A TV show can unite viewers, but it can also divide them. After all, what appeals to one person might rub someone else the wrong way. And at one point or another, most shows have included a scene that could be considered controversial.
While several of the following scenes are graphic in nature, others are shocking for more surprising reasons. Based on personal opinion and collective outrage, the following TV moments are ranked from least to most controversial.
25. Sansa Stark is raped on Game of Thrones
Since its 2011 premiere, HBO sci-fi series Game of Thrones has never been without controversy. Excessive amounts of violence, nudity, and even incest are regular occurrences, and the show is no stranger to rape.
But a Season 5 episode made headlines more than any other moment in GoT history. Sansa Stark is raped on her wedding night by Ramsay, as another man, Theon, is forced to watch. The rape was deemed “gratuitous” and disgusting by everyone from feminist publication The Mary Sue to Democratic senator Claire McCaskill. So much noise was made about this scene that writer Bryan Cogman took to the DVD commentary to explain himself.
24. When Ted and Robin got together (again) on How I Met Your Mother
In the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, fans finally learned the answer to the question asked by the show’s title. Ted and Tracy met while waiting for a train after Barney and Robin’s wedding. And then, in a surprisingly brief montage of fast-forward moments, everything fell apart. As many had predicted, Tracy died, and Ted ended up with Robin.
The internet erupted with complaints. Some fans said that the final moments, where Ted’s children assure him he’s waited long enough and urge him to go after “Aunt Robin,” were so angering that the entire series was ruined for them. Though most fans were not quite as dramatic, critics and viewers alike continued to express their outrage for weeks, before the dust finally settled and we all moved on with our lives.
23. Whether or not Ross and Rachel were ‘on a break’ on Friends
Though Chandler and Monica were arguably the better couple in the end, the central romance on Friends was that of Ross and Rachel. And as any dedicated viewer remembers, their relationship experienced quite a few ups and downs. But none was quite as divisive as the “we were on a break” fiasco, which became a popular running gag on the series.
Had Friends come about in today’s social media-driven world, there would have been Twitter wars between fans of the show regarding whether or not Ross cheated on Rachel with Chloe, the girl from the Xerox place. Instead, we simply watched as their on-again, off-again love story played out on screen.
22. Ashlee Simpson lip-syncs on Saturday Night Live
Due to being a long-running show that’s mostly live and occasionally ad-libbed, Saturday Night Live has come under fire on numerous occasions for its content, hosts, and other controversial moments. But one incident, a seemingly harmless one, blew up a number of years ago.
In 2004, Ashlee Simpson, sister of pop star Jessica Simpson, was reaching the height of her own fame when she appeared as the musical guest on an episode of SNL. During the second song, the wrong backing track began to play, including vocals — revealing that Simpson had been lip-syncing her performance.
She apologized for the incident, and later said she had been suffering from a health issue, but this moment can be pinpointed as the beginning of the end to her short career.
21. The initial trailer and premise of Dear White People
Controversy isn’t always a bad thing. Dear White People, the 2017 Netflix series follow up to the 2014 film of the same name, is meant to provoke a reaction out of its audience, says creator Justin Simien.
When the trailer hit the internet in February 2017, there was a wave of criticism from primarily white Twitter users, who called the show racist toward white people and demanded a boycott. All of this blew over fairly quickly, and with good reason: All the outcry did was further demonstrate why such a show, which highlights the racism that is still prevalent worldwide, is more necessary than ever.
20. Lena Dunham is naked a lot on Girls
The amount of controversy surrounding HBO’s Girls is a controversy in and of itself. It’s hard to believe that a show about a bunch of white millennials living in New York could cause an uproar, but that’s precisely why it did. The show was unabashedly exactly what it was, and a lot of people had a problem with that.
One of the earliest call outs was that Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, was frequently shown without clothing. For instance, the pilot sees her in the bathtub, eating a cupcake, while her pal Marnie shaves her legs next to her. Several episodes later, Hannah is showering, and her boyfriend joins her and proceeds to pee on her. The show posited itself as one that “goes there,” but most of the time, the nudity was overblown and unnecessary.
