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"Very special episode" is an advertising term originally used in American television promos to refer to an episode of a sitcom or drama series which deals with a difficult or controversial social issue.[1] The usage of the term peaked in the 1980s.[2][3]




Traditionally, very special episodes contained either a brief message from the cast or a title card reading either "Viewer Discretion Advised" or "Parental Discretion Advised", alerting viewers to the potentially controversial or upsetting nature of the episode and giving them time to decide if they wanted to watch it.[4]


Popular topics covered in very special episodes include abortion, birth control, sex education, racism, sexism, death, narcotics, pregnancy (particularly teenage pregnancy and unintended pregnancy), asthma, sexual abuse, child abuse, and HIV/AIDS.


How a topic is portrayed can vary drastically from TV show to TV show, and its portrayal is influenced by a number of factors, including, but not limited to, the personal beliefs of those involved in the show, advertising concerns, cultural attitudes, the show's format, the show's genre, and the show's broadcasting company. For a comparison as to how different TV shows feature an eating disorder, take that Full House (1987–1995) showed DJ Tanner briefly struggle with disordered eating and portrayed the disease as something that could be cured if one were given love and support, while Skins (2007–2013) showed Cassie Ainsworth battling with hospitalization, low self-esteem, hallucinations, hypersexuality, and drug abuse as in relation to her anorexia nervosa.[5] The shows offered up two vastly different portrayals of the same topic, which can be explained in that Full House was marketed as a family sitcom and relied heavily on the series' light-hearted and comedic nature to attract and keep viewers, whereas Skins was marketed as a teen drama, with writers facing little worry their audience would be offended by graphic content and tune out.


While the purpose of a very special episode is generally to raise awareness of an issue and encourage those affected to seek help if necessary, it can have the opposite effect in some cases. In regards to the Skins character Cassie Ainsworth, previously mentioned, some viewers reported the character's popularity and the physical beauty of actress Hannah Murray as a factor in developing disordered eating habits.[6]


The producers of Seinfeld were reportedly strongly opposed to having a very special episode in the series, the motto of writers and cast being "No hugging, no learning".[7]

Notable examplesEdit

  • All in the Family (1971–1979)
  • Diff'rent Strokes (1978–1986)
    • "The Bicycle Man: Part 1" (Season 5, Episode 16, aired 5 Feb 1983), Arnold, along with a friend, are targeted by a pedophile who owns a local bike shop and has sexually abused children in the past.[9]
    • "The Bicycle Man: Part 2" (Season 5, Episode 17, aired 12 Feb 1983), a continuation of "The Bicycle Man: Part 1", Arnold's would-be abuser is arrested after he confides in his father.[10]
  • Full House (1987–1995)
    • "Shape Up" (Season 4, Episode 8, aired 9 Nov 1990), DJ, in preparation for an upcoming pool party, stops eating and start exercising vigorously, both common symptoms of anorexia nervosa.[11]
    • "Silence Is Not Golden" (Season 6, Episode 17, aired 16 Feb 1993), Stephanie learns that her classmate is a victim of child abuse and feels conflicted as to whether she should tell an adult.[12]
  • Maude (1972–1978)
    • "Maude's Dilemma: Part 1" (Season 1, Episode 9, aired 14 Nov 1972), Maude, who is 47 years old and a grandmother, learns she's pregnant and contemplates having an abortion.[13]
    • "Maude's Dilemma: Part 2" (Season 1, Episode 10, aired 21 Nov 1972), a continuation of Maude's Dilemma: Part 1, Maude decides to terminate her pregnancy.[14]
  • Mr. Belvedere (1985–1990)
  • Roseanne (1988–1997, 2018)
  • Sanford and Son (1972–1977)
    • "My Brother-In-Law's Keeper" (Season 4, Episode 20, aired 14 February 1975), Fred, much to his shock, learns that his sister plans to marry a man of a different race, forcing him to confront his own racism.
  • Saved by the Bell (1989–1992)
    • "Jessie's Song" (Season 2, Episode 9, aired 3 Nov 1990), Jessie, struggling to find the time and energy to rehearse for her friends' music video and study for school, begins to rely on caffeine pills to function, a form of substance abuse.
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
    • "Just Say Yo" (Season 3, Episode 19, aired 15 February 1993), Will is given speed to stay up. At the senior prom, Carlton, mistaking them for vitamins, takes them, and collapses on the dance floor. He covers for Will, who comes clean to Phillip and Vivian, breaking down.
    • "Bullets Over Bel-Air" (Season 5, Episode 15, aired 6 February 1995), Will and Carlton, while withdrawing money from an ATM, are robbed at gunpoint and Will is shot as a result, causing Carlton to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.
  • The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
    • "72 Hours" (Season 5, Episode 19, aired 17 February 1990), Rose finds she may have been exposed to HIV, after having undergone a blood transfusion following gallbladder surgery.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Tropiano, Michael and Stephanie Tropiano. The Prime Time Closet. Hal Leonard, 2002. 232. ISBN 1-55783-557-8.
  2. ^ Nussbaum, Emily. (13 April 2003). "When episodes could still be very special", The New York Times. Retrieved on 13 January 2009.
  3. ^ Ben Silverman."A very special episode of... When sitcoms get serious", MSN TV. Retrieved on 13 January 2009 (Internet Archive)
  4. ^ ([dead link])Blossom - A Very Special Show on YouTube
  5. ^ "A look back at how Skins' Cassie Ainsworth became a dubious pro-ana icon for teenage girls". babe. 2017-01-27. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  6. ^ "Ten years on, how Cassie from Skins' eating disorder affected a generation of teenage girls". New Statesman. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  7. ^ McWilliams, Amy. "Genre Expectation and Narrative Innovation in Seinfeld". In Seinfeld: Master of Its Domain: Revisiting Television's Greatest Sitcom. David Lavery with Sara Lewis Dunne, eds. New York: Continuum, 2006. p. 82. ISBN 0-8264-1803-1.
  8. ^ "Tonight: Edith Bunker's Ordeal". The Washington Post. 1977-10-16. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  9. ^ Dyess-Nugent, Phil. "A 'very special' Diff'rent Strokes that's terrifying for all the wrong reasons". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  10. ^ Dyess-Nugent, Phil. "A 'very special' Diff'rent Strokes that's terrifying for all the wrong reasons". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  11. ^ "Candace Cameron Bure Opens Up About Past Eating Disorder". E! Online. May 4, 2016. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  12. ^ "Analytical Episode Review:Full House, "Silence is Not Golden" | Manic Expression". Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  13. ^ Beale, Lewis. "MAUDE`S ABORTION FADES INTO HISTORY". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  14. ^ Beale, Lewis. "MAUDE'S ABORTION FADES INTO HISTORY". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  15. ^ "The Long Lost Mr. Belvedere AIDS Episode". Stereogum. 2011-12-08. Retrieved 2018-10-22.
  16. ^ "10 most controversial episodes of Roseanne". Now to Love. Retrieved 2018-10-22.

External linksEdit