Monday, June 7, 2010

A Very Special Episode

Gary Coleman

Everybody knows this diminutive sparkplug died last week, after a fall in his Utah home resulted in a brain hemorrhage. He was put on life support for a day, then the order to pull the plug was given by Shannon Price, who claimed to be his wife, but really wasn't (they were recently divorced, but apparently, she still retained the right to make his medical decisions). Coleman had a complicated life, including his marriage to this woman decades his junior; they actually appeared on Divorce Court in 2007, and they had a history of domestic abuse complaints, on both sides. It seems Gary had a temper; he was arrested for assaulting a woman who asked for his autograph in 1998. He was working as a security guard at the time, a pretty steep fall from the celebrity he achieved early in his life. No wonder he had anger management issues: he was robbed of millions by his parents and managers while he was their cashcow, and his health was never strong, having had two kidney transplants before he was out of his teens; he required daily dialysis.

His television show, Diff'rent Stokes, was one of a number of 80s sitcoms which I could not abide. They had a superficial, tinny quality to them, and the humor in them seemed pretty sophomoric. Diff'rent Strokes is credited with creating the "Very Special Episode" phenomenon, so named when a sitcom attempted to tackle a serious issue. Coleman's show ran 8 years, and during that time they produced a handful of episodes concerning drug use, child kidnapping, child abuse, and the like. Other 80s sitcoms took note, so Alf dealt with nuclear war, Gimme a Break (below) tackled parental death, and Facts of Life, a direct spinoff from Diff'rent Strokes, dealt with a host of teen-agey issues. There was even an episode of Too Close for Comfort (remember that monstrosity, starring Ted Knight?) in which a supporting male character was raped by two overweight women; the episode was so out of character for this silly show, it was withheld from syndication when the program went into reruns.

I could not stand these attempts at the dramatic. Perhaps the writers' intentions were honorable (though after a time, you could count on a "Very Special Episode" popping up during sweeps week), but the shows which contained them were not built to support the heavy weight of such issues.

I admit now that I am prejudiced toward the classic sitcoms which ran during my formative years; in comparison, many 80s sitcoms fell horribly flat. Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart rarely if ever felt the need to become serious; their goal was to be genuinely funny (a goal they achieved). The other, more seriocomic sitcoms of the period, such as All in the Family, Maude, and MASH, handled adult themes every week, and achieved an organic balance between the comic and dramatic.

When programs such as The Facts of Life attacked dramatic issues, the result seemed cloying and false.

While I'm on the subject of TV sitcoms, I might as well mention one of the behind-the-scenes gents who spent a successful career in television comedy:

Myles Wilder


Coincidentally, Wilder contributed some scripts to Diff'rent Strokes, but it's doubtful any of them were Very Special Episodes. He made his career writing and producing the laugh out loud, often slapsticky shows of the 60s and 70s. The Lucy Show, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, Get Smart, and The Doris Day Show all had episodes written by Wilder. He was head of daytime programming at Hanna-Barbera for a time (so we can blame Hong Kong Phooey on him), and he contributed quite a few scripts to The Dukes of Hazzard. His uncle was film director Billy Wilder, and his father directed some film noirs of note, but Myles found that comedy suited him best. He can be forgiven for writing for The Brady Bunch, because he also wrote dozens of episodes of McHale's Navy, for which he was twice nominated for the Emmy. I can verify that he never wrote a Very Special Episode of The Paul Lynde Show.

Wilder retired from show biz back in 1986, and spent his remaining years raising avocados in Temecula, CA. He died last month at the age of 77.