Because TV is being sent into people’s homes rather being sought out by viewers, networks are very careful to avoid upsetting their audience. The TV networks value their sponsorships most of all and don’t want advertisers rushing to distance themselves from a racy message. Censors are employed by every network to serve as their moral watchdogs, but sometimes something gets by them or is more controversial upon release than these executives thought it would be.
Ever year, at least one episode of some series (likely South Park or Family Guy) sneaks through, pushes limits, and upsets the public to the point of complaint. While what counts as controversial has changed over the 70 years that TV has been in our homes, it’s true that moral indignation will always have a home where a television is found.
This is Screen Rant’s list of 12 Controversial TV Episodes That Shocked the Nation.
Seinfeld – “The Puerto Rican Day” (1998)
As this iconic series was approaching it’s finale in the spring of 1998, more and more viewers were tuning in to the show, with each week setting massive ratings records. Unfortunately for Seinfeld, the penultimate episode of the series was its most controversial, and over 38.3 people saw it on the original run.
Caught in massive traffic caused by the annual Puerto Rican Day parade, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer have to deal with the crowds and events going on around their car. The first major snafu the show involves Kramer accidentally setting a Puerto Rican flag on fire and then proceeding to stamp it out. Secondly, after a mob damages Jerry’s car, Kramer exclaims, “It’s like this every day in Puerto Rico!”
Claiming that the ethnic characters were portrayed as dated stereotypes, and that the flag of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was used in a disrespectful way, leaders from the community spoke out against the show. As a dominant ethnic group in New York City, Puerto Ricans staged protests at NBC headquarters, 30 Rockefeller Center, and the network eventually offered an apology for the episode.
Since the series wrapped only one week later, “The Puerto Rican Day” was more of a concern in syndication and didn’t have a significant effect on the rest of the series. Excluded from reruns for years due to the controversy, the episode has been placed back into rotation, and is available to stream with the rest of the series on Hulu.
Star Trek – “Plato’s Stepchildren” (1968)
Found caught by a sadistic race of aliens on an unknown world, the crew of the USS Enterprise is telepathically forced into acts they don’t want to do, including having Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) show emotion, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) parade around as a fool.
Unbeknownst to the Platonians, their forced kiss between Kirk and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) aided 1968 Earth society by being TV’s first interracial kiss. A sabotaging studio ordered alternate takes where the kiss didn’t occur, the cast of Star Trek forced NBC into a corner, and the episode aired with the kiss in place.
In retrospect, the kiss itself isn’t the act that is indeed controversial, and it was the UK who acted on the cruel nature of the episode. Until 1994, the episode was unaired by the BBC, who cited “torture [and] sadism” as reasons for keeping it off the airwaves.
M*A*S*H – “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (1983)
The most watched series finale of all time, M*A*S*H signed off in a controversial, yet honest fashion. The show took a light-hearted view of war by focusing on Korea while the country was still fighting and later reeling from the scars of the Vietnam War. Dealing with the issue of mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder, M*A*S*H went off the air still pointing out the effects of war.
Hawkeye (Alan Alda) is found starting the episode in a mental institute, being treated for some unknown psychological trauma. All Hawkeye can remember is a jovial atmosphere with drinks and saving some refugees and their farm animals, but through some digging by his doctor, Hawkeye begins to remember what actually happened.
In Hawkeye’s memory, after getting upset at a woman with a clicking chicken for the noise it was making, the woman smothers it. Recalling the actual events, the women brought an infant in her arms, and she silenced it to avoid detection by enemy soldiers, killing it in the process. The moment is known as one of the saddest on broadcast television, and with 125 million tuned in to the episode, it made for a controversial sendoff.
Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood – “Conflict” (1983)
With 1983 being a banner year for controversial television, who would have thought that Mr. Rogers would ever make this list? However, for a week-long story arch in November of 1983, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was focused on King Friday, the puppet king of the Land of Make Believe, stockpiling weapons and pondering issues of nuclear war.
In a naive, Mr. Rogers-ian way, the episodes were intended to help kids process a recent TV movie, The Day After. Extremely bleak and realistic, the movie aired in primetime and portrayed the devastating effects of a nuclear explosion. Even President Reagan remarked that the film affected him and changed his opinions on nuclear weapons upon viewing it.
