5 'Very Special Episodes' That Nobody Saw Coming
The Very Special Episode sounds great on paper: Since kids and teens don't really take their ungnarly, unradical parents seriously, we should have popular TV shows devote entire episodes to teaching them about controversial topics like drugs or racism, and why participating in them is for lame-o's. That way, they are bound to pay attention and never end up buying crack-marijuana exclusively from people in Klan robes.
The only problem is that almost all those episodes are so ham-fisted and cringey, it's like they were written by that Steve Buscemi meme. That's because you can't actually write a good VSE on purpose. You can only do it by accident, like so:
Teen Titans' Message About Racism Only Works Because It Involves A Superpowered Being
When a movie studio is interested in teaching us about the horrors of racism, but iseven more interested in launching a multi-billion-dollar franchise, they bring out the ol' extraterrestrials metaphor. Between Star Trek, District 9, Alien Nation, and Avatar, we've heard a million times that it's wrong to judge people based on their looks or where they come from. Unfortunately, all these movies and shows often portray victims of space racism (spacism) as "noble savages," with emphasis on "savages."
For example, the Prawns in District 9 and the Na'vi in Avatar are basically alien hippies, with the former only interested in scavenging and getting high, and the latter most likely being mind-controlled by an alien plant. Of course, it was awful how humans treated them, but can't filmmakers give the aliens (and I don't mean to sound like a revolutionary here) a second personality trait? It undercuts the movies' anti-racism message a little bit when the people that you're supposed to empathize with don't actually have that many redeeming qualities. But there's no such problem in Teen Titans, a cartoon about the DC Comics Junior Varsity squad, and the episode "Troq" starring the superheroine Starfire.
Who might possibly be related to the Wendy's hamburger girl.
In "Troq," we are introduced to the spacefaring hero Val-Yor who really hates Tamaraneans, the alien warrior race that Starfire belongs to. Now, upon meeting Starfire, he doesn't set a wooden mustard bottle on fire on her lawn or anything, but he makes it clear he sees her as inferior and untrustworthy, and continues to refer to her as "Troq," meaning "nothing," as in she is nothing to him. The question is ... WHY IN BATMAN'S HOLY NAME DOES HE THINK THAT?!
Omitting the fact that Starfire is as pure-hearted as a newborn puppy, she is also considerably more powerful than Val-Yor-Tamaranean-Mama-Is-So-Fat. Val-Yor is super strong, can fly, and has a degree of invulnerability, but Starfire has all that plus being able to breathe in space, manipulate cosmic energies, and possessing quasi-immortality. And when someone as amazing as that can still end up the victim of spacism, it really makes you realize that prejudice doesn't need a valid reason to exist. It's just a shitty thing that shitty people do sometimes because they are shitty, and you should never let yourself internalize all that nonsensical hate, like Starfire almost did.
Throughout the episode, Starfire risks her life to show that she is useful and good until finally standing up to Val-Yor, but in the end, the best that he could do is admit that she was one of the good Tamaraneans because, as the episode says, some people's minds just cannot be changed. That is a very bleak but very real, no-bullshit message about the irrational nature of racism, delivered via a Jay Leno-lookalike covered in silver.
Literally a sentient tinfoil hat.
The Suicide Episode Of House Only Works Because It Was Completely Unplanned
House is probably the worst-written show on my Top 10 TV Series list. I'm well aware that almost every episode boils down to: "Start regular treatment. Well of course it didn't work, you human turds. That was just a ruse to lull the disease into a false sense of security. Now, let's replace the patient's heart with a tomato, and call his mother a whore." But I barely pay attention to any of that. Instead, I'm fascinated by House himself. He's a self-destructive, drug-addict genius who constantly finds new lows to stoop to, and I honestly cannot look away from this beautiful train wreck of a man. And of course, I'm one of those people who thinks the show should have ended with House killing himself, but although that's not how it went down, the show still has a powerful message about suicide in the episode "Simple Explanation."
