You’ve seen the promos. You might have been sitting down one evening watching an episode of SEINFELD and then it happened: “This Monday, on a very special episode of BLOSSOM…”
When the now-defunct JUMP THE SHARK website was first created, one of the biggest examples cited for a show “jumping the shark” was when they relied too much on these “very special episdoes”.
SIDE NOTE: For those who forgot or haven’t heard of the term “Jump The Shark”, it was taken from the episode of HAPPY DAYS where Fonzie jumped over a shark while on water skis. The creator of the site, Jon Hein, thought this was such a ludicrous storyline on top of being a rehash of sorts of an earlier incident where the Fonz jumped over 14 garbage cans while riding a motorcycle.
Sitcoms were definitely the biggest offender with this, especially if they were more family friendly because it gave shows a chance to teach people (or rather lecture in the form of a sledgehammer to the nose) a lesson.
If you list any sitcom, especially those from the 80s onward, you’ll be able to find multiple culprits of these:
FULL HOUSE: You could argue a couple of episodes had more sentimental or dramatic moments but the one that comes the closest to this mold is “Silence is Not Golden”, in which a rather brash and crude boy from Stephanie’s class is actually getting abused by his father.
SAVED BY THE BALL: The episode “Jessie’s Song” is particularly made fun of to this day for the melodramatic ending which has Elizabeth Berkeley scream singing ‘I’m So Excited’ into Mark Paul Gosselar’s face dissolving into her crying out “I’m so…scared!” after owning up to developing an addiction to caffeine pills.
FAMILY MATTERS: “Good Cop, Bad Cop”…a rather relevant episode these days though told in a rather middling manner, revolves around BLACK cop Carl Winslow defending the police to his son Eddie after is arrested and feels he was targeted specifically because he was black. This episode taps into the concept of “One Bad Apple” while ignoring the rest of the phrase: “…spoils the bunch”.
Those are three examples, but I want to specifically point out three shows that were notorious for having “Very Special Episodes”: DIFF’RENT STROKES, PUNKY BREWSTER, and BLOSSOM.
BLOSSOM is the show that was specifically linked to the phrase “Very Special Episode” due to its incessant desire to tackle issues in an often dramatic tone as Blossom’s character progressed into teenage years.
Certain episodes dealt with eating disorders, drug use, assault, and coping with potential loss of a loved one. My memories of these episodes even as a young child were somewhat mixed. The tone just felt too…bleak and awkward. I would say that maybe bleak isn’t my style but then I also saw Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film director ever so that kind of ends that argument.
However, BLOSSOM didn’t have anything on the crazy concepts in the episodes of PUNKY BREWSTER and DIFF’RENT STROKES I am about to discuss.
Both shows dealt with orphans which you could say is a reasonable factor in your sitcom having a darker edge but some of the topics discussed didn’t even directly reference this fact. I will start with PUNKY BREWSTER first:
The episode that is brought up most was “Cherie Lifesaver” which was actually a pitch made by a young boy to the show in order to teach kids about the importance of CPR. In it, Punky’s friend Cherie is playing hide-and-seek with her and hides in an old refrigerator that Punky’s foster dad Henry just put outside for disposal. Cherie is unable to escape and ends up passing out, but upon discovery, Punky and their other friend Margaux give her CPR and she promptly comes back to life. A good message for children obviously but it definitely left some people a little bewildred.
Frankly, the biggest one for me was an episode called “Urban Fear” in which a SERIAL KILLER named the Northside Stalker is terrorizing the neighborhood near where Punky lives….I repeat…A SERIAL KILLER. On one hand, I do understand the importance of teaching children this kind of thing, especially if they live in an urban area such as Punky did (Chicago)…but I also feel like the show, at the same time, tries so hard not to make it so dreary that it ends up making too much light of the fact that there is a serial killer loose…and of course, Punky’s big fear is that Henry will fall victim to this killer.
Another episode, “Milk Does a Body Good” features a new girl named Julie (played by pre-Full House and pre-Right Wing Conservative Nut Candace Cameron-Bure) who moved into Punky and Cherie’s building with her father and after noticing her father being rather shady and secretive, they notice Julie’s face on a milk carton stating she is missing. It turns out her father had kidnapped her while he had legal visitation rights and by episode’s end, calls his ex-wife to let her know he has her. This episode wasn’t exactly preachy but was certainly a jarring concept for most sitcoms of the time…but it was considered successful enough that the absolutely ridiculous sitcom SMALL WONDER (“lovely and bright with soft curls…”) stole the idea and did a whole episode based on this concept a year later.
