Television has a long and storied history of upsetting people. Like comic books, movies and video games, TV has been used as a scapegoat for all of our societal problems at one point or another and it seems we’re never too far away from the next controversy.
Pushing the boundaries of taste and decency is good for an artistic medium. It prompts conversation and drives it forward. Times and tastes change and society is constantly re-evaluating what is and is no longer acceptable.
However, sometimes TV shows have taken things beyond what is considered appropriate at the time and have often resulted in big scandals. This is especially true in the age of social media where these kinds of stories start snowballing from the initial negative buzz online.
Whether or not you personally find something offensive is entirely subjective. However, we’re defining offensive as something that provably upset or angered people at the time is was broadcast and resulted in some form of outrage or protest.
With that in mind, here are the 15 Most Problematic TV Episodes That Ever Aired.
15. Skins (US) “Chris” (2011)
The MTV remake of cult British show Skins didn’t exactly do well when adapted for an American audience.
Whilst many people were already aware of the original, MTV’s version largely failed to capture what made the British version a hit with the teen demographic. The series featured all of intimacy and drug use of the original and as such ran afoul of the Parents Television Council.
The PTC filed a letter to the Department of Justice to investigate the show for child pornography, based on the grounds that there are several of the young actors, especially Jesse Carere in the episode “Chris”, had adult scenes and were under the age of 18.
Nothing came of the case against it and the controversy didn’t even boost the disappointing ratings for the show. The series ended up being canceled after the first season.
14. The Simpsons “Blame It On Lisa” (2002)
While considered pretty tame and safe these days, there was a time when The Simpsons was a genuinely controversial show.
One of the biggest controversies The Simpsons caused was in 2002, with the season 13 episode “Blame it on Lisa”. In the episode, the Simpson family travel to Brazil in search of Lisa’s missing pen pal. There were plenty of jokes made about the setting and culture and the Brazilian media took offense.
They accused the show of misrepresenting their country by using incorrect cliches and stereotypes. Riotur, the tourist board for Rio de Janeiro soon were threatening to sue Fox over the episode and even the Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, weighed in, commenting that it brought a “distorted vision of Brazilian reality.”
Producer James L. Brooks later apologized in a formal statement, adding a tongue-in-cheek line about Cardoso taking on Homer Simpson on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing to settle the matter.
13. The 100 “Thirteen” (2016)
Hit dystopian drama The 100 earned widespread criticism for its episode “Thirteen” in 2016. Warrior woman Lexa, played by Alycia Debnam-Carey, had become one of the stand-out characters from the show and her tension with Clarke had become one of the hot talking points.
Things eventually bubbled over and the two kissed. Fans celebrated, but their happiness was soon replaced with anger and a sense of betrayal. Lexa ends up taking a bullet meant for Clarke and tragically dies as Clarke begs her to hold on.
This prompted outcry from various LGBTQ groups who felt that Lexa’s death was just another example of the tired and offensive “Bury Your Gays” trope, in which LGBTQ characters are often killed off, usually to further a straight character’s story.
Fan outcry was so huge it became global news, with the rallying cry of “LGBT Fans Deserve Better” at the center of it all. Show creator Jason Rothernberg later apologized to fans in an open letter. The character’s death also inspired The Lexa Pledge, a promise for writers and creators to represent LGBTQ characters fairly.
12. The X-Files “Home” (1996)
Perhaps the most infamous X-Files episode of all time, season four’s second episode “Home” takes some beating in the controversy stakes. The episode sets out its stall early, opening with the birth and subsequent burial of a deformed baby, and things don’t get much cheerier from there.
Mulder and Scully are called to a small town after the corpse is found and they’re told of a freaky family in a nearby dilapidated house. As the episode rolls on, we’re introduced to the Peacocks, residents of said house and inbred, violent killers to boot.
“Home” was the first episode of The X-Files to have a viewer discretion warning beforehand and carry the TV-MA rating. Even the creators of the show felt they may have gone too far, with director Kim Manners describing the opening burial as the “most awful shot of my career.”
Fox only dared to air the episode once, but like with all forbidden fruit, it created a desire for it. The network eventually relented and repeated the episode on Halloween 1999. Home has since become a fan favorite and is consistently ranked as one of the scariest episodes of the entire series.
11. Ellen “The Puppy Episode” (1997)
During the height of Ellen‘s popularity, information leaked that the character of Ellen Morgan was going to come out as gay.
