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Very Special Episode
aka: A Very Special Episode

Tonight, on a very special article of TV Tropes...

An episode, often in a sitcom, in which the lead confronts some highly emotional or forbidden issue from everyday life. Drug abuse, teenage sex, bulimia... At the end of the episode, the protagonist is Enlightened, and the guest character with the Very Special Problem is never seen or heard from again. Often there is an 800 number to call, should you (or someone you love) actually have the Very Special Problem. Another key criteria is that side-effect, complications, or failure-rates of the official government mandated Very Special Solution the episode promotes are never mentioned. If the problem involves children in some way (and it almost invariably will), then it may also be promoted as something that "No Parent Should Miss". These often come about when networks or writers are bucking for awards, or may be caused by Writer on Board.

The tone will typically be much, much more serious than other installments of the series, although with sitcoms, there may still be a comedic subplot or occasional moments where the Laugh Track is needed.

These episodes were far more common in the 1980s. They've largely fallen out of favor since then for most shows due in part to the increasing number of shows, particularly dramas, where issues such as drug/alcohol abuse, violence, sex and death are dealt with on an almost weekly basis, and then you have the Dramedy genre that regularly mixes comedy with serious issues.

There's a certain variety of shows where essentially every episode has a special message, such as Touched by an Angel, Joan of Arcadia, etc. However, it's not by any means a Dead Horse Trope yet due to Police Procedurals (i.e. Police Stop!, Police, Camera, Action!, Road Wars) and law enforcement dramas like Criminal Minds and Medium. Medical dramas will also do these, but for ethical not medical issues.

It is also a very ripe target for parody; these days, parodies are probably as common as seeing this trope played straight. May also be vulnerable to Détournement.

See also Public Service Announcement and Too Smart for Strangers, a specific kind of Very Special Episode concerned with child abduction. See Compressed Vice for when a character is saddled with an issue for just long enough to illustrate the aesop, and Long-Lost Uncle Aesop for when a new character is introduced solely for this purpose and never seen again. See Christmas Episode, Christmas Special, Prison Episode, and April Fools' Plot for other specially-themed episodes. See Author Tract for when the entire work is used as an excuse to preach about a particular real world issue.

Examples

Live-Action TV and Western Animation have their own pages.

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     Anime & Manga 
  • Himitsu No Akkochan, the original 1969 series, plays that straight with episode 32, aptly named "_____". The eponymous heroine, a school girl, meets a new deaf/mute kid, and, wishing to know more about his plight, she wishes to the spirit dwelling in her pocket mirror to make her deaf/mute as well. Upon a brief showcase of all the challenges her new altered state forces her to face, Akko-chan asks the magic mirror to be changed back... only to be mystically informed that, since she was enough impulsive to stress over the "mute" part of the ailment, and the mirror works only by vocal commands, she's going to be disabled for the rest of her life. Reaility fixes itself shortly before the final scene. Apparently, the magic mirror could have restored Akko-chan's voice and hearing as soon as she asked the first time, but it was simply proving its point, stating that Akko-chan got her Aesop all wrong: instead of feeling compassion for her new friend, she should have thought of how he's brave enough to get on with his condition without breaking down as she just did.
  • In a Very Special Episode of Ojamajo Doremi, the eponymous elementary school witches have to help Kayoko, a little girl pushed on the brink of depression by the inherent competitive Japanese school system. Feeling inadequate, mercilessly bullied, teased by her peers, ignored by the teachers and witnessing her parents always arguing for her school problems, Kayoko starts to exhibit psychosomatic reactions (aka throwing up in fear) whenever she approaches school, ultimately choosing to become an hikikomori. The witches just decide, without any use of their powers, to be Kayoko's helping hand, going so far to offer their own hats for... Kayoko's use and offering their friendship to ease her feeling of inadequacy and loneliness.
  • Shima Shima Tora No Shimajiro has 3 episodes teaching kids about potty-training. The first was the one everyone knows and loves, the second was about public restrooms, and the third had a superhero named "Pants Man" in it, who's an anamorphic kangaroo.
  • If potty-training episodes count, Pants Pankuro and Panpaka Pants are two other anime with these sorts of episodes, as well as the Hello Kitty and Cinnamoroll educational shorts that we're released in 2007 and 2008 in Japan.
  • This is pretty much half of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Underneath the standard splatter horror and the occasional storyline devoted entirely to squick, the manga explores such diverse topics as abortion, suicide, the death penalty, the economic crisis, treatment of the elderly, burial culture, and Japan's actions during WW2 that have been repressed by the public.

