Family-oriented sitcoms of the 1980s and 90s periodically departed from their consistently jovial tones in order to address serious subject matter. These shows capitalized on their pervasiveness in public consciousness and asserted an important moral or social message through an episode deemed “very special.” These maudlin, compartmentalized “very special episodes” used disparate narrative and aesthetic structures in order to accentuate the urgency of a particular issue. For example, laugh tracks were removed, signs were embedded in the diegeses which allowed the spectator the ability to identify the concerning behavior, and the conclusions ultimately strived for resolutions. In doing so, the episodes attempted to normalize conversations surrounding neglected topics. Now, however, cynicism trumps sentimentality. Many television viewers disregard overly simplified representations of topical concerns. Consequently “very special episodes” have become antiquated.
Satire has become a paradigm in television entertainment; Fox’s Family Guy uses improper humor to combat and dismantle problematic social practices. Like the sitcoms of the 80s and 90s featuring didactic episodes, Family Guy also uses its popularity as an adult-orientated animated comedy to illuminate the prevalent yet understated issues of domestic abuse. One Halloween-themed episode, Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q (2011), features a supporting female character in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. In the clip, the Griffiths and Quagmire witness the progressively alarming signs of abuse and try to intervene and empower her to leave the boyfriend. Rather than shifting the tone to melodrama, however, the episode retains its shock value and methodically flippant humor for its portrayal of domestic violence.
After airing, the episode incited anger among audiences and critics due to its predictably bawdy antics in tandem with the irreverent representation of domestic violence. Family Guy’s parodying of “very special episode” encourages laughter through discomfort and even outrage, but in the process it destabilizes the once-pervasive hackneyed formula. The show argues that provocation through contentious humor still effectively reinstates television as a cultural forum and establishes a space to discuss problems and highlight the plights of others. Sans compassion and sentiment found in many sitcoms, Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q still has a worthy pedagogical objective and provides audiences the tools to identify warning signs of abusive relationships.