"Sylvia," Little House on the Prairie
If there’s a step beyond shark jumping, it’s got to be mime rapists. This shocking two-episode arc in season 7 saw victim blaming reach its ugliest possible conclusion when Sylvia, the voluptuous new girl in Walnut Creek, attracted the attention of peeping Toms and a Harlequin-masked rapist. Think things couldn’t get darker? Add on a pregnancy, a failed scheme to run away and elope, and a tense showdown that ended in the deaths of both Sylvia and her attacker. Sex = death, y’all.
''Cult Fiction,'' Boy Meets World
In hindsight, it’s actually kind of surprising that it took a wrong-side-of-the-tracks loner like Shawn Hunter the better part of four seasons to get swept up in a cult. Feeling insecure about his future, Shawn was brainwashed by a group called The Centre, led by the charismatic Mr. Mack (Jerry Levine). But the near-death accident of his teacher-turned-father figure Mr. Turner put things back in perspective, prompting Shawn to leave The Centre and focus his energies on writing angst-filled poetry.
''Sam's Missing,'' Diff'rent Strokes
Among TV shows ready-made for Nick at Nite, Diff’rent Strokes was the most trigger-happy with VSEs. The show dealt with con artists, hitchhiking, bulimia, epilepsy, and even had First Lady Nancy Reagan on to spread the ”Just Say No” message. Though a two-part storyline in season 5 saw a pedophile bike shop owner (Gordon Jump) come thisclose to molesting Arnold and Dudley, the show crossed a line it couldn’t uncross when Sam was kidnapped and tortured by a grieving father hoping to replace his dead son. Did we mention that was the season opener? Way to set the mood, guys.
''Jessie's Song,'' Saved by the Bell
Another ”Why didn’t this happen sooner?” episode. High-strung alpha teen Jessie Spano displayed all the signs of a future addict — compulsive behavior, an all-or-nothing opinion toward failure, and a tendency toward overextending herself. But Bell‘s utterly ’90s tipping point — the production of an aerobic-themed video for Jessie’s girl group Hot Sundae — is what gives ”Jessie’s Song” the edge over other series VSEs about topics ranging from marijuana to drunk driving. Well, the Hot Sundae video and Jessie’s instaclassic Pointer Sisters riff: ”I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so?scared!”
''Runaway,'' The Facts of Life
It was only natural that Tootie, who grew up before viewers’ eyes on The Facts of Life, would want her maturity recognized. When her parents refused to grant their permission for a field trip to New York City, the Eastland School girl displayed a rare rebellious streak and went anyway. Cut to that awkward moment when you almost become a teen hooker. Fortunately for Tootie’s sake, a concerned diner waitress doled out some real-talk, and Tootie realized she belonged on roller skates, not on a street corner.
''Cherie Lifesaver,'' Punky Brewster
Everybody knows rapists, drugs, and cults were dangerous, but who would have guessed refrigerators were a threat? During a game of hide-and-seek, Cherie got a little too creative with her hiding spot and found herself trapped in a broken fridge that Henry had put out for trash. Through sheer luck, the kids had learned CPR at school that week, and Cherie lived to see another day. And yet…it’s worth noting that this episode appeared only two weeks after ”Urban Fear,” a.k.a. that time the Northside Stalker killed seven of Punky’s neighbors. Moral of the story: Your are never safe, kids. Never. Now go have a snack!
''Edith's 50th Birthday,'' All in the Family
Norman Lear’s series found acclaim and won dozens of awards precisely for its envelope-pushing story lines. But there were no laughs during a terrifying installment of Family‘s penultimate season when the Bunker matriarch was nearly raped while her family unwittingly planned her surprise party next door. The uncharacteristically harrowing, hour-long episode explored the denial, depression, and fear stemming from sexual violence, giving Jean Stapleton a chance to remind viewers of her dramatic acting skills…while also giving us nightmares.
''Shape Up,'' Full House
The only thing to fear is fear itself. And, oh yeah, pool parties. That was the great villain in season 4’s meditation on anorexia and compulsive exercising. DJ step-machined herself right into a fainting spell and had to bail on Kimmy’s fête when she really should have been focusing on how to own the room in a fierce suspender leotard like younger sister Stephanie (above). You don’t got it, dude.
''Fast Eddie Winslow,'' Family Matters
Gambling is bad, mmmmkay? After Eddie got in deep with a pool shark, Steve came to the rescue with the help of?physics! Steve’s clever calculations during a double-or-nothing game nearly cleared Eddie’s debt until the shady shark crushed Urkel’s glasses. As it were, Carl and Estelle — the Winslow family’s real pool hall stud — arrived like a deus ex cop-ina, and settle the score. While ”Fast Eddie” didn’t produce its own theme dance like Family Matters‘ underage drinking VSE ”Life of the Party,” who can resist a storyline in which math can (almost) overcome violent thugs?
''For Every Man There's Two Women,'' Too Close for Comfort
Just as harrowing as Edith Bunker’s sexual assault, only much, much weirder. This fifth season episode flipped the gender script when mall cop Monroe was abducted and repeatedly raped by two ladies. How writers became convinced it was a good idea to get yuks out of sexual violence is entirely unclear. More upsetting, they succeeded and had their way with a chortling audience just like Monroe’s assailants did — ”all night long.” Even when Henry and the Rush ladies engaged in a particularly loaded debate about the responsibility for — nay even the possibility of — female-on-male rape, the jokes never stopped. Because men sexual assaulting women is definitely not funny, but ugly women getting rapey with a mall cop? Pure comedy gold, am I right ladies?