As television invaded households in the latter half of the 20th century, it introduced families to the sitcom, or situational comedy. These light-hearted shows featured casts of goofy characters who invited you to chuckle along with the laugh track as they bumbled and stumbled their way through life.
Sometimes, these shows would take an episode to address more serious issues – such as substance abuse and addiction. At their worst, these episodes were preachy and heavy-handed. When done well, however, they provided viewers with poignant cautionary tales – with moving examples of the dangers of substance abuse, and its potential to destroy lives.
We take a look at several of these so-called "very special episodes" to see which drugs and vices these shows were addressing and what consequences addiction had for some of our sitcom stars. Here are some of the shows and characters we thought worthy of inclusion:
Roseanne - Season 6, Episode 4: A Stash From the Past
Aired on October 5, 1993
After disciplining David for smoking, Roseanne and Dan realize the marijuana they found didn’t belong to him. In fact, it’s theirs – from years ago. Together, Roseanne, Dan, and Jackie decide to light up to relive their younger years.
It’s all fun and games in the Conner household bathroom at first, but soon, the high turns to paranoia, leaving Roseanne in tears by the end of the episode. Dan calms her and puts her to bed, swearing this will be the last time they light up.
Home Improvement - Season 7, Episode 16: What a Drag
Aired on February 24, 1998
While filming an episode of Tool Time, Tim takes a nasty fall through his gazebo, with an unexpected consequence: He finds a hidden stash of marijuana. He sets up a stakeout in the backyard to see which of his children is the culprit. To everyone’s surprise, it’s Brad, their oldest.
They take Brad inside, where Brad tries to defend himself. He lets his parents know he doesn’t do anything dangerous and doesn’t smoke that often. Tim and Jill aren’t having it. Jill shares a story about when she smoked laced marijuana at a Led Zeppelin concert and was hospitalized. They warn him he could lose his soccer scholarship. Finally, they threaten him with drug testing if he’s caught again before he agrees not to smoke anymore.
Saved by the Bell - Season 2, Episode 9: Jessie’s Song
Aired on November 3, 1990
Jessie’s got Stanford aspirations and is under increased pressure to do well on her geometry test. Despite hating the flavor, she drinks coffee to get through the day after long nights of studying. Enter: caffeine pills, which don’t have the taste of coffee and come with the added benefit of giving her extra hours in the day to excel at her studies.
But the pills soon begin to take their toll, and her friends are concerned for her health. The pressure to succeed becomes too much for her, and Jessie breaks down. She admits she depended on the pills to help her manage her life and apologizes to her friends for letting them down.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - Season 6, Episode 8: Viva Lost Wages
Aired on November 13, 1995
When Will and Carlton go to Vegas for Carlton’s 21st birthday, Will is more than ecstatic to get to the tables and do some gambling; Carlton is more concerned with waking up early to see the sunrise from the Hoover Dam. After a successful night, Will returns with his winnings, much to Carlton’s chagrin.
But the tables turn when Will wakes up the next morning to find that, during the night, Carlton had gambled and lost all their winnings and all their funds for the return trip home. Carlton didn’t know when to walk away; he maxed out his credit cards, used Will’s ATM card to get more cash, and even hocked their plane tickets. They return home thanks to Uncle Phil.
Family Ties - Season 2, Episode 14: Say Uncle
Aired on January 26, 1984
Tom Hanks’s Uncle Ned character on Family Ties is a fun-loving drunk. He walks into the house with trash bags in tow, eliciting laughs left and right. He celebrates his arrival in the house with a six-pack of beer. It’s all smiles and good times with fun Uncle Ned around.
But Ned’s alcoholism leads to an encounter that reveals his inner demons to his nephew, Alex. Ned, out of whiskey and beer, raids the pantry looking for things he can get a buzz from; he drinks vanilla extract and eats maraschino cherries. He later bombs a job interview, and when the family confronts him about his problem, he hits Alex. Eventually, the family forces him to call Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air - Season 3, Episode 19: Just Say Yo
Aired on February 15, 1993
There just aren’t enough hours in the day for Will, who uses speed pills as a way to balance basketball, his exams, and his girlfriend. When they go to prom, Will’s falling asleep on the dance floor. Carlton gets into Will’s locker and takes several speed pills from Will’s stash; he mistakes the pills for vitamins that he thinks can be used to treat acne.
With an initial adrenaline rush, Carlton dances like crazy; however, he soon collapses as the result of an overdose. Will takes him to the hospital. Carlton covers for Will, leading Uncle Phil and the rest of the family to thank Will profusely. However, the guilt soon sets in, and Will must tearfully apologize to the family for nearly killing Carlton.
Two and a Half Men - Season 5, Episode 6: Help Daddy Find His Toenail
Aired on October 29, 2007
Charlie’s got a real girlfriend this time: Linda, an accomplished judge. She's considering running for State Senate, and he has an invite to attend an important banquet with her. As he leaves, nerves set in. His mother gives him a pill to calm him down. Unbeknownst to the both of them, it’s a hallucinogenic pill.
Charlie shows up to the banquet high, misbehaving, and talking about rainbows coming from his champagne glass. He shows up back at the house incoherent and tries unsuccessfully to help Jake sneak into the house without his dad finding out. Worse, when he wakes up the next morning, he finds he’s in the newspaper with an embarrassing photograph of him and Linda, leading to their breakup.
