If directors like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch are to be believed, then we are almost certain to find the darkest shit lurking in the most innocent and mundane-seeming places.
During the ’80s and early ’90s, most long-running network sitcoms at some point decided to go for gravitas and veer into mature themes including sexual abuse, discrimination, depression, hate crimes, murder, molestation and the systemic disenfranchisement of people. The trend began in the 1970s with the rise of Norman Lear’s TV empire (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son), as his characters regularly tackled tough social issues through the format of 22-minute primetime TV.
By the ’80s and because of Lear's success, this idea of trying to address difficult, touchy issues via mainstream comedy got — more often than not — bastardized into the “very special episode” format, where writers would traverse dark territory more for the sake of sensationalism than to really take a nuanced look at an issue. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, these dark episodes were usually exploitation fare, but some programs — Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Roseanne — ventured into serious-issue terrain without undermining or trivializing whatever the issue was. (Except, of course, for the Designing Women episode where they all shame a sex worker, which hasn't aged very well.)
By the late ’90s, nihilism in three-camera sitcoms had taken over (thanks, Seinfeld), and with a few exceptions, there's been much less space for politics or social issues on mainstream scripted sitcoms ever since. So here are the most memorable — not necessarily the “best” or the most admirable — episodes where sitcoms got dark.
10. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — "Bullets Over Bel-Air" (1995)
Will's roughneck past comes back to haunt him in this very special episode when he's shot during an ATM robbery. The twist here comes when yuppy douche Carlton brings Will a pistol in the hospital because he's so pissed off that the justice system doesn't actually work for people of color. It's a not-so-accidental rehash of the whole Martin vs. Malcolm debate, where Will talks Carlton out of using violence to make things right. See also: the post-riots episode "Will Gets Committed."
9. Mr. Belvedere -— "Wesley's Friend" (1986)
So the idea is that Wesley's friend Danny has to pull out of the school play because he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. Here's Danny playing the fact that he just got AIDS as a joke. Part of me can't believe they'd make this little kid deliver an AIDS joke. But then I realize that having shitty ethics and making bad jokes is actually encouraged in many writers' rooms. Mr. Belvedere can absolutely go fuck himself.
8. Roseanne — "Crime and Punishment" (1993)
Roseanne is one of the best sitcoms of all time, and part of its success was in marrying the heavy thematics of being poor in America with consistently fearless comedy. "Crime and Punishment" follows what happens when Roseanne finds out Jackie's boyfriend Fisher has been physically abusive. It all culminates with Dan beating up Fisher and going to jail. It's a morally complex ending, and Laurie Metcalf won an Emmy for her portrayal of Jackie in this episode.
7. Diff'rent Strokes — "The Hitchhikers" (1984)
Unfortunately, this will not be Diff'rent Strokes' only appearance on this list. For whatever reason the writers on this sitcom were especially concerned about the molestation of children. This scene needs basically no context and is just chilling.
6. Too Close for Comfort — "For Every Man There's Two Women" (1985)
Too Close for Comfort is a widely forgotten sitcom whose exceedingly dull premise isn't even worth recounting in detail. Basically, "adults live together" is the setup. This very special episode is about how the guy named Monroe gets abducted and raped by two women. When he calls the cops, they tell him not to press charges because it would be too embarrassing. The male characters later encounter the women, who try to do more raping but are arrested just in time. There are countless terrible rape jokes throughout. I don't endorse watching this for any reason but utter self-contempt.
5. All in the Family - “Edith’s 50th Birthday" (1977)
Oof. This one is about how Archie and co. are preparing a surprise 50th birthday party next door, while a man posing as a cop talks his way into Edith's home and attempts to rape her. The second part of the episode concerns Edith's depression, denial and reluctance to come forward and identify the man who did this. She eventually comes to the conclusion that she can't bury this crime and needs to get her attacker off the streets.
4. Designing Women — "Killing All The Right People" (1987)
Designing Women could be super woke when the ladies wanted to be. This episode was inspired by creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's mother, who died of AIDS, and the awful things she heard and experienced while her mother was ill. In the episode, a young gay man hires the ladies' firm to design his own funeral, as he's dying of AIDS-related complications. This episode aired less than six months after President Ronald Reagan finally addressed the existence of AIDS — six years after he first learned of the terrible disease affecting Americans.
3. The Golden Girls — "72 Hours" (1990)
The Golden Girls was basically one giant very special episode about mortality and the decisions we make in life. This might sound sappy but it's true, and the writers generally were able to balance serious themes with solid humor. This episode stands out as both particularly dark but, also, touching and similar in outlook to the "Killing All The Right People" episode above. Rose spends the titular 72 hours worried that she may have contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, and the girls explore the idea that no one deserves AIDS. Pour one out for Estelle, Bea and Rue.
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3. Diff’rent Strokes — “The Bicycle Man” Parts 1 and 2 (1983)
Jesus Christ. There's a lot of child molestation and attempted molestation going on in this episode, which features WKRP's Gordon Jump as a creepy bicycle shop owner who lures Arnold and Dudley into his apartment to take photos and show them porn. To what end is all the creepiness? I'm not entirely sure. And I don't necessarily promote watching this episode unless you need more nightmare fodder.
1. Saved By the Bell — "Jessie's Song" (1990)
This is one of the most clowned-on scenes in both Bayside and sitcom history, but it's not just a punch line. Overachiever Jessie Spano gets in over her head with speed pills, predicting what would become (and still is) a nation of stimulant-addled youths, and turning the Pointer Sisters song "I'm So Excited" into something wholly frightening. But while this pop culture moment is mostly ironic shorthand for "a very special episode," it's still quite disturbing and actually trying to make a comment about the pressures the culture puts on children to excel at everything.