Television networks are not exactly strangers to controversy. Shows that get people talking become “must see TV” and are the fodder that water cooler conversation was built on. Delving into unchartered television territory is usually a good thing and leads to even better ratings. As times change so does the need for good entertainment that will represent the current political and social climate.
Sometimes television writers are tackling a subject they’re passionate about and other times they are being cheeky in a way that can offend. Whatever someone’s personal thoughts are on censorship, networks hire censors to steer programming in a way that will keep key partners (like program partners and advertisers) happy, and also in most cases shows probably want to avoid alienating devoted fans. Seriously, it must be a tightrope walk. How does a show remain both cutting edge and politically correct (sometimes to a fault) at the same time?
We’re looking at times shows were aired that made people freak out, not the ones that never made it to broadcast, because those ones were pulled before people had a chance to even watch them. For some of these moments from the past people might not see what the big deal was, for others a polarizing debate still might spark. Sometimes the shows listed will be what’s expected from typical, repeat offenders, other shows that made the list are a little more surprising. Here are 15 times TV networks went too far whether the viewers loved it (or not).
15. South Park – Religious Superheroes
South Park rocked the censors’ world from their very first episode, when in the very early days they had a primetime slot on most networks. Soon they pushed the show to a later air time, hoping they could push the envelope even further since they were on the air. For the most part this worked, however there are particular times when creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have found themselves in pretty hot water. For their 200th and 201st episode it seems they went out of their way to offend as many religious groups as possible when they portrayed the leaders of major religious groups as a team of superheroes. Before the broadcast of part two, 201, a radical Muslim group (Revolution Muslim) posted a message on their website stating both Parker and Stone were at risk for murder because of their offensive depiction of Muhammad. At the same time both episodes were nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (talk about a sticky situation).
14. Mr. Rogers – Cold War Education
I bet most people didn’t see this one coming, banned content from a children’s program hosted by everyone’s favourite neighbour, but it’s true. In November 1983 the show decided to teach their kinder-viewers about nuclear war. This episode not only told children about how nuclear war was something that could happen, but how it could happen at any time. This was a week-long episode called Conflict where King Friday is convinced that Corny the Beaver is stockpiling nuclear weapons, so he begins acquiring weapons too. Eventually King Friday realizes that Corny was actually building a bridge to bring the two cities together, and that puppetgeddon wasn’t in the cards, not that particular week anyway. These episodes understandably haven’t hit the air since 1996, and are pretty much impossible to get a hold of legally. These Cold War timed episodes meant to educate, but more likely had children terrified about a shifty stuffed beaver who may or may not be bent on destruction.
13. Tiny Toons – Drunk Cartoon Children
This episode was meant to teach kids about the dangers of drinking, but it resembles more of a MADD commercial and less of a TV episode geared at kids. In the episode entitled 1 Beer, characters Plucky, Buster, and Hampton decide to drink a beer. The episode takes an after-school special approach to showcasing what can happen when you drink before you’re ready. The boys get absolutely hammered off one beer, have a belch off, then decide to steal a cop car and take it for a joy ride. The episode ends rather darkly when they all drunk drive off a cliff and reach an untimely end. The car is on fire and kid viewers are left to watch the three juvenile delinquents fly up into the sky with angel wings. This episode only aired once before it was pulled, however it was released with the rest of the collection on DVD for curious viewers who feel like they must see this episode.
12. Diff’rent Strokes – Child Molestation
The Bicycle Man episode of Diff’rent Strokes appears to be not that much different than the series of TV shows that decided to have one-off episodes that tackle very serious topics. These episodes are a lot like after-school specials in terms of their pointedly different dialogue and heavy lessons to be learned. In this episode, local bike store owner Mr. Horton suggests that Mr. Drummond buy the family bikes instead of renting them (like he usually does). He even offers to sweeten the deal by promising to give Arnold a free radio for his bike if he hands out fliers for the store at school. Arnold recruits his friend Dudley and soon makes regular trips to the store and the apartment in the back to get fliers. Soon he’s given alcohol, shown dirty cartoons, and poses in photo shoots for the store owner, who asks the boys to keep the visits a secret. Although the episode shows some great, brave moments, demonstrating how smart kids and adults can be fooled by predators, there is something additionally “off about it.” Commentators taking a look back are particularly taken aback by the odd and disconcerting usage of laugh tracks throughout the episodes. Rumour has it these episodes once aired on Adult Swim more recently, but this is not confirmed.
