Monday, June 1, 2009
From the late '70s and into the early '90s, TV shows would air Very Special Episodes that were supposed to teach us lessons about important issues. When the announcer said that tonight you'd be seeing a Very Special Episode, you knew you were probably in for some well-meaning but incredibly preachy television, essentially a public service announcement that lasted for the entire show.
Some Very Special Episodes were actually pretty effective. (Who could forget Alex P. Keaton's surreal meltdown as he struggled to accept the death of a friend in the Family Ties episode A, My Name is Alex?) But some of the very special-est Very Special Episodes are unforgettable because they failed so utterly; instead of teaching us to be better people, they just made us laugh, or traumatized us in ways we're still trying to recover from.
Today, on a Very Special Post here at Monsters and Rockets, we'll look back at some of our favorite Very Special Episode disasters. (And as Bill Cosby used to say at the beginning of many a Very Special Episode of Fat Albert, "If you're not careful, you may learn something before it's done.")
10. Today's Special: "Phil's Visit"
The Show: Today's Special was an adorably strange Canadian kids' show from the '80s, seen in the US on PBS and cable. It followed Jodie, a nice lady who worked the night shift at a big department store, and every night she would hang out with a puppet security guard, a talking mouse and a mannequin who came to life, Frosty-like, when she put a magic hat on his head. (Jeez, when you sum it up like that, it's hard not to think of the whole show as the fevered imaginings of a woman who is slowly going mad after too many long nights in the store alone.)
The Very Special Problem: Today's Very Special Episode of Today's Special deals with alcoholism. A photographer comes to the store to photograph Jodie and the gang. He has a secret drinking problem, and as the episode goes on he becomes increasingly erratic and abusive.
Why It Fails: Today's Special was a sweet show for little kids, with singing and dancing and puppets... And then suddenly you've got this angry drunk, threatening a little girl mouse puppet that she better keep quiet about the flask in his pocket. It plays like some horrible outtake from Wonder Showzen.
Very Special Dialogue: "Something's changed," says a terrified Muffy the rhyming mouse, "It's plain to see, because right now, you're frightening me!"
(No clip from the actual episode, but the opening titles for Today's Special should be traumatic enough.)
9. Tiny Toon Adventures - "One Beer"
The Show: Tiny Toon Adventures was a rather irritating show from the '90s, featuring obnoxious, little kid animals "inspired by" classic Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
The Very Special Problem: Underage animals getting drunk.
Why It Fails: Some shows can appeal to kids and adults alike - Rocky and Bullwinkle being one famous example. But Tiny Toon Adventures was a strange beast, a snarky kid's show that thought it was a lot smarter and more edgy than it was. This episode gets the three little Bugs, Porky and Daffy wannabes drunk and sends them on an epic bender, where they steal a police car and die at the end. The show's creators apparently thought this episode would become a cult classic for cynical college kids... Unfortunately, cynical college kids weren't watching. What you had instead was a nation of confused, terrified little boys and girls, weeping into their bowls of Trix.
Very Special Dialogue: "But Buster, this isn't like you!" "I know... But in this episode, we're showing the evils of alcohol."
8. What's Happening!! - "Doobie or Not Doobie"
The Show: What's Happening!! followed the inner-city, squeaky-clean adventures of nerdy Raj, spectacularly afro'ed Dwayne, their obese friend Rerun, their obese waitress friend Shirley, Raj's obese mother Mabel... Come to think of it, maybe this show should've done a Very Special Episode about the health risks of being 200 pounds overweight.
The Very Special Problem: No, this episode is not about what that title makes it sound like. It's actually about bootlegging music. Some scary types coerce Rerun into secretly taping a concert by his new pals, the Doobie Brothers. But while Rerun is dancing during the Doobies' concert, the recorder falls out in full view of everyone!
Why It Fails: Bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert is a pretty silly thing to get worked up about. It's even harder to care when you're getting preached at by the What's Happening!! kids and the Doobie Brothers, perhaps the most unlikely and ridiculous pairing since the castaways of Gilligan's Island met the Harlem Globetrotters.
Very Special Dialogue: The long, very dramatic silence after Rerun drops the tape recorder speaks volumes.
7. Blossom - Pretty much every episode
The Show: Miyam Bialik starred in this '90s sitcom about a teenage girl who wore a lot of funky hats and had a best-friend named Six. (It was all pretty tedious, although those old episodes could be a little more fun to watch now if you pretend that Six is a cylon.)
The Very Special Problem: Oh, name a problem and Blossom had it. The "period" episode has become fairly notorious.
Why It Failed: This show was nothing but Very Special Episodes. It's become synonymous with Very Special Episodes, so much so that years later Matthew Perry got laughs on Friends by responding to a melodramatic situation by quipping, "Tonight, on a Very Special Episode of Blossom..."
Very Special Dialogue: "Whoa!" - Blossom's alcoholic brother Joey Lawrence, subjecting America to the least inspired catch-phrase of all time.
6. Ellen - "The Puppy Episode"
The Show: Ellen was a mostly-forgettable '90s sitcom vehicle for stand-up comic Ellen Degeneres, but it made headlines with this episode where Ellen came out of the closet.
The Very Special Problem: Ellen struggles to accept her own homosexuality... Years after everybody in America had figured out that Degeneres was a lesbian.