Unfortunately, children weren’t ready for either version of nuclear war either, and the Mr. Rogers episodes were noted as being particularly dark. Scarier still, it took until 1996 for these shows to be removed from the regular rotation of reruns on PBS.
Ellen – “The Puppy Episode” (1997)
When Ellen Morgan (Ellen Degeneres) came out as gay at the end of the fourth season of Ellen, the event sparked a national conversation. For months ahead of the airing of the episode it was rumored that the character was coming out, and, as a shock to many at the time, Degeneres revealed in TIME magazine that she herself was gay, and was dating fellow actress Anne Heche.
Family values- based, religious, and conservative groups boycotted the episode and its sponsors, leading series advertisers, J. C. Penney, Wendys and Chrysler to withdraw their advertisements from the episode. Fearing further reprisals, ABC declined to sell advertising space to a gay rights groups and a gay cruise company. Affiliates threatened to preempt the episode, and in Birmingham, Alabama, the show wasn’t aired at all.
“The Puppy Episode” didn’t disappoint, and featured Morgan wrestling with the feelings surrounding her crush on guest star Laura Dern’s character Susan. Exposing her confusion and the honest depiction of both accepting and resistant friends, the episode was heralded as a stepping stone for future LGBT depictions on TV. Loaded with gay and pro-LGBT stars, including k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam, Demi Moore, Melissa Etheridge, and Oprah Winfrey, over 40 million Americans tuned into the two-part episode.
While the episode had high Nielsen ratings, the series never truly recovered as topics began to focus on more “gay-centric” themes that may have alienated viewers in the fifth season. Degeneres went on to success as host of her daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and as a judge on the highly-rated reality singing competition American Idol.
I Love Lucy – “Lucy Is Enceinte” (1952)
As one of the first hit TV series, I Love Lucy had to tread the murky waters in establishing what networks, censors, and audiences would and wouldn’t accept on TV.
When Lucille Ball, the actress who played lead character Lucy Ricardo, got pregnant, the series had to figure out how to handle an expectant mother on TV. Luckily for the network, Ball was married to co-star Desi Arnaz, who played her TV husband Ricky Ricardo, meaning that there was little scandal with the actress being pregnant, only how to present it to viewers.
The major problem that CBS had with the pregnancy was not the state of Lucy, but with the word pregnancy itself. Noted as a medical and indecent word, CBS refused to allow the word to be spoken on screen. Dancing around the facts for the whole episode, and even using the French word for pregnancy, “Enceinte” in the title, in the last moments of the episode Lucy tricked her husband into figuring out that they were in the family way.
55 years later, Knocked Up premiered. We’ve come a long way.
Simpsons – “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” (1997)
For four years after airing, the exploits of Homer Simpson trying to get his car out of New York City was a benign episode, and an especially notable episode of The Simpsons that premiered toward the end of the seasons five through ten golden era. Featuring Barney’s ill-advised attempt at sobriety, Homer’s irrational fear of New York, and the musical “Kickin’ It: A Musical Journey through the Betty Ford Center,” the episode is a particularly strong Simpsons outing.
After the September 11th attacks, airing this episode was considered offensive by affiliates and syndication partners seeing as a large portion of the episode focused on where Homer’s car was found; Parked between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Particularly egregious was one joke featuring two stereotypical New Yorkers fighting between the two towers, culminating with the guy from Tower 2 telling Homer, “They stick all the jerks in Tower 1.”
In recent years, with enough time passing, the episode has entered back into syndication with some edits making it palatable to an audience still affected by the attacks. Removing some shots of the towers, and the aforementioned joke, the family’s trip to NYC has entered back into the rotation of reruns, somewhat mirroring how America has recovered as well.
NYPD Blue – “Nude Awakening” (2003)
NYPD Blue established itself as a provocative series on its first night on the air. Airing a scene displaying series lead character John Kelly’s (David Caruso) naked buttocks in the pilot episode, the series would come back to this version of nudity on multiple occasions throughout the series’ run. Even Sgt. Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), bared his bottom to the world, a less than appealing view, considering his physique.