There was mass speculation over whether it was just the character, the actress, or both that were gay and a media frenzy soon followed. The American Family Association put pressure on ABC to drop the storyline and several advertisers, including J.C. Penney and Wendy’s pulled their sponsorship of the show.
DeGeneres publicly came out in 1997 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in a case of having fiction mirror reality, also cast Oprah as the therapist her character comes out to on Ellen.
Even though the episode was the highest rated of the entire series and earned a bunch of awards, ABC insisted on showing a viewer discretion warning before each episode of the next series.
Guest star Laura Dern stated that her career stalled for a year and a half due to the backlash. The episode would go on to be considered a landmark moment for gay representation in the media and DeGeneres became a prominent LGBTQ activist.
10. The Twilight Zone “The Encounter” (1964)
Spooky anthology show The Twilight Zone is well known for featuring the performances of many famous actors before they hit the big time. In “The Encounter”, a pre-Sulu George Takei plays a Japanese-American gardener named Arthur Takamori.
Arthur shares a beer with his neighbor, a veteran of World War II named Fenton. Things start going sideways and the neighbourly banter between them turns tense over a samurai sword that Fenton took off a Japanese soldier.
The sword is implied to have some kind of dark power and it influences the men. Their argument becomes more and more heated over Fenton’s racist diatribes. Fenton ends up impaled on the sword and Takamori jumps out of an attic window.
Many Japanese-Americans were offended by the revelation that Takamori’s construction worker father was a traitor who directed the bombs during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As the episode aired in living memory of the Second World War, CBS were accused of rubbing salt into the wound. The episode was pulled after airing once and wouldn’t air again for another 50 years.
9. Who’s Your Daddy? (2005)
Reality shows are almost routinely designed to push the boundaries of common decency, so it should stand as no surprise that we’re here.
There are plenty to choose from, but even with the low bar set by the genre, Fox’s Who’s Your Daddy? ranks up there with the worst of the worst. In case you didn’t catch the series’ one and only episode: here’s the rundown.
An adopted adult is put in a room of 8 men, one of whom is the contestant’s biological parent. Through a process of elimination, the contestant must whittle down the fake dads to find their natural one. If the contestant guesses right, they win $100,000.
As you may expect, many adoption agencies and foster families had a massive problem with this. One adoption advocate, Adam Pertman, said “This isn’t just offensive, it’s destructive … How can anyone think to turn such a personal, involved and poignant experience into a game show?”
The low ratings and controversy surrounding the pilot episode caused Fox to cancel the series and shelve the remaining episodes.
8. Seinfeld “The Puerto Rican Day” (1998)
The massively popular Seinfeld earned some negative press in 1998 with “The Puerto Rican Day”, one of the last episodes of the final series. The episode features the gang getting caught in traffic thanks to a huge Puerto Rican Day parade.
At one point, Kramer accidentally sets fire to a Puerto Rican flag and stomps it to extinguish the flames, causing an angry mob to pursue him. This scene, coupled with Kramer’s line “It’s like this every day in Puerto Rico!” incensed many Puerto Ricans.
The angry letters soon poured in. The episode’s depiction of Puerto Ricans and the flag burning were called an “unconscionable insult” by the National Puerto Rican Coalition. Many took to the streets, with protests being held outside of NBC’s Rockefeller Center in New York City.
NBC later formally apologized and the episode was pulled from being repeated.
7. Game of Thrones “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (2015)
Game of Thrones is no stranger to both adult content and violence and peope love it for that. When it has tried to combine the two, however, it’s been a completely different story. In the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, Sansa Stark has a nightmarish wedding night with her new odious and hateful husband Ramsay Bolton.
Ramsay assaults Sansa in front of childhood friend Theon. It’s a harrowing scene, but many critics questioned the motives behind it. The decision to cut away to Theon’s face was also met with anger, with many feeling that it made the moment about Theon’s experience, not Sansa’s.
Several accused the episode of including the scene for shock value and little narrative purpose. Websites like TheMarySue announced that they would no longer cover the series and a few politicians tweeted out their condemnation.
Writer Bryan Cogman defended the scene, saying in the DVD commentary that it was never the intention to belittle Sansa’s trauma and that the shot of Theon’s face was done for taste reasons and not anything else.
6. Hannibal “Oeuf” (2013)
Hannibal was a critically praised, stylish and atmospheric show focusing on everyone’s favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. In an unusual sequence of events for this list, this one was considered too offensive and insensitive by the very people behind the show and it unfortunately comes down to tragic timing.
