“Very Special Episodes” were an important part of my moral development. They piped the complex world into my sheltered suburban life and then told me how to feel about what I was watching, which was very helpful. Drugs are bad. Stranger danger is real. Cults will make you hug cute girls (Boy Meets World kind of muddled their message on that one.)
Although I had never seen, held, or knew anyone who owned a gun, I took the Family Matters episode in which Laura feels threatened and responds by wanting a firearm very seriously. The episode ends with Urkel rapping about the importance of turning in one’s weapon and Freddie Prinze Jr. is tough, as his wont as the credited “Tough Guy”.
My brother and I watched this episode with our babysitter, Dale, who, as far as we were concerned, was the coolest. He wore flannel and had holes in the knees of his jeans. He let us eat pizza in front of the TV. He watched Tales from the Crypt like it was no big deal.
Dale tolerated our questions to him about guns and gangs and had he ever seen a gun (yes) and whose was it (his buddy’s dad’s) and had he played with it (of course not). Dale could tell this episode would stick with us so he did what good babysitters do: he changed the topic and cheered us up. He probably just flicked the channel over to a John Candy movie, which was a small kind thing, but meant I wouldn’t have nightmares so I was grateful.
About a year later, my mom told us that Dale hadn’t woken up one morning. He’d been rushed to the Emergency Room where his stomach was pumped and the doctors found a plethora of narcotics in his system.
Dale OD’ing completely shattered my worldview. Hadn’t he been paying attention during those episodes? Why hadn’t someone called one of the many hotlines always listed at the end? But most importantly: I still really liked Dale, which made the whole thing so confusing. He was the best babysitter. And if drugs are bad then is Dale bad? Is he an addict? Do I call a hotline?
Dale survived, but wasn’t allowed to babysit for us anymore. That was it. He didn’t die, go to jail, or even rehab.
There wasn’t any message or moral. No Urkel rapping or fourth-wall-breaking from an actor or audience cheering the show’s social conscience. The complex world was still there, except, this time, no one was telling me how to feel about it.