Very special episode

"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 graphic or disturbing 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, hitchhiking, kidnapping, suicide, drunk driving, sexual abuse, child abuse, and HIV/AIDS.[3][5][6][7][8][9][10]


How a topic is portrayed can vary drastically from show to show, and its portrayal is influenced by a number of factors, including the personal beliefs of those involved in the show, advertising concerns, cultural attitudes, and the show's format, genre, and broadcasting company.[6][7][8] The Atlantic summarises the core values of a very special episode as thus:

The main characters beloved by viewers would inevitably avoid serious harm. The dangers posed by story lines were more threats than actual occurrences, and on the occasion that bad things did happen, they usually happened to ancillary characters whom audiences cared less about. This selective meting of moral justice kept lessons from becoming too morbid, while still allowing episodes to serve as cautionary tales.[7]

Public receptionEdit

The purpose of a very special episode is generally to raise awareness of an issue and encourage those affected to seek help if necessary. For example, the Diff'rent Strokes episode "The Bicycle Man", in the same year it was released, influenced a child in La Porte, Indiana to inform his mother of a pedophile in the area, and the LaPorte police department credited the episode for the man's arrest.[11] The Washington Post called the episode "a calm, careful and intelligent treatment of a difficult and potentially traumatizing subject. There seems little possibility that watching this program would do children harm, and considerable likelihood it could do them good."[12]


Larry David, one of the producers of Seinfeld, was reportedly strongly opposed to having a very special episode in the series, the motto of writers and cast being "No hugging, no learning".[13][14][15]

In popular cultureEdit

Comedian Frank Caliendo spoofed this concept with "TV Promos" and "A Very Special Seinfeld" on his 2002 album Make the Voices Stop.[16]

Notable examplesEdit

  • All in the Family (1971–1979)
  • Boy Meets World (1993-2000)
    • "Dangerous Secret" (Season 4, Episode 8, aired November 8, 1996), Cory Matthews and Shawn Hunter discover that one of their classmates, Claire Ferguson, is being abused by her father. After confiding in Cory's parents, the boys inform the police of the situation and send Claire to live with her aunt, in order to keep her safe.[19]
    • "Cult Fiction" (Season 4, Episode 21, aired April 25, 1997), Shawn is under the influence of a sinister cult.[20]
  • Diff'rent Strokes (1978–1986)
    • "The Bicycle Man" (Season 5, Episode 16/17, aired February 5, 1983 and February 12, 1983 in two parts), Arnold, along with a friend, are targeted by a pedophile who owns a local bike shop and has sexually abused children in the past. Arnold's would-be abuser is arrested after he confides in his father.[5][3][9][21][10]
    • "The Hitchhikers" (Season 6, Episode 14/15, aired January 28, 1984 and February 4, 1984 in two parts), Arnold and Kimberly hitchhike home for their father's birthday party. They are picked up by a man who plans to rape Kimberly. Arnold manages to escape and alert the police just in time.[21]
  • Full House (1987–1995)
    • "Shape Up" (Season 4, Episode 8, aired November 9, 1990), DJ, in preparation for an upcoming pool party, stops eating and start exercising vigorously, both common symptoms of anorexia nervosa.[22]
    • "Silence Is Not Golden" (Season 6, Episode 17, aired February 16, 1993), Stephanie learns that her classmate is a victim of child abuse by his father and feels conflicted as to whether she should tell an adult.[23]
  • Maude (1972–1978)
    • "Maude's Dilemma: Part 1" (Season 1, Episode 9, aired November 14, 1972), Maude, who is 47 years old and a grandmother, learns she's pregnant and contemplates having an abortion.[24][3][10]
    • "Maude's Dilemma: Part 2" (Season 1, Episode 10, aired November 21, 1972), a continuation of Maude's Dilemma: Part 1, Maude decides to terminate her pregnancy.[24][10]
  • Mr. Belvedere (1985–1990)
    • "Wesley's Friend" (Season 2, Episode 16, aired January 31, 1986), Wesley, due to misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, avoids his friend and classmate, Danny, who contracted the disease as the result of a blood transfusion.[25][26]
    • "The Counselor" (Season 4, Episode 20, aired May 6, 1988), A male camp counselor touches Wesley inappropriately, encouraging him to keep it a "secret". Wesley calls him out in order to protect a fellow camper.[26][9]
  • Roseanne (1988–1997, 2018)
    • "Crime And Punishment" (Season 5, Episode 13, aired January 5, 1993), Roseanne learns her sister, Jackie, is being physically abused by her boyfriend, Fisher, prompting her husband, Dan, to assault Fisher.[27]
    • "White Men Can't Kiss" (Season 7, Episode 9, aired November 16, 1994), D.J. refuses to kiss a girl in his school play because she's black, leading both Roseanne and Dan to question their own bigotry.[28][29][30][31][32][33]
  • Saved by the Bell (1989–1992)
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
    • "Mistaken Identity" (Season 1, Episode 6, aired October 15, 1990), While driving to Palm Springs in a Mercedes-Benz that belongs to Phillip Banks, Will and Carlton are picked up by two white police officers that accuse the two of being car thieves.[38][39][40][41][42]
    • "Just Say Yo" (Season 3, Episode 19, aired February 15, 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.[42]
    • "Bullets Over Bel-Air" (Season 5, Episode 15, aired February 6, 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.[42]
  • The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
    • "Isn't It Romantic?" (Season 2, Episode 5, aired November 8, 1986), Dorothy's friend Jean, a lesbian, comes to visit after her longtime partner dies. Rose and Jean have a lot in common and they strike up a fast friendship, but Jean starts falling in love with Rose, who is unaware of her new friend's sexuality.[43][44][45][46][47]
    • "Scared Straight" (Season 4, Episode 9, aired December 10, 1988), When Blanche's newly divorced brother Clayton comes to town he confides to Rose that he is gay; scared to tell Blanche the truth, he pretends to have slept with Rose. With Blanche furious at her roommate, Clayton is eventually forced to reveal the truth, sending Blanche into angry and confused denial.[43][48][49][44][50][46][47]
    • "72 Hours" (Season 5, Episode 19, aired February 17, 1990), Rose finds she may have been exposed to HIV, after having undergone a blood transfusion following gallbladder surgery.[51][52][53][43][44][46][47]
    • "Sister of the Bride" (Season 6, Episode 14, aired January 12, 1991), Blanche's gay brother Clayton visits to announce his engagement to his husband and asks for Blanche's blessing; Blanche is again conflicted about her brother's sexuality.[43][48][49][44][50][46]
    • "Sick and Tired" (Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2, aired September 23, 1989 & September 30, 1989), Dorothy suffers from a mysterious illness and goes to a doctor, but he dismisses her concerns and symptoms, saying that nothing's wrong with her. She goes to another specialist, who diagnoses her with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. After encountering him in a restaurant, Dorothy confronts the doctor that dismissed her, advising him to listen to his patients, as he will one day be in their situation.[54][55][56][57]
  • WKRP in Cincinnati (1978–1982)

