Behind-The-Scenes Stories About TV's Most Famous 'Very Special Episodes'

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Although not as common in recent years, “very special episodes” used to be a staple of television series - especially sitcoms. The phrase is a term used in promos to describe episodes that dealt with difficult or controversial topics like drugs, underage sex, drinking, child abuse, and death.

Although there were “very special episodes” of TV shows prior to the 1980s, that decade is thought to be the peak of their production.

Here are some of the more memorable “very special episodes” of American sitcoms that have aired over the past 50 years.

Photo: Family Matters / ABC

  • The 'ALF's Special Christmas' Episode Was Based On A Letter From A Little Girl Who Had Leukemia
    Photo: ALF

    On December 14, 1987, the sitcom ALF aired a two-part episode titled  “ALF's Special Christmas.” In the episode, which was filmed without a laugh track, ALF stows away in a truck full of toys that Mr. Foley, a grieving widower, is taking to the kids at a hospital where he acts as “Santa” during the holidays. Mr. Foley mistakes the alien for a stuffed toy and gives him to a little girl named Tiffany. ALF reveals himself to the girl and learns (through her doctor) that she isn't expected to live very long and that her only Christmas wish is to meet Santa. 

    After ALF and Mr. Foley leave the hospital, the alien discovers that the widower is going to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. Disguising himself as Santa, ALF is able to convince the man not to harm himself.

    In 2017, Paul Fusco, who voiced the role of ALF, and Steve Hollander, who wrote the episode, told Yahoo! that the episode had been based partly on a true story: Fusco explained that he used to do a lot of work with Make-A-Wish and he (as ALF) would receive a lot of letters from sick kids. One of the letters was from a 9-year-old girl named Tiffany Leigh Smith. Smith, who had leukemia, was the real-life inspiration for the character of Tiffany in “ALF's Special Christmas.”

    As Hollander remembered it:

    Someone at the local NBC station arranged a kind of video conference setup between [Smith] in her hospital bed and ALF. He also had the presence of mind to turn on the tape and record it! [Former NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff saw it and thought, “We should make a Christmas special around this story.”

    After seeing this tape, Hollander discussed how to approach the storyline with series co-creator Tom Patchett:

    In Tom’s mind, the central question for ALF was: What do you say to a little girl who is not going to see another Christmas?

    While Hollander found the story easy to write, Fusco worried about how the very serious nature of the episode would be received by ALF's viewers:

    I didn’t want it to look hokey or saccharine in any way. I was also worried how I would react in those scenes, but it was really one of the first dramatic roles that ALF had to play in the show.

    Hollander said that NBC never pushed for the episode to provide a happy ending for Tiffany: “Nobody thought, ‘We’ve got to make a cheerful Christmas story.’ It was a true situation; we weren’t trying to invent a story.” And Fusco recalled hearing from the real Tiffany's mother after the girl had passed:

    They said that by just allowing her to talk to ALF, it prolonged her life by maybe a month. It gave her hope to hold on to.

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  • The 'All in the Family' Episode 'Edith's 50th Birthday' Was Filmed Without Any Breaks In Order To Keep The Studio Audience From Releasing Its Tension Until The Very End
    Photo: CBS

    All in the Family was a groundbreaking sitcom in many ways, one of which was its determination to tackle any number of controversial topics. For example, the sitcom's eighth season saw a two-part episode about homophobia ("Edith's Crisis of Faith") in which one of the Bunkers' friends, a female impersonator, is slain.

    Earlier in that same season was the two-part episode entitled “Edith's 50th Birthday.” In Part One, Jean Stapleton's character is sexually assaulted in the Bunker's home - she escapes by pushing a hot cake into her attacker's face and running to her daughter's home. Part Two of the episode deals with the aftermath of the attack.

    Airing in a one-hour block on October 16, 1977, the episodes were the first time an American TV sitcom portrayed an attempted sexual assault. Series creator Norman Lear spent over a year writing and rewriting the episode; he also consulted with experts including the director of an assault treatment center and held multiple screenings of the episode for social workers and legal authorities.

    Paul Bogart was the director for the two-part episode. In an interview for the Academy of Television Foundation, he explained how the episode was shot:

    I said, “Well, we can’t shoot this in segments.” Because ordinarily, people shoot a scene, and then they stop. The audience applauds, the actors go get some water, change their clothes, whatever they need to do. Then we start another scene. And I said, “No, no, no, we can’t. If we're going to raise any tension here, we can't give the audience a chance to release their tension until the very end. So we have to do it straight through, going from scene to scene to scene without a stop.” So that's what we did. By the time Jean evaded this man - threw a hot pan of biscuits on him or something - and he screamed and fell back, the audience went wild. Started to stamp on the bleachers and scream as she ran out of the house. That was the one place where I couldn't go into the next scene right away because they were still screaming. … To do it that way was the wise thing. I'm sure I did something good then. Because the audience did not have a chance to release its feelings until the crucial moment.

    David Dukes played Edith's attacker. He spoke to the author of Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family about how the episode was received when it first aired:

    I was sitting in a bar in Hawaii after a day of skindiving. The T.V. was on and I heard the news program discussing this episode. This job I did for five days of my life was suddenly on the national news. I was astounded how people reacted to it. Another time I was at a cocktail party and a guy came up to me and said, “I know you. You’re the guy who [assaulted] Edith Bunker.” I answered, “Uh, attempted [assault].” He went on, “Yeah, you’re right. Attempted. I saw the show in my class.” It turned out he was a detective with the NYPD, and this, along with other films, is used to convey the woman's side of [assault]. Actually, a lot of crisis centers have used this episode since it first aired.

