Some of TV’s Heaviest Moments Came From Lighthearted Shows


Is it fair that some of television’s most emotionally wrenching and nightmare-inducing moments came from supposedly light entertainment?

When we tune into a sitcom, cartoon, or low-conflict drama, are we expecting to be hit over the head with unspeakable tragedy and menace? 

It’s almost like biting into a Klondike bar and tasting spicy tobasco sauce instead.

Still, if you can memorably crush the audience’s heart while still keeping with the show’s spirit and tone, you can create television history. 

Going through the list of sobs and shudders, I had to eliminate some classic TV moments because they were either “Goodbye Episodes” (and Goodbyes are just sad in general) or because they were on a show that wasn’t exactly safe to begin with.

(Sorry, Roseanne, All in the Family, Scrubs, and M*A*S*H — you were never light!)

Otherwise, here are ten of the heaviest moments from light entertainment, ranked by emotional brutality.

10. WKRP in Cincinnati, “Ask Jennifer” (Episode 59)

Quite a few shows in the 1970s went dark, from the head of the class All in the Family to even the soap opera spoof SOAP. 

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However, we didn’t expect WKRP in Cincinnati, a convivial sitcom about the characters at a radio station, to get so heavy. 

When Jennifer (Loni Anderson) starts her own Dear Abby advice show, she receives a call from a woman who just found out her husband cheated on her.

Jennifer tells her to dump him, only to hear later on from the anonymous caller, who is in tears, saying that her husband beat her up. 

When she asks Jennifer what to do next, Jennifer is hit hard.

She’s unqualified to give advice without follow-up, and she’s not a social worker. The experiment of giving free advice is over.

9. Boy Meets World, “We’ll Have a Good Time Then” (Season 6, Episode 13)

Boy Meets World had a few emotional episodes, but none were more upsetting than the conflict between Shawn Hunter and his father. 

Chet Hunter was yet another deadbeat dad of the 1990s whose occasional appearances upset the status quo of the main characters. 

Shawn finally decides to give his returning dad a piece of his mind and asks, “Why wasn’t I good enough for you?” 

Then, at the worst possible time, the self-admitted bad father drops dead of a heart attack.

While actor Blake Clark did return in later episodes as a ghost, the moment is no less heavy. 

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8. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Bullets Over Bel-Air (Season 5, Episode 15)

Many TV fanatics continue to dissect the great conflict between Will and his father in “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” which undoubtedly led to Will Smith’s legitimate acting career beyond sitcoms. 

However, my favorite series episode was “Bullets Over Bel-Air,” the intense episode in which Will Smith takes a bullet for his fastidious cousin Carlton.

After a mugger shoots Will, having aimed at Carlton, Will ends up in the hospital.

Carlton runs the gamut of emotions, going from fear to anger and finally to resolution — but not before buying a gun and getting ready to throw his life away in an act of revenge. 

Will screams at Carlton from his hospital bed that he owes him his life, finally reaching his heart and convincing him to leave the gun behind.

It was the sort of vulnerable moment between brothers (or cousins, in this case) that you rarely saw on such a lighthearted sitcom. 

7. Tom and Jerry, “Blue Cat Blues” (Episode 103)

I’m always amazed at how people think offensive cartoons are a 1990s thing. 

Cartoons have always been edgy, racy (admittedly in a much more subtle way), and occasionally very dark.

The 1940s were the golden age of adult animation, which we still think was written for children. 

And while it was hard to pick just one episode that crossed the line, I think I found it. 

Sure, Looney Tunes made you laugh in disbelief, Woody Woodpecker made you wince, but Tom and Jerry! This is the cartoon that almost made you weep in between hilarious gags. 

What about “Blue Cat Blues,” which sees Tom hit rock bottom when he falls for a gold digger and blows all his money to impress her, only to get dumped?

Jerry suffers a similar fate, leading both cartoon characters to join in their sorrow and sit in front of an oncoming train, ready to call it quits.

Nobody can break your heart like 1940s cartoon gag writers!

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6. Futurama, “Jurassic Bark” (Season 4, Episode 7)

It wouldn’t be an honest list without including “Jurassic Bark,” Futurama’s ode to dead but not forgotten pets. 

After discovering and losing Seymour the Dog’s fossilized body, Fry decides not to clone his beloved pet, figuring he probably lived a good life without him for twelve years. 

When we learn that Seymour, in fact, faithfully waited for Fry to come back until the day he died (and obeyed Fry’s last command to wait for him), it’s just a stab in the feels and a series of sad images you will never remove from your brain. 

Then, of course, the makers of Futurama had to play “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and stomp the last morsel of soul you had left. 

Ironically, Futurama writers originally pitched a storyline of Fry’s mother waiting for him to no avail but figured it would be too disturbing for viewers. 

Wrong. What they came up with was worlds more depressing and felt like bleach directly applied to your eyes.

5. Blackadder, “Goodbyeee” (Series 4, Episode 6)

In Blackadder Goes Forth, the final series set in World War I, the quasi-historical sitcom takes a turn for the luridly depressing. 

Blackadder hears of a practical suicide mission coming on the Western Front, and despite feigning madness and calling in a favor, nothing can prevent what’s coming. 

