It’s rare that you’re sitting at home watching a TV show and you encounter something new. For the most part, everything we see on television, we’ve already seen countless times before. Sure, the odd show will try new things, such as David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks, but it’s rare…very rare. Part of the reason for this is that networks and creators don’t like pushing boundaries. Most networks like to be on the cutting edge but never the bleeding edge. If they’re first to try something, they’re the ones who suffer the consequences if that something goes horribly wrong. But without firsts, we never get seconds. Without the trailblazing shows and networks who first did something crazy on screen like allowing Cher to show her bellybutton on TV, we wouldn’t have Game of Thrones today. So, we want to celebrate these firsts.
Every year, we’re seeing shows break boundaries on television. These groundbreaking moments come in small bite-sized packages so it doesn’t frighten too many people at once. People who enjoy seeing an accurate portrayal of the real world on screen are pleasantly surprised, while the prudes have less and less to watch with each progressive step. It’s a wonderful world. Just this year, we saw the first explicit gay s*x scene in American Gods, a scene that featured two Muslim men as well. If it felt strange seeing it on television, that’s to be expected. The show was breaking new ground, showing many people something they’ve never seen on TV before. So, let’s travel back through history and highlight some of the biggest and most shocking watershed moments on television. Here is a list called TV’s First: 15 Episodes That Shocked Us with Something We Had Never Seen Before.
15. First “Bare” Female
Even though most people’s memories of naked women on television are occupied with only Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones, there have been plenty more where that came from. The very first nude female on TV was actually in a TV movie called Steambath. The movie was broadcast across PBS and featured a few male butts, but the most memorable of all was the beautiful actress Valerie Perrine nude. Her breasts being shown on television was the first time it had happened. Perrine showing her breasts on screen for the first time did to audiences exactly what it did to the male characters in the film—made everyone stop and silently stare. The former Las Vegas showgirl was not new to public nudity, and she certainly had the body for it, so she was a good choice to break ground. In the scene, Perrine walks into the steambath, drops her towel, and has a shower. It’s simple, but it’s the simple things in life that make us better.
14. First “Bare” Male
Male nudity has never been as exciting as female nudity on television. It never drummed up as much controversy, although it was memorable. The very first to show off the male tush was M*A*S*H, when Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) was shown naked from behind. In the scene, Radar drops his towel and runs to the showers as an enemy sniper is shooting across the field hospital. After that, the miniseries Lonesome Dove, starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Danny Glover, became the first network program to show a male frontal region. Even though it was for a blink of an eye, there was a pee-pee on screen.
13. First Gay Male Kiss
These days, gay men are basically on every sitcom, but it wasn’t always that way. The first openly gay character on a sitcom was played by Billy Crystal on Soap. While there were plenty of protests about the character, much of the controversy surrounded how the character would be played so as not to be offensive to gay men. That being said, there were plenty of worries about the effects of normalizing homosexuality. As time wore on, the portrayals became more open and more realistic. Many are surprised to learn that it was That ’70s Show that was the first sitcom to have a gay kiss. This one is marked with some controversy, however, because it was not considered a “passionate kiss.” It involved only one gay character, Buddy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), while the other man, Eric (Topher Grace), was a touch freaked out by it. The first passionate gay male kiss came from Dawson’s Creek, five months later. The year was 1998 and the kiss took place on primetime television. This one is the kiss that got everyone talking and many still remember how monumental it was at the time.
12. First Lesbian Kiss
While the first gay male kiss didn’t happen until 1998, the first gay female kiss happened years earlier. This kiss happened in 1991 on the L.A. Law TV series, specifically in the episode “He’s a Crowd.” The kiss that took place between characters Abby Perkins, played by Michele Greene, and C.J. Lamb, played by Amanda Donohoe, created a hailstorm of criticism from various nut bags and hate groups. There was a significant number of people who feared that watching a lesbian kiss might turn them gay, especially the children. Afterward, some of the show’s advertisers threatened to pull their money, but the weekly ratings went through the roof. Greene, one of the actresses in the kiss, also got herself a nice raise.
11. First Interracial Kiss
The first interracial kiss on U.S. television has always been a major point of contention among TV trivia fans and historians. The big one that everyone remembers is from a 1968 episode of Star Trek between Kirk and Uhura, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols. While this is arguably the first kiss between a white man and a black woman, it is certainly not the first interracial kiss. This one is also debatable because Shatner says they didn’t even touch lips, whereas Nichols says they did. Even though we want to believe Nichols, it’s pretty obvious that there is no kiss there. That being said, it’s the implication that matters most. Still, it doesn’t matter if they kissed or not because that wasn’t the first interracial kiss. Hell, Shatner kissed a Eurasian actress a year earlier in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.” There was also an interracial kiss on the show Adventures in Paradise, especially in the episode “Makaha Surfing” or “The Big Surf.” This one took place back in 1960 and is very likely the first ever.
10. First Major Character Death
Back in 1953, The Danny Thomas Show was called Make Room For Daddy. It featured Danny Thomas and Jean Hagen as husband and wife. But behind the scenes, Hagen was disgruntled with her role. She did not get along with Thomas and decided to leave the show. Normally, as was the norm back then, the show would move on without mention of Hagen’s absence or it would shut down completely. Not this time. The creators decided to change the name of the show to The Danny Thomas Show and explain Hagen’s absence with something entirely new, a main character’s death. Amazingly, the death was easier for audiences (or the network) to accept than a divorce.