In season four, Kal Penn joined the cast as Lawrence Kutner, a brilliant young doctor working for House. A short time later, though, Penn got a job at the White House, so his character had to be written out, and the writers decided he should kill himself. This really confused a lot of people. Kutner was always written as cheerful and full of life, because the writers weren't initially planning for him to one day commit suicide. Did they intend for him to make out with Lisa Edelstein while I watched? According to the fanfic I'm writing, yes. But there were never any indicators in the show that Kutner was depressed. And that's precisely why the episode worked so well. Let me show you one of my favorite pictures ever:
This is Kurt Cobain happily eating a pizza. I spent a lot of time thinking about this picture, about how depression doesn't always look like depression, and about how people suffering from it put on a show for those around them, pretending everything's OK. That's the thing about suicidal depression. It's a sneaky motherfucker. It hides behind a big, wide grin and pizza for one, and that's how I choose to explain Kutner's suicide. Because we never suspected that Kutner was depressed, his suicide makes for a much more powerful statement about the invisible nature of depression.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm 100 percent sure the writers of this episode only wanted to write a shocking Very Special Episode for ratings' sake, but by SHEER ACCIDENT, they created something very deep and profound. Because think about it: When even a genius like House, whose entire job is to diagnose people, didn't see that a man he worked closely with was deeply, deeply depressed, how can regular people be expected to catch it before it's too late? Roll credits, pass the Vicodin.
The Body Positivity Message On The Muppets Only Works Because Of How Silly The Whole Show Is
The Muppets (2015) is a show about Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, etc. producing a late-night talk show, sort of like a cross between The Muppets Take Manhattan and 30 Rock. Is it any good? Did you not hear me say it's the Muppets on 30 Rock? Why are we having this conversation? Get out of my sight! Unless you're one of the people who cancelled The Muppets. Then please stay ... as I go wrap rattlesnakes around a baseball bat.
I still have no idea why the show wasn't a bigger hit. It did everything right, especially staying true to the Muppets' spirit of being both entertaining and educational. This brings us to the episode "A Tail of Two Piggies," where Miss Piggy has a wardrobe malfunction at a movie premiere and suffers a nip slip. Only here it's actually a tail slip, because the Muppets might be more hardcore than people think, but they aren't THAT hardcore.
Although, would it really have been so awful if we saw Miss Piggy's nipple? Not unless afterwards your dad got up and disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes. See, we've already seen Miss Piggy's cleavage dozens of times on the show, so would adding a few brownish/pinkish circles to the whole thing really make such a huge difference? Aren't we perhaps sexualizing the nipple a bit too much? That is essentially what this episode asks, only with a pig's tail. In the show, Piggy's wardrobe malfunction becomes a huge deal because it makes people "uncomfortable" and she is asked to publicly apologize for it on TV. It's all very silly and funny because, come on, pig tails are nothing like nipples. But ... aren't they?
In "A Tail of Two Piggies," you can pretty much see most of Miss Piggy's backside, but it doesn't become a problem until her tail pops out. Tell me this doesn't somewhat resemble the way we treat breasts, which you can post as much as you want on, say, Facebook or Instagram, as long as you can't see their tiny, flesh yarmulkes. Isn't that just really, really weird? Please, be proud of your body and yourself, because you're special and no one can take that away from you. However, if your nipple shows up, even if it's an accident, you are a hazard to every child and every marriage in the known world.
Look, I won't pretend that there's nothing sexual about female nipples, because when I was younger, I would've gladly called a puppy a bad dog to see one in real life. But The Muppets makes a great case about how society makes way too big a deal out of nipples, by treating pig tails with the same kind of "moral outrage." Then, to keep things silly and light, the episode switches to Gonzo to remind us that a Muppet has fucked a chicken.
The Anti-Drinking Episode Of Community Only Works Because It Wasn't Meant To Be An Anti-Drinking Episode
So am I crazy or does Community -- a show about an unlikely group of friends at the fictional Greendale Community College -- teach us that community college makes you dumber and less mature? Jeff (Joel McHale) used to be a hotshot lawyer, but ever since arriving at Greendale he has lost all of his ambition and drive, which the show tries to pass off as him becoming less materialistic but which I see as him giving in to his inner man-baby. Though in terms of Benjamin-Button-ness, he's still way behind Pierce (Chevy Chase) who, incidentally, spent about 10 years at Greendale. Hell, Troy (Donald Glover) only really matures when he decides to leave community college and do something real with his life. I don't think the show meant to have this message, but as I told my manager the night I was fired from the alligator sanctuary: Look, it's out there, and yelling at me won't change that.
