Touchy TV Topics: When Sitcoms Taught A Lesson

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
If there's one major difference I've noticed between modern comedy sitcoms and their ancestors of yesteryear (besides the fact that so many of today's shows simply don't strike me as funny) it's that half hour sitcoms of the 70s and 80s often dealt with controversial and/or uncomfortable topics, such as abortion, anorexia, drug use, and sexual harassment. I was reminded of this after Amanda over at Made For TV Mayhem posted about The Facts of Life and mentioned a notable episode that featured a teenage prostitute. Now, could you imagine this sort of storyline showing up on Modern Family, In the Middle, or Two and A Half Men? If it did on the latter, the producers would take advantage of Charlie Harper's promiscuous ways and treat it as a bad joke instead of the serious topic it should be.

Maybe we've just become really desensitized to certain morals, or maybe today's TV moguls are afraid of a backlash reminiscent of the one CBS experienced when it gave Maude an abortion in 1972, but during these messed up times, I feel television as a medium is missing out on an opportunity to teach a life lesson or at least make viewers work their brains again. In fact, the episodes of my favorite sitcoms of my preteen years that dealt with touchy subjects are the ones I still remember the most years after they aired. Here's a few notable ones, as well as some that I personally don't remember, but were still hard hitting:

The Facts of Life - Dieting Episode
Any time you have a show that revolves around the lives of young girls at a boarding school, there's bound to be episodes that confront sex, drugs, and other heady teen topics. The Facts of Life covered all these and more, but one half hour that particularly stands out for me was the "Dieting" episode from 1980. Sue Ann Weaver goes on a crash starvation diet to impress a boy from another boarding school that Blair has set her up with - after implying that she's too heavy to win his heart. Headmistress Mrs. Garrett gets caught up in the dieting hoopla, determined to fit into a size 12 dress. Things escalate when Sue Ann discovers the date will involve being seen in a swimsuit, and she ends up collapsing from eating too little, leading everyone to realize the pressures that society put on young women to be a certain size and to impress others is not the healthiest path to happiness.

Punky Brewster - Just Say No (aka The Temptation of Punky) Episode
Nine year-old Punky and her pal learn about peer pressure at a tender age when they join a girls club called the Chicklets, which is led by a jerk who looks like an extra from Desperately Seeking Susan. She reveals a stash of assorted pills, pot, and even coke (aka "nose candy") which she pushes on the tots, threatening them with some serious street slang: "I put my rep on the line for you two!" But perhaps the best moment in this clip is when Punky's teacher, Mr. Fulton - upon learning of her predicament - breaks into a rendition of James Brown's I Feel Good. Check out the clip below!

All in the Family - Archie and the KKK
There wasn't an ethnic group that didn't escape Archie Bunker's racist zings - he constantly referred to his son-in-law as a dumb polack, and England as a "fag country." However, as the series progressed through the 70s, TV's favorite bigot gradually softened his stance once he actually got to know people. In this two part episode from 1977, Archie is hanging out at his favorite bar, complaining about Mike's inability to agree with him on his political views when two men nearby overhear the conversation. They befriend Archie and invite him to join their secret group, called the Kweens Kouncil of Krusaders, an offshoot of the KKK. Archie soon discovers that his new friends plan to burn crosses on "commie" Mike's yard to teach him a lesson. He threatens the two men against the burning by revealing that he has black blood inside of him from a transfusion he received during his gall bladder operation, and can call on his black brothers to stop them:

One Day At A Time - All the Way
The social issues of birth control and teen sex made their way onto One Day At A Time several times, with Barbara struggling over whether to have sex and eventually decided to remain a virgin until marriage. In this episode, Barbara's older sister is feeling the pressure from her boyfriend of 3 months, Chuck, to go all the way. He claims that only freaks don't act on the urge to have sex. In the end, much to mother Ann's relief, she is happy she stood up for herself and decided to wait - at least for now.

As an aside,you just have to dig Bonnie Franklin's groovy green unicorn dress in these clips:

Happy Days - Hard Cover aka Fonzie Gets His Library Card
This episode didn't tackle a controversial topic, but it did deliver a brief message about the importance of reading. Fonzie takes Richie to a local library near his college after explaining that it's a hot hangout for picking up chicks, and obtains his first ever library card in the process ("Everybody is allowed to read"). For years afterwards, newspapers reported that the American Library Association claimed that there was a huge spike in new library card applications, which refutes.

And those are just a few examples off the top of my head. I know it really isn't up to network television to teach our society some moral values, but it sure would shake things up a bit and make some current shows more interesting. Note that tackling heavy subjects didn't diminish the humor of any of these programs - in fact, it heightened their staying power and credibility as memorable quality programming. If there are shows/episodes that you remember that I've missed here that had an impact on you or made you think, please feel free to let me know!


  1. Those episodes were always "special".

  2. Family Ties episode with Alex Keaton grieving a friend's death. It was done in the style of the play "our town".

  3. Sanford and Son was another good show. Good writing and acting from Red Foxx.

  4. Brings back memories! I agree - today's sitcoms are BLAH compared to those I grew up watching.

  5. Oh man, that Family Ties princesscami mentioned is one of my favorites! Also, don't forget when Alex gets hooked on uppers!

    I just watched the Sue Ann dieting episode. So. Good.

    I'm looking forward to the Natalie-gets-accosted episode and it's on Hulu. I've been watching all the others, but I'm savoring that one. I'm going to hold out a bit more! :) I'm know... weird.

    Thanks so much for the linkage! I want to re-watch all the episodes you mentioned!

  6. A few of the "obscure" sitcoms are touching base with the "very special episodes" like Tyler Perry's House of Payne. They did an eppy not too long ago about the dangers of kids in chat rooms.


  7. Lisa - good to know. Unfortunately I only have basic cable and don't get to see Tyler Perry's show. It's just really strange to me how network TV sitcoms don't deviate from their usual storylines much these days. Little imagination and too PC.

  8. Jessie from Saved by the Bell was on uppers too.. Most TV shows today don't seem to have any lessons.. it sad! I'm glad some shows still write with a bit of substance but it's often hidden in all the crap!


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