19. The Simpsons go to Rio
A 2002 episode of The Simpsons, the long-running animated sitcom on Fox, portrayed the titular family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where their typical antics ensued. The problem? The portrayal of the country and its citizens “brought a distorted vision of Brazilian reality,” according to then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
The Rio tourism board was so upset by the portrayal that they considered pursuing a lawsuit. However, the First Amendment makes it hard to sue when it comes to satire, and the idea was eventually dropped, with the show’s executive producer James L. Brooks issuing a tongue-in-cheek apology.
18. Two women kiss on Roseanne
Family sitcom Roseanne, helmed by comedian Roseanne Barr, tackled many different issues over its lengthy run on ABC. Though mostly aimed at showing the real struggles of blue-collar families during the time, Barr often pushed her series to branch out wherever possible.
An issue close to Barr’s own heart was that of gay rights, as two of her siblings identify as LGBT. In a 1994 episode, titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Roseanne goes to a gay bar, where she shares a kiss with a woman. The network initially did not want to air the episode, but eventually did, though they included a parental advisory warning.
17. The Mindy Project slipped it in
In today’s TV landscape, there are few subjects that seem to be off limits. But one risqué topic that isn’t discussed very often is anal sex. Mindy Kaling’s poignant comedy The Mindy Project decided to change that with one quick scene.
In the opening moments of Season 3’s “I Slipped,” Danny and Mindy are fooling around when we hear (from a camera angle outside their bedroom), “Danny, that doesn’t go there!” The rest of the episode sees Mindy trying to figure out if the move was accidental, and then working to ramp up her game so that she can please Danny in new ways.
What was perhaps most interesting is that fans weren’t particularly upset about the nature of the sex itself, but whether or not the subject of consent was handled correctly. In response, Kaling said that she felt that this was more of an uncomfortable moment for the couple, but not one where there was any “sexual peril,” so to speak.
16. Maude talks about abortion
Abortion is still a sensitive topic on TV, but in 1972, when the first season of Maude aired, it was practically never mentioned, much less supported. But the staunchly liberal and progressive show, still in its early days, was the perfect show to do so.
In an early two-part episode, the eponymous character chose to have the procedure, as it had recently become legal in the state of New York. What is particularly interesting is that the moral implications were scarcely mentioned. Several network affiliates refused to air the episodes.
15. When Keri Russell cut off her hair on Felicity
Amidst all the violence, sex, and politics on this list, it’s hard to imagine why a haircut made such noise. But when, in the second episode of Season 2, Felicity chops off all her hair as a way of starting over, it blew up in a way that’s still being discussed today.
Senior executives at The WB, the show’s network, expressed that they received a mass amount of email complaints. What’s more, the series experienced a decline in ratings and “the haircut” may have been at least partially to blame. Though we can all joke about it now, the dramatic change made audiences react negatively, bringing to light just how important appearance is on screen.
14. Orange Is the New Black tries to tackle the Black Lives Matter movement
Acclaimed Netflix dramedy Orange Is the New Black has been unabashedly political from the start, but the show has faced quite a bit of criticism for its attempts at showing the true nature of prison. Whether or not you agree with how they’ve portrayed the monetization of prisons, sexuality and sexual violence, and race relations on the series, there’s no doubt that those behind the scenes were trying to start a conversation — and they succeeded.
As critics have pointed out, the characters who experience the most heinous treatment on screen are primarily those of color. The death of fan favorite Poussey was a brutal and heart-wrenching scene, and could likely have been handled better. Despite its diversity, the series has lost at least some viewership due to the opinion that there is an imbalance in the treatment of its black and Hispanic characters.
13. A naked woman was shown on NYPD Blue
Though not considered a landmark show in many regards, cop procedural NYPD Blue made quite a commotion when it premiered on ABC in 1993. The pilot episode itself featured a bare male behind, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that the conservative groups upset by this nudity finally got their shot at real legal action.
In 2003, an episode incidentally titled “Nude Awakening” aired, in which actress Charlotte Ross was shown undressing and walking around in a bathroom naked. The Federal Communications Commission fined ABC, but this was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
12. When Stephen Colbert hurled insults at Trump
Late night host Stephen Colbert has never shied away from controversial topics, dating back to his time as a correspondent on The Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s era. Now, as the host of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he frequently pokes the bear, and it occasionally bites back at him.