See alsoEdit


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  2. ^ Nussbaum, Emily. (April 13, 2003). "When episodes could still be very special", The New York Times. Retrieved on January 13, 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Silverman, Ben. "A very special episode of... When sitcoms get serious". MSN TV. Microsoft. Archived from the original on April 11, 2009.
  4. ^ What Happened to Those 'Very Special Episodes' of TV We Used to Love? - No Film School
  5. ^ a b Dyess-Nugent, Phil. "A 'very special' Diff'rent Strokes that's terrifying for all the wrong reasons". The A.V. Club. G/O Media. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  6. ^ a b Betancourt, Manuel (February 21, 2019). "A Very Special Episode, but Maybe Not So Precious". New York Times.
  7. ^ a b c Moss, Tyler (July 20, 2015). "The Evolution of TV's 'Very Special Episode'". The Atlantic. Emerson Collective.
  8. ^ a b Adams, Erik (February 3, 2017). "Very special episodes were a joke—now they're the whole sitcom". The A.V. Club. G/O Media.
  9. ^ a b c d e Kovalchik, Kara (March 18, 2013). "12 Very Special 'Very Special Episodes'". Mental Floss. Minute Media.
  10. ^ a b c d e Fowler, Matt (June 14, 2012). "The Top 10 Very Special Episodes". IGN. Ziff Davis.
  11. ^ Hastings, Julianne (September 20, 1983). "TV World;NEWLN:Networks target shows to fight child abuse". United Press International. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  12. ^ Shales, Tom (February 12, 1983). "A Bold Show Treated with Care". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 'No hugging, no learning': 20 years on Seinfeld's mantra looms large|Seinfeld|The Guardian
  15. ^ No Hugging, No Learning: The 'Seinfeld' Credo - Wall Street Journal
  16. ^ Make the Voices Stop - Frank Caliendo|AllMusic
  17. ^ Tom Shales (October 16, 1977). "Tonight: Edith Bunker's Ordeal". The Washington Post. Nash Holdings. ISSN 0190-8286.
  18. ^ a b Beard, Lanford (February 16, 2013). "10 'Very Special Episodes' That Make You Wonder 'Did That Really Air?!'". Entertainment Weekly. Meredith Corporation.
  19. ^ Boy Meets World: 10 Times The Show Touched On Serious Topics|ScreenRant
  20. ^ Weirdest "Very Special Episodes" Of TV Shows|ScreenRant
  21. ^ a b MeTV Staff (August 9, 2018). "Diff'rent Strokes was the king of the 'very special episode'". MeTV. Weigel Broadcasting.
  22. ^ Heller, Corinne (May 4, 2016). "Candace Cameron Bure Opens Up About Past Eating Disorder". E! News. NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group.
  23. ^ Full House: Silence Is Not Golden (1993) - Joel Zwick|AllMovie
  24. ^ a b Beale, Lewis (November 13, 1992). "MAUDE'S ABORTION FADES INTO HISTORY". Chicago Tribune.
  25. ^ Delahaye, Gabe (December 8, 2011). "The Long Lost Mr. Belvedere AIDS Episode". Stereogum.
  26. ^ a b Mackie, Drew (March 15, 2015). "Mr. Belvedere Turns 30, but He May Be Even Older Than You Think". People. Meredith Corporation.
  27. ^ TV Week team (May 18, 2017). "10 most controversial episodes of Roseanne". Now to Love. Bauer Media Group.
  28. ^ Venable, Malcolm (May 24, 2018). "Breaking Down Roseanne's Complicated Racial Politics". TV Guide. CBS Interactive Inc.
  29. ^ Venable, Nick (March 29, 2018). "The Crazy Way Roseanne's Revival May Have Called Back To The Original". Cinemablend. Gateway Blend.
  30. ^ Potts, Kimberly (March 20, 2018). "The 25 Most Essential Roseanne Episodes". Vulture. Vox Media.
  31. ^ Bradley, Laura (March 28, 2018). "The Sneaky Roseanne Premiere Easter Egg You Might Have Missed". Vanity Fair. Condé Nast.
  32. ^ Friedman, Megan (May 9, 2018). "Gina, D.J.'s Wife on "Roseanne," Is a Blast From the Past". Good Housekeeping. Hearst Digital Media.
