It’s not TV – it’s HBO! Which really means it’s nudity, violence, foul language, and all the other stuff that corporate sponsors advertising on network television want to keep away from the eyes of the good and decent people in their broadcast audience. For the rest of us sickos, it means some really awesome stuff to watch on the small screen!
From the venerable HBO tradition of comedy going back to the '80s standup shows, up to the latest roster of gory, raunchy "prestige" television, the legacy cable channel has a long and storied history of pushing the envelope with its original programming. But let’s face it – sometimes that envelope got pushed all the way out the window and into the gutter, scarring our minds with moments we can’t unsee. Do we still love it? Well… everyone has their limits. And just about everybody should find their HBO moment that they can’t handle.
Here are 15 Times HBO Shows Went Way TOO Far.
15 The Sopranos: Finale Cop-Out
Hey Tony! Are you dead or ain’t you? Is that Journey song what they played at your funeral, or was it just on the jukebox at the diner?
After 6 widely beloved seasons of wise guys getting whacked, the controversial HBO mobster drama The Sopranos ended on a super-frustrating note. The boss of all bosses, Tony Soprano, is eating dinner with his family, in a rare moment of relative peace. But the camera is dropping hints that maybe something sinister happening. Maybe.
Is the guy he spots in the restaurant an assassin come to kill him? Or is Tony just being paranoid, as he often has been? And just as we’re about to find out – cut to black to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing”. Will we never know what happened? According to the show’s creator, no, we won’t. Millions of fans were left hanging and since actor James Gandolfini unexpectedly passed away, there will likely never be a resolution to Tony’s fate.
14 Entourage: Ari Gold’s Racist, Homophobic Abuse of his Assistant
Let’s face it – if it weren’t for Ari Gold, HBO’s Entourage might not have been nearly as watchable as it once was. After all, it’s kind of hard to care much about a super-spoiled actor and his hanger-on pals as they go from win to win in Hollywood.
The insufferable Ari Gold, played by the somewhat infamous Jeremy Piven, provides the best laughs on the show as he arrogantly and expertly dresses down just about everyone he meets. Ari has no moral center - the very caricature of the movie business’ apex predator. And while we often laugh at his perfectly-written, superbly-acted scenes, he’s almost always very, very wrong.
H is habitual abuse of his Korean-American assistant Lloyd (played by Rex Lee) is particularly wrong. No only does Gold constantly berate and belittle Lloyd, he regularly busts him for being Asian and gay, to a pretty disgusting extreme. In a series that didn’t really have a lot of socially redeeming qualities, the endless bullying and racist/homophobic abuse hasn’t aged well.
13 Girls “Goo”
It’s not like we should be shocked by the frank sexuality of Lena Dunham anymore. On her HBO series Girls, she pretty much has gone too far on any number of occasions – but often kind of in a good way? Pushing the boundaries of how we view human naughtiness has usually been a progressive attempt at killing stereotypes and liberating viewers from repression. But then, there was the episode aptly titled “On All Fours” where Adam (played by Adam Driver) pulls a “Louis CK” onto the chest of an unwilling Natalia (Shiri Appleby).
The way uncomfortable scene presages some of the “Weinstein-era” potted-plant moments we are now hearing about, which is tough enough to watch. But the camera lingers for a moment on the man-goo pooling on the unfortunate woman’s torso. Awful all around.
12 Game of Thrones: Jamie and Cersei next to their sons body
It's pretty tricky trying to pick out just one scene where the beloved series Game of Thrones went too far. Beyond the nudity, decapitations, and rather creative conjugations of various curse words, there isn’t just one violent assault scene to focus on, but many. It’s really kind of disturbing!
However, audiences pretty much agreed that the season 4 episode “Breaker of Chains” violated our sense of propriety most of all. This was the one where Jamie Lannister forces himself upon his sister/secret lover Cerci. Oh, and he “did it” right next to their dead son's body. This is truly the hat trick of disturbing Game of Thrones content: assault, death, and inappropriate sibling love all combined into one.
