14 Times '90s Sitcoms Got Super Heavy For A 'Very Special Episode'

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Vote up the sitcoms that took a serious turn.

By their very nature, comedic television shows don't do drama all that well. This is what leads us to so-called “very special episodes” of sitcoms. You know what we're talking about… the kind of episode that ends with a PSA about drug abuse, drunk driving, or something along those lines. Everything from Full House and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Designing Women and Sports Night ended up having an episode or two that got dark and serious.

Some shows were equipped to handle this kind of thing better than others. Suffice it to say, it is not very easy to have child actors pull off this kind of content. So get ready to relive some of the best trauma-centric storylines that '90s sitcoms had to offer and vote up the classic shows that weren’t afraid to shove the laughs to the side for a bit.

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  • The Entire Cast Could Hardly Handle Phil Hartman's Tragic Death On 'NewsRadio'
    Photo: NBC

    When Phil Hartman passed in 1998, the world lost one of its truly great comedic talents. Hartman was such a vital part of so many comedic landmarks, it's hard to keep track of them all. Saturday Night Live, the Groundlings, The Simpsons, and NewsRadio were all blessed to have Hartman among their ranks. Hartman's death came between the fourth and fifth seasons of NewsRadio, and the show was forced to address his absence during the first episode of its final season.

    “Bill Moves On” serves as a farewell to the great actor and comedian, and the cast's grief over the situation can be felt on-screen. This wasn't one of those sentence-long character farewells written to quickly move on to the next thing. “Bill Moves On” is a full-length goodbye to one of the main characters. It is filled with jokes and tears. NewsRadio somehow managed to pull off a genuine sitcom eulogy.

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  • Stephanie Found Out One Of Her Classmates Was Abused On 'Full House'
    Photo: ABC

    You will not be shocked to hear Full House was never the most subtle show on the air. Any series that houses Dave Coulier's Joey Gladstone and his particular brand of “comedy” is right to leave subtlety by the wayside. The family-friendly sitcom was basically comprised of nothing but wacky situations that let each character utter their catchphrase before moving on to the resolution and the credits. “You got it, dude!” “Cut. It. Out!” “How rude!” “Have mercy!” This is just a handful of the numerous lines regurgitated ad nauseam over the original show's eight-season run.

    When the show did decide to get serious, as it did with “Silence Is Not Golden,” it usually felt like it came out of left field. Full House was never going to be well-equipped to handle something as consequential as child abuse, but they did try their best. Stephanie finds out that one of her classmates is being beaten by his father on a regular basis, and the episode ends with the kid being put into foster care. 

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  • Randy Had A Cancer Scare On 'Home Improvement'
    Photo: ABC

    Tim Allen was one of the family-centric stars of the 1990s. Between Home Improvement, The Santa Clause, and Toy Story, the man was front and center of the Disney corporate synergy hype machine. The guy was absolutely everywhere. Michael Eisner and company were basically shoving Mickey Mouse aside as Allen was taking over to provide laughs for the whole family. And nothing says family-friendly like a little Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and a little cancer scare! Wait, what? 

    The Season 5 Home Improvement episode “The Longest Day” sees Randy Taylor and his parents having, well, the longest day of their lives as they await test results that will either confirm or deny if Jonathan Taylor Thomas's character has thyroid cancer. There is a heartbreaking scene near the end of the episode where JTT is straight-up breaking down in the middle of a local arcade as he tries to come to terms with the idea of death. In classic sitcom fashion, the poignancy of the moment is broken up with cheap jokes about “bad things” always happening to the Tool Man. Still, it's not every day that a slapstick sitcom featuring Tim Allen dares to get so dark.

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  • T.J. Went To A Predator's House Trying To Buy Video Games On 'Smart Guy'
    Photo: The WB

    “Strangers on the Net” has to be one of the most serious episodes of a TV show where the main character is a preteen. In the episode, Tahj Mowry's T.J. Henderson just wants to play some video games. You know, something pretty much every kid can attest to at one point or another in their young lives. Video games, being an expensive hobby to have, are out of T.J.'s price range, so he ends up getting pirated copies from a “friend he met online.” 

    When T.J. meets up with said friend in person, he turns out to be a very creepy middle-aged guy who promises to put T.J. and his pal in a video game he's working on! Isn't that nice? Well, when the duo goes to the guy's house, he tries to get them to strip down to their underwear while standing on a surfboard in front of a blue screen. It is not an easy watch.

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  • Will And Carlton Debated Racial Profiling After They Were Pulled Over On 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
    Photo: NBC

    Remembered as the iconic and very funny sitcom that launched Will Smith's illustrious career, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was never afraid to tackle serious topics when it felt the need to do so. There was the one about Carlton buying a gun after Will gets shot. There was the one where Will breaks down about his father not caring about being there for his son. There was the one where Uncle Phil has a heart attack. And the show had something to say from the jump, with the sixth episode of the series being the classic “Mistaken Identity.”

    “Mistaken Identity” sees an obvious case of racial profiling occur when Will and Carlton are pulled over and arrested for, you know, driving while Black. Carlton, a child born into immense privilege, has his worldview fractured overnight as his belief in the justice system is forever tarnished. This early episode of the show let regular viewers know what they would be in for down the line: plenty of goofiness with a side of stark reality.

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  • Tia And Tamera Met A Predator Online On 'Sister, Sister'
    Photo: The WB

    Parents have been rightfully concerned about the dangers of their kids communicating with complete strangers on the internet since the very beginning. It is a never-ending battle that will continue to rage on as long as children have access to the world wide web via numerous devices at each and every turn of their lives. Sister, Sister got on this parental bandwagon early, airing an episode about the dangers of people lying to you across the interwebs with 1997's “Model Tia.”

    Tia and Tamera, being fashion-obsessed children of the 1990s, want nothing more than to get their big break. They come across a “photographer of famous models” named Verique who promises Tia a stepping stone into the world of modeling via a professional contract. Sounds a little too good to be true, eh? When Tamera ends up going in Tia's place, Verique tries to get her to model some slight swimwear against her will, and we all know where this is going. Luckily for the twins, their adoptive parents show up shortly thereafter and put Verique in his place.

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