*/ "Don't do 'the very special episode' in which the characters have to deal with addictions, amnesia, or dream sequences." (Finer/Pearlman, Warner Bros., Starting your television writing career: the Warner Bros. Television writers)
Remember Diff'rent Strokes? It was an TV sitcom (first aired on NBC from the late 1970s to the mid-80s, as well as on ABC from 1985 to 1986) that included many so-called "very special episodes". During the 80s and 90s this term was used for advertising purposes by the TV industry to describe those episodes of a TV drama or sitcom which deal with serious and/or controversial social topics like alcoholism, rape, etc. (plus, of course, highlighting deviations from the show's usual subjects and tone). Two of Diff'rent Strokes' episodes were indeed very special and widely discussed: on the one hand the anti-drug episode "The Reporter", in which Nancy Reagan promotes her "Just Say No" campaign; on the other hand a double-episode with Gordon Jump guest-starring as a pedophiliac bicycle-shop owner who tries to molest Arnold and Dudley.
Nowadays, at a time when "controversial" content is so dominantly present on TV, it is not surprising that the industry's practice of using "the very special episode" to send a warm and warning message to its audiences has almost disappeared. Instead, the "very special episode" has increasingly become the subject of parody. Today, we think of such a practice primarily in aesthetic terms, referring to musical episodes or dream sequences, but it is obvious that even in this respect the special episode is not that special anymore. Contemporary TV series know this pretty well. In season 5 of Nip/Tuck McNamara and Troy end up as medical advisors for a TV show called “Hearts N’ Scalpels”, also dealing with plastic surgery. Checking the script for the upcoming shootings, we see the protagonist of the fictive show shouting at the producer: “What the hell is this shit? A musical episode? How gay is that? This is the kind of desperate slag you don’t do until your fifth season.” Here, a TV series displays —what Frank Kelleter and I call— its metaserial intelligence, which (in this context) means: it is "thinking" explicitly about the limitations or problems of serial variation and innovation.
Thanks for this sensitive post! If I get your argumentation right, you are implying that the metaserial intelligence of current American TV series (especially so-called "quality television") is accompanied by a kind of "social stupidity" (for the lack of a better word) because special episodes are now more concerned with themselves than with wider social issues? Or is it that just the function of the special episode has merely changed and that social issues are addressed more extensively in "regular" episodes?
Intelligence Is a Warm Gun
(continuing Daniel's post) ... or is it that, rather than "very special episodes" we tend to have "very special series" now? And, a propos Daniel's "parody" as potential "social stupidity": When television is thinking about itself--and when it is doing so intelligently--isn't it automatically concerned with a social issue? And wouldn't that imply a more nuanced, more realistic understanding of social realities&their creation than one which sees&uses TV as neutral purveyor and forum of "warm and warning" messages? Then again: is the content-based "just say no"-model really the standard for "special episodes" in the 80s? I guess what I'm saying is that I wonder if increasing self-reflexivity has not heightened the social intelligence of American television (at least in some sections of the program), because more and more shows now seem to comprehend that their medium is an active player in the making of the social, not just a loudspeaker.for "issues" which are located in some "wider" realm outside. (And it is with some regret that I notice little of that understanding on German television with its treacherously non-partisan, seemingly balanced after-the-news talk shows which are doing at least as much harm as the more belligerent US model of punditry. And fictional forms: do German TV series even have a tradition of very special episodes as sites for medial self-reflection? A real question, I don't know. Well, TATORT perhaps ... but hey, if that's not an issue-format, I don't know.
New Forms of Specialness
A few thoughts building off of your interesting post. One challenge to the "special episode" in today's more serialized environment involves the issue of character memory that I brought up in yesterday's post. Today, we'd expect that the boys would remember their attempted molestation beyond this two-parter (along with us), which complicates the ability to tell serious stories in a light-hearted sitcom. So either you have to forgo serialization (which makes a show inherently less serious), or deal with serious issues throughout their long arcs.
I do think that specialness still lives in the highly-serialized complex show of today, but it's often marked less by thematic seriousness than changing formal parameters. For instance, in Six Feet Under's most harrowing episode, "That's My Dog," the normal structure of alternating between 3-4 storylines throughout the cast gets sidelined midway as David is abducted & tortured, with no cutaways to other characters to relieve our tension. Or Breaking Bad's "The Fly," where all the action takes place in one room, creating a scenario of deep character reveals through conversation. Fans mark these episodes as "special" (and both are highly divisive among fan tastes), but not through the standard industrial hype or foregrounding social issues. But at the same time, the ways they jettison their storytelling norms are often non-reflexive (unlike the musical episode), as they cannot call attention to themselves breaking the rules or it undercuts their dramatic effects. So how would this fit with ideas of metaserial intelligence?
Thank you very much, Jason. I agree. It is important to stress that there are special episodes which do not expose their "metaserial intelligence". Nevertheless, a TV show has no definite control about positioning itself as operating only in a non-reflexive mode. There is always the possibility for audiences to switch from the level of immediacy to the level of hypermediacy (or to the operational aesthetics). And I would also agree that the examples of episodes you mention definitely do not operate in an exposed reflexive mode. Anyhow, a TV series always operates with some kind of metaserial intelligence, even it is not exposed as such, and even if that what is special about an episode has a clearly narrative and diegetic function.
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