In 2004, when Samantha was just 13, she had a life-changing experience. She’d heard horror stories about school shootings, which, post-Columbine, were happening with alarming frequency, but now she witnessed one herself — on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Yes, it was just a TV show. It still, however, left her shaken as the characters were as much a part of her life as her IRL friends at the time. She even felt empathy for the shooter. “They showed him being bullied a lot and how that set him off. I was upset that he didn’t have any other outlet but that,” she tells me. “I remember crying as it was happening.”
The next day at school, the episode — which is now probably most famous for inspiring the “they see me rollin’” Drake meme (he played Jimmy Brooks on the show, who ends up in a wheelchair after the shooting) — sparked a lot of “What if that happened here?” conversations amongst Samantha and her friends. Most remarkably, though, it actually encouraged them to make changes in how they treated others. “Me and my friends began actively going out of our way to say ‘hi’ to people who sat alone and who were loners,” she says. “We invited them to activities that we had around the school.”
Samantha admits she still gets emotional just thinking about the episode. “My husband laughs at me EVERY time,” she tells me. “But fuck him — I have feelings!”
Very Special Episodes — i.e., the ones in which a TV series would take a break from its regularly scheduled programming to deal with a difficult or controversial subject (like The Next Generation’s two-part school shooting arc) — are as old as television itself. Case in point: Leave It to Beaver grappled with divorce, and The Andy Griffith Show tackled alcoholism. But they really took off in the 1970s when TV legend Norman Lear wove the social issues of the era into his numerous prime-time hits. I’m talking some pretty dark stuff, too, including Edith’s sexual assault on All in the Family and the now legendary abortion storyline on Maude, both of which were revolutionary and redefined what a sitcom could be.
Lee Gambin, author of Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: When TV Sitcoms Sometimes Got Serious, says the left-leaning sentiments of shows like Maude were early flashpoints in the culture war. As such, conservatives regularly railed against Hollywood’s subversive influence. But once Ronald Reagan was elected president, Gambin says, “conservatives started realizing that they could use Very Special Episodes as a tool to promote their own agenda. That’s when you started seeing Nancy Reagan show up on shows like Diff’rent Strokes, peddling her Just Say No campaign.”
Forty-seven-year-old Frank recalls being deeply affected by the First Lady’s appearance on Diff’rent Strokes. He was the youngest of five children, and the only one who is considered Gen X, a small generational gap he thinks made a huge difference. “The biggest cultural difference between their generation and mine was the age at which drug experimentation began,” he tells me. “My siblings and their friends all started getting high in about eighth grade. They moved onto more intense drugs pretty quickly, and most of their friends got into a variety of legal and health issues. There were a significant number of deaths among their friends.”
In stark contrast, he credits the Just Say No movement for delaying his own drug experimentation. “As vapid and annoying as the Just Say No and DARE movements felt, I do think the cumulative effect on the culture was positive,” he says. “And the Very Special Episodes were a part of that.” (It should be noted that while this might be true anecdotally for Frank, several studies done in the early aughts found that the anti-drug campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s — e.g., Just Say No— had no noticeable positive impact on children; in fact, the simplistic abstinence messaging is now seen as harmful.)
For his part, 37-year-old Ken from Canada was scared straight by a Saved by the Bell episode in which Jessie gets hooked on speed. “Watching Jessie just lose it and spin in circles and humiliate herself was already hard to watch,” he explains. “But the part where she collapsed into Zack and said, ‘I’m so scared’? That whole sequence has sat with me ever since. To see the star student like that was just so strange.”
Then there were the Very Special Episodes that focused on the dangers of everyday household accidents. Forty-one-year-old Peter in Pennsylvania was still reeling from the death of the Hogan matriarch — played by Valerie Harper — when the Hogan Family (of, naturally, The Hogan Family) suffered another devastating blow: Their house burned down due to faulty wiring in an old lamp. “I was traumatized,” he tells me. So traumatized, it seems, that he’s borderline obsessive as an adult about eliminating anything from his home that might be a fire hazard. “To this day, I unplug all minor appliances — toaster, coffee maker, fan — any time I leave the house,” he explains. “Having them turned off isn’t enough; they need to be unplugged. If I leave the house for longer than a day or two, all appliances get unplugged.”
And don’t get him started on old wiring. “I once got into a huge fight with an ex at an estate sale,” Peter continues. “He found a cool-looking standing lamp that he wanted, and I threatened to leave him if he bought it.” (Peter neglected to mention, though, that it was all because of a late 1980s sitcom starring Jason Bateman and Sandy Duncan.)
According to Gambin, when Very Special Episodes started to get really popular, the quality began to vary, and that the more silly, schlocky episodes stole the thunder of the powerful ones. “They started seeming like more cynical ratings grabs. Like, ‘Let’s just do this to see how we can disturb viewers,’” he explains. “The writers seemed more into the shock value than informing viewers.”
There were others, however, still definitely following in Lear’s footsteps. In particular, Gambin highlights the work of Susan Harris, who created The Golden Girls, which dealt with topics such as suicide among the elderly and chronic fatigue syndrome, and Linda Bloodworth-Thomas, who created Designing Women,which featured a powerful AIDS storyline, something inspired by her firsthand experience seeing the prejudice her mother faced after contracting HIV through a blood transfusion.
“They introduced people to certain things that they would never necessarily know about otherwise and that led to important discussions,” Gambin says. “If you love American sitcoms, you kind of accept the more saccharin episodes as being part and parcel of the whole experience. Even when they seem a bit clunky, they can still have a sincerity about them.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Kolleen was forever changed by a Family Matters episode. She grew up in an area in Massachusetts where she didn’t meet a Black person until she was well into high school. In the episode in question, the character of Laura presents a project for Black History Month and faces some pretty intense racist bullying, including someone writing a racial slur on her locker. “I was nine, but I knew the word must have meant something bad because she was upset and crying,” Kolleen tells me. “The episode was definitely an eye-opener on white supremacy and hate speech, even if I didn’t realize the nuances of it until much later. I was grateful for it, because ultimately it was the beginning of my anti-racism stance.”
Similarly, Will was just a kid in the early 1990s when he saw a Hogan’s Family episode (yep, that one again) that focused on educating people about AIDS. “I learned that you can’t get AIDS from a drinking fountain or toilet seat, but more importantly, it gave me a base level of understanding that was more useful when I was an adult than when I was a kid,” he says.
So although Will admittedly finds Very Special Episodes kind of corny, he absolutely sees their value, too. “They’re insanely dorky, but I also feel like they were vital to me. I genuinely think the country would be a lot better off if we were teaching young kids that they shouldn’t be afraid of people who are sick, or have disabilities or are generally different than those around them,” he says. “It’s one thing for your parents to tell you something, but when the TV does it? That you listen to. After all, who parented you more than the TV? Your parents? Gimme a fuckin’ break.”