, Episode 9, aired November 14, 1972), Maude, who is 47 years old and a grandmother, learns she's pregnant and contemplates having an abortion.[30][3][27][22]
    • "Maude's Dilemma: Part 2" (Season 1, Episode 10, aired November 21, 1972), a continuation of "Maude's Dilemma: Part 1", Maude decides to terminate her pregnancy.[31][30][27][22]
  • Mr. Belvedere (1985–1990)
    • "Wesley's Friend" (Season 2, Episode 16, aired January 31, 1986), Wesley, due to misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, avoids his friend and classmate, Danny, who contracted the disease as the result of a blood transfusion.[32][33][22]
    • "The Counselor" (Season 4, Episode 20, aired May 6, 1988), A male camp counselor touches Wesley inappropriately, encouraging him to keep it a "secret". Wesley calls him out in order to protect a fellow camper.[33][17]
  • Roseanne (1988–1997, 2018)
    • "Crime And Punishment" (Season 5, Episode 13, aired January 5, 1993), Roseanne learns her sister, Jackie, is being physically abused by her boyfriend, Fisher, prompting her husband, Dan, to assault Fisher.[34]
    • "White Men Can't Kiss" (Season 7, Episode 9, aired November 16, 1994), D.J. refuses to kiss a girl in his school play because she's black, leading both Roseanne and Dan to question their own bigotry.[35][36][37][38][39][40][22]
  • Saved by the Bell (1989–1992)
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
    • "Mistaken Identity" (Season 1, Episode 6, aired October 15, 1990), While driving to Palm Springs in a Mercedes-Benz that belongs to Phillip Banks' white colleague, Will and Carlton are picked up by two white police officers that accuse the two of being car thieves.[45][46][47][48][49][22]
    • "Just Say Yo" (Season 3, Episode 19, aired February 15, 1993), Will is given speed to stay up. At the senior prom, Carlton, mistaking them for vitamins, takes them, and collapses on the dance floor. He covers for Will, who comes clean to Phillip and Vivian, breaking down.[49]
    • "Bullets Over Bel-Air" (Season 5, Episode 15, aired February 6, 1995), Will and Carlton, while withdrawing money from an ATM, are robbed at gunpoint, and Will is shot and hospitalized, causing Carlton to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, and leading him to purchase a handgun for his own protection, which Will disapproves of.[49]
  • The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
    • "Isn't It Romantic?" (Season 2, Episode 5, aired November 8, 1986), Dorothy's friend Jean, a lesbian, comes to visit after her longtime partner dies. Rose and Jean have a lot in common and they strike up a fast friendship, but Jean starts falling in love with Rose, who is unaware of her new friend's sexuality.[50][51][52][53][54]
    • "Scared Straight" (Season 4, Episode 9, aired December 10, 1988), When Blanche's newly divorced brother Clayton comes to town he confides to Rose that he is gay; scared to tell Blanche the truth, he pretends to have slept with Rose. With Blanche furious at her roommate, Clayton is eventually forced to reveal the truth, sending Blanche into angry and confused denial.[50][55][56][51][57][53][54]
    • "72 Hours" (Season 5, Episode 19, aired February 17, 1990), Rose finds she may have been exposed to HIV, after having undergone a blood transfusion following gallbladder surgery.[58][59][60][50][51][53][54]
    • "Sister of the Bride" (Season 6, Episode 14, aired January 12, 1991), Blanche's gay brother Clayton visits to announce his engagement to marry a man and asks for Blanche's blessing; Blanche is again conflicted about her brother's sexuality.[50][55][56][51][57][53]
    • "Sick and Tired" (Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2, aired September 23, 1989 & September 30, 1989), Dorothy suffers from a mysterious illness and goes to a doctor, but he dismisses her concerns and symptoms, saying that nothing's wrong with her. She goes to another specialist, who diagnoses her with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. After encountering him in a restaurant, Dorothy confronts the doctor that dismissed her, advising him to listen to his patients, as he will one day be in their situation.[61][62][63][64][22]
  • WKRP in Cincinnati (1978–1982)

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Nussbaum, Emily. (April 13, 2003). "When episodes could still be very special", The New York Times. Retrieved on January 13, 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Silverman, Ben. "A very special episode of... When sitcoms get serious". MSN TV. Microsoft. Archived from the original on April 11, 2009.
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  5. ^ a b Dyess-Nugent, Phil. "A 'very special' Diff'rent Strokes that's terrifying for all the wrong reasons". The A.V. Club. G/O Media. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  6. ^ a b Betancourt, Manuel (February 21, 2019). "A Very Special Episode, but Maybe Not So Precious". The New York Times.
