For the most part, television in general-including sitcoms-avoided controversy, but by the 1970s that had changed with shows like All in the Family and MASH. By the 1980s Very Special Episodes were becoming more common on TV than the regular ones. These shows would most often deal with issues like teenage drinking, drugs, and, occasionally, death (usually of a character that nobody had ever heard of.) As many of these shows used cute kids, they were most often the ones shown getting into trouble, although sometimes the adults had their fair share.
One of the earliest examples of these was All in the Family’s “Edith’s 50th Birthday” in which the perpetually naive Edith Bunker is assaulted:
The normally lighthearted Happy Days also had some, the most well known of which was probably “Richie Almost Dies”:
Diff’rent Strokes, the NBC sitcom that ran from 1979 to 1986, practically defined this trope, perhaps no more so than with the creepy “The Bicycle Man” episode which guest starred…Gordon Jump, of WKRP in Cincinnati fame. In this one, Arnold and his friend Dudley are invited over to Mr. Carlson’s, er, Horton’s, apartment for food, drinks, and X-rated cartoons. Needless to say, it takes a two-part episode for the adults to get clued into the fact that something is very wrong with this guy.
The series also had a later two-part episode involving the kidnapping of adopted kid brother Sam, by a mentally disturbed father who had lost his son in an accident. While both parents are in serious denial, Sam is able to bond with eldest son Bobby, who clearly realizes that something’s wrong here. Of course, this being TV, Sam gets saved in the end, although we don’t find out what happened to his troubled parents (or their slightly less troubled son.)
Family Ties had a few of these, the most well known one perhaps being “Say Uncle,” which featured Tom Hanks, then known primarily as a comic actor, in the role as Uncle Ned, who on the surface seems to be a successful, happy go lucky kind of guy-but who also has a serious drinking problem. Towards the end of the series there was “A, My name is Alex,” where Alex goes to therapy to deal with the death of a friend which eventually turns into a one-man show for Michael J. Fox.
By the 90’s the “Special Episode” was beginning to fade from TV as controversial subjects became more acceptable to deal with. But we can still look back with bewilderment at the Very Special Episode’s golden age.