Years ago, over a generation now, something special occurred on television several times a year. Depending on the network and show one watched, it could be expected that at some point during the season, the series would air a “very special episode.” These episodes were not focused around a huge guest star, but rather around a significant turning point for a character. It was usually advised that these episodes were watched with the entire family present, so a discussion could be had after about what had transpired during everyone’s favorite show. Who could forget the episode of Diff’rent Strokes when Arnold and his friend were almost molested?
How about the episode of Family Ties in which one of Alex’s best friends dies in a car accident? One of the biggest “very special episodes” was Maude, when Bea Arthur’s character Maude discovers she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion.
One cannot forget about M*A*S*H, in which almost every episode was special. That show dealt with the realities of war, the ethics of being a doctor and the hardship of death on a weekly basis. Most of the series which offered “very special episodes” were comedies. Nighttime dramas were not family fare and therefore would not attract an entire household like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Diff’rent Strokes or The Golden Girls. One of the most memorable episodes of The Cosby Show is when Claire finds a marijuana cigarette in Theo’s school bag.
Then there was the “very special episode” of Growing Pains when Mike goes to a party with his friend and there is cocaine being done in the bathroom. These two episodes helped to open-up a discussion in American households about drug use and maybe these two shows made a difference in the lives of some who were dealing with dependency issues.
Finally, there is the show which dealt head-on with issues, but was sometimes overlooked. The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur’s Maude, never shied away from controversial subject matters. Illegal immigration, artificial insemination, marriage equality, AIDS, homelessness, elder care, homosexuality, sex, senior sex, teen pregnancy, and adultery; they were all there. Many times, the issues discussed in one episode carried over and characters were brought back. Clayton, Blanche’s brother comes out to her in one episode. In another, he brings his boyfriend, whom he plans on marrying, to meet his sister. Both times, Blanche has a hard time accepting the truth about her brother. There’s the ‘AIDS episode, where Rose learns she may have received a tainted blood transfusion and must undergo a HIV test. Still another episode finds the girls in a homeless shelter looking for a winning lotto ticket, when Sophia runs into a friend from Shady Pines, the girls decide to donate the ticket to the shelter. All of these episodes were important and “very special.”
But, what happened? Yes, many sitcoms today have openly gay characters. Yes, they sometimes deal with death or drugs, but these issues are never the forefront of a story. Modern Family, features an openly gay couple raising a child. Yet, they never discuss AIDS or the potential stigma the child may face at school. In one episode a friend of Luke’s dies, yet the child seemed almost unaffected by the passing of his friend. There has been barely a whisper of teenage sex on the show, though it’s presumed Haley is sexually active and she admits she is no longer a virgin in an off-the-cuff remark. These topics, while not the hot bed of controversy as they once were, could still be used to open a discussion in American households. Several years ago, Family Guy had an episode dealing with abortion, but it was never aired.
Television is way to escape reality and indulge in the lives of other people. The lives of our “friends” are sometimes more interesting than our own and much more amusing. Yet, television can and should be used to help educate and force people to question the status-quo. What shows do that these days? What shows actually help to engage in a dialogue with its audience about sex, teenage pregnancy, marriage equality, AIDS, cancer, death, spousal abuse, homelessness and poverty? By treating these issues as normal and not special cause them to be marginalized? If there were more “very special episodes” would it help break-down more walls and engage the public in better dialogue? Or has the viewing public become so apathetic to issues that they no longer matter?