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Very special episode
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Very special episode

A very special episode is an episode of a television sitcom or drama which deals with a controversial topic, usually meant to inspire viewers to talk to family or friends about the topic discussed in the show.

Some very special episodes have very simple premises, such as problems with honesty. More recently, however, very special episodes have been known to tackle such subjects as interracial marriage, homosexuality, abortion, or cancer. On sitcoms, or shows with younger viewers, many very special episodes revolve around drug use, eating disorders, or premarital sex.

Many times, the controversial topic isn't dealt with directly by the principal characters of the show. Usually, friends of the main characters deal with the topic. Most of the time (shows like 7th Heaven use this device often), the friends only appear on one episode, or a series of consecutive episodes, and are never heard from again. It is also not uncommon to have never heard from the hypothetical "good friend" before the episode or episodes in question, which is why some critics have derided the use of such episodes, as it illustrates problems with continuity.

Coining the term

Because the phrase promises much more than the episodes usually delivered, the phrase can no longer be used without evoking, either intentionally or unintentionally, a sense that the words are ironic.

The phrase became popular when it was spoofed on such television websites as Television Without Pity and Jump the Shark as well as the sitcom Friends, when Chandler (played by Matthew Perry) mocked the ubiquitous NBC ads of the day. The term was first used in the early 1990s to describe topical issues on such shows as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Blossom. The announcer on the network would describe such episodes to the audience in a somber tone, telling them, for example: Tonight, on a very special Blossom...

Very special programs before the 1990s

However, shows that had very special themes certainly predate the early 1990s. In fact, shows like Bonanza and Family used many plot devices reminiscient of the 1990s-era very special episode.

For example, Bonanza used guest stars to illustrate a problem in any given week. In one episode, Hoss's friend Susan (who we never saw before said episode, and whom we would never see again) wanted to drive her father's buggy, so she begs Hoss to let her. They end up in an accident with Susan paralyzed from the waist down. The dubious faith healer (played by Ed Nelson from Peyton Place) comes to town and convinces Hoss to let him help her. At first, it was solely an attempt to rob her of her considerable fortune. However, he becomes brainwashed into believing that he really can heal her. In the end, Susan walked, but because her injury wasn't as bad as was previously believed. The problem solved, Susan and the faith healer were never heard from again.

On more melodramatically-formulated series such as Family, the stories were more controversial. Arguably, the most notable very special episode of the series is when Buddy (played by Kristy McNichol) is pressured into sex by her boyfriend (played by teen idol Leif Garrett). Although she is tempted, she ultimately decides that she is not ready for the responsibility just yet, teaching viewers that they, too, can say no to sex if they are not prepared. Family was one of the first television shows to deal with very topical subjects in this manner.

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