Very special episode

Very special episode

"Very special episode" is an advertising term originally used in American television commercials to refer to an episode of a situation comedy or television drama that deals with a serious or controversial social issue. Although the concept has been in existence for some time, the usage of the term peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s.

These episodes are usually a departure from the existing tone of the series. For example, many situation comedies have had a "very special episode" that covers a more serious topic in a dramatic, rather than comedic fashion. Although the term is descriptive, it is sometimes used in a pejorative manner (particularly by television critics and pop culture journalists), partially because "very special episodes" tend to feel incongruous in the context of the rest of the series; a light-hearted comedy would suddenly present a serious, depressing drama for one episode, only to happily return to the light-hearted comedy the following week with little or no reference to the dramatic events that had just occurred.

General overview of content

Various very special episodes have addressed such topics as alcoholism, interracial marriage, dealing with an unexpected death, coming out, abortion, physical abuse, sexual abuse, cancer, morality of lying, racism, suicide, and dealing with absentee or deadbeat parents or unknown relatives. Recurring themes for American television programs with younger viewers often include adoption, drug addiction, gay rights, eating disorders, guns and violence, pre-marital sex, environmentalism and teenage pregnancy.

Depending on the nature of the social issue, television producers and scriptwriters may choose either a protagonist, recurring character, or a supporting character written especially for the episode to embody the personal failing, social problem, or controversy at hand. Often these "very special episodes" feature characters suddenly developing problems with drugs (commonly painkillers) when none had existed previously, and after the episode no further consequences are usually shown.

A closely related concept is the after school special, which deals with issues in much the same way. The key difference is that an after school special is a stand-alone story, rather than an installment of a pre-existing series.


The "very special episode" is occasionally billed as "an episode your family can't afford to miss", again dramatizing the importance of the episode by insinuating the issues presented represent mandatory viewing for the responsible parent and child. Often the "very special episode" concerns a moral issue.

Television websites such as Television Without Pity and 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 appeared in "a very special episode" of "Growing Pains" earlier in his career, playing Carol Seaver's teenage boyfriend who dies of injuries sustained in a car accident after a night of underage drinking.

There are several series whose episodes were almost all of the "very special" variety; for instance, the long-running comedy "The Golden Girls" often tackled controversial issues on a weekly basis.

The concept of the very special episode was parodied in "Clone High", as "every" episode of that series is referred to as a very special episode.

"The Drew Carey Show", in its fifth season, also did a similar spoof titled "A Very Special Drew", in which numerous examples of Very Special 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).

The popular sitcom "Seinfeld", famously "about nothing", was also opposed to very special episodes. The on-set motto among writers and cast was reportedly "No hugging, no learning."

On the Canadian dramedy series "", the writers usually spread the very controversial plots over two-part episodes. Noted examples are "Accidents Will Happen," that dealt with teen pregnancy and abortion; "Time Stands Still", which dealt with a school shooting, an issue that was hardly shown on television shows before this; and "Turned Out," an episode that dealt with JT (typically a comic relief character) becoming a drug dealer and trying to overdose in an attempt to commit suicide. Typically, these kinds of episodes usually have a light-hearted subplot, although the show has dealt with a great deal of controversial topics: eating disorders, teen pregnancy, suicide, alcohol abuse, drunk driving, mental illness, rape, physical abuse, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, drug abuse, drug dealing, disability, death of friends and parents, self harm, bullying, etc.

Early examples of special episodes

One of the first uses of the phrase "very special episode" came from crime drama "Dragnet", advertising a 1953 Christmas-themed episode entitled "The Big Little Jesus".Fact|date=August 2008

"Bonanza" would commonly use guest stars to illustrate a problem in any given week. In one episode, Hoss's friend Susan (who was never seen before or after) 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. A questionable 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, the faith healer becomes brainwashed into believing that he really can heal her. In the end, Susan walked, but not because of the faith healer; 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 for 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. The series also featured an episode in which one of Buddy's teachers (played by Blair Brown) was identified as a lesbian.

Both "All in the Family" and its spinoff "Maude" were examples of situation comedies with topical special episodes. "All in the Family" featured a number of serious situations, including Edith being attacked by a rapist, as well as her experiences with menopause and a breast cancer scare; "Maude" featured topical stories on alcoholism and abortion.

"Diff'rent Strokes" featured a large share of "very special episodes", including one famous episode in which First Lady Nancy Reagan appeared to promote her "Just Say No" advertising campaign. Another episode had Arnold Jackson as the target of a pedophile.

Parodies of very special episodes

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:

* "Animaniacs" - In one episode that parodies very special episodes, the Warners discuss the problem of Wakko not wearing any pants.
* "Beavis and Butt-head" - In the episode "A Very Special Episode", the duo find a wounded bird and inadvertently help Mr. Stevenson take it to a vet. Although Stevenson hopes to cure the bird, the boys are waiting for it to die. However, when Beavis regurgitates worms into its mouth (believing that the bird won't die until after it eats), it grows strong, to their great annoyance. An emotional Stevenson drives them to a park where they release the bird back into the wild by throwing it (or as Beavis puts it, "flipping the bird"), at which point it falls to the ground again, wounded.
* "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 prostitution, murder, adultery, and even disposing of a dead body in a swamp.
* "Clone High" - every episode of the show starts with the phrase "Tonight, on a very special Clone High..."
* "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. Florida Evans behaved in the same manner in the episode in which James died. In one of Chris's fantasy sequences, Rochelle is shown screaming "Damn! Damn! Damn!" exactly as Florida did in said episode.
* "Magical DoReMi" - In the episode "Mo' Mirabelle's Blues", when Mirabelle runs away from home, she cries and says, "What am I doing? Nothing good ever comes to kids who run away from home! I've seen those very special episodes of cartoons, they never end well!" parodying what the episode was (at this point in the episode, Mirabelle abandoned her father, who had been hiding letters from Mirabelle's long-lost mother). This quote only exists in the English dub.
* "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, David Cross (the actor), is in truth bald, pulling a bald wig off of his head to reveal his bald head. The cast then cynically checks their ratings and the remainder of the show follows regular format.
* "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. She 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 public-service film "The Trip Back", each episode parodies after-school-special style stories, including peer pressure, tattling, racism, and drug use, and the protagonist always ends up making the wrong decision in the end.
* "Tiny Toon Adventures" - One short, called "One Beer" involved Buster, Plucky, and Hamton finding (and drinking) a bottle of beer. Although it is presented as if it were intended to be educational, the over-the-top and sarcastic nature of the content is usually considered to be self-parody.
* "The Venture Brothers" - In the episode "Return the House of Mummies, Part II", Doctor Orpheus claims to Dr. Venture that he can make you think you're a "Very Special Episode of Blossom!", which Venture dismisses as being able to be done with a Mind-Control Helmet.

ee also

*After school special
*Jumping the shark

External links

* [ Jump the Shark's Very Special Episode section]
* [ Television Without Pity]
* [ MSNBC story, "5Top: Unnecessary TV children"] A media discussion about how certain child characters are related to "Jumping the shark" and "Very special episodes".
* [ IGN: The Top 10 "Very Special" Episodes]

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