There are times when even the most family-friendly television programs tackles serious issues. Television isn’t there just to entertain but to teach as well, making audiences aware of certain dangers in the world. A lot of the popular comedies that we watched growing up would occasionally broadcast stories pertaining to certain subjects that may not be suitable for young viewers but showed the reality of their results. Each one of the following shows I’m going to profile had an episode dealing with a sensitive subject and I’m going to tackle a different one for every series to show how much ground television has covered to raise awareness in society’s problems. Now, let’s look at some good ‘ol American programming!
Boy Meets World (“Dangerous Secret”. Season 4, Episode 8. Original Airdate: November 8th, 1996)
If you’ve followed my past works here on CXF, you’ll know that Boy Meets World is my favorite sitcom of all time. It wasn’t always an upbeat show thought as there were a few times when it got surprisingly dark. A notable episode was Cult Fiction (which I wrote about here) where Shawn falls under the spell of a wayward group headed by a manipulative father figure. I was watching another episode recently which focused on child abuse.
Cory unexpectedly shows up at Shawn’s house one night to find a fellow classmate, Claire, sleeping over. Shawn eventually tells him that the relationship isn’t sexual and that Claire’s been sleeping at his house because her father beats her. He then dumps the responsibility of housing her on a reluctant Cory whose parents eventually find out. By the episode’s end, we find out that Claire is separated from her abusive father and on her way to a better life.
The episode was followed by a voice-over of Rider Strong (Shawn) who provides a number to call for anyone being abused or knows of any physical beatings suffered by anyone from their guardians. Heavy stuff to think about when you’re only 10 and wondering why any parent would harm their child like that. I was hit as a child sure, but nothing more than a smack upside the head for acting stupid. Claire was literally bruised and battered. As sad as it sounds, some kids just catch a tough break.
Family Matters (“Fight the Good Fight”. Season 2, Episode 20. Original Airdate: March 1st, 1991)
Family Matters is another all-time favorite of mine. To this day, I still think Carl Winslow is the coolest TV Dad ever. Throughout the years watching the show, one episode always stuck with a lot of people. A shockingly serious episode that I’m surprised got past television censors aired one fateful night in 1991.
After learning more about black history, Laura pushes for a black history class at her school but when some racist classmates make off-color remarks, it ignites a segregation between race on the learning premises.
This was the episode that contained the infamous moment where Laura closes her locker to reveal the word “NIGGER” spraypainted on it. I couldn’t believe that word was used in a family-friendly show and was even seen in syndication years later. When I was young, I didn’t know what to think of this one at first since I grew up in the most ethnically diverse city in the world and attended fairly racially diverse schools so this was never a problem. It was hard to grasp the reality at the time that blatant racism can happen somewhere. While we’ve definitely made progress, the issue is still at large today.
Smart Guy (“Strangers on the Net”. Season 2, Episode 19. March 4th, 1998)
WB’s Smart Guy tackled a subject quite disturbing: Pedophelia.
T.J. (Tahj Mowry) and his friend befriend an older man online who programs video games – any kid’s favorite. Keeping this information from his father, the two end up in the man’s home… alone. They’re subsequently asked to strip naked before T.J. gets a bad feeling and bolts. Noticeably uncomfortable about what happened, he’s finally able to confide in his family. The man is caught and persecuted and T.J. attempts to put the frightening incident behind him while learning a lesson in judgement.
This episode aired in 1998 when the technilogy of connecting online was still sort of foreign to a lot of people. Nowadays, it’s the norm to connect with anybody whether professionally, romantically, or platonically online though there are still some creepers out there in the world of cyberspace.
Saved by the Bell (“No Hope with Dope”. Season 3, Episode 21. Original Airdate: November 30th, 1991)
You probably think I’m going to talk about the infamous “I’M SO EXCITED! I’M SO SCARED!” episode from the popular series, Saved by the Bell. Well, I’m sure we’ve all seen or heard about Jessie Spano’s caffeine pill addiction… and we’re sick of it.
The episode I’ll discuss talk though is actually one of my favorite in the series. It was the other episode dealing with drug use.
Popular Hollywood movie star, Johnny Dakota, comes to Bayside to scout some locations for an anti-drug PSA he’s shooting. After the students sell the school hard for Johnny, he’s still unsure. That is, until he meets Kelly. Johnny then invites the gang to his house for a ritzy party and are shocked to learn that Johnny’s actually a marijuana user himself. Feeling like hypocrites, the gang back out of the spot last minute.
The day is saved when the commercial is shot with then-NBC (the network that aired SBTB) president, Brandon Tartikoff, in Dakota’s place.
