As a curator of pop culture, I have run across plenty of “very special” episodes. The ones where they try to bang you over the head with the lesson of the day. Most fail at this because they definitely bang you into oblivion or they are really hilariously bad.
One of my favorite current TV shows, Pretty Little Liars, took this trope and turned it into a good thing in the recent episode, “Shadow Play”. Spencer Hastings (pictured in my avatar) has been slowly descending into Adderall-fueled madness. She began to use Adderall recreationally in order to keep trying to solve her friend’s murder. She felt she was so close and everything was in her face. That madness broke in the latest episode. She woke up in a 1940s noir thriller. Complete with black and white, “Shadow Play” told a great story, and a pretty one to boot. The subtlety was actual subtle. There were no morals jumping down your throat. It was definitely more thematic and heady than one would expect. The abuse was touched on by more than one character, but was never the main point of conversation. The thing I appreciated most was the fact the episode continued the main story line in a new and different way.
A lot of issue episodes are specials of the week, because of this, they are rarely story arc driven. As I was watching PLL tonight, it brought back memories of another drug issue episode of a teenage show. I am talking about the television hallmark “Jessie’s Song” from season two of Saved by the Bell. I grew up on Saved by Bell. I was much closer to being a teenager when that show hit than I am to the teenagers of the PLL. I did not see the episode at its original airing, but as anyone who was born in the early ’80s knows, TBS had all the reruns. Jessie was always my favorite character on SBTB, much like her later day counterpart is my favorite on Pretty Little Liars. What can I say, I have a thing for smart, witty women, because that’s me. This episode is the exact opposite of “Shadow Play”. There is no subtle. There is just one big giant mess. Jessie gets hooked on caffeine pills, the Adderall of my generation, trying to get into Stanford. Zach’s confrontation of Jessie and her reaction is forever on the Mount Rushmore of early ’90s over-acting.
Has TV matured over the years? I am not certain. There have been plenty of missteps. I am sure one could fill a museum with terrible issue episodes. Thankfully, I can just look on the few good ones and think good thoughts. Or every time I hear the Pointer Sisters, I think of one Jessie Spano and I have a fun freak out.
My title was inspired by this song: