10 TV moments that will keep you awake at night
Jenny talks us through 10 of TV's bleakest, most disturbing and incongruous TV moments, from Threads to ALF via South Park...
It's 11.30pm, and I'm lying in bed. I've had a long day at work, and I'm tired. Never mind – I have a day off tomorrow; I'll probably have a nice lunch, followed by a movie and a couple of beers.
Instead of drifting off contentedly at this thought, I'm lying awake, wide eyed, with the theme tune from Dinosaurs going round my head. This is because I'm an idiot, and I watched the show's final episode before going to bed.
Every so often, something you see on TV will keep rattling round in your brain long after the credits roll. Sometimes you have no idea of the horrors that lie in store as you settle down to watch the show. Other times, well... it's your own fault. If you watch a film about nuclear war, you're gonna have a bad time. But Dinosaurs? Is nothing sacred anymore?
The following clips not only confirm that I'm a massive wuss, but that every show ever should come with a government warning – 'Stop watching right now. Put the remote down. Go do something nice instead, like a jigsaw puzzle.'
SPOILERS LIE AHEAD FOR THE INDIVIDUAL SHOWS MENTIONED. Please skip any entries that you don't want spoiled for you.
1. Threads (1984)
This bleak BBC film should perhaps have been called 'The Cold War – deleted scenes and alternate ending'. It shows us a universe where tensions with Russia have escalated so much that a nuclear bomb is dropped on Britain – Sheffield, to be precise. I'll just give you a minute to make the usual jokes about how a nuke wouldn't make any visible difference to Sheffield, and then we can proceed.
The entire film is difficult viewing, but the scene that will be forever burnt into my mind depicts the immediate moments after the bomb has hit. There are no theatrics, there is no action movie style heroic body flinging. The reaction is realistic and very human. In the immediate seconds following the blast, the people in the surrounding area just stand there in disbelief, not really knowing what to do. One man manages to utter the words “They've gone and done it, they've bloody gone and done it.” A woman nearby drops her shopping on the ground and wets herself.
These reactions, coupled with the activities taking place only seconds before – grocery shopping, car maintenance etc – are what make this scene so chilling. It is believable. Most explosions in films are accompanied by so much Hollywood hyperbole and glitz that the viewer is able to see it as a piece of pantomime. If there was ever an opposite of Hollywood, it surely has to be Sheffield.
2. Dinosaurs finale (1994)
Like most people my age, I watched Jim Henson's animatronic sitcom as a child, but I only really understood the bits where the baby hit the dad with a frying pan, before shouting “Not the mama!”
Back then, this was the very pinnacle of hilarity. Rewatching the show as an adult, I am able to grasp the layers and the social commentary previously hidden to me. During its four season run, the show covered war, sexual harassment, homophobia and drugs. The show even took on The Exorcist, complete with 360 degrees head-spinning. In one particularly grim episode, the government decides to blame the country's economic problems on four legged dinosaurs, who are then treated as second class citizens, before being forcibly deported.
But topping even this is the show's last ever episode, entitled Changing Nature. In this episode, we see Earl and the company he works for inadvertently bringing about the end of the world. When the company wipes out a species of beetle by building a factory over their mating ground, a type of vine previously kept under control by the beetles spreads and causes havoc. To combat this, the company sprays the vines with a powerful defoliant, but this kills all plant life in the world. The company decides what's needed is more rain to make the plants grow again, so they drop bombs into volcanoes in order to create clouds. The resulting cloud cover is so thick that the sun is blocked out, with scientists predicting it will take tens of thousands of years for the clouds to dissipate. The result is global cooling, and eventually the beginning of an ice age.
As the episode progresses, the jokes become fewer and fewer, until we reach the final scene – the last broadcast by long serving news anchor Howard Handupme, ending with the line -
“...and taking a look at the long range forecast, continued snow, darkness, and extreme cold. This is Howard Handupme, saying goodnight... Goodbye.”
3. South Park – Britney's New Look (2008)
A quick synopsis for those of you who haven't seen this episode:
Britney Spears, unable to take the pressure of being hounded by the paparazzi, attempts suicide but succeeds only in shooting the top of her head off. Her management decides she should make a comeback despite only having half a head, and despite Britney's clear mental anguish. This comeback gets negative reviews from the media and general public.
Stan and Kyle, feeling guilty for their part in the media circus, attempt to smuggle Britney to the North Pole, where she can hide from the press. But they are tracked down by a baying mob, and Britney is murdered. The mob explains that this is to ensure a good corn harvest for the following year.
Right after I'd viewed this episode for the first time, if you'd asked me to choose the most horrific scene, I would have said the part where Britney Spears is sacrificed by the baying mob. The lasting image of her lying on the floor in obvious distress isn't lessened by the fact that she's a two dimensional, fictional, headless character. Okay, maybe it is a bit. But it's still creepy as hell.
On the second viewing, I noticed all the other parts that make this unsettling, even for a South Park episode. This is possibly because I was paying attention the second time, rather than just watching it in the background while I played bingo on Facebook.
There are several scenes in this episode that kick you in the feelings, and these include -
- Britney's joy at hearing her kids have come to see her in hospital, only to find out her visitors are actually Stan and Kyle, and that her kids haven't bothered to come
- Britney's management dragging her back into the studio to record her comeback single, despite the fact that she can no longer sing, or even talk
- Britney's comeback performance at the VMAs, during which the audience does nothing but criticise her figure
4. Spooks – Helen Flynn and the kitchen incident (2002)
Spooks was a BBC drama series about MI5, and their various wacky escapades. One of those escapades involved the main 'woman one' Helen Flynn (played by Lisa Faulkner) getting her arm and face pushed into a deep fat fryer, before being shot.
This is one scene that I have never, ever sought out on YouTube since originally seeing it on TV. Despite that, I can still recall every detail. I happened to see it while my parents were channel hopping one night; we didn't even watch Spooks. I wish they'd accidentally turned over to Strike It Lucky instead. To be honest, I'm going to have to have a nice cup of tea and a sit down after writing this part, because I've spent years trying not to even think of the fact that this scene exists if I can possibly help it.
I don't need to go into why this is such a horrifying scene. I repeat – she gets her head pushed into a deep fat fryer.
The episode, entitled Looking After Our Own, received over 250 complaints. Debate continues over whether or not these complaints were just from guys who fancied Lisa Faulkner.
5. Being Human – The dog fight (2011)
For those of you who haven't seen this comedy drama about a vampire, a ghost and a werewolf sharing a house – buy the boxset right now, and call in sick to work until you've watched it all.
During an episode in series three, we're introduced to a long standing tradition among the vampire gangland subculture – dogfights.
Anyone being made to fight to the death is disturbing – that's why Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are so popular, not to mention that bit in Flash Gordon where he has to avoid getting skewered in the balls. But in Being Human, the fighter has so much more to deal with than your average combatant with a run of bad luck.
This is how the evening's proceedings are played out. Some poor, unsuspecting human is abducted from a car park, or a bus stop, and bundled into the back of a van with a bag over their head. A few hours later, when they're well and truly shitting themselves, they are brought out in front of a baying crowd, bag still on head, and shoved into a cage. Then they're given a knife and told to kill the other guy, already in the cage.
Did I mention that the other chap is a werewolf, and that we're about 90 seconds away from a full moon? And that the baying crowd is entirely composed of vampires? I probably should have mentioned that before.
Let's just stop and take stock here -
1. You've been kidnapped
2. You're being made to fight to the death
3. You've just discovered that vampires and werewolves are real
4. You've also just discovered that vampires really aren't very nice people at all; they probably don't even pay their TV licences
All in all I'd say the chap in this scene is having a pretty bad day.
I think the true worst thing about this scene is that we find out just how meaningless human life is to the average vampire. The ringmaster has to find out the fighter's name by getting his ID out of his wallet, seconds before the fight. That's how much vampires don't care about human life. Not that vampires are real, that's just me being a weirdo.
6. Diff'rent Strokes – The Bicycle Man (1983)
Even though I can barely sit through this two part episode without needing a strong drink, I'm really glad it was made. It's often said that the best way to educate people is to shock them, and what better way to do that than to have an episode of a light hearted family sitcom where two children are groomed and drugged by a paedophile? Given this synopsis, it's not surprising that the episode stuck in people's minds, and I'd like to think kids who saw it were extra vigilant afterwards. Although I hate to think what it did for small business owners.
Okay – plot. Arnold and Dudley befriend Mr Horton, owner of a bicycle shop in town. Mr Horton gives them special treats, like free handlebar radios and ice cream, sometimes inviting them into the back room of his shop, where he has toys and video games. Eventually he tries to drug them, but luckily Arnold smells a rat and tells his dad the whole story.
In fact, I think the best way to go is to give you the words of actor Conrad Bain, and his introduction to part two of this 'very special episode' -
“Last week on Diff'rent Strokes, Arnold and his pal Dudley were trying to earn radios for their bicycles by passing out handbills for Mr Horton's bike store. Later that day Mr Horton invited the boys into his back room to have some pizza, and to play games. And he gave them a little wine to drink. Then he showed them some photos of himself swimming naked with some young boys. He cautioned them not to say anything to their parents. After that, he had Dudley take off his shirt so they could play 'Tarzan', and take some pictures. He said he had some even better ideas for later on.
What's creepy is that we also see the scenes where Mr Horton is alone, plotting his next move. He does things like hiding a porn magazine in a stack of comics, hoping it will 'accidentally' be found by Arnold or his friend Dudley. And we see him getting annoyed because a customer has come into the shop while the boys are in the back, and thinking of how to get rid of them quickly.
However, the second part of the episode handles the situation admirably. Thankfully, that's pretty much the last we see of Mr Horton's plans for the boys, as Arnold and Dudley's respective dads find out they've been drinking, which leads them to the bike shop. Arnold has already 'fessed up to everything, but Dudley is still there, and it transpires that Mr Horton gave him some sort of pill to 'make him feel good'. Luckily, Mr Drummond has already called the rozzers, who arrive to arrest Mr Horton and rescue Dudley.
When I finally managed to watched the whole two parter, I realised that the writing is brilliant. There's just enough information to get the word out to the viewing families, and somehow they still manage to make it funny, courtesy of Arnold's rubbish attempts to not land himself in it, and also Aronld's continuing one-upmanship with Dudley. This episode shows you stuff from a kid's point of view, which makes it heartbreaking, and it shows you stuff from Mr Horton's point of view, which makes it downright creepy.
7. American Dad – The American Dad After School Special (2006)
This one stays with you because you don't really see what's going on until the end.
After Stan's son Steve falls in love with a fat girl, Stan's disapproval prompts the family to point out that he's not so buff himself. This leads to Stan embarking on a punishing diet and exercise regime in an attempt to get back his figure. He soon realises he's being thwarted at every turn by his family, who want him to stay a bit fat so he'll accept his son's overweight girlfriend.
He meets a personal trainer called Zack, who motivates him to fight back against his family. But Stan keeps getting fatter, and eventually the CIA suspend him because of his 'weight problem'.
Have you guessed the twist yet? If you haven't, I probably wouldn't trust you to house-sit for me.
The episode is played out as if we're inside Stan's head. In reality, he's getting thinner and thinner, and his family are so worried they're trying to feed him extra calories on the sly. And yes, you guessed it, Zack the personal trainer is a figment of Stan's imagination. As for his 'weight problem' and subsequent suspension from work – he really is suspended, but only because he now weighs about 6 stone, and can no longer complete even basic training.
This episode is sad rather than scary, when you think about the fact that this is actually the reality for millions of people. Real people can't just inflate instantly like cartoon people can, and in real life the reason for an eating disorder is normally more serious than 'my son has a fat girlfriend'.
8. Star Trek Deep Space Nine – Move Along Home
Imaging being forced to watch your friends playing Russian roulette, because you cheated in a game of real roulette. That's the fate faced by Quark, DS9's resident bar owner and scammer. When a previously unknown race, the Wadi, visit the crew, Quark tries to cheat them out of all their valuable possessions. This pisses the Wadi off, and they decide to teach Quark a lesson by forcing them to play their own game – 'Move Along Home', a bit like a 3D version of Game Of Life. The rest of the crew (at least, the ones the viewers care about) suddenly find themselves trapped in the board, with no explanation. They manage to figure out that they're in a board game, and must solve lateral thinking puzzles in order to survive. Think Dingbats, but with more mortal peril.