I don’t smoke pot nor do I condone its use but it’s amazing how many different shows promote it being the worst possible thing you can put into your body. You heard the nice show, don’t do drugs, kids!
Full House (“Just Say No Way”. Season 3, Episode 21. Original Airdate: March 30th, 1990 & “Under The Influence”. Season 8, Episode 10. Original Airdate: December 6th, 1994).
Full House was probably THE most wholesome sitcom in the late 80s/early 90s. It introduced the world to the Olsen twins, John Stamos, and a clean cut image for Bob Saget before he made a career out of being a filthy comedian. Full House had actually not one, but two episode dealing with underage drinking.
In Season 3, D.J. gets ready for her very first school dance but later finds her crush drinking beers with his friends in the halls. After she grabs one of the cans and mocks them for their “cool” behavior, Uncle Jesse spots her and the boys run away. While none of the adults buy her story, Stephanie believes her and the truth eventually comes out.
In the final season of the show, D.J.’s best friend Kimmie gets drunk at a party which upsets her greatly. She then takes the keys to Kimmie’s car so she wouldn’t drive home. After fighting the next morning, D.J. recalls her mother being killed by a drunk driver in a truly gut wrenching moment. We also see Kimmie act like a normal human being as opposed to the flashy goofball she usually is in the series for the first time.
The first episode didn’t do anything for me but it was the latter that taught me at an early age to not drink and drive.
Home Improvement (“The Longest Day”. Season 5, Episode 22. Original Airdate: April 2nd, 1996)The industrial city of Detroit was the backdrop of 90s sitcom staple, Home Improvement. Tim “The Toolman” Taylor (Tim Allen) supported his wife and three sons as the host of Tool Time while showcasing his zany comedic personality. Sometimes though, the show would throw a curveball and analyze a touching topic such as cancer.
Middle child Randy is discovered to have a lump on his thyroid gland. While the doctors assure his family that it’s probably benign, he says there’s also a chance the the lump might be cancerous which shakes Randy up upon finding out.
I remember watching this when it aired and thought Randy’s “I don’t want to die” line was pretty heartbreaking for such a good natured program. In the end, the lump winds up being nothing and a nice little montage of Randy’s life throughout the series is shown.
The commercials on television hyping up the premiere of this episode made it seem like one of the saddest in history. Yeah, there are some genuinely sad moments but the episode as a whole is fairly tame.
Diff’rent Strokes (“Bulimia”. Season 8, Episode 12. Original Airdate: January 17th, 1986)
Let’s go back in time a little bit. The great American sitcom starring the late Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges was the first show I ever saw with any sort of special episode. On this fateful episode: eating disorders.
When Kimberly visits home after leaving to live with her boyfriend, food starts disappearing and Arnold sets out to find out who the big eater is. We find out it’s actually Kimberly who has developed bulimia. Watching Dana Plato down an entire birthday cake in front of a stunned Arnold and Sam grossed me out as a child.
Of course, when I was young, I still was a little unsure what bulimia was and how anyone could develop it. Very eye-opening material to witness as a child. I knew people later in my life who battled the disease (and thankfully won) so I know how scary something like this can be.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (“Bullets Over Bel-Air”. Season 5, Episode 15. Original Airdate: February 6th, 1995)
The breakout series with Will Smith produced a lot of special episodes dealing with drugs, racism, and sex. One also dealt with gun control.
After Will and Carlton are held up at an ATM, the gunman fires a shot that lands Will in the hospital. A scared Carlton then purchases a gun for protection and vows revenge for his cousin until Will talks him out of it. Smith gives one of his best performances in the entire series; delivering an emotional speech from his hospital bed. This was one of the earliest moments that proved to audiences that Smith isn’t just good at comedy but damn good at drama as well.
I remember being horrified that someone can just shoot another person like that and how an innocent guy like Will may lose his life. This certainly taught me to be more aware of my surroundings and just give up whatever a criminal wants if I’m held at gunpoint.
City Guys (“Funny Business”. Season 3, Episode 15. Original Airdate: November 6th, 1999)
City Guys was more or less the urban Saved by the Bell. Six teenagers from different backgrounds in New York City conquer high school and all of its hurdles. The show surprisingly dealt with a number of sensitive subjects, including sexual harassment. But not in the way you think.
The harassment portrayed in shows is usually towards a female but in this case, it’s the male that gets the unwanted attention.
Chris goes to work for an architecture firm for career week but his female boss keeps making sexual advances towards him that make him uncomfortable. If you were a high school student, would you reject a smoking hot adult? Suspect.
I certainly had fun writing this, did you have fun reading it? Did I miss any Very Important Episodes? Well, leave them in the comments!
Photo credit: www.getyimages.in for Diff’rent Strokes photo.