11. Pokémon – Seizures
Okay this one’s just really strange. Has something you watched on TV ever made you sick, but not the plot, the visuals displayed on the screen? We’ve heard of music videos getting banned or issuing warning labels because of flashing lights being problematic for those suffering from epilepsy, but this one goes even further. Hundreds of people watching a particular episode of Pokémon fell ill immediately following their Poke-time. In 1997, an episode called, Computer Soldier Portgon featured a number of flashing red and blue lights on the screen that did a whole lot more than simply entertain. Following the broadcast of this particular episode there were complaints from viewers of dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, and some said they even lost consciousness from watching the show. Over 600 people were taken to the hospital because of symptoms related to tuning in. The episode was then banned.
10. Beavis and Butthead – Fire! Fire!
Remember those two cartoon guys in metal t-shirts who made fun of music videos? Their content was routinely the subject of significant edits from MTV during its run. Many episodes never hit the airwaves and even today can only be found on the DVD collections, however it turns out one episode slipped through the cracks and led to a lot of controversy. In an episode called Comedians, Beavis and Butthead try to become stand-up comedians, but in usual Beavis and Butthead style, Beavis accidentally burns down the comedy club he’s performing at when he attempts to juggle flaming newspapers. As far as Beavis and Butthead goes this sounds pretty tame. Unfortunately, a month after airing a boy from Ohio decided to juggle some flaming newspapers, setting his family’s trailer ablaze, and killing his two-year-old sister. The controversy following this incident made MTV look at their editing and their program scheduling. A week later Beavis and Butthead moved from their 7PM timeslot to a later 1030PM airing time.
9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Too Close to Columbine
Sometimes timing plays more of a role in the editing of an episode than the actual plot line. The episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled Earshot involved a school shooting and was originally scheduled to air one week after the Columbine massacre of 1999. In the episode, Buffy gains the ability to read minds and “overhears” what she believes to be someone plotting a mass murder at her school. It turned out the student was only planning to kill himself, but he is stopped in the nick of time by Buffy in the clock tower. The network played a rerun in place of the episode that April and delayed the airing of the original episode from April to September. Despite the five month delay it was still highly criticised when it aired because of its similarities to what happened in Colorado. It seems like the timing was just awful on this one.
8. Seinfeld – Puerto Rican Day Parade Episode
Despite this episode getting pulled, and leading to NBC issuing an apology, it can also be seen as a swan song to the show, because this is a lot closer to the final episode everyone wanted to see. There was some well-deserved anger in this 1998 episode Puerto Rican Flag Day when Kramer stomps out a Puerto Rican flag that he accidentally set on fire and then says, “It’s like this every day in Puerto Rico.” Understandably, there were some viewers who were pretty unhappy about this negative portrayal, but this is also the highest ever rated Seinfeld episode where Jerry, George, and Kramer all get to use their “alter-ego” personas (Art Vandelay, H.E. Pennypacker, Kel Varnsen anyone?). The episode was pulled from syndication, but quietly made its way back into the rotation in 2002. This really is the case of an unfortunate scene in an otherwise quite brilliant episode.
7. The Mindy Project – Anal Sex
In 2014, The Mindy Project made television history as featuring the first ever anal sex scene on broadcast TV in their episode appropriately entitled, I Slipped. The controversy for this episode has more to do with consent than anything else. The episode has Mindy’s boyfriend Danny trying something new from behind and slipping it in without consent from a very surprised Mindy. The episode got people talking about consent as well as safe anal sex. Mindy Kaling has addressed negative commentary from the episode saying the message between couples in the episode is one people can learn from in real life saying, “Let’s discuss all our sexy time stuff because that will make it better and sexier!” And that’s positive.” Mindy also said, “I don’t think that in the relationship that Mindy’s reaction to it was ‘I feel violated’; it was ‘Hey man, run that by me!’’
6. Louie – Sexual Assault Scene
Fans, critics, and journalists spent a lot of time debating season four of Louie after multiple episodes of controversy, particularly when the show looked at sexual assault. In a three part storyline Louie gets drunk and throws himself at his friend Pamela who is not interested. He tries to kiss her, and chases her around his apartment pursuing her. In the episode, Pamela aptly says, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.” Critics wondered what Louis C.K’s intentions even were with this episode. This season came out shortly before some accusations surrounding C.K. sexually harassing female comedians he had come into contact with. After these allegations became public knowledge comedian Jen Kirkman told a story that lined up with the accusations of another comedian (whom she didn’t name) who sounded an awful lot like C.K. When asked about these allegations during an interview with Vulture, C.K. said, “Well, you can’t touch stuff like that. There’s one more thing I want to say about this, and it’s important: If you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head.”
