Some TV shows are custom-made for Very Special Episodes. With all those girls on the cusp of adulthood at the Eastland Academy on The Facts of Life, it was inevitable that at least one of them would lose their virginity before graduation, leading to a poignant, thought-provoking episode. But plenty of other hot-button issues were used as plot devices. From the creepy bicycle man on Diff'rent Strokes to Alex Keaton's alcoholic uncle, here are some of TV's most memorable teachable moments.
1. Diff’rent Strokes: “The Bicycle Man”
This episode was considered disturbing enough for Conrad Bain to present a parental warning at the beginning. Even the narrator who catches us up on the action from Part One of this two-parter sounds kinda creepy, setting the appropriately dark tone for Gordon Jump (loveable, bumbling “Big Guy” Mr. Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati) to portray a bicycle store-owning pedophile.
Mr. Horton lures young boys to his store with free accessories for their rides as well as free pizza, ice cream and … wine. (Cue the ominous music.) Arnold and his friend Dudley fall prey to his tactics and soon they’re shirtless, playing Tarzan, and posing for Polaroids. No amount of “whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout” could lighten up the slimy feel of this episode, but at least Mr. Drummond called the cops on the creep.
2. All in the Family: “Edith’s 50th Birthday”
All in the Family certainly never shied away from controversial issues, but did we really need to see sweet, naïve Edith Bunker get sexually assaulted in her living room?
The writers had actually already covered this topic in Season 3, when Gloria was attacked while walking home from work. But that assault wasn’t shown, just talked about, which was disturbing enough. In this episode Edith is home alone one afternoon while Archie is next door at Mike and Gloria’s house preparing for Edith’s surprise birthday party. Edith answers the door and allows the man who identifies himself as a detective to enter. Unfortunately, the rapist he is searching the neighborhood for (whom he describes in detail as he advances on Edith) is actually himself. After a lengthy and excruciating exchange of banter during which Edith tries her best to discourage him they both smell smoke and run to the kitchen. The cake she had in the oven was burning. A seemingly hysterical Edith removes it from the stove and then shoves it square in her attacker’s face, which prompted deafening cheers from the studio audience.
Some 20 years after this episode aired, David Dukes, the respected Broadway actor who’d played the attacker, was regularly recognized (and demonized) on the street as “the man who tried to rape Edith Bunker!”
3. Family Ties: “Give Uncle Arthur a Kiss”
Arthur was an uncle by virtue of friendship rather than kin; he worked with Steven at the TV station and was a Keaton family friend. One day when 15-year-old Mallory is helping out at WKS, Arthur corners her while she’s alone and comments on how grown-up she’s becoming (always a skeevy red flag when it comes to “funny” uncles). He embraces her but the hug is a little too tight for Mallory’s liking, and when he pats her on the backside she is definitely uncomfortable, but unsure if Good Ol’ Uncle Arthur actually did anything wrong … or if she just misinterpreted his camaraderie?
There’s no confusion, though, the next day when—after apologizing for frightening her that way—he pulls her close for an open-mouthed kiss. Even more unsettling is that once Mallory clues her parents in on what’s going on, all they do is give Arthur a severe talking-to, threatening to involve the police only if he ever does something like that again.
4. Punky Brewster: “Cherie Lifesaver”
Henry, Punky’s guardian, is forced to discard his WWII-era refrigerator when it finally conks out for good. He sets it out in the backyard, but a sudden light snowfall prompts him to delay removing the door until later. The snow doesn’t deter Punky and her pals from playing hide-and-seek, and Cherie chooses the ancient fridge as her hiding spot. When Henry finds her later, of course she is unconscious and not breathing. Luckily that very day Punky’s class had been taught CPR at school, so Cherie is revived in the nick of time.
(Of course, by law in the U.S. all refrigerators sold after October 30, 1958 have been required to be open-able from the inside to prevent such a tragedy, but thanks to parsimonious consumers like Henry, kids were still occasionally found suffocated inside those old built-to-last models until the mid-1980s.)
5. Too Close for Comfort: “For Every Man There’s Two Women”
This was one of those episodes that was so lowbrow, some folks think they’d only imagined it. The Rush’s wacky tenant Monroe (played by Jm J. Bullock, as he was known then) was kidnapped en route to work by two women and then forced to have sex with them. But, because Monroe was a male and his attackers female (and of the bulky persuasion), the writers somehow thought it was OK to squeeze some cheap laughs out of a rape.
