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A Very Special Invitation to Read This, You Twits

A few weeks ago, NBC aired a very special episode of Suddenly Susan. Of course, every episode of Suddenly Susan is special. But this episode was especially special because one- time teen sensation Judd Nelson, playing the head of a hip San Francisco 'zine, plows his auto into a cable car, leading his star columnist, played by Brooke Shields, to worry.

Suddenly Susan's very special episode, you no doubt recall, came just a few weeks after a very special episode of Caroline in the City. In that episode, Lea Thompson -- who plays a successful syndicated cartoonist still living in a dinky apartment -- and Malcom Gets -- who plays her coloring boy -- kiss.

Of course, these very special episodes pale in comparison to a truly special episode of Frasier that aired a couple weeks back. In that episode, David Hyde Pierce, playing Kelsey Grammar's finicky younger brother, learns that the wife he's been separated from for well over a year really doesn't want him back.

Forgive me if I'm stating the obvious, but there's a clear trend at work here. Now more than ever, we TV viewers are caught in a riptide of very special episodes that are anything but.

See ABC tout a special NYPD Blue where Dennis Franz is grumpy. Watch CBS hype a special Chicago Hope where some crazy doc with a raft of personal problems wants to do experimental surgery on a hapless kid. Witness Home Improvement's Patricia Richardson ponder a torrid affair with Luke Duke. Behold as Ellen's Ellen has some lesbian mishap. It doesn't seem possible, but the very special episode now appears to have as much special-ness as special sauce.

It wasn't always this way. Back in the old days -- when presidential scandals were colored by rumors of illegal arms trading, not buxom White House interns; when Falco was an up-and-coming pop star, not dead; when Steven Seagal wasn't so fat -- "very special episode" meant something. Family Ties, for example, once did a VSE that was indeed special. Of course, this was back when it was still a clever little show and not the wheezing geezer that hobbled over the finish line. Set on a dark stage with bare furnishings, Michael J. Fox spent 22 solemn, grief-stricken minutes agonizing over the death of a close friend. Sure, those of us tuning in expecting the usual gut-busting hijinks of Mallory, Skippy, and Jen were caught unawares and plunged into a three-week depression. But nobody doubted that they'd seen something different. The episode was bold, it made an impact, it was emotional.

Plus, it helped feed Mikey Fox's pipe dream that one day he'd be a serious actor.

Blossom, too, employed the VSE with aplomb. Oh sure, in hindsight we make jokes about every episode of Blossom being special. But that's only because we in fact lived through so many genuinely special moments with Blossom and her quirky pal, Six. We saw Blossom cope with drugs and divorce. We saw Six get plastered. We saw Blossom brave her first sexual experience. We saw Six toss back shots. We saw Blossom match schnozzes with Barbra Streisand....

Oh, wait.

The point is, nowadays the TV brain trust is slapping "very special episode" on every videotape or slice of celluloid that comes down the pipe. And like most crises that plague the world today -- Iraq's build-up of chemical weapons, the El Niño phenomenon, Dick Vitale -- I blame NBC.

There was a time, believe it or not, when TV advertisers had standards. (I have no idea when that time was, but go with me on this.) Yes, the networks would still do anything short of bribery to rope in simps -- uh, viewers. But they also maintained some allegiance to quaint bromides like truth in advertising. There were limits to how far they would go, lines they wouldn't cross, boundaries they wouldn't push. This, incidentally, is why you never heard things like "powerful new Vega$" or "on a very special 227."

But then came the wizards at NBC. And, more specifically, "Must See TV!"

It's no secret, except maybe among Warren Littlefield's closest groupies, that "Must See TV!" is a farce. In the last year alone NBC has vainly tried to convince us that we absolutely, positively have to see Union Square (a sitcom that, scientific studies show, makes people hurl things), Fired Up (a sitcom that, medical studies show, causes intense, throbbing pain), The Naked Truth (a show that has undergone three cast makeovers, multiple timeslot changes, and a network switch), Veronica's Closet (a show that, less than two-thirds of the way through its first season, has already played its ex-Cheers-cast member-save-us-we're-sinking-like-a-stone trump card), The Tony Danza Show (a show starring Tony Danza), Built to Last (which didn't), Men Behaving Badly, and Jenny. Or, to put it another way, NBC has been tossing "Must See TV!" around like it's a "Save the Whales!" bumper sticker.

Though in Kirstie Alley's case, that's pretty close to the mark.

NBC's carefree ways with the coveted "Must See TV!" mantle were bad enough. But proving again that once you start your descent into Hell, gravity will take you the rest of the way, next came the peacock's movie commercials. You may have seen them -- say, the one for the fine 1992 legal blockbuster "A Few Good Men." Tom Cruise punches his fist through the air and barks, "I want the truth!" only to have Jack Nicholson growl, "You can't handle the truth!" Then a baritone-voiced announcer booms: "Tom Cruise... Jack Nicholson... Demi Moore... Kevin Bacon... Keifer Sutherland... and Noah Wyle."

And Noah Wyle?

Not to dismiss Doc Carter's performance in the small, but pivotal role of hayseed Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes (without him who would have delivered the plot-turning line, "I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir"?), but let's be honest: Noah Wyle stars in A Few Good Men in the same way that my good friend Ben starred in B.J. and the Bear. Noah's sum total of screen time: 4 minutes, 17 seconds -- or, to put this in terms that you math majors might understand, that's 4 minutes, 17 seconds longer than you and me. And yet NBC shamelessly hypes its own star as part of this blockbuster movie event, much in the way that it once shamelessly hyped the stars of The River Wild as "Meryl Streep... Kevin Bacon... and Law & Order's blink-before-you-miss-him Benjamin Bratt."

It's precisely because NBC has so loosened the mores of television advertising these days that others feel they have carte blanche to say whatever they please. (At this point you may feel that my causal connection is tenuous at best. To that I can only say, go piss on someone else's thesis. This is my soapbox, and I'll blame whoever I please.) "If NBC can say that America must see a half-hour of sophomoric quips by something named Rondell Watkins," goes the argument, "why can't we, CBS, say that this week's Touched By An Angel -- in which Della Reese speaks in tongues while Sam and Ziggy defuse a nuclear reactor -- is very special?"

And frankly, I think logic like that is hard to beat.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that all networks are as cavalier as NBC. Strangely enough, Fox -- the network that will air "World's Greatest Head Traumas" if it means a 12 share -- has shown some restraint in its advertising of late. Yes, there was a brief sweeps period a short while ago where Rupert's boys babbled about "Non-Stop Fox." But as sophisticated viewers like you and I know, this is hokum. Everyone knows that Fox stations hit the test patterns at three in the morning. Cooler heads have since prevailed and now Fox is back to the simple, direct, honest refrain, "You're watching Fox."

Yes. Yes, I am.

(Skeptics might note that Fox is not adverse to slapping VSE labels on the occasional Party of Five. And this is true, so far as it goes. I would argue, however, that given the Salinger clan's history of pinballing from one trauma to the next, any waking moment spent with those cute, young tykes in which one of them -- Scott Wolf, for instance -- doesn't just say to hell with it and off himself, well, that is indeed special.)

But here we are almost to the end, and we haven't even mentioned the greatest, most famous very special episode of them all. The last episode of ALF is, without a doubt, the single-most emotional, genuinely touching half-hour of one camera entertainment ever to hit the square box. When Alf faces the Hobson's choice of leaving his slow-witted, beloved handler, Willie Tanner, to colonize a new planet with his fellow Melmacians, or staying behind as the sadistic U.S. government closes in, it sticks in your craw. Tears well up. Your heart sinks.

Now that... that's Must See TV.


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