     Comic Books 
  • Cracked has an article called "6 Comics That Covered Serious Issues And Failed Hilariously." As is probably quite apparent from the title, the article explores the Fridge Logic of some of these attempts at Very Special Episodes.
  • The Silver Age Speedy Roy Harper (later known as Arsenal and later still as Red Arrow) became a Very Special Character for much of his career, starting with a 1971 story in which he became a heroin addict. The original story was not especially Narmful, but many of the later ones which mentioned his drug abuse were.
    • His drug abuse is still part of his character like when Speedy lectured Nightwing in a very holier-than-thou way in one comic, Nightwing sneered that he was getting advice from a heroin addict.
      • It's even more a part of his character after The Rise of Arsenal, where Roy had a Heroic BSOD following the death of the daughter. Not only did he get back on heroin, he's alienated most of his friends and family, readopted the Arsenal identity and became a Card-Carrying Villain. Considering his remaining friends and family didn't provide much support following Lian's death and the loss of his right arm, it's not that surprising.
    • Treads into awkward territory when his mentor, Green Arrow, punched him and threw him out of the house for being a filthy junkie. Though Green Arrow learned later in the storyline how wrong he was, he never apologized for his behavior. When Speedy tells him off for this, Green Arrow weeps silently... in pride for his ward becoming a man.
  • Most of the other Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics written by Dennis O'Neil may qualify as Very Special Episodes and not just the one where it is revealed that Speedy was a heroin addict. For instance, the issue that introduced John Stewart had Hal Jordan (and by extension, the audience) learning a lesson about police harassment and institutional racism.
  • The Modern Age Speedy, Mia Dearden, got her own Very Special Issue where it was discovered that she was HIV Positive.
    • This issue was written by Judd Winick, who seems to have a thing for Very Special moments involving AIDS and gay characters, given how a close friend of his who was gay died from complications relating to HIV.
  • Judd Winick also penned a very special issue with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's assistant getting beaten up for his sexual orientation. Judd was the one who introduced the character and built up the homosexuality angle prior to this with a less Anvilicious issue, where Kyle discovered the assistant had a crush on him.
    • Kyle Rayner's Green Lantern series wasn't entirely free of this before Judd Winick, with Ron Marz penning issues on alcoholism, racism, and hate crimes against lesbians.
  • There's a Very Special Issue of the Robin comic book, wherein Tim Drake talks a kid down from jumping off the roof; it fits well in the story, as Robin himself had recently lost everyone he ever knew. It even came complete with a teen suicide hotline at the end of the issue.
  • One of the most infamous of these stories was the Teen Titans 'Drug Awareness issue' mentioned in Pietŕ Plagiarism.
  • Spider-Man has been a very popular character for very special episodes, selected narmfilled issues shows our hero:
  • New Mutants issue #45 was all about a new kid named Larry who was secretly a mutant. His classmates started teasing him about it (not knowing he really was a mutant) and stuck a flyer under his door that said "X-Factor [the mutant hunting team] is coming for you!" That freaked him out so badly that he ended up committing suicide. And the whole thing ends with a We Could Have Avoided This speech from Kitty Pryde about name-calling. Fortunately, it's so well-written that it's not really that Narmy. No, indeed.