  7. ^ a b c Moss, Tyler (July 20, 2015). "The Evolution of TV's 'Very Special Episode'". The Atlantic. Emerson Collective.
  8. ^ a b Adams, Erik (February 3, 2017). "Very special episodes were a joke—now they're the whole sitcom". The A.V. Club. G/O Media.
  9. ^ A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE: THE MIXTAPE|Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
  10. ^ Hastings, Julianne (September 20, 1983). "TV World;NEWLN:Networks target shows to fight child abuse". United Press International. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  11. ^ Shales, Tom (February 12, 1983). "A Bold Show Treated with Care". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  12. ^ Frank Caliendo Make the Voices Stop Album Reviews, Songs & More | AllMusic, retrieved May 24, 2022
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Colburn, Randall (May 10, 2018). "'No hugging, no learning': 20 years on Seinfeld's mantra still looms large". the Guardian. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  15. ^ Kosner, Edward (August 12, 2016). "No Hugging, No Learning: The 'Seinfeld' Credo". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  16. ^ "Animaniacs" A Very Very Very Very Special Show/Night of the Living Buttons/Soda Jerk (TV Episode 1996) - IMDb
  17. ^ a b c d Kovalchik, Kara (March 18, 2013). "12 Very Special 'Very Special Episodes'". Mental Floss. Minute Media.
  18. ^ Shales, Tom (October 16, 1977). "Tonight: Edith Bunker's Ordeal". The Washington Post. Nash Holdings. ISSN 0190-8286.
  19. ^ a b Beard, Lanford (February 16, 2013). "10 'Very Special Episodes' That Make You Wonder 'Did That Really Air?!'". Entertainment Weekly. Meredith Corporation.
  20. ^ "Boy Meets World: 10 Times The Show Touched On Serious Topics". Screen Rant. January 9, 2020. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  21. ^ "15 Weirdest "Very Special Episodes" Of TV Shows". ScreenRant. April 20, 2017. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i 10 Best Sitcom "Very Special Episodes"|ScreenRant
  23. ^ a b c Weirdest Captain Planet and the Planeteers Episodes|Collider
  24. ^ Remember when Captain Planet did an episode on AIDS?|Flickering Myth
  25. ^ AIDS - Los Angeles Times
  26. ^ a b "Diff'rent Strokes was the king of the 'very special episode'". MeTV. Weigel Broadcasting. August 9, 2018.
  27. ^ a b c d Fowler, Matt (June 14, 2012). "The Top 10 Very Special Episodes". IGN. Ziff Davis.
  28. ^ Heller, Corinne (May 4, 2016). "Candace Cameron Bure Opens Up About Past Eating Disorder". E! News. NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group.
  29. ^ Full House : Silence Is Not Golden (1993) - Joel Zwick | Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related | AllMovie, retrieved May 24, 2022
  30. ^ a b Beale, Lewis (November 13, 1992). "MAUDE'S ABORTION FADES INTO HISTORY". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on October 4, 2018. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  31. ^ "TV has brought the abortion debate home since the 1970s". NPR.org. May 4, 2022. Retrieved May 24, 2022.
  32. ^ Delahaye, Gabe (December 8, 2011). "The Long Lost Mr. Belvedere AIDS Episode". Stereogum.
  33. ^ a b Mackie, Drew (March 15, 2015). "Mr. Belvedere Turns 30, but He May Be Even Older Than You Think". People. Meredith Corporation.
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  35. ^ Venable, Malcolm (May 24, 2018). "Breaking Down Roseanne's Complicated Racial Politics". TV Guide. CBS Interactive Inc.
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  54. ^ a b c Brathwaite, Lester Fabian (August 30, 2019). "Can We Talk About...? "The Golden Girls" vs. "Designing Women"—Who Queer'd It Better?". NewNowNext. Logo TV. Archived from the original on August 30, 2019.
  55. ^ a b White, Brett (August 9, 2017). "That Gay Episode: A Brave 'Golden Girls' Forces Blanche To Deal With Her Homophobia". Decider. New York Post.
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  58. ^ Colucci, Jim (February 17, 2017). "The Golden Girls Proved Its Fearlessness Yet Again When It Tackled the AIDS Epidemic". Vulture. Vox Media.
  59. ^ Fletcher, Barbara (July 22, 2014). "What 'The Golden Girls' Taught Us About AIDS". NPR. National Public Radio, Inc.
  60. ^ Sewell, Claire (December 4, 2018). "Deconstructing HIV and AIDS on The Golden Girls". Nursing Clio.
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External links[edit]