American sitcoms have traditionally been viewed as fun, upbeat shows that follow families or working families through day-to-day life. They are meant to entertain the audience and make them forget about their own problems. However, in the 1970s sitcoms began to explore deeper issues in what were coined as “very special episodes” or “extracurricular episodes”.
These “very special episodes” often centered around a major divisive problem such as abortion, child abuse and even the HIV / AIDS epidemic. They were extremely popular in the 80s and 90s and have declined since. However, the more politically charged sitcoms of recent years have started to bring back the “very special episode” format.
ten Black-ish: “Hope” (Season 2, Episode 16)
ABC Blackish is one of the shows which adopted the “very special episode” format and introduced it in many episodes due to the political nature of the show. However, the series also aired a traditional “very special episode” in Season 2.
“Hope” dealt with the very real subject of police brutality against black people, especially in America, asking the Johnson children to ask tough questions while watching a high-profile court case and the consequences that ensue. The episode is now considered one of the best TV episodes for dealing with racial issues, and one of the best episodes in the series as a whole.
9 Boy Meets World: “Cult Fiction” (Season 4, Episode 21)
Boy meets the world was no stranger to the “very special episode” treatment, having aired two episodes in the format during its airing. However, the most popular and unique is still “Cult Fiction”.
In the episode, Shawn finds himself forced into a disturbing cult, which leaves Cory and her family desperate to save Shawn. Boy meets the world was one of the only shows to feature cult life on TV, which is why this is such a memorable episode, even if not the best Boy meets the world episode.
8 Diff’rent Strokes: “The Bicycle Man” (Season 5, Episode 16 & 17)
Different shots ran for eight seasons in the ’70s and’ 80s and helped launch the careers of Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges and Dana Plato. The series also aired several “Very Special Episodes”, including the Season 5 episode “The Bicycle Man”.
The two-part delt episode explored pedophilia when Arnold (Coleman) is targeted by a pedophile who owns the local bike shop in town. The owner, Mr. Horton, enlists Arnold’s help in bringing more kids to his store and begins spending inappropriate time with Arnold alone. While other shows have dealt with pedophilia, none have done so as openly as Different strokes, that is why it is so memorable.
seven Full House: “Silence is not golden” (Season 6, Episode 17)
Released in the 80s and 90s, Full house was no stranger to the “after school special” format. While the series regularly dealt with difficult issues, only two episodes were rated “very special.”
“Silence is not golden” saw the Tanners tackle child abuse head-on when Stephanie learns that her classmate is regularly assaulted by her own father. While Stephanie initially keeps it a secret, she ends up trusting the adults in her life who help Charles get the help he needs. It was a vital episode as it truly navigated the world of child abuse from the perspective of children rather than adults.
6 The Golden Girls: “Sick and Fated” (Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2)
With 7 seasons on the air, it’s no surprise that Golden girls racked up quite a few “very special episodes” – five to be exact. From sexuality to medical problems, Golden girls really covered everything. The most memorable episode of this style is “Sick and Tired” from Season 5.
The two-part episode centered around Dorothy, who begins to have health issues and sees the doctor. Instead of taking her seriously, the doctor tells her everything is fine with her and sends her away. However, Dorothy seeks a second opinion and gets a true diagnosis. While this might not seem like the most impactful “very special episode”, not being taken seriously is an issue many women face when they go to the doctor and many have applauded the show for exposing. the sexist nature of the medical profession and to be ahead of the times.
5 Maude: “Maude’s dilemma: part 1 and part 2” (season 1, episode 9 and 10)
Although only in his first season, Norman Lear and the creative team behind Maude did not hesitate to broadcast a very controversial episode on abortion.
In the story, Maude, a middle-aged woman, finds out that she is pregnant and wonders what to do next. Over the course of the two episodes, Maude weighs the pros and cons of abortion and ultimately gets one. The episode was extremely divisive, especially since abortion had yet to be legalized in all 50 states.
4 Mr. Belvedere: “Wesley’s Friend” (Season 2, Episode 16)
Mr. Belvédère isn’t a well-known sitcom, despite the fact that the series was closely based on a 1940s movie character. However, that didn’t stop the series from participating in the “after-school special” format during of its second season.
The Season 2 episode dealt with misconceptions surrounding HIV / AIDS at the height of the epidemic. After learning that his friend has contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, Wesley avoids his friend for fear of catching him. The episode was considered revolutionary since it was broadcast at the height of the epidemic.
3 One Day at a Time: “The Political Episode” (Season 4, Episode 7)
One day at a time is another recent sitcom that has used the “very special episode” style in most of its installments. However, the series aired a truly unique during its fourth and final season which also turned out to be animated.
The special saw the Alverez family confront their close conservatives in the run-up to the 2020 election and showed just how divided the country has become, even among families. The animated nature of the episode made it memorable, as did its content.
2 Roseanne: “White Men Can’t Kiss” (Season 7, Episode 9)
While Roseanne’s the reputation could be tarnished now, in the 80s and 90s he was revolutionary and the first of its kind. As such, the series aired a handful of hard-hitting episodes, including one in Season 7.
“White Men Can’t Kiss” centers on the youngest child, DJ, who refuses to participate in his school play after learning he will have to kiss a girl. While Roseanne originally supports DJ, when she learns that he refuses only because the girl is black, she and Dan must confront DJ’s prejudices.
1 The Prince of Bel-Air: “Mistaken Identity” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Like many ’90s sitcoms, The prince of Bel-Air aired many “very special episodes” when it first aired. However, the one that had the most impact and still resonates today is Season 1‘s “Mistaken Identity”.
The episode centers on Will and Carlton offering to drive Ms. Furth’s Mercedes-Benz to Palm Springs as she takes a helicopter there. While driving, the two are arrested and arrested after being accused of stealing the car. The episode dealt with racial prejudice within the police force, which unfortunately is still relevant today.
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