When I was a teenager there was a series of shows called the ABC Afterschool Special. Each of these shows, starting in 1972, would tell an educational story. Except when they did a “Very Special” episode. That was code for this time we are taking on a controversial subject in an uplifting way. It was important because they would put on the television screen topics like divorce, child homelessness, venereal disease, teen suicide, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy. In a lot of cases this was one of the earliest depictions of many of these subjects.
The “Very Special” terminology has transitioned to primetime television. Being used, and now overused, mostly as code to do something traumatic to the characters on the show. In these days of “peak” television, shows tend to up the ante on traumatic events to get attention. It is the reason I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy regularly. When it premiered March 27, 2005 it immediately connected with me. It became appointment television which was turned in to season-long scheduling on my DVR. I empathized for twelve seasons with Meredith Grey and her colleagues until the trauma became too much for me. Any show that survives for fifteen seasons must challenge their characters with interesting situations. With medical shows there is an unfortunate need to keep upping the level of the trauma. I left the last couple of seasons of “ER” for the same reason. The writers have made me care enough about these characters watching them suffer another devastating blow becomes too much.
The thing is the writers on Grey’s Anatomy and the creator Shonda Rhimes haven’t lost their edge. They still put interesting words in the characters’ mouths. While I couldn’t watch anymore, I read the recap of each week’s episode so I can keep up. Which was what happened this past Friday morning. I read the recap for the most recent episode “Silent All These Years” and cried. I knew I was going to go watch the episode via “on demand” as soon as I could.
“Silent All These Years” is a Very Special episode built around the subject of consent. It is told mainly through the story of a patient who comes to the hospital, Abby. One of the doctors, Jo, realizes she is suffering from more than the apparent cut on her cheek. As she examines her, she realizes Abby has been sexually assaulted. This story is juxtaposed against a flash back to a recent visit Jo had with her birth mother. Jo was left at a fire station when she was five days old. She finally tracks down her birth mother and meets her at a diner to try and understand. The trauma of sexual assault again impacts the decisions of both women. The third tiny story is when Ben has a talk with his stepson Tuck after he realizes he is dating. This was much needed tension breaking scenes from the other two stories. In a kind of ABC Afterschool Special way Ben explains to Tuck in a relatable way how the words “no” and “stop” are always to be heard, and acted upon, when a woman you are with say them.
Very rarely does episodic television get it right with an episode dealing with a subject as fraught as consent and sexual assault. “Silent All These Years” is Very Special because it does it so well.