Quark, on the outside, rolls the dice, and must then decide between a long but relatively safe route for the players, or a short, more dangerous route. If he chooses the short route and his players survive, he doubles his winnings.
The ultimate 'Noooooo!' moment comes near the end of the game, when Quark chooses the short route, thinking his shipmates will have enough nous to get through, and be able to skip to the end of the board. But then he has to take a 'Community Chest' card, which states that one player will be sacrificed so the others can live. God, we've all been there haven't we?
Quark breaks down at this point, begging forgiveness for trying to cheat the Wadi, while Odo stands there looking disapproving, like he always does.
Eventually, after a nail biting 'who's it going to be?' cliffhanger, we discover that the game was only ever just that – a game – and that the players were never in any danger. Cue much lulz from the Wadi, while Quark is left feeling like a bit of a dick.
While some people might not agree that this episode is disturbing compared to other Star Trek episodes, I would argue that it gave me nightmares, because imagine being trapped in a board game, where one wrong move means you die, and you're not even sure what that move is supposed to be? Also, you're doing it because some barman scammed the customers? I'd be pretty pissed off too.
9. ALF Finale (1990)
Alf, the loveable, wisecracking 'alien life form' living a nondescript but hilarious life with the Tanner family, meets a sticky end during the final episode of the show. In short, he is abducted by the government and taken for experiments and vivisection.
Although we (thankfully, and perhaps obviously) never see the experiments taking place, it is heavily implied during a previous episode -
Mrs Tanner - “And what would you do with him if you did get him in the lab?”
Dickhead agent - “Oh the usual battery of tests... we'll see how he responds to intense heat, freezing cold, high voltage, toxic substances, pain, sleep deprivation, inoculation (that's needles), and of course... dissection.”
The thing that really gets you in this episode, apart from the implied dissection, is that Alf was this close to going home. He was standing there, suitcases packed, and the spaceship taxi had arrived, only to be scared off by the men in black. This close.
Before I bum you out too much, I should say that this isn't Alf's 'real' ending. The show led into a movie spinoff, during which Alf escaped from the testing facility. They released this movie 6 years after the final episode. Thanks a lot guys.
10. Tom And Jerry – Blue Cat Blues (1955)
Back in 'the good ole days', a Tom And Jerry episode aired in which Jerry narrates the story of Tom's failure to woo his romantic interest, and his subsequent heartbreak.
The show is different from normal Tom And Jerry episodes for several reasons. Firstly, there isn't really any slapstick, head bouncing, tail burning humour; there's just Tom's pathetic attempts to buy better and better gifts for his beau, which are invariably overshadowed by his rival, 'Butch'.
Secondly, the moral of the story appears to be that you can buy a woman's love with gifts, and god help you if you're poor – you stand no chance. The lady cat in question just sort of sits there and lets the two cats festoon her with increasingly expensive gifts, comparing the size of each cat's respective gift, and eventually marrying the richer cat. Love is an alien concept to this chick, otherwise she'd clearly go for Tom, the more pathetically devoted of the two.
Anyway, the meaning of the episode seems to be 'Women love money and nothing else can penetrate their icy hearts.'
What's that saying? 'A dollar from a millionaire is meaningless, but a dollar from a pauper is to be treasured.' That's a pretty good proverb, to say I just made it up.
Thirdly, Tom and Jerry don't fight in this episode. In fact, they have a real bromance going on, as Jerry tries desperately to make his friend see sense before he ruins his life over that ho.
Last but not least, Tom kills himself at the end. And so does Jerry. They both find themselves spurned by the women they love, so they sit together on a railway line, waiting for a train to come and run them over. The very last sound we hear as the cartoon fades out is the horn of an approaching train. So that's nice.
I'm sorry if you were about to go to bed when you read this. At least you can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone – I too am a weirdo that will have nightmares about American Dad episodes for years to come. Sleep tight.
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