6. Little House on the Prairie: “Sylvia”
Frustrated folks that long for the simpler life of Yesteryear should stop and consider the realities of pioneer life … Take Walnut Grove, for example. If kids weren’t going blind, they were being orphaned or dying in fires. And then there was the case of the town’s sinister blacksmith, who spent his days off stalking young girls while wearing a mime mask.
Fifteen-year-old Sylvia Webb is being raised by a puritanical father who believes she’s inherently evil just because she hit puberty earlier than her classmates. He forces her to bind her burgeoning bosom and is outraged to find the neighborhood boys peeping at her while she dresses. Poor Sylvia eventually is attacked by the Stalker Blacksmith and ends up “with child.” Albert Ingalls, who professes to love her though he’s only 14 himself and his voice hasn’t finished changing, wants to marry her. Before the star-crossed teens can elope, though, Sylvia suffers a fatal fall from a hayloft.
7. Diff’rent Strokes: “Sam’s Missing”
As if Sam McKinney wasn’t emotionally scarred enough by having his mom change from Dixie Carter to Mary Ann Mobley without explanation, he was also kidnapped in Season Eight by a despondent father whose own son has died in an off-screen accident of some sort. The kidnapper threatens to kill Mr. Drummond and his new wife if Sam doesn’t stop acting traumatized and behave like his loving new son. Meanwhile, Kidnapper has convinced his gullible grieving wife that he’d found homeless Sam living on the street in a cardboard box. After a week with his “new” family, Sam is finally found and rescued, and apparently none the worse for his adventure.
8. Family Affair: “Christmas Came a Little Early”
Usually on Family Affair, Uncle Bill’s endlessly deep pockets solved any crisis, but even after calling in a top specialist of some sort, he was unable to offer any hope to a pre-Brady Bunch Eve Plumb. Eve played a terminally ill friend of Buffy’s, but only the adults knew of her dire prognosis. Realizing that Eve might not make it ‘til December, Uncle Bill decided that she should still have a Christmas, even if it was several weeks early. Using the excuse that he would be in Venezuela come December 25th, he bought a tree and gifts and dressed Mr. French up as Santa Claus and held the party in Eve’s family’s apartment. Afterward he confided to Mr. French that the children didn’t suspect that anything was amiss, but as he headed off for bed for the evening he hears heart-wrenching sobs coming from Buffy’s bedroom. He poked his head inside the door to see her clutching Mrs. Beasley and crying.
9. Family Ties: “Say Uncle”
When Elise’s brother Ned (played by Tom Hanks) pays a visit, his newly developed drinking problem is played for laughs at first—Alex encounters Ned late at night in the kitchen draining the last of the liquor and then watches him guzzle vanilla extract and a bottle of maraschino cherries. When he shows up sozzled for a job interview it’s still pretty funny (for the audience, at least). But when Ned turns into a mean drunk and smacks Alex in the face, things take a serious turn. Hanks turns in a heartbreaking performance when he phones Alcoholics Anonymous and slowly goes from clowning around to admitting his problem.
10. Mr. Belvedere: “The Counselor”
In an unusual twist, it wasn’t some tertiary character who was the subject of the Very Specialness in this episode, but series regular Wesley T. Owens. Wes goes off to a summer day camp under protest. When he fakes illness to avoid a nature hike, he is left in the care of Counselor Perry. Perry takes Wes scuba diving and then gets a little too touchy-feely when helping to dry him off. To encourage the boy to keep their “little secret” Perry gives Wesley an expensive pair of binoculars as a gift, but even so Wes is uneasy about being around the counselor…
11. Leave It to Beaver: “Beaver and Andy”
The normally light-hearted show about childhood innocence took a somber turn when Ward hired Andy, a recovering alcoholic, to paint the outside of the Cleaver house. In order to protect young Beaver from the harsh realities of Life, they only refer vaguely to Andy’s “problem.” So when Beav is home alone one sultry afternoon while Andy requests a drink (preferably something stronger than lemonade), the clueless youngster offers a bottle of the stuff that Uncle Billy sends them every Christmas. Andy relapses, and Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver are shocked to discover that Theodore was the enabler. Beaver then wonders aloud how he was supposed to know that what he did was wrong, since his folks never explained what Andy’s “trouble” was. You can watch the episode here.
12. And of course, this:
Were there any TV episodes that traumatized you as a child? Or that have stuck in your mind as being disturbing all these years later? It can be therapeutic to share, you know.