“Very Special” episodes of anything, in a word, suck.
I’m not saying that the acting isn’t good. I’m saying that when a TV show decides to announce that an episode will be “Very Special”, what that means is that it will be preachy and that the characters will be pushed to act out of character for the sake of the narrative’s message.
There are, thankfully, exceptions. In fact, there are shows that have managed to pull this off without having to brand the show “Very Special”.
Nothing I’m about to mention is very recent, but I think they represent the best of the concept, mostly because they didn’t draw attention to the message and just let it speak for itself.
Example One: “Troq”
Show: Teen Titans
A very powerful, very skilled alien hero arrives on Earth and is immediately adored by all of the Titans. They agree to help him take out this week’s baddy, an alien race that’s waging war on pretty much everything. The Titans pile on his spaceship and head out.
One problem: He’s got a beef with Starfire’s whole race, considering them useless. He uses the term “troq” when referring to her, which is an insult and a slur. The rest of the team doesn’t pick up on it at first, but eventually they do. Despite their offense and Starfire saving the day, the space-racist leaves with his bigotry intact.
The thing I love about this episode was that the bigot didn’t see the error his ways, actually. It made the problem of intolerance and racism more real, showing it to be a deep seated cancer rather than an easily cured rash. It also, as sci-fi does, made the issue very personal by making it alien.
Starfire: “Yes. You know what it is like to be judged simply by the way you look?”
Cyborg: “Of course I do. I’m part robot.”
Example Two: “Hooked Up”
Show: Batman Beyond
Kids are going comatose and Batman’s successor, Terry McGinnis, investigates. His friend and confidant Max Gibson, decides she’ll look into it as well, against Terry’s advice. What she finds is that there’s a criminal getting teenagers hooked on full virtual reality immersion and then getting them to steal for him to get the next hookup. Batman saves the day, but not before Max has to figure out which is more important to her, the fantasy world that takes her away from the pains of her real life or her friendship with the guy trying to do the right thing.
There’s been plenty of cartoons that have tried to address addiction with greater and lesser ham handed methods, but by making the addiction to something other than a drug, to something that is a natural outgrowth of things that are already relatable to teens, namely video games, it addresses the ease with which one can become addicted, even if you know the risks. One could argue doing this to the female sidekick is a little “girl in the refrigerator” for their tastes, but as she’s an obviously sharp, capable figure, it hammers home that this could be anyone.
Terry McGinnis: I can’t believe I got her involved in this.
Bruce Wayne: Now you sound like Batman.
Terry McGinnis: What?
Bruce Wayne: I’ve been right where you are, more times than I care to count. And like you said, there is no way you could have stopped her.
Example Three: “Call of the Cutie”
Show: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
“My god,” you’re thinking as we come to the most recent episode in the list. “Has this whole article been a veiled pitch for Brony-ism?”
Not so much, but this particular half hour (including commercials) is what got me thinking about the whole “very special episode” thing in the first place.
The plot revolves around a young filly named Apple Blossom who has not yet gotten her “cutie mark”, the little insignia that appears on the rear flanks of a pony once he or she has found her purpose. At school, Apple Blossom get’s called “blankflanks” and other derogatory names by the others who have gotten their cutie marks. As a party is imminent where one particularly snooty pony is celebrating her coming of age, Apple Blossom is freaking out trying to find her purpose. This comes to a conclusion when she finds two other young fillies who don’t yet have their cutie marks either. The trio accept that there’s no rush, that’s they are all fine just as they are and that they’ll find their purpose together.
My Little Pony: FiM could easily be a toss away show, serving it’s purpose of being a very long commercial for toys, but it was storylines like this that got me watching the show and that demonstrate that in order to send an insightful message, you don’t have to write down to your audience or hit them over the head with, just be true to your characters and let them do the talking.
Scootaloo: I said, you got a problem with blank flanks?
Silver Spoon: The problem is, I mean, she’s like, totally not special.
Sweetie Belle: No, it means she’s full of potential.
Scootaloo: It means she could be great at anything. The possibilities are, like, endless.
Take care, patient readers. Peace.