There’s something so disorienting about tuning into a show expecting wacky hijinks and laugh tracks, but instead being met with a devastating look at sexual assault, drug abuse, anorexia and depression. With some sitcoms, that’s exactly what will be in store when you least expect it, as you start an episode ready for some cheap laughs but end up an emotional wreck.
That’s because so many comedies at some point abandon the humor and try to pull on your heartstrings, especially so in the 1980s when the “very special episode” phenomenon was at its peak. The writers feel the need to crank up the darkness, and though you were giggling uncontrollably the previous week, suddenly the entire tone shifts towards that of a Lifetime movie. Thought you knew the formula? Think again.
These are the 10 episodes that came out of nowhere and, with little warning, punched us all in the collective gut.
Whatever comes to mind when you think of The Facts of Life, it probably isn’t sexual assault. Yet that’s the plot of a shocking Season 3 episode that’s surprisingly progressive for a 1981 sitcom. In the opening scene of “Fear Strikes Back,” the girls’ conversation about a party is interrupted by news that the headmaster’s secretary was raped.
Oh, well that came out of nowhere. After being a bit shook up, though, they basically go about their day and everything appears to have returned to normal. Later on, while they’re all laughing about how much fun they had that night, Natalie comes back a complete wreck because a man just tried to rape her on the way home. “A man grabbed me, and I tried to scream but he covered mymouth,” she says.
Natalie bursts into tears, exclaiming in a state of utter disbelief that she was almost home when it happened. Throughout the rest of the half-hour, she continues to have nightmares, she doesn’t seem like herself, and she refuses to even go outside anymore. This fun sitcom suddenly forces audiences to confront one of the most horrifying things that can happen to a person, and while the second half unfortunately verges into victim blaming territory, the issue is for the most part handled with grace without becoming overly melodramatic.
Nearly every episode of Full House ends with a message and a hug, but the subject matter usually isn’t anything of much weight. Be nice to your siblings, don’t tell lies, some kids are forced to live a miserable existence in which they’re constantly abused by their parents and are trapped in an unhealthy living environment. Wait, what was that last one?
In “Silence Is Not Golden,” Stephanie is paired up for a class assignment with Charles, a bratty kid who she absolutely can’t stand. Based on standard sitcom cliches, you’d expect them to learn more about one another, come to a mutual understanding, and maybe Stephanie realizes that she shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Instead, it’s quickly revealed that Charles is mercilessly beaten by his father every day of his life. Well, that took a turn. He makes Stephanie promise to keep it a secret, but then Charles doesn’t come in to school for a full week because he was “in an accident,” so Stephanie has no choice but to intervene. The original broadcast ended with a PSA about who to call if you know someone like Charles, and considering the show usually concludes with Danny giving some cliche speech about sharing, this was a huge gut punch.
On a special episode of Family Ties, that ’80s sitcom that you’re always confusing with Family Matters, the running time is extended to a full hour so the show can wallow in sadness for an even longer period of time.
In “My Name is Alex,” which received a lot of hype and went on to win a number of awards, Alex’s friend Greg is killed in an automobile accident. Alex desperately tries to hide his pain, but the facade wears thin as he becomes obsessed with the fact that he was supposed to be in the car that night. During one poignant sequence, Alex breaks down in tears and repeatedly yells, “Why am I alive?” The second half-hour gets even darker, consisting almost entirely of Alex speaking with a therapist in what essentially amounts to a one man show.
Seemingly unsure how much they want to commit to the melancholy, the writers are constantly peppering in jokes to keep things light, and that results in an odd viewing experience. Mallory makes a flippant remark about the clothes Greg was dressed in at the funeral, and when Alex asks why he’s alive, the response he gets is, “You’re alive to aggravate me!” Still, it’s a memorable outing if only for the performance of Michael J. Fox, who truly commits to this corny but highly ambitious special.
It seemed that every ’80s and ’90s sitcom needed a PSA about drugs at some point, but Saved By The Bell’s was particularly strange. In “Jessie’s Song,” Jessie joins a singing group with the awful name Hot Sundae, and she’s so overwhelmed with the stress of her extracurricular activities and her schoolwork that she becomes addicted to…caffeine?
Yeah, she starts taking caffeine pills, which is not exactly the most hardcore drug out there and can be purchased over the counter. Despite that, the show really plays it up and acts like she has started shooting up heroin. They probably didn’t want to depict one of the lead characters actually using drugs, but couldn’t it have at least been Adderall or something like that?
Jessie’s friends become concerned that she’s “doing drugs,” and it all culminates in her massive freak out towards the end. She starts running around the room, screaming, digging through her pills, and singing, “I’m so excited…I’m so excited…I’m so scared!” This bizarre special has been ruthlessly mocked over the years, and it’s become the poster child of failed attempts at schmaltzy lesson episodes. While certainly qualifying as an unexpected tonal shift, “Jessie’s Song” just doesn’t emit much of an emotional reaction other than laughter.
All of these other specials came about because the writers wanted to address a serious issue, but 8 Simple Rules didn’t really have a choice. Shortly into the second season, the show’s star, John Ritter, suddenly died. Rather than cancelling the series or recasting Paul, the decision was made to kill off his character and pay tribute to the actor in a two part special, “Goodbye.”
Part of why it’s so effective is that it starts off like absolutely nothing is wrong. The kids joke about popularity and dating, they argue, make cereal, and it’s your average opening to a fluffy multi-camera sitcom. Then Cate receives a phone call and the mood dramatically changes; the laugh track disappears, the lighting darkens, and there are practically no jokes for the remaining 40 minutes.
