1980s sitcoms were notorious for shoehorning lessons into each episode that kids or functionally retarded adults could apply to their own lives. But every once in a while, those lessons were so bleak that the sitcom had to abandoned the "com" part of the equation.
These are the episodes that scarred a generation.
#5. Punky Brewster: Punky Loses Everyone She Loves
Punky Brewster was a hit kid's television show during the mid '80s based on the exploits of a socially precocious orphan and her quirky group of friends. Like most '80s sitcoms, the show was known for the occasional "very special episode," dealing with topical issues like the Challenger space shuttle tragedy and kids asphyxiating in old refrigerators. But for whatever reason, the producers of the show decided in "The Perils of Punky" to teach a valuable lesson to the audience about the White Man's Burden and the horrifying savage magic of Indians.
They've even magicked up fake Indian tribe names.
Punky goes on a camping trip with her ethnically inclusive friends, and they promptly get lost in the wilderness. The group takes refuge in a cave, and Punky tries to pass the time (until, presumably, they starve to death) by telling a ghost story about four kids that get lost in the woods and find refuge inside of a cave. It's either a bad attempt by Punky to be meta, or they couldn't afford a second set. Either way, if kids looked down for just a second, or took a bathroom break at the wrong moment, it would have been easy to miss the fact that what happens for the remainder of the episode wasn't actually happening to Punky and friends, which is important for terrifying reasons that will soon become apparent.
Punky's story is quickly interrupted by a group of Native Americans, who are apparently synonymous with cavemen, and they have a much better story they want to tell about unspeakable horror.
"This one is called 'The Freeeee Blankets'."
The kids hear a story of an evil spirit that, as it happens, lives in the cave and that, as it happens, can be killed only by Punky Brewster. The kids, with little concept of mortality and poor decision-making skills, head deeper into the cave. Along the way they encounter the type of horrors you would expect from a sitcom, like kindly but unnerving lost souls and some spiders.
Yeah, giant spiders. Did we not say giant?
But gradually the story stops being fun and starts to resemble the Blair Witch Project. Punky's friends vanish, and she can hear their screams for help bouncing off the walls. When Punky finally builds up enough courage to demand that the evil spirit give her friends back, it screws with her by revealing the decapitated head of her friend Alan, stuffed into the side of the cave, still crying.
There's a moral here about not sticking your face in quick-set concrete, but nothing excuses those teeth.
Her friend Cherry's head also appears from behind a wall, floating in the air with eyes glowing red. Finally the corpse of Margaux falls from the roof, decomposed to just a skeleton with a rotting face screaming at Punky.
The only friends of a scared little girl are now just faces of soulless evil surrounding her, calling out her name. Here is a video of this horrible 45-second sequence of events:
After Punky finds a place to sit and mourn her dead friends, she also has a vision of her foster father giving up his search for her and deciding that maybe life would be better without Punky. Notice we said "foster father." Punky is an adopted kid, likely with abandonment issues, who witnesses her best friends turning into the undead and the only man she's ever called "Dad" giving up on her. The only friend she still has is her dog ... right up until he turns into a skeleton.
Kids in the '80s owned a lot of mastiffs.
At this point, the evil demon finally shows up with knives for hands and threatens to turn her into a mouse and feed her to snakes.
"Cower in the presence of my horrible production values!"
After defeating the spirit with love, somehow, the ending reveals that this was all Punky's ghost story and that none of it ever happened. It would have been hard to keep the show going after murdering three children and turning Punky Brewster into a spirit killer. Still, it was a two-part episode, which means that kids everywhere had to wait a week to find out that their favorite adorable sitcom had not in fact undergone the grittiest reboot ever.
#4. All in the Family: Edith Bunker Is Sexually Assaulted on Her Birthday
All in the Family was a groundbreaking -- and popular -- sitcom during the 1970s that revolved around the lovable, racist war veteran Archie Bunker and his naive wife as they struggled with the progressive ideas their daughter and her husband keep dragging into the house.
Like Sammy Davis Jr.
The only children in the show were really just secondary characters and rarely part of the plot, partially because it was geared toward adults, with topical issues like racism and homosexuality, and partially because Edith was really the child on the show. Archie's wife is so wide-eyed and optimistic in every episode that her ignorance is completely forgivable. She has the innocence of an infant, so it's especially difficult to watch the two-part episode entitled "Edith's 50th Birthday," where she is very nearly raped in her own house.