11 Westworld’s Crazy Party
Is an orgy really wrong if it’s among a group of adults who mutually consent to the act(s)? Or even if it’s a whole lot of grownups making big sexy time all at once? Well, opinions may vary, but a lot of people were freaked out when HBO’s wildly popular Westworld ran “that scene” where an extremely explicit human-on-android bacchanal of outsized proportions sullied our eyes.
If seeing all those naked folks didn’t bother you enough, there are reports that a lot of the extras in the scene weren’t told how intense the shots would be, and they had to sign a pretty insane consent form to do the scene. Which makes this not only going too far, but going too far gone meta in the worst way possible.
10 Chris Meloni Relieving Himself on Oz
Oz was a challenging show that… ahem… Oz was a groundbreaking show with stark portrayals of… oh, who are we kidding? Oz was one of the most messed up shows of all time! The shockingly brutal portrayal of life in prison almost seemed to try to outdo itself with every subsequent episode.
Never have we seen so many creative ways to kill people. Rape was so common, the warden refers to it as the prisoners’ “currency” in one grim scene. And bodily fluids were – wait, bodily fluids? Oh yes. Uber-actor Chris Meloni was filmed peeing on screen and we get to watch! Don’t believe it? See for yourself in “A Word to the Wise” (Season 4, Episode 6). Not only is it 100% real urination – Meloni has called it his proudest moment as an actor!
9 Bill Maher Uses the N-Word for a Joke
Note to white people: there’s never, ever a situation where you should be using that revolting epithet. And if you’re on TV watched by millions? On a political show? While talking to a sitting US senator? Yeah – don’t frickin’ say the n-word!
That’s exactly what Real Time’s Bill Maher did on a segment where he was interviewing Nebraska senator Ben Sasse. Needless to say, a lot of people were less than happy with that moment. Senator Al Franken cancelled an appearance with Maher over the incident. And rapper/actor Ice Cube subsequently showed up on the show and schooled Bill on exactly what he did wrong.
Although Maher did apologize for the transgression, it wasn’t a particularly strong apology.
8 Vice Principals: Burning Down the House
The hilarious, outrageous tour-de-force of farce that is Vice Principals has been a comedy series chock full of over-the-top moments. Danny McBride and Walton Goggins deliver brilliantly frenetic performances as ruthless rivals who will do anything it takes to meet their petty goals of administrative ambitions. They are despicable characters who we weirdly still root for, despite what deeply flawed and sometimes downright rotten people they are.
This was established in just the second episode ever of the series, when the “protagonists” break into the home of a principal they don’t like, trash the place, and ultimately burn her house to the ground. Out of spite! And these were the guys we would be “rooting” for the whole rest of the show’s run!
Look, it’s a purposefully cartoonish show, at times masterfully so, but maybe they could have built up to the whole “totally unforgivable act” thing for a few more episodes?
7 Vice’s Coverage of ISIS May Have Been Illegal
Vice isn’t the first show people usually think of when they think of HBO. The hard-edged news program ventures into news stories that few dare networks dare to cover – and that often means physically journeying to some very dangerous places.
In the Vice documentary “The Islamic State,” their journalists actually went into ISIS-controlled Syria to meet the men behind the movement, going so far as to film a ride-along with some of their fighters. And believe it or not, in US law, that may constitute aiding a terrorist organization.
Vice apparently gave ISIS some “expert advice” which fell afoul of some very broad rules for an anti-terror law. So, was this reporting illegal? The government never bothered to fully prosecute the show, but even getting that kind of scrutiny may be a red flag to be a little more careful next time.
6 Boardwalk Empire: Creepy Mommy/Son
Sorry, Game of Thrones – you’re not the only provocateur in HBO’s stable of racy shows. The Prohibition Era period series Boardwalk Empire also had a super-creepy family "love" subplot that made viewers’ skin crawl.
Based on real-life rumrunning Atlantic City organized crime in the 1920s and '30s, the drama-heavy show was chock full of uncomfortable moments. But in one episode, we see heroin addict and abused prostitute Gillian Darmody seduce her adult son Jimmy Darmody – and yes, the act goes to completion.
One thing Boardwalk Empire always did well was give its characters enough backstory trauma to allow audiences to properly empathize with its cast of awful people. But jeez! Did we really have to go there?
