*/ "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.