On May 1, 2017, Colbert’s opening monologue was entirely about Donald Trump, specifically his interview with fellow CBS correspondent John Dickerson. After showing a clip in which Trump called Dickerson and his program “fake news,” Colbert launched a slew of insults at the president, with one specific moment inferring a sexual act between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Not long after, Twitter erupted with the hashtag #FireColbert. Colbert took the incident in stride, commenting during his show two days later that he stood behind his words.
11. When Seinfeld insulted Puerto Ricans
Most people would agree that toward the end of its run, Seinfeld wasn’t quite as good as it was in its heyday. One of the final episodes of the series, titled “The Puerto Rican Day,” certainly proved that hypothesis, and sparked a controversy.
The episode sees the central characters stuck in traffic due to the city’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. There are several problematic moments, specifically one in which Kramer sets on fire and then stomps on a Puerto Rican flag. This angered many, including the then-president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition. NBC was forced to apologize, and the episode was banned for a number of years.
10. The Addiction Demon rapes Gabriel on American Horror Story: Hotel
As the title suggests, there have been many moments throughout each season of anthology series American Horror Story that have horrified audiences. Murder lies around every turn, and there’s no shortage of rape and mutilation, both relatable and very, very foreign.
In perhaps the most gruesome season yet, AHS: Hotel featured the Addiction Demon, who arrived in the season premiere, and brutally rapes a heroin addict, killing him. The demon shows up a few more times, but fortunately, we never saw him in action again. This caused quite a bit of internet outrage, but fans of the show knew it was just par for the course.
9. When Ellen Morgan comes out of the closet on Ellen
Before she was the playful talk show host she is today, Ellen DeGeneres was a regular comedic actor — albeit a very talented one. Soon after getting started on TV, she became the star of her own sitcom Ellen.
Surrounding the events in the star’s personal life, the Season 4 two-part episode titled “The Puppy Episode” in order to keep its subject matter under wraps, saw Ellen Morgan fall for a woman and discover that she identifies as a lesbian. In 1997, this was a huge deal, and the show lost some of its sponsors, while DeGeneres and Laura Dern, who played the woman who helped Ellen come to terms with her sexuality, faced career struggles after the fact.
8. Lois gets an abortion on Family Guy
No one should expect the Fox animated sitcom Family Guy to be tasteful, but occasionally, the show pushes too many buttons. In fact, this 2010 episode, “Partial Terms of Endearment,” was banned, never airing on TV in the U.S.
The episode featured Lois, who has decided to be a surrogate mother for an old college friend, choosing to have an abortion after the friend and her husband die in an accident. Like any episode of the series, the issue is dealt with using humor, and the network felt that the crass jokes made it too controversial to air.
In true Family Guy fashion, the episode was released on DVD, with a warning labeling it “banned from TV,” as a marketing tactic.
7. The X-Files goes to a dark place
Like the other sci-fi shows on this list, The X-Files has had its share of dark and disturbing creatures. But it was Season 4’s “Home” that shook viewers (and the network) to their core.
Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, who had left the show in Season 2, wanted to make a big impact with their return to Mulder and Scully’s world, so they created a monster-of-the-week episode about an incestuous family living in a rural Pennsylvania town.
“Home” is violent and gruesome, but not only that, it’s more realistic than the alien-driven plots the series favors, making it all the more creepy. The episode was only aired once on Fox.
6. Spike tries to rape Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
For a series about magic and mythical creatures, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s use of monsters as metaphors allowed it to cover a lot of very real territory. But as the years went on, the trouble the characters faced was often exactly what it seemed, which can be almost scarier than fiction.
In the Season 6 episode “Seeing Red,” Spike, a vampire, and Buffy, a human woman, have recently ended their relationship and Spike is struggling to get over it. In a moment of desperation, he attempts to force himself on her sexually, and the injured superheroine only just manages to get him off of her, before she yells at him and he runs away.
