Whether it’s a glossy teen soap, an all-singing drama or a broad sitcom, there are some TV shows we turn to for the lighter side of life. However, sometimes they blindside us with a shock storyline that appears to come from nowhere. From All in the Family to Sesame Street, here’s a look at 20 times a typically feel-good show left us feeling stunned.
With its setting in a fictional hospital, Scrubs regularly had to deal with themes of life and death throughout its nine seasons. But the 2000s sitcom took things to a new level in an episode which saw three patients all lose their lives after receiving organs from a donor with rabies. This storyline also helped cement The Fray’s “How to Save a Life” as the medical TV genre’s ultimate tearjerking soundtrack.
Dave Karofsky was first introduced to Glee viewers as McKinley High’s resident bully. There, he physically and verbally abused the club’s members on a regular basis, particularly gay member Kurt. But the jock’s behavior masked a secret – he was actually gay himself. And once he’s outed by another student, he becomes a bullying victim himself. Seeing no other way out, he later tries to commit suicide by hanging himself, but his father discovers him just in time.
18. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
In Will Smith’s star-making vehicle, his fictional self is sent away to Bel-Air by his mother in a bid to save him from a life on the streets. But it turns out that at times the Fresh Prince wasn’t any safer in the much wealthier neighborhood. Indeed, in one particularly shocking episode he very nearly loses his life when he heroically takes a bullet for Carlton during an armed cashpoint robbery.
For the most part, Disney’s Dinosaurs was a feel-good family comedy about a bunch of anthropomorphic puppets. But its finale must go down as one of the bleakest in sitcom history. In a desperate attempt to save the environment they have helped to destroy, the dinosaur characters inadvertently end up causing a nuclear winter. And as a result, they all end up freezing to death.
16. How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother was one of the most popular hangout sitcoms of the ‘00s. But the show took a somber turn in its sixth season when Marshall discovered his dad had passed away immediately after learning he was to become a father himself. To make the scene even more convincing, producers only told the actor who played Marshall, Jason Segel, about the twist moments before it was shot.
15. All in the Family
One of the darkest moments in sitcom history appeared in All in the Family. The 1970s hit show was already renowned for tackling issues other similar shows wouldn’t even dare to approach. But even so, the episode in which Edith is nearly raped by a policeman on her 50th birthday was still a major shock. The cop first turns up on her doorstep claiming he’s investigating a spate of sexual assaults in the area. But Edith soon discovers to her horror that he’s the perpetrator.
One of All in the Family’s many spinoffs also found itself in hot water in the 1970s thanks to a storyline tackling abortion. In “Maude’s Dilemma,” Bea Arthur’s titular character finds out that she’s pregnant at the relatively late age of 47. But after much nuanced discussion, she makes the decision to have an abortion, a controversial decision in the world of American sitcoms.
13. Sesame Street
Of course, comedies aren’t the only TV genre that can pull the rug from under our feet with an unexpectedly dark twist. Iconic kids show Sesame Street was forced to tackle one particularly heavy issue when the man who played Mr. Hooper, Will Lee, passed away in real life. As a result, producers decided to kill his character off, teaching Big Bird and the young audience about death in the process.
12. Saved by the Bell
The Saved by the Bell episode in which Jessie becomes addicted to caffeine pills has become a major source of derision, particularly over the scene in which she breaks down in front of Zack while singing The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” But despite the slightly ridiculous approach, it was still pretty brave for a wholesome teen show to dedicate a storyline to the rapid-fire grip that addiction can take.
11. Diff’rent Strokes
Diff’rent Strokes had numerous very special episodes over the course of its eight seasons. But its most troubling by far came in “The Bicycle Man.” Here, a shop owner named Mr. Horton invites a young Arnold and his best friend Dudley back to his place. There, he plies them with alcohol, subjects them to porn and photographs them shirtless. The whole thing is made all the more uncomfortable by the entirely inappropriate laughing track.
10. Smart Guy
Several years later, The WB sitcom Smart Guy also pursued a similarly creepy storyline. In one particularly troubling episode, youngsters Karen and TJ are invited to enjoy some video gaming at a stranger’s home. But, of course, the mysterious man has an ulterior motive and he’s soon attempting to get the kids undressed to pose for his own private photo collection.
9. One Tree Hill
One Tree Hill was known for its soapy teen drama, infectious indie-rock soundtrack and cast members who all looked like professional models. But the ‘00s hit took an unexpected dark turn in its third season when Jimmy, a victim of bullying at Tree Hill High School, brought a gun to class in an attempt to silence his tormentors once and for all. However, Jimmy proves to be the only fatality when after a climactic confrontation, he turns the weapon on himself.
8. Degrassi: The Next Generation
And One Tree Hill isn’t the only teen drama that’s been unafraid to go dark. In Canadian high school series Degrassi: The Next Generation, student Emma strikes up an online relationship with a boy she believes is around her age. But after agreeing to meet him in a hotel room, she discovers that he is in fact an older predator. And she’s only saved from a sexual assault by a last-minute rescue mission from her teacher and mother.
7. Boy Meets World
Boy Meets World may have been largely focused on the romance between Cory and Topanga. But it was the storylines involving Shawn which often provided the emotional crux. In one particular episode he discovers his friend Claire is being physically abused by her father. As a result, he and Cory allow her to seek refuge at their places before informing the authorities. Claire subsequently moves in with her aunt, while her father enters rehab.
6. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Razor-sharp sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine is renowned for packing more jokes into a single episode than many manage in an entire season. But it also proved it could handle the more serious side of cop life in an episode dedicated to racial profiling. Here, Terry Crews’ plain-clothed Sergeant Terry Jeffords is stopped for no apparent reason by a white police official who treats him with utter disdain.
5. Family Matters
Two decades earlier another U.S. sitcom not exactly renowned for tackling tough issues also addressed the subject of racial profiling. In Family Matters’ fifth season, Eddie is pulled over for not signalling by a racist police officer. After being confronted by Eddie’s cop father Carl, the officer freely admits that he stopped the teen simply for being black in a white neighborhood.
4. That’s So Raven
And the Disney Channel also wasn’t afraid to tackle racism in one of its biggest ‘00s sitcoms, That’s So Raven. There was the moment when Eddy revealed that as a child he wasn’t allowed to be pals with one particular kid because of his skin color. And then there was the episode in which the show’s star was discriminated against because she was black while attempting to land a fashion retailer job.
It was always going to be interesting to see how ABC dealt with the absence of Roseanne Barr in spin-off The Conners. The comedienne severed all ties with the show that catapulted her to fame when she launched a racist tirade on Twitter. But we were still surprised at how dark her character’s exit was. In the opening episode of the newly renamed sitcom, the grieving family discover that Roseanne didn’t die of a heart attack but of an opioid overdose.
2. Designing Women
One of the bravest sitcom plots of the 1980s appeared courtesy of Designing Women. Inspired by the death of her mother from AIDS, show creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason decided to pen a storyline in which the women are asked to help plan the funeral of a young victim of the disease. At the time AIDS had only just been acknowledged by the United States government.
1. Full House
ABC’s long-running sitcom Full House managed to pack a corny life lesson into most of its episodes. But in “Shape Up,” the show addressed a relatable issue in a less schmaltzier-than-usual manner. Here, DJ Tanner starts crash dieting and relentlessly exercising in preparation for her BFF Kimmy’s pool party. Recognizing that she’s gone too far, sister Stephanie intervenes and saves DJ from developing a full-blown eating disorder.