  • There was an Archie comic where a friend of his (never seen or heard of before) gets into a drunk driving accident and experiences a spiritual reawakening.
    • Sounds like the final story of Archie's Clean Slate, one of the licensed Christian religious Archie comics created by Al Hartley for Spire Comics.
  • Death talks about life was a giveaway special produced by Vertigo at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It features Death directly addressing the reader about AIDS and sex related issues, and is probably the single most Anvilicious comic not written by Jack Chick. It's also probably the best Anvilicious comic of all time, as it makes up for its anviliciousness by featuring a scene in which John Constantine holds a banana while Death rolls a condom onto it.
    • The AIDS epidemic was also a bit of a running motif in The Sandman itself, although never to the extent of having entire issues based around it.
  • Spider-Girl issue #89, all about May's friend Sandra, who was being abused by her (now ex) boyfriend. Slight subversion in that it was the culmination of a long subplot and the abused character stuck around, but otherwise a textbook example.
  • Peter David did quite a few of these in Incredible Hulk and Young Justice. In the former, he dealt with AIDS and abortion, in the latter he dealt with gun control and 9/11.
  • Heroes for Hope, published in 1985, was a special one-shot starring the X-Men and written and drawn by dozens of notable comic book and genre fiction creators (conceived as sort of a comic book version of We Are the World), in which Marvel's mutant heroes confront famine in Africa (and an ancient demon that feeds on the despair it causes). Proceeds from the book were donated to famine relief.
  • DC got it on it at about the same time, producing Heroes Against Hunger where Superman discovers his powers are useless against famine.
  • Shazam: The Power of Hope is the comic book equivalent of a Very Special Episode. Penned by Paul Dini and drawn by Alex Ross, it mostly deals with Captain Marvel being sent on an errand to find a hopeless boy and bring him hope. Captain Marvel spends his free time in a child ward of the local hospital, dealing with terminally ill kids and various other hopeless cases. Only after helping the seemingly most hopeless kid of the bunch, in a Twist Ending moment, Captain Marvel is made aware that the hopeless boy was none other than Billy Batson, his alter ego, feeling doubts about his capacity to bring hope and needing to be confronted with the tragedies of human life and innocence of other kids.
  • Around EC Comics, these kinds of stories were called "E.C. Preachies." One of the best known of these was "Judgment Day".
  • Captain America Goes To War On Drugs features Cap fighting drug dealing aliens, and then later, a team of villains that are actually powered by drugs by the aforementioned alien drug dealers.
  • Associated Student Bodies is for the most part a light-hearted Coming of Age story about a young man discovering his sexuality at collage. That said, there are two plots that are Played for Drama, the first being when Daniel is attacked by homophobic classmates. The second involves Daniel coming out to his conservative family, which causes alienation between them that isn't resolved for several issues.
  • Muties was basically a mini-series of Very Special Issues, each one telling a story about a young mutant for whom mutant powers are the least of their problems. One was a child soldier in Africa, another was a pregnant bisexual girl from Brazil, another was an autistic Japanese boy with an abusive stepfather, etc. Almost every issue ended tragically, suggesting that there were some problems that even mutant powers couldn't solve.

