TV stays relevant by pushing boundaries and, slowly but surely, breaking societal taboos. In the suffocating struggle for viewers and ratings, writers, directors and animators are rarely afraid to blur the line between appropriate and tasteless and the more ‘out there’ or shocking a show can be, the more it will grab the attention of viewers: A generous profit is sure to follow.
However, there are a number of popular TV shows that have failed to find a balance between daringly controversial and just plain inappropriate. It seems that it’s all too easy to go too far. From racial slurs to offensive jokes to disturbing story lines, some television shows will do just about anything to grab headlines. Sometimes, the really extreme cases are caught by the censors, while on other occasions the really worst and most offensive controversies were the unforeseen result of poor timing, an accidental oversight or unintentional hidden meanings. A perfect example of this latter sort of controversy was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode titled ‘Earshot’. The episode featured gripping scenes of a school massacre and unfortunately for the show’s writers, the episode was due to air immediately after the Columbine massacre that shook the world. As a sign of respect to viewers and victims, the episode was pulled from the air for a substantial period of time.
Some episodes of the world’s most popular TV shows were so dodgy that they didn’t even make it on air; check out our list of the 10 most controversial episodes of some of your favourite TV shows, to find out what didn’t make the cut!
10. The Simpsons: ‘The City of New York VS Homer Simpson’
During the late nineties and early naughties, The Simpsons had reached a peak in popularity, with millions of viewers tuning in every week. The episode ‘The City of New York VS Homer Simpson’ originally aired in 1997. The Twin Towers, still standing at the time of animation, feature heavily in the episode. Four years later when tragedy occurred, TV executives decided to ban reruns of the episode. It was decided that the footage of the towers would be extremely insensitive at a troubled time, but as the years went on, the ban on the episode was gradually lifted.
9. South Park: ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’
South Park’s raw and unforgiving humour is well known, and there are many controversial episodes to choose from. One particular episode that sticks out is ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’. The premise of the episode was that the Crystal Skull instalment of the popular franchise was jumping the whale. Using the most unsubtle imagery imaginable, the episode featured graphic scenes of Harrison Ford being sexually assaulted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Needless to say, the episode was condemned by parents, and charities for victims of sexual assault. South Park is notorious for shocking viewers with obscene and explicit content, of course, and you’ll be coming across it again later on this list…
8. The Teletubbies: The Handbag Controversy
The Teletubbies was a television programme designed for preschool children: limited dialogue, vivid colours and sing-along songs made for the perfect children’s TV show, right? Not for some. Tinky Winky, one of the Teletubbies, carries around a trademark red handbag. However, since Tinky Winky was a male, TV censors in Poland decided that he was promoting homosexuality and ordered a psychological evaluation of his character. Although no one episode is singled out, the debate over Tinky Winky’s supposed sexuality lasted for many years.
7. Tiny Toons: ‘One Beer’
Tiny Toons was a spin-off of Looney Toons, the renowned cartoon, which features everyone’s favourite Looney Toons characters in child form. Taking this into consideration, it’s hard to understand why the creators decided to make the episode ‘One Beer’. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the concept of this episode could be dodgy territory: three of the pre-teen characters get drunk on beer. They proceed to steal a police car and drive it off a cliff, killing themselves… The end of the episode even features a scene of their souls flying upwards to heaven. Understandably, parents had a thing or two to say about this strange episode, and it was swiftly banned from the air in the United States.
6. Star Trek: ‘Miri’
The episode ‘Miri’ from Star Trek’s Original Series did not impress the censorship board of the BBC in the United Kingdom. In the episode, the main characters visit another planet populated by humans. However, it is revealed that only children populate the planet after all their parents killed one another in war. The children who populate the planet are being ravaged by a deadly, unknown illness. To top it all off, many of the kids display violent behaviour. The episode was branded a big “no-no” by the BBC and wasn’t permitted onto the air.
5. Hannibal: ‘Ceuf’
Brainwashed kids brandishing weapons? Talk about a combination that TV censors love to hate. This was the theme of the Hannibal episode ‘Ceuf’, which to date has never been aired on television. This episode of the popular American thriller series was branded too sensitive, since the brainwashed children were coaxed into committing violent acts against other kids. Children are often a delicate topic, so child-on-child violence is an obvious red flag for any censor.
4. Family Guy: ‘When You Wish Upon a Weinstein’
Like South Park, Family Guy is notorious for its ostentatious, in-your-face humour. The show regularly crosses the line, but the episode ‘When You Wish Upon a Weinstein’ proved too much for censors. Peter, the show’s lead character, decides to convert to Judaism in order to become wealthy, singing along to his now infamous song ‘I need a Jew’. Fox Network decided that the episode was far too offensive to be aired, and the show’s creators were forced to release it on DVD only.
3. Married… With Children: ‘I’ll See You In Court’
This is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of American censorship on our list. ‘I’ll See You In Court’ was due to air in 1989, but didn’t manage to make it until 2002 – an incredible 13 years late. The episode was locked up before it could be released due to the explicitly sexual content it contained. Focused on the issue of illegal sex tapes, the episode featured some pretty steamy scenes and some very raunchy language. The episode was deemed so inappropriate for television that even when it did make it to air, many parts had already been edited out.
2. Family Matters: Halloween Special
The season 8 Halloween special of Family Matters shocked many viewers to the core. The usually tame show turned all kinds of weird, disturbing many of its viewers. The popular character Urkel buys a ventriloquist dummy that looks exactly like him and names it Stevil. It turns out that Stevil is possessed, and he tells Urkel he will kill his neighbours, the Winslows. Unfortunately, Stevil lives up to his word. Along with running over some children and dismembering other family members, Stevil decapitates Mrs. Winslow. Another terrifying scene sees Urkel talking to his neighbour Carl, only for Carl to drop dead before Urkel. It turned out that Stevil had been moving Carl’s dead body like a marionette, pretending to speak to Urkel. We know Halloween episodes are meant to be spooky – but this took it a little too far for a family-friendly show.
1. The X Files: ‘Home’
The X Files’ episode ‘Home’ is perhaps one of the most notorious episodes of a popular show ever to be screened on television. Aired in 1996, the extremely disturbing content shocked households around the world. The plot centred around an incestuous family: a quadriplegic mother who was having children by her three disfigured sons. The episode was banned from all networks. Although it was pulled from the air, it has gone down in television history as one of the X Files’ most riveting moments.