That wasn't the only time Community had a message it might not have intended. Just look at the episode "Mixology Certification" which, ironically, dealt with the issue of maturity. It's Troy's 21st birthday, and the group goes to a bar to celebrate Dong Lover's manhood (I might have misplaced a space somewhere there). Once there, Jeff and Gillian Jacobs' Britta criticize his drink of choice, and Alison Brie discovers that she might have been taking life too seriously. Though that's not all Jeff and Britta are doing. They also spend the entire time arguing about which of their favorite bars is better, calling one place a douche dive, and the other hipster central, only to discover they've been talking about the same fucking place. They both projected their own insecurities on the same alcohol dispensary, and it sort of makes you wonder: Aren't these people taking drinking WAY too seriously?
What the episode accidentally does is make drinking culture look douchey as shit. When Jeff and Britta order their favorite drinks and get really particular about them, you get the feeling that they're only doing it because they made alcohol part of their identities. It still gets them equally, sloppily drunk, but to them, the difference between a whiskey and vodka is apparently like the difference between a gentle kiss from your partner and rimming an angry rhino with diarrhea. They think it makes them classy but all it does is reveal their deep insecurities. Then, Yvette Nicole Brown's character Shirley closes the deal.
In the show, Shirley's a motherly Christian who, as we find out in this episode, had a serious drinking problem back in the day. She never did anything horrendous, but after all these years, she looks back on her drunken antics with nothing but shame. Although drinking made her happy in the past, all that remains now is her embarrassment and a feeling that she wasted her life. It all made a very compelling argument against taking "pride" in drinking, and as a person from a country where alcoholism is the national pastime, I have to applaud it.
Gargoyles' Message About Gun Safety Only Works Because The Gargoyles Are Basically Adult Children
Gargoyles is a story about magical creatures from the 10th century that are brought back to life in New York in the '90s, and eventually befriend a spunky policewoman. It's sort of like a more adult version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if it was voiced by like half the cast from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now then, did ANY of that make you think that this show would be a good place for a Very Special Episode about gun safety? See, that's why none of us are TV executives with massive cocaine habits (lucky SOBs) because not only did the show have an episode like that, it bizarrely worked really, really well.
It all started with the gargoyle Broadway (to explain Broadway's character really quickly, he's the kind of demon that would pause a life-threatening brawl to literally chug a pizza) becoming obsessed with a gunslinger western. Later, when he visits his cop friend, Elisa, he picks up her gun and starts playing with it until he accidentally shoots Elisa in the back. In some versions of the episode, you can even see her lying in a puddle of her own blood. It's pretty intense for a show that was apparently partly inspired by Disney's Gummi Bears.
But that's not why people watched Gargoyles. They watched it for the action, the fights, and the surprisingly well-written retellings of Arthurian lore; not for preachy lessons about how dangerous and bad guns are. But that's not what the episode did. Not at all.
Think about it. The episode would be VERY different if it was an adult human playing with a gun like that, because only a complete moron would ever do that. It just wouldn't be believable in the slightest, and reek of more strawman bullshit than a barnyard on a hot summer day. And if it was a child that ended up shooting Elisa, the message would suddenly get all hysterical about how we must keep handguns out of the hands of our kids (which are much better suited to operating mounted automatic rifles anyway). However, because Broadway is an adult who has no idea how our world works, the episode stays on message, namely that gun safety and gun education are both important. Broadway would never have shot Elisa if he had learned about firearms from somewhere besides a stupid movie, and the whole thing was partially Elisa's fault anyway for not storing her gun away safely.
The best part is probably when a distressed Broadway goes on an anti-gun quest to take down an arms trafficker, but the series never lets him disappear into his own asshole and somehow make GUNS the villain here. Despite Broadway steaming with righteous anger, it's made clear to us that HE screwed up, that HE is the responsible party, and it really drives home the message that you should be careful with things you do not understand, and not get too sucked in by how they look in movies or on TV. I just wish I found this episode before buying that lion-taming kit. On the plus side, the nurses here are incredibly nice.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
For more check out 4 Times Movies And TV Got Very Serious Issues Very Wrong and 5 Horrifying Ways Cartoons Tried to Cover Important Issues.
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