5. Married with Children – Sex Tapes
Sometimes, a show doesn’t end up hitting the air for over 13 years because of controversy. This is the case for Married with Children who had an episode that was deemed too scandalous for TV in 1989. The episode I’ll See You in Court features Al and Peg trying to spice up their sex life by heading to the Hop-On-Inn at the suggestion of neighbour Marcy. While there they discover a porno tape of their neighbours (Marcy and Steve) who were unknowingly filmed by the hotel. Al and Peg decide to have sex and also unknowingly end up taping themselves doing the deed. In true MWC style, there are plenty of jokes about the speed of Al’s performance in the bedroom when both couples decide to take the hotel to court. The episode premiered in other parts of the world in 1990, however wasn’t broadcasted in the US until 2002 when it was broadcast by the FX network, with several lines cut from the original episode.
4. Maude – Abortion #1
A lot of people didn’t know that the 1970’s sitcom Maude had a two-part episode that tackled the subject of abortion. Remember, back in the 1970’s, this was a big deal. The show laid the groundwork for shows like Roseanne in terms of portrayal of “real” American families. The episode featured a 47-year-old grandmother, Maude Findlay (played by Bea Arthur), who must deal with an unexpected later in life pregnancy. Maude must make a heartbreaking choice alongside her husband and became a part of television history as the first prime time lead character to have had a legal abortion. The network was very nervous about airing this episode and some channels dropped the show completely following the controversial, yet ground-breaking episode. The two part episode was written in response to a contest by Zero Populations Growth who had a prize of $10,000 for comedy shows that had plot lines about controlling the American population.
3. Party of Five – Abortion #2
Despite abortion becoming a part of television history in the 1970s, when Bea Arthur paved the way with Maude, television networks were still very nervous of talking about it on air, particularly in programming geared towards a younger audience. The 1990s show Party of Five featured orphaned teen Julia Salinger and an unplanned pregnancy. When Julia finds out she’s pregnant and agonizes over her choices, and eventually decides that an abortion is the right choice for her. After a lot of feedback from the network, the plotline was substantially altered to have Julia suffer a miscarriage instead of going through with it. Creator Amy Lippman says the show got a call from John Matoian, “We walked in, and he burst into tears, ‘I’m so sorry. It’s what would happen. It would win awards. We cannot put it on the air.” Critics have coined plotlines like this a “convenience” miscarriage, so a main character doesn’t have to do anything that makes viewers too uncomfortable. Fortunately, even though the episode was dramatically changed, it still got viewers talking.
2. Game of Thrones – Incest + Assault
There are so many things Game of Thrones could be under fire for (even without the dragons), but since it’s adult television, airing late at night, most people understand that they’re getting R-rated HBO programming. That being said, viewers were still quite upset about what occurred in the episode entitled, Breaker of the Chains. This graphic sex and violence was way too much for many viewers who had been watching the show knowing what was being served. After Jaime Lannister is finally reunited with his twin sister (who is also his lover) he forces himself on her without her consent. This scene upset many fans, particularly since in the books the relations were completely consensual. This kind of break from the book was a little too much to bear. Fans wondered why there was a need to make this encounter different than it was intended, and many viewers were so angry they stopped watching the series.
1. The Walking Dead – Most Violent Scenes Ever
Readers were probably waiting for this item on the list, since it’s all anyone can talk about in the world of the undead right now. After a cliff hanger ending at the conclusion of season six, fans sat at the edge of their seats wondering what lead character would be no more. Then, The Walking Dead, took things even further, with a number of hard-hitting swings with a baseball bat that left many stunned and horrified. The brutal baseball bat beating to death of two characters has been labelled the goriest in the show’s very violent history. These deaths were shown in close-up, tear and nausea inducing detail. Erik Kain, a Forbes critic, said of the episode, “Tonight’s killing was tasteless and gory and gross… I’m not sure if this was great drama, or just torture porn.” Many devout fans say this episode marked the end of their viewership of the long-running Zombie Apocalypse hit show.