On Feb 25th 2003, a seven-second segment of Detective Connie McDowell’s (Charlotte Ross) naked rear end was broadcast as part of the episode “Nude Awakening.” Receiving complaints, the FCC investigated and determined that ABC was aired indecent material during prime time. Possibly due to the acknowledgment of the nudity in the episode’s title, the fact that it was the more titillating buttocks of a female, or the length spent on showing the butt in question, the FCC issued a fine to the network for $1.2 million dollars in 2008.
Family Guy – “Partial Terms of Endearment” (2010)
One of the most debated topics in the United States is the right of a woman to choose. Never a series to shy away from major issues, Family Guy jumped into the abortion debate with the 2010 episode “Partial Terms of Endearment.”
After being asked to serve as a surrogate by her college lover Naomi, Lois gets pregnant, however, Naomi and her husband die in a car accident. Faced with the possibility of raising someone else’s child, Lois seeks out an abortion while Peter works for the pro-life side to keep the baby. Major chunks of the half hour are spent jumping between jokes about abortion to a serious discussion of the issue. In the end, in their trademark inglorious way, Peter announces “We had the abortion.”
Like Season 3 episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” Fox decided not to air the show at all in order to avoid the inherent controversy. Sold later as a stand-alone DVD, “Endearment” made its way to the public, but even still, the show isn’t part of the series’ syndication package and can not be found on streaming service Netflix.
South Park – “200” & “201” (2010)
For their 200th episode, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker really swung for the fence in terms of shock value. Knowingly agitating the religious sensibilities of extremist Islamic groups worldwide by threatening to show a depiction of the prophet Muhammed, Stone and Parker didn’t shy away from the actual risk of being murdered for the act.
As a plot point; enemy of South Park Tom Cruise seeks the unmockable power that Muhammed holds. However, the battle over the prophet invites a jihad against the town and its residents.
With multiple death threats worldwide related to comic depictions of Muhammed (most notably when a Danish newspaper published depictions of the Prophet), Comedy Central wasn’t laughing. While they allowed the episodes to air, the network censored any representation and the voice of Muhammed due to threats against and the risk to Comedy Central and the creators.
South Park wasn’t just aiming at Muslim sensibilities, in the same episode they depicted Buddha snorting cocaine. While not threatened with violence, Sri Lanka banned the series entirely due to the blasphemy.
Skins (US) – “Chris” (2011)
When NYPD Blue showed butts, it showed old butts. That warranted a fine.
The US remake of UK series Skins showed a 17-year-old’s butt. That scene led to calls for child pornography charges against the show’s producers.
After an episode named after the character Chris (17-year-old Jesse Carere) had him running through town naked, highly dosed with a Viagra-like drug, US authorities were asked to investigate potential depictions of child pornography.
The forever-complaining decency group Parents Television Council (PTC) requested a kiddie porn investigation into the show, which led to many emergency meetings at MTV. Sponsors pulled their ads, and while never leading to charges, Skins suffered, and the teen drama only lasted one season on American TV screens (the original UK version lasted several seasons longer).
Game of Thrones – “Breaker of Chains” (2014)
While the series’ fanbase celebrated after the death of King Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones‘ fourth season episode “The Lion and the Rose,” the following episode caused almost an equivalent level of outrage.
When Jaime and Cersei Lannister visit the body of their dead son together, Jaime forces himself on his grieving sister, engaging in incestuous sex that is clearly non-consensual, with Cersei saying repeatedly “it isn’t right.” The fact that the act occurred only feet from the body of the two character’s recently deceased son only fueled the flames of indignation. Fans complained on social media led to coverage and debate in the news as to the merit of the scene.
Alex Graves, the director of the episode, defended the scene, noting that there were signs that the act turned from rape to sex, which angered people further as it suggested that . Fans may not have forgiven, but they let it slide without much further protest.
However, the HBO and the writers didn’t learn their lesson; in season five episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” one of the only remaining Stark children, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was married off to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton. On their wedding night, not only did he force himself on his less than willing wife, but he made her father’s former ward watch while he did it. Fans didn’t react well to the repeat violation and this had led to an ongoing boycott, including a high-profile endorsement of the protest by US Senator Claire McCaskill.
Can you think of any other controversial episodes of TV? Let us know in the comments!