TV series, metaseriality and "the very special episode"

Curator's Note

*/ "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?

Good questions, Daniel. No, I don't believe that metaserial intelligence of contemporary American TV (series) is accompanied by what you described as a new "social stupidity".

In fact, since "the very special episode"has become an advertising term, it always already pointed to itself and exposed its specific serial form as it was concerned with moral or social issues "outside the text".

I think the changing form and function of the special episode has two reasons: Firstly, "the very special episode" could only become subject of parody because audiences were already familiar with the convention and tradition of this serial form. Second, there is a significant shift to more transgressive forms of serial entertainment that makes it very difficult to do a special episode with a controversial or moral agenda that is really special. Even if you take a light-hearted sitcom it's very hard to make a special or serious episode that people will definitely take seriously. The more you make the claim "let's be serious now" the more people might start to laugh. Or at least they could assume that the text is meant to be ironic or parodic, even if appears to be a serious text on the surface level.




(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.

I am not sure whether the very special series somehow replaced the very special episodes. Of course, it's more or less a general mode of reception to identify "the special". And maybe audiences and academics alike are very sceptical when the industry exposes something as very special (outside the parodic form). Instead, a lot of series fans prefer to identify what deserves to be called "special".  (Of course, it's problematic to make a generalize claim in this regard.)

Anyhow, I think it's interesting to think about the effects a series like Glee had on the musical episode.  Is it really that surprising when Glee comes up with a new form of the special episode by doing an all-silent episode and turn off the singing?
Maybe audiences like episodes of that kind not because they think they are that surprising "OMG, they are doing an ALL-SILENT EPISODE!!!), but that the industry in fact does something which fans of series and serial culture would think of as a cool thing to do. :)

As to your question concerning special episodes in German Television: I am not sure. I could not think of a single example... Maybe we have something like a musical episode in the comedy formats of the or since the 1990s.


Just a few random thoughts on the question of German TV and the special episode:

I can't think of anything like this on German TV either, but it got me thinking a bit more about comparable functions. I remember watching the Diff'rent Strokes episodes discussed here, and for me as a kid (maybe I was 7? what year was the bike-shop episode?), these were not just creepy but really embarassing to watch--less because of the topics and more because of the manner in which they were treated: the overt didacticism of the episodes was very uncomfortable to me, especially when watching with parents or grandparents (do we have to talk about this now? can we just pretend we didn't see that? etc.) Sometimes I get the same sort of feeling when I watch an episode of Lindenstrasse (yes, I watch it regularly...) and there's this excessively didactic treatment of tolerance (with regard to homosexuals, immigrants, etc), or on the dangers of the Internet (youth revealing too much about themselves on Facebook--or as they call it, Spacehorst). They so desperately want people to think about--and talk about--these issues, just like these very special episodes in 1980s American television; there's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but on a purely affective level, they recall this uncomfortable, embarrassed feeling of watching the pedophilia-awareness episode of Diff'rent strokes. The difference is that these episodes of Lindenstrasse are not marked as "very special"--the issues are sometimes stretched over several episodes--but they're not business as usual, either. There is a palpable shifting of gears from the normal soap-typical treatment of social relations and related conflicts to these "important issues."

Like I said, random thoughts.

what Shane said! I sometimes feel like large parts of German TV are still stuck on Sesame Street, but without the fun. Then, of course, other large parts of the program consist of imported US productions. But SOPRANOS et al. didn't catch on as TV programs but as DVDs. We sometimes hear that's because the topics are too outlandish or the dubbing wouldn't work but that doesn't make sense to me at all. I think it has more to do with a type of media reflexivity that is simply not established (yet?) in -- popular! -- TV formats here? The media theories & sensibilities of many US shows, so well atuned to late-20th-century media ecologies, often make no sense in a German TV environment. Most German programs strongly enact & reinforce a vision of "the social" as something that consists of "issues" and "problems" existing in a realm explicitly outside our living rooms&hardware devices, and the mass media basically act as reporters, windows, commentators. Okay, might be a widespread self-conception of US programs as well, but there has been a sizeable number of shows&practices that have complicated this particular belief (from within).        .     

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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