5 Project Greenlight: Matt Damon’s Diversity Flub
Brace yourself for some very unsettling news: rich and famous actors sometimes say really dumb things in really dumb ways. Crazy, right?
While Matt Damon isn’t really known for making too many gaffes in his career, this one time was kind of a doozy. In the HBO series Project Greenlight, Damon and pal Ben Affleck used to hold contests for aspiring filmmakers, where the winner got funding and a mentorship from the two superstars. Which is pretty cool, that is, until a pretty boy celeb is suddenly whitesplaining diversity to a a black female producer.
This happens when Damon interrupts Effie Brown during a heated debate. In that moment, Damon actually says “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” In other words, diversity is important for on-camera appearances, but not in hiring the behind-the-scenes crew. That’s some seriously phony sensitivity for a supposedly evolved liberal.
4 True Blood: Vampire True Death
Is it wrong to complain about too much blood in a vampire series? Or really, can horror fans ever really have too much blood in any context? Once again, HBO answers this question in one sequence of the super sexy nosferatu vehicle True Blood.
Not that the show is ever short of sex and violence, but in season 1, episode 9, we get a look at what a “vampire true death” looks like and it involves an insane amount of vomiting blood. Yes, vomiting blood. For like 20 seconds straight, which may not sound like much, but when actually watching it never seems to end. And it’s not just regular puking, this is projectile vomiting all over a would-be lady victim.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as shocking if all the other people in the room weren’t so nonchalant about it, but as it is – gross!
3 Da Ali G Show: Bruno Harasses the Barn Dancer
When Sasha Baron Cohen was at his hilarious best in the classic HBO UK-import Da Ali G Show, his alter egos Ali G, Borat, and Bruno were doing more than just goofing on people; they were challenging long-standing power players and outdated social mores. The public humiliation of politicians, racists, narcissistic actors and so forth weren’t just comedy gold – a lot of those folks had it coming to them.
But in one segment hosted by uber-fabulous gay icon Bruno, Cohen made a pretty much innocent regular guy the butt of the joke. In season 3, episode 5, the flamboyant Austrian TV host goes to a barn dance lesson in Georgia and uses the event to hit on the poor old guy running it until he gets super uncomfortable. Now – if this guy was maybe an outspoken gay-basher, then we could live with it. But there was no indication that this was anything other than an ordinary man who had to deal with an extraordinary televised prank. Sorry Sasha, but this time things went from uncomfortable to uncool.
2 Deadwood: Pretty Much all of Ian McShane’s Dialogue
Ah, Deadwood – has ever a mouth run so filthy on one TV show? Now that we think of it, pretty much everything about this wild west HBO series is pretty dirty.
Capturing the low-hygiene era in stinking detail, the production is unclean from the ever-smudged face of Calamity Jane to the raw sewage in the dirt roads and greasy hairdos. You can practically catch a whiff of the putrid pioneer town off of the screen. But the filthiest thing of all, of course is Ian McShane’s ceaselessly crass dialogue.
There’s no point in reprinting the uniquely gross chain of every curse word in the book. There’s only so much *#@$! on the keyboard, and the context and surgically precise string of debased language is impossible to reproduce. In some ways, McShane’s lexicon on the show is a perfect reflection of the crude, amoral tenor of its setting. On the other hand – ew!
1 Greenlighting Confederate
Can a TV show go too far even before it ever exists? The answer is undoubtedly “yes” and it took HBO to actually go there. Game of Thrones showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff pitched their next series to follow the last Game of Thrones season, and boy, was it controversial.
Confederate is an alternate timeline story, a la Man in the High Castle, only this time, instead of WWII ending with Germany winning, it’s the Confederacy winning the American Civil War. And that really, really upset a lot of people.
The idea of a weekly series depicting a United States where slavery is still legal didn’t sit well in an era where #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite have been pushing their own envelopes, challenging our society to more honestly confront the institutional racism which still plagues us. A #NoConfederate Twitter campaign was begun, and the backlash was powerful – all before even a single script was completed.
Will HBO still go through with the show? That’s anyone’s guess. But we have to admit, this time they went too far before they even got started!
Did HBO ever take things too far for you? Sound off in the comments!