    Fan Fic 
  • In Mega Man: Defender of the Human Race, a secondary arc of Episode 7 involves Lynn finally dealing with her brother Castor's severe drug abuse, with some helpful advice from Mega Man. Castor is seen suffering drug withdrawals and is reluctant to recover. But, in the end, Castor breaks down in his sister's arms and finally agrees to seek treatment.
  • Harpflank and Sweets: A Very Special Episode demonstrates the effect this trope can have on characters when it's applied without buildup.
  • Hivefled; Sennir briefly breaks the fourth wall in a question-and-answer session to tell readers that death was not a reasonable price to pay for gaining a body which fit his gender, and assures them help is available.
  • Several chapters of Fallout: Equestria are devoted to The Hero Littlepip trying to kick an addiction to mind-enhancing drugs.

     Film 
  • Christopher Reeve only agreed to do another Superman film if it contained a clear anti-nuclear message. And, so Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and its ridiculously hamfisted villain Nuclear Man were born.

     Literature 
  • The Babysitters Club series had Very Special Books dealing with different topics. Most involved characters that had never been mentioned before and some ended with information about related support groups, such as Students Against Drunk Driving. Topics included drunk driving, dealing with death, anorexia, scoliosis, parental abuse, racism, and homelessness.
  • The Berenstain Bears Trouble With Strangers includes "Brother And Sister Bear's Rules For Strangers" on the last page. The rest of the book isn't heavy-handed, though, and sends the message that "most strangers aren't bad, but you should be careful just in case."
    • This article lists the "8 Most Awkward Berenstain Bears Books". Six of the eight could be classified as this trope. Namely bullying, Internet addiction, too much junk food, birds and the bees, guns, and racism.
  • Sweet Valley High ventured into this trope with several books that covered steroid abuse, anorexia, teen gambling, dating violence, that typically featured secondary characters or one-off characters who had the Very Special Problem and they were never mentioned again. However, the one book that even the most casual reader of the series will remember was #40: On The Edge. Regina Morrow, heartbroken over her breakup from Bruce Patman, goes to a party with a boy she recently met (and he is never mentioned again beyond book 41) tries cocaine, and dies almost immediately.

     Music 
  • Soul Asylum's Music Video for "Runaway Train" was interspersed with photos of missing children and ended with a phone number to call if the viewer had seen any of them. In an unfortunate twist, it was eventually revealed that some of the now-adults shown in the video didn't want to be found.
  • The music video for Sarah McLachlan's "World on Fire" claims she was given $150,000 by the record company to film it. Interspersed between footage of McLachlan barefoot singing and playing the guitar, the video mentions it was filmed for only $15 and the rest was donated to a variety of charities all around the world.
  • Megadeth's "99 Ways to Die" music video shows small children and infants carrying around guns, statistics for gun violence against youth and pictures of children that were killed, paralyzed or shot.
  • Moist's video for "Believe Me" depicted Biff Naked and her friend Violet moping around the Los Angeles River and giving each other FTW tattoos and later Violet somehow drowns herself in said nasty river. It's kind of confusing, really. Aaaanyway, the video does end with the number for the Kids Help Phone.
  • Michael Jackson's video for the huge Green Aesop that was "Earth Song" ended with the phone number for his Heal the World charity organization. On the HIStory on Film: Volume II compilation, there was also a text scroll detailing the locations the video was shot in and how "man and his technology" had ravaged them.
  • Motörhead released a song called "Don't Let Daddy Kiss Me" which touches upon incest.
  • Ozzy Osbourne has a song of his No More Tears album called "Mr. Tinkertrain", which is about pedophilia.
  • Martina McBride has a few:
    • "Independence Day" is about domestic violence.
    • "Concrete Angel" is about child abuse.
    • "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" is about breast cancer.
    • "Cheap Whiskey" is about drunk driving and alcoholism.
  • Lots of hardcore/gangsta rappers have one "I'm concerned about the world" song on their albums to make up for all the other, less thoughtful songs on them. Ice Cube is especially fond of this tactic.
  • Simple Plan has "Untitled [How Could this Happen to Me?]," a song which describes a car accident victim's last moments after a crash with a drunk driver. The music video shows loved ones' worlds literally crashing in and was produced in cooperation with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
  • Fall Out Boy recorded their video for "I'm Like a Lawyer...(Me & You)" in Africa, centering around a love story between two young teens, along with shots of the band playing in a field and a group of locals watching, laughing and dancing with the video for "Dance, Dance." The boy is kidnapped to be part of an army; at the end, text is displayed with statistics about child soldiers in Uganda and information about Invisible Children, Inc., an organization helping kids who are forced into war.
  • Boards of Canada have their song "One Final Very Important Thought", about freedom of speech. It's actually far less Narmy than it sounds

