Back in the days when there were only three TV networks (okay, maybe four), television series — usually sitcoms, but occasionally light-hearted dramas as well — would be try to pull viewers in by advertising that next week, they’d be seeing a “Very Special Episode” of their favorite show.
What this usually meant is that a show which was usually going for the big yuks would hit the brakes for a week and try to tackle some big issue as it was experienced by the lead characters. Two examples that I can recall right offhand are “Family Ties'” hotshot Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox) having a minor breakdown when a friend of his in the crash of a car ride in which Alex had bowed out at the last minute; and, most egregiously, the three kids from the “Diff’rent Strokes” family barely escaping sexual abuse at the hands of a seemingly innocent local bicycle repairman (poor Gordon Jump, usually so hilarious on “WKRP in Cincinnati”).
Whenever the “VSE” label flashed across my screen, I immediately knew two things: (1) the show’s producers were going to make their audience pay for all the laughs they’d previously had by watching the show; and more significantly, (2) the shows that were pulling this stunt usually weren’t of terribly high quality to start with — thus the producers seemed to be aiming for legitimacy by tackling an “edgy” subject.
First off, I don’t know about you, but if you’re going to deal with a subject such as child sexual abuse, your show had better have shown its chops at intelligently handling such material (e.g., “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), not wasting it in a show where the frequent catchphrase and punchline is, “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”
Secondly, it seems never to have occurred to said producers that other TV shows were already tackling gritty subject matter without calling huge attention to it. In the 1970’s, for sure, “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” were grappling with, respectively, urban unrest and the trauma of war without having to put big exclamation points around it every week.
Another unfortunate offspring of this sub-genre was the “dramedy” that was so beloved in the late 1980’s until people readily got tired of it. There were “United States” (endless monologues about rough suburban life written by Larry Gelbart, co-creator of “M*A*S*H” — there, I said it!) and Blair Brown in “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.” We knew these shows were different because — gasp! — there was no laugh track to tell us when to laugh. (Apparently, very few people laughed at them or even watched them, as they died hasty deaths.)
Aside from the very recent past 50 years (!) of television, TV producers might do well to take a good look at the art of cinema. Way back in 1921, writer-director-star Charlie Chaplin was told by film executives that he couldn’t possibly combine comedy and risible drama in the same movie. Then Chaplin came out with The Kid. There’s a Very Special Episode for you.