  33. ^ Berman, Judy (March 24, 2018). "How Should I Rewatch the Original 'Roseanne'?". The New York Times.
  34. ^ Quinn, Dave (May 22, 2018). "Saved by the Bell's Jessie Spano Was Originally 'So Excited' on Speed, Not Caffeine Pills". People. Meredith Corporation.
  35. ^ Engel, Peter (November 15, 2016). "Jessie Spano Originally Took Speed, Not Caffeine Pills, on Saved by the Bell". Vulture. Vox Media.
  36. ^ Kenneally, Tim (November 15, 2016). "'Saved by the Bell' EP Reveals Jessie's Addiction Was Supposed to Be Speed, Not Caffeine Pills". TheWrap. The Wrap News Inc.
  37. ^ Nededog, Jethro (November 2, 2015). "'Saved by the Bell' cast members thought Jessie's unforgettable caffeine-pill freakout was lame". Business Insider. Axel Springer SE.
  38. ^ Bissoy, Jeffrey (2016). "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". Carleton Admissions. Carleton College.
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  41. ^ Giwa-Osagie, Saidat (May 24, 2016). "Finding My Identity Via The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". The Atlantic. Emerson Collective.
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  43. ^ a b c d White, Brett (February 14, 2017). "What 'The Golden Girls' Got Right About Gay Issues In The '80s". Decider. New York Post.
  44. ^ a b c d Gallegos, Jose (July 10, 2014). "Friends of Dorothy: Was 'The Golden Girls' Really As Queer-Friendly As Its Reputation Suggests?". IndieWire. Penske Media Corporation.
  45. ^ Saraiya, Sonia (March 26, 2014). "The Golden Girls made aging fabulous". The A.V. Club. G/O Media.
  46. ^ a b c d Peitzman, Louis (January 16, 2013). "The Most Memorable Queer Characters Of "The Golden Girls"". BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed.
  47. ^ a b c Brathwaite, Lester Fabian (August 30, 2019). "Can We Talk About…? "The Golden Girls" vs. "Designing Women"—Who Queer'd It Better?". NewNowNext. Logo TV.
  48. ^ a b White, Brett (August 9, 2017). "That Gay Episode: A Brave 'Golden Girls' Forces Blanche To Deal With Her Homophobia". Decider. New York Post.
  49. ^ a b LGBTQ Nation (February 14, 2018). "How the Golden Girls taught America about coming out & marriage equality". LGBTQ Nation. Q.Digital.
  50. ^ a b Wong, Curtis M. (February 16, 2018). "Here's What 'The Golden Girls' Taught Us About LGBTQ Equality". HuffPost. Verizon Media.
  51. ^ Colucci, Jim (February 17, 2017). "The Golden Girls Proved Its Fearlessness Yet Again When It Tackled the AIDS Epidemic". Vulture. Vox Media.
  52. ^ Fletcher, Barbara (July 22, 2014). "What 'The Golden Girls' Taught Us About AIDS". NPR. National Public Radio, Inc.
  53. ^ Sewell, Claire (December 4, 2018). "Deconstructing HIV and AIDS on The Golden Girls". Nursing Clio.
  54. ^ Stayton, Amanda; Keown, Bridget (September 25, 2018). "Golden Girls, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and the Legacies of Hysteria". Nursing Clio. Nursing Clio.
  55. ^ David Michael Conner (September 19, 2017). "What 1989 And The Golden Girls Tell Us About Medicine Today". HuffPost. Verizon Media.
  56. ^ McCain, Heather (October 30, 2017). "Chronic Fatigue and The Golden Girls". Living with Disability and Chronic Pain. Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods.
  57. ^ Shipley, Diane (September 23, 2019). "30 Years Ago, "The Golden Girls" Treated Sick Women like We Matter". Bitch Media. Bitch Media.
  58. ^ Margulies, Lee (February 8, 1980). "'WKRP in Cincinnati'...comedy show makes a statement". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Halifax Media Group. Los Angeles Times/Washington Post.

External linksEdit