The episode “Oeuf” dealt with a plot involving brainwashed children harming people with guns. We don’t have to tell you why that may be considered a little too dicey in the recent political climate.
It was especially relevant at the time, considering the episode came soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy. The atmosphere was deemed too charged to put the show on the air as intended.
NBC did technically broadcast the episode, streaming it on their website with the most potentially upsetting material cut out. The full episode was later released on home media and digital download.
5. South Park “200”/”201″ (2010)
No prizes for guessing South Park was going to make an appearance. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude cartoon series has been gloriously offending people for years, with no subject seemingly too taboo.
This was taken to the next level in 2010, when they decided to depict the prophet Muhammad in the show. This wasn’t the first time he’d appeared, as he was in the episode “Super Best Friends” back in 2001.
When the character was censored from “Cartoon Wars Part II” in 2006, Parker and Stone wrote an episode mocking Comedy Central’s policy.
The fallout was pretty severe. In the week between the two episodes, Parker and Stone received death threats from radical Muslim groups for defaming Muhammad. Comedy Central increased security around their building and took drastic measures to avoid any further offense.
His image had already been replaced with a black censor’s bar but now references to his name were beeped out and/or edited out.
4. Maude “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972)
The ’70s sitcom Maude was spun-off from the incredibly popular All in the Family. Bea Arthur reprised her role as Edith’s cousin Maude, with the show following her life in New York with her fourth husband.
The sitcom was the subject of a huge controversy when the two part episode “Maude’s Dilemma” was aired, featuring the 47 year old Maude falling pregnant and choosing to have an abortion. Abortion itself had only been recently legalized in New York and the episode came at a time when people were feeling especially divided on the issue.
The original broadcast amassed 7,000 angry letters and by the time the repeat aired, the United States Catholic Conference had started a campaign against the show and the number of letters of complaint ballooned to a staggering 17,000.
Considering the issue remains bitterly argued to this day, to discuss the issue back in the 1970s was especially brave. The episode is now considered to be groundbreaking for this very reason.
3. Brass Eye “Paedogeddon!”
Brass Eye was a British satirical parody show in which co-writer and star Chris Morris played the pompous and fear mongering host of a current affairs programme like 60 Minutes. The show had a “special” episode entitled “Paedogeddon!” which focused the UK tabloid media’s moral panic over pedophiles.
The episode featured some incredibly dark humor and many objected to it. The episode prompted 3,000 complaints, making it one of the most objected to TV episodes in British history.
Politicians and spokespeople were quick to condemn the show for making light of such a serious matter. Many of the tabloids fired back with a campaign against Morris and get him to publicly apologize.
Nothing of note materialized from the campaign, but the Daily Mail was itself accused of hypocrisy as the piece decrying Morris appeared in the same issue as a picture of two pre-teen members of the royal family under the headline “Bikini Princesses.”
2. Heil Honey I’m Home! (1990)
In 1990, the now long-gone satellite channel Galaxy commissioned a series from one of the lead writers of Spitting Image, a political satire show featuring grotesque puppet versions of politicians. This became Heil Honey I’m Home!, a parody of American sitcoms from the 1950s. The twist? The lead couple were Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
The show was about the Hitlers living next door to a Jewish couple, the Goldensteins, whom they didn’t get along with for obvious, saddening reasons. Heil Honey I’m Home! only aired one episode before public outcry caused Galaxy to hastily pull the show and shelve the remaining 10 episodes.
The fact that not just one person, but an entire group of people including the cast, crew and the television executives, thought this was fine to sign off on is mind-blowing. It has since been described as “perhaps the world’s most tasteless situation comedy.”
1. NYPD Blue “Nude Awakening” (2003)
Cop show NYPD Blue famously had mild revealing scenes in its pilot episode, but the show found itself in hot water after a supposedly steamy bathroom scene was deemed to be over the line by the always popular Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The agency took exception to the opening scene of 2003 episode “Nude Awakening” in which Theo Sipowicz (Austin Majors) stumbles across Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross) preparing to take a shower.
Some very brief revealing scenes are depicted, but it was enough for the FCC to levy a record indecency fine against the show of $1.2 million. You’d think this would be an instant reaction, but the complaint was lodged five years after the original broadcast.
ABC claimed they were protected by the the first amendment and the case went to court. The whole thing was eventually dismissed in 2011, with the court stating that the FCC’s guidelines were “unconstitutionally vague.”
Can you think of any other extremely offensive TV episodes that we forgot to mention? Let us know in the comment section!
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