9. Main Actor Death
This first has to do with the death of an actor and the subsequent death of a character on a television show. We’ve seen this plenty of times over the years, such as with Finn (Cory Monteith) in Glee a few years back. The first time it ever happened was on Bonanza, when actor Dan Blocker died tragically. Blocker was best known for playing Hoss on Bonanza. When he was killed in an accident, the show was forced to confront the character’s death. The show’s producer, Richard Collins, said of the move, “Just as we personally suffered a loss…the audience suffered one, too.” The episode was that was called “Forever” was planned to highlight Blocker’s acting chops, having Hoss fall in love with a woman, but it was changed to incorporate his unexpected death instead.
8. First Birth
Most TV fans will have expected to see I Love Lucy on here in some way or another. This show was one of the most groundbreaking shows ever made, and we would need several lists to cover all the firsts it had. But when it came to intimate or personal matters, even I Love Lucy had to bow to the censors. When Lucille Ball was pregnant in real life, the show hid it from audiences for as long as they could. Since they weren’t allowed to say pregnant, they could only say “expecting.” Then, the baby came, both in real life and on the show. This marked the first time a baby was born on a show and the first time an actress’ birth was incorporated into a plot in the same time period. Hell, Lucille Ball gave birth and was on the show a few hours later.
7. First Abortion
Back in the old days of television, actors couldn’t even say the word pregnant on television for fear that audiences would instantly want to get pregnant, so it should come as no shock that the concept of an abortion was a big no-no. Well, in 1964, the soap opera Another World made headlines when one of its characters traveled to New York to get an illegal abortion. Then, in 1972, two months before abortion became legal in the United States, Bea Arthur’s character, Maude, on Maude (an All in the Family spin-off) had an abortion on primetime television. Maude was into her late 40’s and did not want to bring a child into the world at her advanced age, so she had an abortion and the episode battled with the pros and cons in a responsible manner.
6. First Toilet
It might seem unbelievable to you that there was a long stretch of time on television when a toilet never showed up on screen. The very first time it was ever shown, during an episode of Leave it to Beaver, the actual toilet bowl was never actually made visible at all. Instead, the cameraman just positioned the camera awkwardly so that only the tank could be seen. For years and years, the toilet was avoided at all costs in other shows, including The Brady Bunch which featured a bathroom that didn’t even have a toilet in it. But in Leave it to Beaver, the toilet was necessary for the plot of the episode, as the boys were hiding a baby alligator in it. They asked for the whole toilet and the network censors gave them the tank.
5. The First African-American Star
The differences in stars and leads and all that jazz makes naming the first African-American star a little difficult to tease out. Back in 1950, Ethel Waters was the titular star of the show Beulah, a show she would later quit because of how insanely racist it was. Then, in 1963, Cicely Tyson became the first African-American to star as a series regular on a primetime show, playing Jane Foster on East Side/West Side. Then came old Bill Cosby who, prior to becoming one of the most controversial men in show business, was one of televisions biggest trailblazers. He became the first black actor to star on television in I Spy and paved the way for so many others.
4. All In The Family
We decided to dedicate an entire category to All in the Family because not only did they encounter several firsts, but they had many firsts in such a variety of categories that it would be impossible to nail down to only one headline. This show did a lot of good for television and a lot of bad. It was the first to incorporate live audience laughter. Good. It was also the first to say the words “fairy” and “n****r.” Horrible. It was the first series to feature the sound of a toilet flushing, a sound that would make the audience pee themselves with laughter and was the first show to have a gay character make his sexuality known on network television.
3. First To Swear
The first swear word on television depends on your definition of what a curse word is. Back in 1967, when Star Trek’s Captain Kirk said, “let’s get the hell out of here,” that word had never been uttered on television before. Chicago Hope was another one of those shows that pushed a lot of boundaries. Although it wasn’t always the first, it wasn’t often very far behind. In 1999, the show did become first in something, though. It was the first ever show to say “sh*t” on network television. It was only about two years later that South Park, the show that never takes no for an answer, upped the ante, featuring that same word 200 times in a 22-minute episode.
2. First To Share A Bed
It’s not really known how Mary Kay and Johnny got away with as much as they did. It might be because the show was live-produced and was low-budget, meaning much of it was filmed using real locations. Take the couple’s bed, for example. In the early days of TV, couples weren’t allowed to share a bed on television. Lucy and Desi had separate beds on I Love Lucy. But Mary Kay and Johnny debuted in 1947, four years before I Love Lucy and they were able to share one. It helped that they were a real-life couple, but so were the I Love Lucy actors. What probably helped Mary Kay and Johnny more was that the show was filmed in their actual apartment, with their actual bedroom and bed. This show was also the first is to show an onscreen pregnancy, beating I Love Lucy to the punch, but Mary Kay and Johnny’s baby wasn’t incorporated into the show until a few weeks after the birth.
1. First S*x Scene
Perhaps more than any other primetime show in the modern era, NYPD Blue broke down barriers wherever they stood. It showed more nudity and killed off more characters than most, and it had the first s*x scene. While there had been other similar scenes before, NYPD Blue made a point to film the intimacy closer, longer, and with subtle nudity (graphic at the time). This made people go crazy. There were boycotts, protests, and complaints by the truckload. The ratings also went through the roof. The moral of the story is this: if nudity hurts your soul, don’t watch it. If you don’t want it to succeed, don’t give the show free advertising by complaining about it.
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