It all starts when a police officer drops by while everyone else is planning a surprise party for Edith next door. He tells Edith that he's investigating sexual assaults in the neighborhood. It's not until he starts to describe the rapist he's looking for that Edith realizes he's describing himself.
"Tie, silly hair, generally looks kind of rapey. Seen him?"
Edith tries to offer him money to leave, but he pins her to the couch for an intensely awkward five minutes and starts undressing while kissing her neck. Keep in mind that her family is also just next door, trying to make this the happiest day of the year for her.
Edith, in her unrelenting innocence, tries to cite her advanced aged and marital status as reasons that she would be an unacceptable rape victim. Her captor simply replies that he enjoys older women and that he is married himself. All across America, millions of families glanced awkwardly at one another and shared a silent look of "Are we actually seeing this?"
If you were born in the '90s, imagine this is Marge Simpson.
The hardest part to watch, however, is the moment Archie comes home briefly to grab a punchbowl as the assailant hides in the closet. You can see the terror on Edith's face as she wants to tell the man she loves to save her, and he still walks out the door, completely oblivious to the circumstances.
Edith escapes only when a cake starts burning in her oven and the rapist allows her to take it out. With some quick thinking, she turns her birthday into a weapon and slams the cake in his face before running out of the house.
HAVE SOME CAKE, COCKMONSTER!
When the police finally arrive and try to get Edith to identify the clothes of her attacker, all the lightheartedness that was left in the episode stops immediately. Edith goes into a blind panic so unnerving and uncharacteristic of any sitcom ever that the studio audience doesn't know how to respond and so just applauds, hoping that somehow it will fix everything.
"Hmm, that's not working. Maybe sitting in silent anguish will help."
Watching the episode will not only make you feel dirty, but also ruin every surprise birthday party you ever attend.
#3. Diff'rent Strokes: Arnold and Dudley Get Molested
Diff'rent Strokes followed the lives of two young brothers from Harlem, Arnold and Willis, after their mother died and they were adopted by the wealthy Mr. Drummond. Looking back, it's shocking how many sitcoms hinged on the premise of parental death.
In the two-part episode "The Bicycle Man," Mr. Drummond brings his family to the bicycle shop of a family friend, Mr. Horton, to return some bikes that they had been renting. Arnold and Mr. Horton become fast friends and start doing one another favors -- Arnold passes out flyers at his school advertising the bike shop, and Mr. Horton gives him a handlebar radio in return.
"It's tuned to a 24-hour recording of me breathing heavily!"
At first, Mr. Horton just seems like a nice old man, and that's exactly what's so horrifying about this episode -- it's the slow reveal that a character is actually a pedophile trying to seduce Arnold with ice cream and comic books. It's not until he asks Arnold never to tell Mr. Drummond about the time they spend together that something seems slightly off.
Arnold likes Mr. Horton so much that he starts bringing his friend Dudley along, and it isn't long before Mr. Horton is feeding them both wine and giving them pornography.
"Some day we'll have a machine that can provide this for free!"
He even tells the kids about all the cool games that they can play with their clothes off and shows them naked pictures of himself, which the studio audience apparently finds hilarious.
The day culminates in Mr. Horton getting Dudley to take his shirt off for some photos, and Arnold returns home with the smell of wine still on his breath. He is caught by Dana Plato and Todd Bridges, who make him swear to never drink again.
This situation is way over the legal limit for irony.
Dudley and Arnold continue to visit Mr. Horton until the whole thing gets a little too creepy for Arnold. He decides to do the moral thing and leave the bike shop ... incidentally also leaving his best friend with a pedophile. Solid work, Arnold.
Eventually Arnold tells Mr. Drummond about what's been happening, and the police arrive at the bike shop just in time to find a drugged up, half-naked Dudley sprawled out and Mr. Horton doing a few warm-up stretches in preparation for some vigorous child abuse. Mr. Horton is arrested and Arnold and Dudley learn an important lesson about trusting strangers. Or sitcoms.
Mr. Drummond spent the next 19 months crying himself to sleep.