I miss the days of the Very Special Sitcom. It was a night of television history that every family in America should not miss. Just about every sitcom from the late 1970s through the early 1990s had at least one Very Special Episode. In these half-hour treasures, comedy was suspended in order to teach us a lesson, attack a current social issue, or to just be preachy. Arnold and Dudley were almost molested on Diff’rent Strokes; Tootie was recruited to become a NYC prostitute on Facts of Life, and my personal heartbreak favorite was when a pre-Friends Matthew Perry tragically died in a drunk driving accident on Growing Pains. Two social issues in one episode! The teenage girls in my school were still crying the next day at school after his character, Sandy, died. Ahh, the memories...the nightmares…the misconceptions they wrought.
Very Special Episodes led me to sincerely believe that half the kids I went to school with were being abused by their parents, were runaways living under assumed names, or were hopped up on speed. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16, most likely because my parents watched the Very Special Mr. Belvedere episode where a young man got fresh with Heather at the prom.
Nobody did the VSE quite as masterfully as Family Ties, though. We had the pleasure of the Alex Hooked on Speed episode, the Mr. Keaton Has a Heart Attack episode, the Mallory’s Teenage Friend is Pregnant and Can’t Talk to Her Own Mother episode, and of course, the Tom Hanks as Uncle Ned the Alcoholic who Drank Vanilla Extract episode. Nothing says family togetherness quite like desperate substance abuse paired with uncomfortable studio audience laughter on cue.
A college friend and I used to see couples sitting in restaurants having what looked like “the talk,” and we’d joke that they were having a very special episode of their own. Or if somebody had a particularly stressful weekend visit home full of family issues…it was a very special episode vacation. You didn’t really have to be in on the joke to figure out what it meant. If you watched TV anytime during the ‘80s, you understood.
But as much as I miss these non-comedic comedies that taught me so much about how life can suck, I supposed I’d prefer there not be any Very Special Episodes these days. How ticked off would we be if we turned on the tube this Thursday night to find a Very Special Episode of The Office, all about Pam’s miscarriage? Yeah, not exactly must-see TV.