TV’s been an institution in homes around the world for over 6 decades now. It’s what families do at the end of a long day, and these days, it’s the way a Saturday afternoon gets frittered away. Many shows come and go without much noise. Others are remembered for their quality, either because it’s very high or very low. There are some TV shows that are remembered for reasons that have little to do with quality, though. Some shows are remembered for the controversies they caused.
These controversies can come in a variety of forms. Sometimes they occur because a show brings up realities that its audience is not ready to confront. Other times, the show is in the wrong, typically for depicting something that’s insensitive or in some way a betrayal of fan engagement. Plenty of shows have made missteps, and plenty more have intentionally stirred up trouble. Here are the 15 Most Controversial TV Shows Ever.
24 broke plenty of formulaic barriers during its run on Fox, but it was also notable for pushing the boundaries of how much, and what degree of, violence could be shown on broadcast network television. While the violence was certainly part of the reason that there was some pushback to 24, there were also arguments about its depictions of torture and its treatment of the subject of terrorism.
While there are certainly some who believe that Bauer’s tactics are justified given the circumstances of his life, there are many who saw these depictions as crossing a line of moral responsibility. Still others criticized the show for its depiction of Muslims, and of anti-Islamic sentiment. While the show always worked to quell any idea that it was biased against Muslims or in favor of torture, there were many who felt that its constant attempts to tackle the topic were often insufficient in addressing the problems.
Luck is infamous for reasons that have little to do with the show’s content. The short-lived HBO series focused on horse racing was actually fairly acclaimed by critics, and featured Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman in the leading role. It was the behind the scenes story that got this series canceled after a single season. The show, which frequently used real horses, was accused of violating the safety of the animals it was using, and was marred by this controversy almost from the minute it aired.
The accusations of animal cruelty eventually overwhelmed any love that people felt for the show. HBO’s statement on the show’s cancelation claimed that, although safety precautions had been taken, several accidents had occurred which led to the death of three horses during the show’s first season. Clearly, the death of these horses wasn’t acceptable, and it was probably for the best that the show was taken off the air.
13 The Simpsons
The Simpsons is an institution in the world of animation, but that doesn’t mean that the show has always been free of controversy. Bart, the son of Homer Simpson and the show’s early breakout character, was a controversial figure because of his constant misbehavior, and the fact that he was rarely punished for his actions.
The show also caught flack for specific episodes. One, which featured a family visit to Rio de Janeiro, was seen as playing into stereotypes about Brazilians. Another, which was one of the show’s most controversial episodes, was controversial not because of its depictions of stereotypes, but because of the changes that were made to Principal Skinner, a character who had been part of the show since the first season.
In the episode in question, Principal Skinner is revealed to be a fraud, and his entire identity is retroactively changed, which also changed the audience’s relationship to the character moving forward. Naturally, the audience felt kind of betrayed by this revelation.
12 Beavis and Butt-Head
It’s hard to grapple with the popularity of Beavis and Butt-head. The pair aren’t intelligent, and they’re also crude, sexist, and kind of annoying. At the same time, they’re often hilarious. The stupidity of their remarks doesn’t drive viewers away from the show, however. Instead, it’s the very thing that attracts them. The premise is a fairly simple one. The pair watch music videos, or other popular content, and provide a running commentary that is both offensive and often hilarious.
Unfortunately, the stupid behavior exhibited by the pair was occasionally replicated by the show’s viewers. Early in the run, they were obsessed with fire, and many blamed the show for the death of a 2-year-old girl after her 5-year-old brother set the house on fire. In another case, the show was blamed for the death of a cat.
Similar incidents occurred over the course of the show’s run, until the team behind the show were forced to put a disclaimer in front of every episode reminding viewers that Beevis and Butt-head weren’t exactly role models.
Lena Dunham has a habit of stirring up controversy, and that extends all the way to Girls, the show that Dunham created and stars in. The show follows a group of female friends living in Brooklyn, and chronicles their personal and professional lives. Throughout its six season run on HBO, the show has been criticized for a variety of issues. Right off the bat, many found the show’s sex scenes impossible to watch because of the torturous way that they are often depicted.
