BySam Plank, writer at
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Sam Plank

If you grew up watching TGIF in the '90s, chances are you remember some episodes better than others, and they actually taught you a lesson. Those "very special episodes" were significant. You really never expected anything more than jokes, so when they took on a serious tone, you remembered it for a long, long time.

Here are 11 episodes from '80s and '90s shows (and one more recent series) that would occasionally turn the laugh track off and take a serious tug at the ol' heartstrings.

1. Full House

  • Episode: “Silence is Not Golden” (1993)
  • Social Issue: Child abuse

We heard “You got it, dude,” “Cut it out” and “How rude!” every Friday night during the epic TGIF run of Full House, which mostly stuck to issues like kids getting their ears pierced when their parents told them not to. But the show dove a little deeper from time to time. The subject of child abuse came up in Season 6:

In the episode, Stephanie gets paired with a particularly annoying classmate, Charles, at school. When he goes over to the Tanner household to work on their project, he overhears that Stephanie could be in trouble, and mistakenly thinks her dad abuses her like his does him. He admits this to Stephanie, but makes her promise not to tell anyone. When Charles doesn't show up to school for awhile because he “fell down the stairs,” Stephanie spills the beans and Charles ends up getting the help that he needs.

2. Growing Pains

  • Episode: “Thank God It's Friday” (1987)
  • Social Issue: Teen drug use

The subject of the episode was drugs and the type of peer pressure that so many of us have faced in our lives. Here is Mike coming face to face with that pressure:

His reaction is to be expected: getting the hell out of the party, leaving Eddie and Boner behind. They likewise end up leaving before they give in to the pressure, and the end of the episode is full of the feel-good vibes that the show typically ended with.

3. Growing Pains

  • Episode: “Second Chance” (1989)
  • Social Issue: Drinking and driving

Matthew Perry joined the show in Season 4, and in retrospect it was almost like watching "Chandler Bing: The College Years" — but his humorous, likeable character Sandy was in a drunken driving accident in Episode 20. Here he is talking to a smitten Carol Seaver after the accident:

It looked like Sandy had a second chance, but he died unexpectedly of internal bleeding, which drove home a strong message about staying sober behind the wheel.

4. Roseanne

  • Episode: “White Men Can't Kiss” (1994)
  • Social Issue: Racism

In this episode DJ is in a school play, but quits because he doesn't want to kiss another student, a black girl. Dan and Roseanne's eyes are opened to racist feelings that they never knew they had, or just ignored.

Fast forward to the 18:20 mark to see Roseanne getting called out for her racism towards a black man trying to get into her diner, who turns out to be the girl's father:

5. Roseanne

  • Episode: “Crime and Punishment” (1993)
  • Social Issue: Domestic violence

When Darlene tells her mom that she saw bruises all over Aunt Jackie's back, Roseanne confronts Jackie about it. Despite being a cop, Jackie makes up all kinds of excuses, but it finally comes out that her boyfriend, Fisher, beat her.

Dan's violent reaction to his sister-in-law's abuser — and this scene of him in jail in the next episode, "War and Peace" — is exactly what we expected out of Papa Conner. Roseanne was no stranger to pushing the envelope.

6. Married With Children

  • Episode: “Get the Dodge Out of Hell” (1995)
  • Episode Topic: Al loves his family after all

There is no important lesson to be learned here (it's Married with Children, after all), but this is a surprisingly heartfelt episode. We get to see Al Bundy at his mushiest when the family car disappears. Peggy figured Al was just worried about his beloved copy of Big 'Uns in the trunk — but she was only half right, because as we learned in the twist ending, he actually kept a family photo hidden inside of it.

'Married With Children' [Credit: Fox]
'Married With Children' [Credit: Fox]

Spoiler alert: they didn't win the Emmy, but it was a touching little episode.

7. Family Guy

  • Episode: “Life of Brian” (2013)
  • Episode Topic: Losing a pet

You definitely wouldn't expect to get all misty-eyed about anything on Family Guy, but when Seth MacFarlane decided to kill Brian off, viewers were heartbroken — 128,492 of them even signed a petition to bring Brian back. Here's the saddest cartoon moment ever:

Of course, MacFarlane brought Brian back a month later, and explained why in a thoughtful, touching, and very sincere tweet:

8. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air

  • Episode: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” (1994)
  • Social Issue: Parental neglect

No matter how many times you watch this episode, somehow your feelings get flipped turned upside down. Undoubtedly one of the most touching moments of the series, Will's dad comes back, but — like he had done throughout Will's life — leaves again, with Uncle Phil stepping in as Will's true father figure.

Anyone who's had to deal with a deadbeat parent could relate to what Will was going through. “How come he don't want me, man?” was the line that opens the tear floodgates every single time.

9. Home Improvement

  • Episode: “The Longest Day” (1996)
  • Issue tackled: Childhood cancer

In a show full of grunts and faceless neighbors, Home Improvement could occasionally tug at the heartstrings. Jonathon Taylor Thomas was able to show off his acting chops more than once, this time letting us know how scared a kid might be after he gets the news that he might have cancer.

He ends up only having hypothyroidism, but the episode keeps going for the waterworks, ending with a montage of Randy growing up and Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World."

10. The Simpsons

  • Episode: “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” (1991)
  • Episode Topic: Homer thinks he is going to die

In this episode, Homer discovers that sushi is awesome. But one ill-prepared poisonous blowfish later, and he's counting down the final 24 hours of his life. Back in 1991, The Simpsons was becoming a huge part of people's TV-viewing lives, so seeing the family going through their (apparent) last day with Homer was one of the darkest moments in the show's history.

Of course, Homer was OK in the end, but the episode presented a morbid what-if scenario: what if you went to the doctor and found out you only had 24 hours to live, but being a doctor's office, you'd already lost two hours in the $%*&ing waiting room?

11. Saved By The Bell

  • Episode: “The Fight” (1992)
  • Episode Topic: Zack and Slater fight, and it's horrific

The caffeine pills episode of Saved By the Bell is its most famous "very special" installment, but "The Fight" hit me harder as a kid. My 13-year-young self had been watching the show for a third of my life, and the friends felt like my friends. But in the first episode of Season 4, Zack and Slater start to argue. You think it's going to end all hunky-dory, until wham! Zack pushes Slater, Slater pushes Zack, and Zack actually punches Slater. In the face. With his fist.

Never had anything happened like that on the show, and I don't think it ever went there again. But it changed how I looked at Zack and Slater forever — it was like watching my own best friends turn against each other, and it felt traumatic. I might not have been alone, because the fourth season was the show's last. Until the spinoffs, but that's another list for another day.

Is there a "very special episode" that stands out in your mind? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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