The feeling throughout the show is unnerving as Blackadder knows there’s no escape and ultimately surrenders to certain death, along with his former enemies and now colleagues who followed him into machine gun fire. 

As the final scene ends in slow motion, with a slow piano version of the Blackadder theme, you know it’s over.

Even cast members reported feeling emotional about the ending, the deaths of their characters, and what it represented as a whole. 

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4. Growing Pains, “Second Change” (Season 4, Episode 20)

Growing Pain’s Matthew Perry episode may have been the most iconic After School Special.

That’s right, this special was done un-ironically, as a warning to youth about drunk driving. 

As Sandy, a college student prone to reckless behavior, Perry plays his usual comedic shtick throughout the episode, even after surviving a drunk driving incident. 

He appears to be OK and only slightly bruised.

Just as everyone is relieved that Sandy is going to be OK, Mike tells Carol that the hospital called, and Sandy died from internal bleeding. 

Carol doesn’t believe Mike at first, given his history of pranks, which makes her eventual breakdown all the more devastating. 

3. The Simpsons, “Mother Simpson” (Season 7, Episode 8)

The Simpsons is known for its sentimental storylines as much as for its sight gags, slapstick, and political satire. 

However, in Mother Simpson, we see The Simpsons goes incredibly heavy and downright cruel in an unexpected way. 

Mother Simpson is Homer’s hippie mother, who reappears briefly but gets wrapped up in more anti-corporate activism before abandoning Homer again. 

While many sitcoms explored deadbeat dads and the emotional pain they inflicted upon their families, The Simpsons was one of the very few shows at the time to use the trope with a female parent.

While I’m sure Simpsons fans would remind me that Springfield police came after Mona Simpson for decade-old crimes, leaving her no choice but to run away, I didn’t see it that way. 

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It was always a choice to be a part of Homer’s life, especially when she learned how much he missed her and needed her. Instead, she decided to skip town with a graceful goodbye. 

The damage was done. This is illustrated in the final scene of “Mother Simpson,” when we see Homer looking up at the stars, thankful for having met her but still trying to figure out what he did wrong. 

Later, when Mona appears again, Homer’s resentment towards her is palpable.

It only gets darker from there, as Mona later passes away, leaving Homer to reconcile the “too little, too late” relationship with his mother. 

While “Do It For Her” is the more heart-tugging Simpsons moment, “Mother Simpson” is the crushing blow. 

2. Different Strokes, “The Bicycle Man” (Season 5, Episodes 16 and 17)

If all this death and tragedy is too heavy to handle, maybe it’s not a good time to discuss the Different Strokes “Bicycle Man” episode. 

Mr. Horton owns a bicycle shop and befriends Arnold after his father buys him a bike. Horton offers Arnold a free radio in exchange for sending out flyers at school. 

Later, Horton lures Arnold to his house and bribes him with banana splits, pizza, wine, and porn magazines. 

The story gets weirder as things progress, in quite graphic detail for a sitcom (mainly explained in past tense confessions by the child actors), until Horton is discovered and arrested. 

While the show won prizes and received mainstream attention for handling the mature subject matter with sensitivity, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for actor Gordon Jump (WKRP in Cincinnati), who took a gamble on accepting a role this vile. 

Jump was already playing hapless and socially inept characters. Now this? 

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But despite reservations, Jump said he was glad he took the role so that he could help tell an important story.

It’s unlikely that any actor today, hypersensitive about typecasting, would ever take a role so disturbing.

The Bicycle Man was one of the most menacing villains of the 1980s, and we hardly remember it because we seemed to have blocked the nightmare out of our minds. 

1. Dinosaurs, “Changing Nature” (Season 4, Episode 7)

I claim that no one can hurt your feelings like a puppeteer, and when rewatching the Dinosaurs finale, it’s hard to argue that. 

While there have been cartoons and sitcoms that tackled mature subject matter to teach us important lessons, Dinosaurs was the first comedy that gave us a “Screw You” parting message — years before the sour grapes film Don’t Look Up. 

Some might claim that “Changing Nature” was a wake-up call to children and parents to take environmental damage more seriously. 

In this universe, dinosaurs brought on the ice age that killed them with their own wasteful and dangerous practices, which reflected how we mammals are doing the same thing to the world we have now. 

The 1995 script reads like a 2020-era dialog about global warming, and the cruelest joke is that no one learned anything from the episode all these years later. 

The creative team behind Dinosaurs (including the Jim Henson creature shop) said they knew the show was being canceled and wanted to use the last episode to educate the audience.

They wanted to finish the metaphor of dinosaur/human caricature — even to the point of the extinction that we all learned about in school but never took seriously in modern times.

While everyone involved with the show loved the message, ABC president Ted Harbert didn’t like the negativity but decided to allow the series to end on its terms. 

And what a message — a strongly worded “take it or leave it” letter of scorn, the way the most vicious satire should be written. 

DNN Anchor Howard Handupme says the weather forecast is the same as always — snow, darkness, and extreme cold.

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“This is Howard Handupme. Good night. Goodbye.”

At that moment, puppets grew up and learned to scare us better than any CGI effects had ever done. 

What do you think, TV fanatics? What are some other moments of unexpected heaviness from otherwise lighthearted shows?

Hit the comments section below to share your thoughts!

Michael Arangua is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow him on X.

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