     Newspaper Comics 
  • A lot of early FoxTrot storylines had these (for example, Peter taking up chewing tobacco; Paige and Jason finding a used syringe at the beach; Paige and Nicole considering shoplifting). But after a while the strip focused almost exclusively on the Rule of Funny, although there were a couple of exceptions.
    • Also notable was the post-9/11 storyline in which Roger, who is afraid of needles, decides to donate blood. These storylines are impossible now that the strip is Sunday-only.
  • After Funky Winkerbean began employing story arcs in lieu of the former "gag a day" storylines, many of the arcs had "very special" themes. The first came in 1988, when a teenager named Lisa became pregnant during her senior year of high school, and only nerdy Les was willing to support her (Lisa also being an outcast, although not to the same extent as Les). Many other serious themes were employed, with the most notable recurring during much of the 2000s when Lisa- by now, married to Les- developing (and ultimately dying from) breast cancer.
    • Other "very special problems" various cast members have had to deal with included abuse (child and teen dating), alcoholism, war-related issues (including prisoners of war, land mines and post-traumatic stress disorder), pornography, juvenile fire setting and so forth. While lighter stories have continued in the strip, the dramatic stories have taken precedence.
  • Parodied in this Pearls Before Swine strip, where Rat's head explodes. It ends advertising "A Very Special Sunday Strip": Coping With The Death Of An Unloved One Guess what ran next week?
  • Baby Blues did the one where Wanda confronts a mother who struck her child in public.
  • For Better or for Worse did a number of strips like this. Just to name a few:
    • Lawrence admitting that he's gay.
    • Farley dying from a heart attack after saving April from drowning in a river.
    • The death of Elly's mother.
    • Jeremy Jones, the boy who had been bullying April, getting hit by a car.
    • April's pet rabbit, Mr. B, dying in her arms.
    • Elizabeth being sexually assaulted by a co-worker.
    • Grandpa Jim suffering from a stroke.
    • Michael and Deanna's apartment being destroyed by a fire.

     Professional Wrestling 
  • Although by its very nature professional wrestling does not have "very special problem" plots in the vein of most sitcoms and such, WWE has aired very different types of "Very Special Episodes," most notably after the death of a prominent current member of its roster or after a notably tragic event. Current storylines will be dropped, and wrestlers will be invited to do "out-of-character" tributes to their fallen comrade.
    • The most famous "death" examples were tribute shows aired for Owen Hart (who was killed after a stunt gone horribly wrong), Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit (aired live, before the details of his murders of his wife and son, and his suicide became definitively known). WWE also aired a show six days after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, as a salute to victims killed in the terrorist attacks.

     Puppet Shows 
  • Sesame Street's Very Special Episode dealing with the death of Mr. Harold Hooper, which was entirely justified as the man who played him had actually died. Not a shred of Narm this time, this Very Special Episode headed straight into Tear Jerker territory.
    • There was also an episode about racism.
    • They also made an episode dealing with Mr. Snuffleupagus's parents getting divorced, but the test screening showed that the kids didn't get the right messages from it (such as them becoming more worried about their parents getting divorced), so it was scrapped and never aired.
    • There is a very special book out there about Elmo's parents being deployed. It's sometimes passed out to military kids at family events.
    • There was also 2 special episodes aired after 9/11. The first one was about a grease fire at Mr. Hooper's store. Elmo gets very terrified about this, until some real firefighters come and tell him everything will be just fine. The second one was about Big Bird dealing with Gulliver, his pen pal who believes birds should not be friends with any other species.
    • There was an episode which centered around Big Bird's nest,which had been destroyed by a hurricane.
    • Another episode deals with kids who have parents that are incarcerated.
  • According to this article, Bear in the Big Blue House's "When You've Got To Go!", which taught about potty training, was a very special episode. Why? Because back in the 90's, and even still today, potty training was rarely addressed in children's shows. It even was released on home video!

     Toys 
  • Since the first wave, the stories of Hero Factory amount to this if the animated series is anything to go by and the Fire Lord arc is a drug PSA using fuel as a metaphor for drugs, and the Witch Doctor arc is about environmentalism.