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    When They Filmed The Pedophilia-Themed Episode 'The Bicycle Man,' Todd Bridges's 'Diff'rent Strokes' Co-Stars Were Unaware He'd Been Molested As A Child

    When They Filmed The Pedophilia-Themed Episode 'The Bicycle Man,' Todd Bridges's 'Diff'rent Strokes' Co-Stars Were Unaware He'd Been Molested As A Child
    Photo: NBC

    Another of Diff'rent Strokes' “very special episodes”  was “The Bicycle Man.” a two-part episode that aired in 1983. The episode focused on a bicycle shop owner named Mr. Horton who lures Arnold (Gary Coleman) and his friend Dudley to his home by offering them pizza and alcohol. There he shows them pornographic material, including a photo of him skinny dipping with some other young kids, and has them photograph each other playing a game of “Tarzan.” 

    Arnold becomes bothered by the secret meetings, especially when Mr. Horton shows them an adult cartoon. When his father (Conrad Bain) learns about how Mr. Horton has lured the boys, he arranges the police to raid the shop. They find a disoriented Dudley in the bathroom; he confesses that the bicycle shop owner had given him a pill to relax him and had tried to touch him, scaring the boy. The police find enough evidence to arrest Mr. Horton.

    In his 2010 memoir, Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted, Todd Bridges wrote about how uncomfortable he had been filming the episode, as he had been sexually abused by a publicist and family friend named Ronald several times when he was about 11 years old. In the book, he disclosed that his Diff'rent Strokes co-stars were unaware of this history:

    I didn't let on that the material in the script upset me. That was a very hard week for me, and I pushed my feelings down, hard.

    110 votes
  • During The Height Of The AIDS Epidemic, The Show 'Mr. Belvedere' Actually Did An Episode About Common Misconceptions
    Photo: ABC

    In 1986, there was still a lot of fear about AIDS, along with a ton of misinformation about how the disease was transmitted. This was the topic of the episode of Mr. Belvedere entitled “Wesley's Friend.” 

    In the episode, which aired on January 31, 1986, Wesley's friend Danny contracts AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion. The young boy is immediately shunned by his classmates - including Wesley - as they are afraid of Danny, falsely believing they could contract the disease just by being around him. Danny is supposed to play Abraham Lincoln in a pageant, but his parents end up pulling him out of school. Wesley replaces Danny in the role but doesn't want to wear Danny's costume - until he learns he can't contract AIDS through wearing it. At the end of the episode, Wesley and Danny are friends again and the former brings the latter on stage so the boy can play Lincoln after all.

    100 votes
  • In A Surprisingly Serious 'Full House' Episode About Child Abuse, John Stamos Appeared In A PSA Attached To The Episode
    Photo: ABC

    While Full House was a lighthearted sitcom about a widowed father raising his three daughters with the help of his brother-in-law and his best friend, the show did produce multiple episodes dealing with serious topics like underage drinking, sex, and bullying.

    In the Season 6 episode “Silence Is Not Golden,” the series took on the issue of child abuse. In the episode, Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) discovers that one of her classmates (who she doesn't like) is being abused by his father. At first, she keeps quiet about the situation, but when the boy doesn't show up at school, she tells her Uncle Jesse (John Stamos), who convinces her that they have to report the incident to the authorities in order to try and keep her classmate safe. Stephanie later finds out that the boy has been put in a foster home, the implication being that his father has been arrested.

    At the end of the original episode, Stamos and Sweetin appeared in a PSA that encouraged viewers to report any suspected child abuse to the police.

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  • Will Smith Credited James Avery For Forcing Him To Elevate His Acting For 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' Episode About Will's Absent Father
    Photo: NBC

    How come he don’t want me, man?” - Will, to Uncle Phil, in “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse”

    Although viewers of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air found out pretty early in the series that Will's dad had abandoned him and his mother, it wasn't until Season 4 that they actually met Lou Smith. In the episode “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse,” Will sees his father for the first time since he was 4 years old. Initially wary, Will begins to bond with his father, only to be brokenhearted when (SPOILER ALERT) Lou abandons him again.

    As David Zuckerman, who co-wrote the episode with Bill Boulware, explained to The Washington Post, Lou Smith was originally conceived as being a pool shark. But the first table read of the script didn't go well: “Will did not like it at all. It was not one of our best moments.” So the writers rethought the character, making Lou Smith a truck driver, someone who wasn't cut out to be a father. “We tried to make him not a bad guy - sympathetic."

    Shelley Jensen, who directed the episode, believed that “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse” was a pivotal moment in Smith's acting career, telling The Washington Post:

    It was that specific episode for me as a director [that] I saw him connect and make it work. His acting from that moment on improved dramatically. You saw the light bulb go off.

    Will Smith agreed. In a 2018 interview on the podcast Rap Radar, Smith credited his co-star James Avery - who portrayed Uncle Phil - with making him a better actor:

    James Avery was relentless on me to elevate. [He] wouldn’t give me a damn inch… He was the model for me… of an actor. He just had that acting power that I wanted to have… So we're doing that scene and I'm having a hard time… I’m messing up the lines because I want it so bad. We're in front of the audience and we're doing it and I'm furious. He holds onto me and says, “Hey. Relax. Relax. It’s already in there, you know what it is. Look at me. Use me. Don’t act around me, act with me.” He's talking me through it and everything. So I get it together, I do the scene… and he hugs me at the end. And while he’s hugging me, he whispers in my ear, “That’s f***ing acting right there.”

    Although some thought Smith improvised the scene, Zuckerman denied that. "Every word was written by Bill and I. Will’s delivery was so perfect it seems like it was in the moment.”

    Jensen, meanwhile, revealed that while the studio audience was usually very raucous for tapings of the show, during the filming of the final scene of “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse,” the atmosphere was like “being in church.” 

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