Many of Punky’s episodes had a heightened storyline but in some ways, it often worked for the show. I can’t necessarily say the same for DIFF’RENT STROKES which really went for broke.
The most famous of these was “The Bicycle Man” in which character Gordon Jump played a friendly owner of a bicycle shop who just so happens to be a pedophile. He offers Arnold and his friend Dudley glasses of wine and even takes pictures of the boys shirtless. While the episode did get good reviews at the time, I feel like it also became something a joke on the internet years after it aired. I have to commend that it isn’t a badly written episode.
The episode I always look back on with a rather questionable lens is “Sam’s Missing”. The two-part 8th season premiere focused on young Sam, Mr. Drummond’s step-son, being kidnapped by a grieving father named Donald who recently lost his own son. Donald proceeds to tell young Sam that if he tells anyone where he is, he will kill his parents.
You also have the episode where Drummond the boys are being held hostage during a bank robbery, and the episode where Arnold discovers Kimberly is suffering from Bulimia (in Dana Plato’s last appearance as the character). Perhaps not serious, but you also have the conservatism of the 1980s seeping into the show as well with the guest appearance of then First Lady Nancy Reagan who was very busy shoving the “JUST SAY NO” to drugs campaign down America’s throats. She also said no to helping those with AIDS but I guess people just want to forget that…
There is simply a fine-line to these “Very Special” episodes where you realize they could teach children a very valuable lesson but you also wonder if they even should be doing so or if they could be done in a different way that doesn’t come across as patronizing.
There are also examples that are quite offensive…and the fact such an episode exists still amazes me to this day and there was a time when I actually didn’t believe it existed until 15 years ago, I saw it for myself.
The now rather forgotten Ted Knight sitcom TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT featured gay actor Jim J. Bullock in a supporting role as Munroe Ficus. Not written as gay, Bullock unfortunately had a rather stereotypical gay vibe that made it hard to necessarily believe him as actually being straight (think of Paul Lynde in some ways).
Munroe was essentially one step above being a eunuch. He was brought in as an old friend of Sara, who was Ted Knight’s character’s wife, and was essentially a hapless foil who would exude jubilance and awkwardness. In one episode, he confesses to being a virgin and hires a sex-worker only for a mix-up to lead him to sleeping with an elderly woman instead. In another, he develops a crush on a woman whom he eventually realizes is a cross-dresser (an episode that really doesn’t hold up nowadays), and then comes the piece de resistance:
“For Every Man, There’s Two Women”
This episode aired in 1985 around the same time Bullock’s partner and he himself were diagnosed with HIV (his partner eventually died of AIDS while Bullock remains alive to this day). The show’s writers knew Bullock was not convincing as straight and despite his insistence of wanting to try to work on this, the writers kept putting him in really awkward situations that highlighted his feminine side.
Munroe worked as a security guard at a mall and Henry (Knight) and the gang get a phone call saying Munroe didn’t show up for work (they had Munroe move in with them). Seconds after, Munroe shows up looking disheveled and stunned. He confesses that he had been kidnapped but not by men…by two women: “the little one drove while the big one sat on me”.
He ends up saying in coded terms that he was sexually assaulted by them: “they demanded I cooperate….I cooperated all night. They helped themselves”.
All the while, the audience (or laugh track, whichever) is uproarious laughing at every turn of this. They are laughing at this meek man (i.e. Gay man) getting overpowered and raped by two women.
Munroe is scared at the prospect of contacting police for fear of being made fun of (sadly something that is probably the most relevant within this episode) but Knight’s Henry convinces him to do so and a policeman does arrive. Munroe confesses that he was thrown into a bathtub full of Jell-O at one point (cue laughter) only for the cop to brush that off by saying that is nothing to worry about: (“Some of the real sickos go for shredded wheat”).
The cop also has the most typical cop response ever: that no one in a Court of Law will ever believe he wasn’t a willing participant.
The episode does finally end with Munroe confronted and then pressing charges against the two women…but only after Ted Knight’s Henry is almost sexually assaulted by the women himself which leads him to say the rather dark line, and this is a paraphrase: “Don’t come crying to me the next time you’re kidnapped and raped, Sonny!”…to, once again, much laughter from the audience.
I feel like nothing tops the horror of “For Every Man, There’s Two Women” when it comes to “Very Special” episodes. A lot of that simply has to do with the fact that the episode treats it with such hilarity (laughing and all) that it makes the idea of a man getting sexually assaulted is nothing but a joke.
You could argue that any of the topics discussed by the rest of the show’s above had some merit but might have suffered from melodramatic execution…so that’s why I can’t knock them TOO much, but I think there is a reason why episodes like this one from TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT have been mostly hidden for over 30 years now.