It’s obvious that the tears are real, and what we’re witnessing is actors genuinely mourning the loss of a dear friend, making this one of the hardest to watch hours of television in history. Other programs like The West Wing have honored a deceased actor, but rarely have we seen such a shift in tone, from a light Two Broke Girls style sitcom to a reflection on the fleeting nature of life. If you just tuned in having somehow missed the news of Ritter’s passing, you would be so shocked.
A lot of kids born in the 1990s grew up with this Disney Channel show about a girl going through adolescence and, weirdly, being followed everywhere by an animated version of herself. It’s full of lessons for young girls and boys, but one of the more depressing moments in the series explores the issue of anorexia.
During “Inner Beauty,” Lizzie and Miranda star in a music video, and Miranda begins to starve herself after seeing how she looks in photos. Her life starts to fall apart as she lies to everyone around her and eventually passes out and almost dies. The episode is full of the traditional wacky sound effects and brisk pace, but when you really stop to think about what you’re watching, it’s incredibly upsetting.
Like many sitcoms that tackle eating disorders, it arguably trivializes the issue by portraying it as something a person “snaps out of” thanks to an inspiring pep talk. So a person develops this very real condition based on one comment, they suffer from it for a few days, and then they’re perfectly fine? Maybe that’s not the best message to send, but it’s admirable that the writers at least attempted to address an important problem like this, however simplistic the end result might be. For young viewers, seeing a character like Miranda suffering is fittingly uncomfortable.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air sprinkles in several devastating moments throughout the series like land mines, but the most affecting and famous is from Season 4’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse.” Will’s father Lou returns after disappearing for 14 years, and Will is full of such a childlike sense of glee as if he’s an 8-year-old kid once again. In the final scene, he’s packed and ready to go on a trip with his dad, but at the last minute Lou cancels and clearly has no plans to ever return.
At first Will tries to brush it off, but he just can’t hold back his emotions and goes on an impassioned rant about how he doesn’t need his dad anyway. There’s a long pause as Will breaks down and can barely get out the words, “How come he don’t want me, man?” The episode ends with seventeen full seconds of complete silence except for the sounds of Will sobbing in Uncle Phil’s arms. That is rough. It’s so emotional that if you listen closely, you can actually hear some members of the audience crying.
There’s an urban legend that Will Smith’s father really was absent from his childhood and so he’s genuinely breaking down here, but that is completely untrue. It speaks to how convincing Smith’s performance is, though, that the story is believable and has spread so far over the years.
This is the same show where Alfonso Ribeiro does a goofy dance and Will Smith wears his jacket inside out and makes funny faces at the camera, and then when you least suspect it, the writers absolutely ruin you.
The majority of content aimed at children refuses to acknowledge death, but an iconic 1983 episode of Sesame Street decided to change that. Prior to its production, actor Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) passed away, and after consulting with a number of psychologists, the producers decided they would use this as an opportunity to explain death to kids.
Even after being told Mr. Hooper is gone forever, Big Bird doesn’t quite get it and still thinks he’ll come back, just as a kid would find it difficult to understand how death is totally irreversible. After it sinks in, Bird Bird is just confused and angry, asking who’s going to take care of the store and tell him stories. The actors can barely hold it together, and when Bob McGrath tells Big Bird that things will never be the same again, his voice cracks, he begins to cry, and it’s a truly human moment. At some points, the performers are so swept up in the emotion, they have to be reminded by their costars that it’s their turn to speak. All of that is kept in the final cut, and the producers wisely chose to capture the reality rather than go back and perfect the scene.
Each of these episodes came out of nowhere in their own way, but this one actually aired on Thanksgiving. Hey kids, death is inevitable and everyone you know and love will leave you forever. Happy Thanksgiving!
If you want to kick back with some Home Improvement at the end of a stressful day at work, try to avoid the one where the kid almost dies of cancer. In “The Longest Day,” Jill takes the boys to a doctor’s appointment, leaving Tim home with a pie that he eats all by himself. Oh brother, that’s our Tim! So far, it appears the doctor’s appointment was just a reason to get everyone out of the house for a lame joke about eating pie.
Then the doctor calls because they saw something on Randy’s neck, and the family has to wait 24 hours to find out if he has cancer. Fun, right? In one scene, Jill’s eyes well with tears while she says that she just thought she was going to the doctor for a quick visit, but now she’s talking about the chances of losing her son forever.
The episode is oddly uneven, as if one group of writers wanted it to be funny and the other group wanted it to be deadly serious. One minute everyone’s making jokes, and the next Jill is breaking down and talking about how one phone call can change your life. Of course, viewers don’t really believe that Randy’s going to die, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.
The silly ’80s sitcom Diff’rent Stokes, remembered mainly for Gary Coleman coining the catchphrase “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis,” also happens to feature an episode that is more disturbing than any horror film ever made. Arnold and Dudley become friends with the owner of a local bicycle shop, but it turns out he’s just trying to molest them.
What the hell? The episode is so profoundly messed up, mainly because Mr. Horton isn’t portrayed as some sinister, mustache twirling maniac. Instead, he’s an ordinary and unassuming guy on the surface, but he very slowly manipulates the kids into doing what he wants. It’s a gradual progression from slightly weird into genuinely horrifying: first he gives them some ice cream, then some wine, then he “accidentally” leaves a porn magazine out which segues into showing them naked pictures of himself, and eventually he’s having them take their shirts off and flat out getting ready to rape them. Luckily, the police arrive before that can happen.
It’s all made worse by the fact that for some reason, the studio audience is laughing the entire time, including when this creepy old man is showing the children what he looks like nude. Apparently molestation is hilarious to these people.