Family Ties - Season 2, Episode 6: Speed Trap
Aired on November 9, 1983
When Alex struggles to find time to get all his school work done, he turns to amphetamines to help him with his studies. He gets diet pills from his sister’s friend, and his behavior immediately concerns the family. He begins cleaning everything, bursting with an uncontainable energy.
However, the good times don’t last. His sister refuses to speak to him after he later steals pills from her. The ultimate blow comes when he “crashes” after throwing away the pills he’s caught with, which causes him to miss the big test he was taking the pills for in the first place. He then must apologize to his family for letting them all down.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 2, Episode 3: Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare
Aired on July 6, 2006
Dennis and Dee quit their jobs with an eye on scamming the welfare system. However, when they realize they’re required to submit paperwork, they decide to buy crack and get a blood test to prove their addiction.
Their crack venture goes awry. They miss their doctor’s appointment and instead develop a real crack problem. They soon find themselves out of money, desperate for more crack, and desperate to return to their real jobs. They even agree they should go to rehab. In the end, they get their old job back, but they find themselves demoted.
Workaholics - Season 1, Episode 3: Office Campout
Aired on April 20, 2011
After discovering a bug lodged in Anders’s ear, the gang decides to have their house fumigated. So while the house is off-limits, they decide to use the TelAmeriCorp offices as their own personal campground. Blake, determined to make this situation like camping, brings shrooms.
But their fun soon turns to horror when a van pulls up and two men dressed in black step out of the van. When the gang sees them in the server room, in their hallucinatory state, they freak out, assuming the men are burglars. They try to escape the building using a rope made out of their clothes hung off the roof, but Adam has been doing too many shrooms, and throws the rope off the roof. After more misadventure, they realize the burglars are actually the IT guys who fixed their servers.
Anger Management - Season 2, Episode 68: Charlie Gets Between Sean and Jordan
Aired on August 18, 2014
In order to land a keynote speaking gig, Charlie goes behind Jordan's back and sets up her boyfriend Sean on a date with a member of the selection committee. Jordan, furious, plots her revenge.
Before the speech, she drinks heavily to deal with what Charlie has done, leading to a series of angry outbursts during the speech. Eventually, she gets fed up and storms off in the middle of the speech.
Modern Family - Season 4, Episode 7: Arrested
Aired on November 7, 2012
Haley is enjoying her college experience – perhaps a little too much – resulting in a late-night phone call to her parents saying she’s been arrested. Much to their surprise, they arrive at the police station to find out she’s been charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.
Haley’s incident leads her into a meeting with the school’s disciplinary council, where she bombs the interview by taking too much responsibility for her actions, stating everything wrong she’s done since arriving at the school. After being expelled, she’s forced to head back home.
Big Bang Theory - Season 3, Episode 18: The Pants Alternative
Aired on March 22, 2010
Sheldon has never been known for his social skills. Though he often has blunt and uncalled for opinions on just about everything, public speaking is not his forte. At the behest of someone at the awards banquet, Sheldon has a few drinks to calm his fears.
By the time he reaches the stage, he’s done more than take the edge off his nerves – he’s dropped a nuclear bomb on them. Inhibitions are out, and what’s left is Sheldon making a complete fool of himself on stage. He makes awful jokes, sings a song about the elements, and wakes up the next day sans pants. His friends point out a YouTube video of him removing his pants, kicking them into the audience, and mooning the entire room.
The League - Season 3, Episode 9: The Out of Towner
Aired on December 1, 2011
Back in his college days, Chuck was the ultimate wingman. Pete loved Chuck – Chuck was like the Goose to his Maverick, and he had the ability talk to any girl and set up Pete for the swoop. So when Chuck comes back into town, Pete has visions of reliving the glory days. There’s just one hang-up: Chuck is sober and proud of it.
Andre, who’s been studying mixology, persuades the crew to come over and participate in a cocktail party, taking extra special care to make alcohol-free cocktails for Chuck. The problem is Andre mistakes a bag of cocaine for confectioners’ sugar, rimming each glass generously with white powder. Everyone at the party gets drugged, including Chuck, who has now lost his sobriety.
Episodes of Addiction
As television has evolved in the post-Sopranos era, so too has the attitude toward drugs on television. Gone are the days of the “very special episode,” and in are the times when drug abuse on television is considered more comedic and less of a problem. Take The League, for example. Taco, a character on the show, is notorious among the characters for his deadbeat ways and drug use, but nobody bats an eye. But drug abuse and addiction have real-life consequences. Though you may not end up like Jessie if you take caffeine pills, you probably won't be able to live like Taco if you do all the drugs he does.
The comedic handling of otherwise serious topics can sometimes help bring attention to their dangers – such is the case with alcohol and drug abuse. The harsh reality, however, is that substance abuse is no laughing matter. It’s no secret that alcohol and drugs can cause lasting health problems for those who abuse them. Complicating attempts to cut down or quit, however, are a variety of unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Luckily, many rehab programs are equipped to administer medically supervised detox and manage withdrawal for patients on the road to recovery. If you, or anyone you know if suffering from addiction or withdrawal symptoms, and could use the help of a treatment center, call 1-888-935-1318Who Answers? for rehabilitation options.
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