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Very Special Episodes: An Appreciation

The 1980s and ’90s were chock full of family sitcoms, from Full House to Family Matters. Each and every show had at least one “Very Special Episode,” and I lived for them.

In order to be a “Very Special Episode,” the show had to start off with one of the main characters – usually a teenager – do something “bad,” like drink, or try smoking or drugs. Sometimes, a new character was introduced who seemed nice but was really up to no good (think a drug pusher or pedophile). Before the episode ends, a catastrophic event occurs, like a drunk driving accident, or the bad guy is exposed for what he is. Everything works out (rarely does someone actually die), lessons are learned, and the incident is never talked about again.

I always looked forward to the Very Special Episodes because they involved heavier subject matters; as much as I loved Full House, I couldn’t handle the trials and tribulations of Michelle Tanner week in and week out. These meatier episodes talked about more adult matters, which are always intriguing when you’re nine. They were pretty age appropriate, too; I could absolutely see a middle school student sneaking beer to a dance, which is what happened to D.J. once, and it was handled in a way kids could understand. Later in the series, they handled the death of Uncle Jesse’s Greek grandfather, Papouli, well, too, showing the toll it took on the entire family and how Michelle thought she had to be strong for Uncle Jesse. I still cannot get through that episode without shedding a tear.

Plus, I’ve always been a weirdo into fringe religions (yeah, I don’t know why either), so when a show centered around someone joining a cult, I got ridiculously excited. Not only did Kelly Taylor do so on Beverly Hills, 90210, but so did Shawn Hunter on a remarkable Boy Meets World episode. That was an exceptional 30 minutes because it really did show how easy it can be for someone who is emotionally fragile to fall into something like a cult. That could (and maybe should) be required watching in a classroom.

The goal of these episodes were to educate the audience, and of course, also to boost ratings. I ended up having some unrealistic expectations thanks to these special episodes – for instance, no one offered me crack the second I walked onto a high school campus. Special episodes could at times be overwrought, but they did get the dialogue going on subject matters like AIDS and drunk driving and eating disorders.

I had started writing this column a few months ago, but for some reason, sat around on it. I knew I had to finish it after I saw this video on Buzzfeed the other day, which shows the 50 Best Very Special Episodes, as chosen by Jest Comedy. I don’t agree with all the choices – and some of them were a bit before my time – but it was still fun to see the infamous “I’m so excited…I’m so excited…I’m so scared!” clip from Saved by the Bell. Those 15 seconds of caffeine-induced mania just never get old.

What were your favorite Very Special Episodes? Share them in the comments!

By Catherine

Catherine is a Southern California based freelance writer, whose work has appeared in everything from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. The highlight of her life (so far) was being featured on MSNBC for a story she wrote on Hello Kitty wines...she knew one day her love of all things HK would come in handy.

13 replies on “Very Special Episodes: An Appreciation”

I was trying to think of famous special episodes — Different Strokes had two that I recall very clearly. In one, Kimberly washes her hair in rain water before the big dance but pollution turns her hair green! Pollution is bad! And the one where the guy who owns the bicycle shop tries to molest Arnold. (There’s nothing funny to say about that one.)

Poor Kelly Taylor. She got lit on fire, stalked by a lesbian, addicted to cocaine and diet pills, and joined a cult. And she was so burdened by being beautiful that she had to have an affair with her best friend’s boyfriend. It’s hard being pretty, you guys.

(Team Brenda 4vr.)

Don’t forget, she also had endometriosis and miscarried, was raped in an alleyway, and then shot and killed the rapist. Could they have thrown any more horrific things that character’s way? I never liked Brenda, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I don’t care much for Kelly, either. I guess I’m Team Valerie.

Boy Meets World also did a good one on abuse that also handled sex at the same time – Shawn was letting a classmate stay at his house (trailer) because her dad was hitting her and Cory got the wrong idea and started trying to go further with Topanga as a result. It was mostly about abuse, but I always like the way they handled sex in situations like that, to show that different people do things at different paces and it shouldn’t matter what Shawn was doing (or not doing, as turned out to be the case) if Cory and Topanga weren’t ready.

I remember that one (well, of course I do, I remember every single episode!). They did do a good job of showing that people move at different speeds, and what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for anyone else, even if it is your best friend.

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