From there, the show became embroiled in questions of privilege, with many critics observing that most of the cast, including the secondary characters, were white, despite the show's setting of New York City. There were also many who argued that the show’s central characters were just unlikeable, which made the show difficult to watch. T
he show’s history is filled with controversy over issues of representation, and whether you love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Girls has been hugely important in starting conversations throughout its run.
10 Game of Thrones
While it’s also among the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones is far from controversy-free. The show has faced numerous backlashes, largely because of its numerous depictions of sexual assault. This started way back in the pilot, when the show chose to depict rape in one of its first scenes, and didn’t exactly let up over the ensuing years.
In one fourth season episode, Jaime rapes his sister Cersei right next to the body of their dead son. In an episode from the fifth season, a central character is traumatically raped by the show’s most villainous presence, all while the camera chooses to focus on a man who is forced to watch the encounter.
These events have led to a fair share of outrage, but it hasn’t exactly sunk the juggernaut. In fact, the show’s most recent season was its biggest yet, and women also happened to take a great deal of power. It could just be a coincidence.
9 Twenty One
The oldest entry on this list was controversial because of what went on behind the scenes. The show was embroiled in a massive cheating scandal that actually led to congressional investigations. Initially, Twenty One was a dismal failure for NBC, in part because the contestants that went on the show didn’t know as much as the show’s creators expected they would. As a result, the show became almost entirely scripted, with contestants being told which questions to answer and even how to dress.
The show eventually became embroiled in an enormous scandal as a result, bringing up questions about whether it was ethical for a game show to essentially present itself as fair, when it was absolutely not. The entire scandal was memorably depicted in the film Quiz Show, which was far better-received than Twenty One ever was. Still, the show is interesting because of this scandal, and the questions that it raised.
8 Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
While there are many who would say that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a show about a young beauty pageant contestant and her crazy family, was ridiculous from the beginning, that didn’t keep TLC from airing the show for four seasons. Honey Boo Boo, who was a breakout on Toddlers & Tiaras, was popular enough to launch her own successful show, filled with many of the same strange and occasionally obnoxious antics that dominated the original.
The show was eventually cancelled in 2014 following accusations that June Shannon, Honey Boo Boo’s mother, was dating a man who had been convicted of child molestation. Amidst the fallout from these investigations, it was discovered that Shannon’s eldest daughter was the child that Shannon’s current boyfriend had molested. While Shannon denied the claims, TLC no longer felt comfortable airing the show in the midst of the controversy. An entire season of unaired episodes were left on the shelf after the show was canceled.
While both versions of Skins were marred by their fair share of controversy, the North American version was the more controversial, and was ultimately pulled after a fairly short run on MTV. The show, which follows a series of teenagers as they undergo sexual encounters, stirred up controversy almost immediately for its graphic sex scenes. Some even accused the show of child pornography, citing the fact that many of the show’s actors were under the age of 18 while filming.
Many of the show’s advertisers began to pull their ads from the show, and MTV ultimately decided not to renew Skins for a second season. Because the show is filmed in Canada, lawyers ultimately agreed that the child pornography charges leveled against it probably wouldn’t have any legal justification in Canada. Still, by then the show had been neck deep in controversy for far too long to make it worth MTV's while.
6 Family Guy
Animation seems to be something of a controversial medium, and that truth certainly extends to Family Guy. The show has lampooned a number of cultural touchstones, but also isn’t afraid of ruffling feathers whenever it feels like it. Despite the deeply liberal bent of its creator Seth MacFarlane, the show is politically incorrect on a regular basis - especially in its depictions of family life - which can obviously lead to hairy moments.
While the show isn’t always stirring up controversy, several of its most notorious episodes certainly have. One notable example, “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” played with Jewish stereotypes in ways that many saw as anti-Semitic. In another, Family Guy attempted to make domestic abuse into a humorous topic.