Why It Fails: It's hard to believe anybody was really shocked to learn Degeneres was gay. Seriously, the woman scored higher than Clint Eastwood on the butchness scale. To modern eyes, it seems like this episode is being absurdly melodramatic about Ellen's sexuality... And the fact this episode now seems so dated is actually a good thing. It shows how far America has come regarding homosexuality in the last decade.
Very Special Dialogue: "I'm gay (gay gay gay gay.)" - Ellen, accidentally outing herself over the airport PA system.
5. Diff'rent Strokes - "The Reporter"
The Show: You know, Gary Coleman. "What'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" Etc.
The Very Special Problem: A sleazy redheaded kid in an Izod sweater gives Arnold Drummond uppers so he can stay awake to finish a news story for a contest. The next thing you know, Nancy Reagan shows up with a couple of secret service dudes and she gives us all one of her "Just Say No" lectures.
Why It Fails: For a former actress, her delivery is astonishingly stiff, like even she doesn't believe this BS she's saying. Just how effective was that "Just Say No" stuff? Well, Todd Bridges and Dana Plato were right there in the room when Nancy delivered her little speech, and we know how things worked out for them.
Very Special Dialogue: "Arnold doesn't want to snitch on his friends, Mrs. Reagan." "But I think he should, this is important!" - Future drug addicts Todd Bridges and Dana Plato.
4. Saved By the Bell - "Jessie's Song"
The Show: I think it was Howard Stern who called this '90s teen series a porn movie where nobody has sex. Basically it was a lot of very attractive young people (and Screech) flirting and dancing around in leotards... Occasionally pausing to lecture us about drunk driving or whatever.
The Very Special Problem: Caffeine pill addiction. Yes, really.
Why it fails: Damn, this was a stupid, silly show. It was set in some fantasy land of zitless adolescence where everybody was beautiful and popular. When they started talking about drugs, it was like being lectured at by Barbie dolls. And seriously, caffeine pills?
Very Special Dialogue: "I'm so excited... I'm so scared!" Elizabeth "Showgirls" Berkely's over-the-top delivery of that line became so infamous you can actually buy t-shirts that say it today.
3. The Facts of Life - "Fear Strikes Back"
The Show: You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have... The Facts of Life!
The Very Special Problem: Sexual assault. In this one, we take the very, very bad, as poor Natalie is assaulted while walking home from a costume party while dressed as Charlie Chaplin. (Like the whole scenario wasn't awful enough, the screenwriters had to dress her up like the Little Tramp to make it even more sad.)
Why It Fails: Mindy Cohn gives a heartbreakingly effective performance, and perhaps this episode did teach young people some important lessons about sexual assault. But seeing lovable, chunky ol' Natalie (of all sitcom characters!) breaking down over a horrific, real-life issue like this just feels like way too much weight for such a silly show to carry. It's like watching Balki from Perfect Strangers dying from testicular cancer, or seeing Kermit the frog get diagnosed with AIDS.
2. Diff'rent Strokes - "The Bicycle Man"
The Show: That's right, Diff'rent Strokes scored twice on our Very Special Countdown. What can we say? It was just a Very Special Show.
The Very Special Problem: Child molestation. Arnold and his friend Dudley get molested by Gordon Jump, who will be forever known as Mr. Carlson from WKRP.
Why It Fails: Sweet merciful lord, this is just about the creepiest thing I've ever seen in my life. Mr. Carlson, with a shirtless little boy riding on his back, and... Oh God, I could scoop the eyes from my head with a melon baller, but I can never un-see what I have seen!
Very Special Dialogue: Mr. Carlson: "I'm sorry I don't have a tail for you to hang onto, back there." Arnold Drummond: "That's OK. You can just wag your behind!"
1. Too Close For Comfort - "For Every Man, There's Two Women"
The Show: Following The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ted Knight spent a few years on this generally undistinguished sitcom about an over-protective dad, his two twenty-something daughters and their sexually ambiguous pal Monroe (Jm J Bullock.)
The Very Special Problem: Monroe gets raped by two giant women. A tub of jello is involved.
Why It Fails: This episode takes a truly twisted premise - fey, ineffectual Monroe, raped by two immense, horrifying women, in a tub full of freakin' jello! - and actually tries to play it for laughs. We're never told the exact nature of the crime, which just makes it all even more disturbing as we're left to imagine the details. Even as the episode takes us into increasingly surreal, nightmarish territory, even when Knight ventures into the lair of these predatory, bellowing troll-women and very nearly suffers Monroe's fate, the laugh track never shuts up. This wasn't some edgy, bizarro sitcom where we were used to gross-out shock comedy... It was Too Close For Comfort, one of the blandest shows on the air! Anybody who saw this episode when it aired in 1985 never forgot it, but it never aired in reruns and is almost impossible to track down today, giving it a somewhat legendary status among graying Gen-X'ers. This short film features actual excerpts, finally proving the damn thing is real. But finding out this episode is real brings no comfort... It's sort of like finding out Freddy Krueger is real. You know that when you close your eyes tonight and try to sleep, those awful ladies will be there in the dark, waiting for you. With the jello.
Very Special Dialogue: "Well, the big one did break my beeper."
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