     Video Games 
  • Parodied in Sam & Max Season 2: Night of the Raving Dead. The pair film a "Very Special Episode" of Midtown Cowboys in which they confront their landlord about his addiction... but the episode is really a massive product-placement ad, because who wouldn't be addicted to the great taste of Old Gutsmack brand Malt Liquor?
    • And then they replace the liquor with cigarettes containing garlic, causing a German vampire who is a big fan of the show to smoke them. You can also replace the liquor with a brand of water that you find in the castle, leading to some hilarious ad-lib moments.
  • Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, its sequel, and its American counterpart Elite Beat Agents each have a level with a more serious story than usual behind it, involving a person/family coping with the death of a loved one. These levels are set to slower, quieter songs than the other stages. In Elite Beat Agents, the song used is Chicago's "You're the Inspiration".
  • High School Story features a quest line called "Hope's Story" about cyberbullying; due to the long time waits required to complete quests, it functions much as a days-long Public Service Announcement. The cynic may also describe it as a days-long Product Placement for the Cybersmile Foundation.
  • Parodied in the intro to Cel Damage:
    Tonight, on a very special episode of Cel Damage: Will Violet ever learn of the disease that's slowly killing her? Will Sinder ever become house-trained? .....NAH! We'll just drive around way too fast and blow up everything in sight like we do every week!

     Web Comic 

     Web Original 
  • Parodied in Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series, episode 17, which features a commercial for a Very Special Episode of Zorc and Pals:
    Announcer: Next week, in a very special episode of Zorc and Pals:
    Yami-Bakura Florence: Zorc, what's wrong? Why haven't you destroyed the world?
    Zorc: Because I have a terminal disease!
    Florence: But you can't die! What about our adopted daughter? Who is going to take care of her when you're gone?
    Zorc: She also has a terminal disease!
    Announcer: Don't miss this very special award-winning episode of Zorc and Pals. Because we really need the ratings.
  • Parodied in Avatar: The Last Puppet Bender. Toph hosts a special episode speaking out against... people pronouncing your name wrong. Naruto even showed up.
  • 8-Bit Mickey interviewed a member of the Westboro Baptist Church at one of their protests, the Holocaust Museum. Why yes, they are Anti-Semitic among being Anti-War, Anti-Gay, Anti-Sith, Anti-White and Pro-Oil Spill. He kept level headed throughout the interview and at the end of the video stated that he was quite shocked at these people.
  • Discussed in an episode of LoadingReadyRun commodoreHUSTLE where they think about filming a "Very Special" episodes of warriors of darkness to explain why Paul has lost his beard.
  • Extra Credits, normally a Visual Pun-centric commentary on video games, did this with the second part of an episode on game addiction. Instead of the show's normally minimalist art, the writer, James Portnow, sat down in front of a camera and talked about his previous experiences with gaming addictions and the harm it did to his life. It even came with a moral: "Life will always welcome you back."
  • The Brows Held High review of Angels In America for World AIDS Day in part of the Red Ribbon Reviewers project was mostly a PSA about HIV and AIDS, and praise for the play and TV miniseries.
  • The Nostalgia Critic has had a few; Patch Adams pushed his button so hard by turning a male murdered friend of RL!Patch into a female love interest so they could have a Rape as Backstory subplot that he literally whipped the movie and stopped all jokes. And less anger-inducing, neither of "The Top 11 Simpsons Episodes" and "The Top 11 Batman Episodes" had not much humor, so the failure at school and Domestic Abuse talks stood out better.
  • Subverted in Atop the Fourth Wall. Linkara reveals that he was asked to do an episode dealing with bullying, particularly that relating to geeky interests, but he then states that he wasn't able to approach the subject because, while he was bullied as a child, it was because he had an unusual surname, not because he liked comic books. He then goes on to discuss a few Spider Man comics that discussed the issue, but didn't do a very good job at it. He does cover Very Special Episode comics though with "PSA Hell".
  • No Right Answer of The Escapist name-dropped this at the beginning of the episode "Living With Depression" in the wake of Justin Carmical's suicide. The episode was dead serious.


Superhero EpisodeSomething Completely DifferentVignette Episode
Vendor TrashUndead Horse TropeA Winner Is You
Unpleasable FanbaseCreativity LeashViewers Are Indexed
Subverted Suspicion AesopAn Aesop    
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Trick ArrowImageSource/Comic BooksGreen Lantern
Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate DestinyImageSource/OtherComic Books
Series FauxnaleEpisodesWham Episode

alternative title(s): A Very Special Episode
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