This episode served a very important purpose in Spike’s character arc, compelling him to seek out a way in which he could be re-ensouled, making him a man deserving of Buffy. It was also important because the lighter side of Spike was often seen, but he was, up until then, still a monster. Still, the scene was an incredibly difficult one for both fans and Spike’s portrayer, James Marsters, who has called it “the hardest day of his professional life.”
5. Lexa dies on The 100
In Season 2 and 3 of The CW’s post-apocalyptic drama The 100, lead character Clarke, a woman, is given a female love interest. This was a major move, as Clarke was the first LGBT first-billed character on network television, with showrunner Jason Rothenberg noting that in their world, all sexuality is fluid.
Lexa and Clarke’s romance became a fan favorite, until the seventh episode of Season 3, when Lexa is killed. As both critics and fans alike noted, this was yet another example of the tired “bury your gays” trope. A trope where an LGBT character — usually a lesbian — dies, often after being intimate, implying that they are sexually corrupt, and shouldn’t get a happy ending. While some argue that Lexa’s death was necessary, a lot of fans were angered with the treatment of the character.
4. Addressing the Cold War on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Though many of us look back on our childhood memories of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and see puppets, songs, and smiles, there was a lot more to the Rogers’ messages. He was a kind, thoughtful, and political person, and his program conveyed that in a child-friendly way.
But one week-long series of episodes, title “Conflict,” were considered a bit of a departure from the usual fare. Aired in 1983, at the height of the Cold War, the episodes address bombs, war, and air raid drills.
Due to their controversial nature, the episodes were removed from syndicated airings, and in fact, mostly disappeared until recently. Two of them resurfaced in early 2017, aligning with Trump’s plans to increase military spending. This may be an eerie coincidence, or a subtle warning from a secret dissenter who agrees with Rogers’ message of peace.
3. Hannah’s suicide on 13 Reasons Why
This 2017 Netflix drama series was highly anticipated, as its reference material is a popular teen novel of the same name. But despite advisory warnings, many quickly deemed several of the show’s scenes to be highly inappropriate, and posited that the series as a whole glamorized suicide.
Most of the outrage was aimed at the graphic scene in which the narrator, Hannah, commits suicide. In response to the public concern, Netflix added more to the warnings for these episodes, but did not apologize for depicting the scenes in question. Series star Dylan Minnette commented that “[The goal of the show is to] start conversations that we think are necessary to be had and to bring these issues to light and to show them in a real way.”
Other cast and crew members have backed up Minnette and the show’s content. Still, the announcement of a second season has kept the controversy in the spotlight, with some claiming that allowing Hannah to “live on” makes the consequences of her suicide seem less than permanent.
2. South Park censors Muhammad
There’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the controversies South Park has caused, so the show’s exclusion from this list would be a mistake. But how to pick just one? Arguably the depiction that caused the most controversy would be that of Muhammad — or lack thereof.
Getting meta as they often do, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone set about creating an episode that commented on the very thing they had dealt with for nearly 10 years at the time: censorship. The two part episode “Cartoon Wars” revolves around another animated show, Family Guy, and a fictional controversy as to whether or not they should censor an image of Muhammad. South Park itself did not show the prophet as a character, instead displaying a screen noting their censorship.
But the controversy didn’t end there, as the show continued to push the envelope. Future episodes remarked on this issue and a number of Islamic groups voiced their disapproval.
1. When Bill Maher said the N-word on Real Time with Bill Maher
Today, comedic political commentary is commonplace on late night TV, with Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver taking center stage. Though all come under criticism for their left-leaning opinions, one liberal persona, that of Bill Maher, has recently come under fire for uttering a single word.
On the June 2, 2017 broadcast of Real Time with Bill Maher, while speaking with Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, Maher referred to himself as “a House n*gger” after Sasse told him he was welcome to “come work in the fields with us.” There was immediate backlash, with some demanding Maher be fired over the incident. The satirist later apologized, but the damage was done.
Of course, it’s the nature of that word that make this the No. 1 entry on this list. Maher is known for being a Democrat, but he heavily criticizes political correctness and is seen as a divisive figure by members of both parties. Maher has caused controversy in the past, and will likely continue to do so.
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