While it’s definitely the case that Family Guy crosses the line on good taste on a semi-regular basis, its controversies largely blow over, and the show continues to air on Fox.
5 All in the Family
All in the Family was a sit-com that was interested in taking a look at contemporary American culture from a very specific perspective; Archie Bunker's, which meant that the show’s central figure used quite incendiary language. Although Bunker’s comments are likely enough reason to land the show on this list, they’re far from the only way that All in the Family stirred up controversy during its extended run on television.
During one episode, Archie’s wife Edith is going through menopause, which throws Archie into a rage because he doesn’t believe the problems his wife faces should be openly discussed. In another, a serial rapist attacks Edith on her 50th birthday-- she escapes, and then goes on a cleaning spree before slapping her daughter, who claims that she’s being selfish for not identifying her attacker so that he won't hurt other women.
Despite its 1970s airdate, and live studio audience, All in the Family was always ready to let things get dramatic, and also thrived on tackling social issues that were usually taboos on sitcoms.
4 Married...With Children
While, on the surface, it could easily be viewed as a conventional sitcom, Married...With Children worked as hard as possible to subvert many of the tropes that were currently governing the genre. The characters inside of the Bundy family were never kind to one another, and the parents were always bickering about money, success, or their children.
Needless to say, the show came under some fire for its lack of traditional family values, and there were also several specific episodes that caused a swirl of controversy. “I’ll See You In Court,” the show’s most frequently attacked episode, followed the fallout of the Bundys having sex in a motel that is videotaped. The couple decides to sue for a violation of their privacy, but the nature of the subject matter was such that the episode didn’t air for over a decade, and only after Married...With Children’s run on TV had ended.
3 Generation KKK
There are so many issues with Generation KKK that it’s hard to know where to begin. The show, which was meant to be a documentary series airing on A&E, was supposed to focus on four families that were prominent members of the Klu Klux Klan, each one with a single member who wanted to escape the family. While shining a light on these people is inherently controversial, the show probably would have earned ratings just for the drama of the story, and its to the political climate.
Although the show was eventually scrapped, it was only after matters became further complicated by the claims from some participants that the network had been paying them to say incendiary and racist things. While these revelations were certainly enough to sink the show, there was also some poor timing involved, especially since the show premiered around the same time as a resurgence of white supremacy swept through the United States.
2 South Park
South Park basically exists to stir up controversy, and it turns out that it’s pretty good at it, especially after 20 seasons on the air. The show has taken on everything from Barack Obama to gay marriage, and they always couple incendiary humor with genuinely interesting insights. South Park is a crudely animated show set in a small, rural town, and it proves to be an excellent vehicle for wildly inventive ideas that are designed with offending in mind.
Some of the show’s more controversial episodes include one where the main characters get addicted to World of Warcraft, and proceed to perpetuate several of gaming’s worst problems. In another, a sex ed class eventually starts a war between genders. Of course, the granddaddy of controversial South Park episodes is the 200th episode which was designed to be a clip show filled with the show’s greatest controversies that ended with a depiction of Muhammad and a discussion of terrorism.
1 Heil Honey I'm Home
Just terrible. The idea behind behind Heil Honey I’m Home was to transform Adolf Hitler into the lead character in a sitcom. What this meant practically was sticking him in a suburban home with his wife Eva Braun as they deal with their Jewish neighbors. The offensiveness of this British sitcom is readily apparent. The only real question left is how it ever got made in the first place.
The show is such a bad idea that it’s hard to believe that it exists at all. Not only is it playing the horrifying actions of Hitler for laughs, it’s also attempting to turn the entire Holocaust into some sort of joke. It’s about as insensitive as television can get, and it makes sense that the show was quickly pulled from the air. There’s an obvious argument to be made about the ways comedy is designed to push the boundaries of taste, but Heil Honey I’m Home was definitely a bridge too far.
Are there other shows that draw tons of controversy? Share them in the comments!