For almost as long as there’s been television, there’s been controversy about various TV shows. From time to time, a network’s most popular series will air a particularly shocking episode. Other times, entire series will draw ire for their very premise. As time has gone on, outrage over sex, violence, and other hot topics has shifted with cultural norms. But there are some topics that will always make headlines — and so will the programs that tackle them. Here are 15 of the most controversial TV shows of all time.
MTV has found major success in the reality TV realm, especially with series like Jackass and Jersey Shore. So in 2013, the network decided to give fans the best of both worlds and created Buckwild, a series that followed a group of West Virginian teens. Designed to highlight their rural lives — from mud-wrestling to squirrel hunting — the series was met with immediate criticism from people who felt it unfairly stereotyped the region. MTV aired the first season in its entirety despite the backlash, and green-lit a second season to boot.
However, several Buckwild cast members ended up getting in trouble with law enforcement as the first season was winding down in February 2013. Then, in March, another cast member, Shain Gandee, tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Buckwild teens’ dangerous behavior proved to be too much for MTV, and the network ultimately called it quits before they could finish filming Season 2.
2. South Park
In its 20 seasons on the air, South Park has proven that there is no subject too controversial to tackle head-on. Since it first premiered in 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have succeeded in offending just about everyone by lampooning most religions, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Satan — just to name a few.
While fans of South Park appreciate its off-the-cuff and often off-color brand of humor, groups like the Parents Television Council and Action for Children’s Television have repeatedly called for it to be taken off the air. Among their grievances: profanity, crude humor, and a depravity that they claim is “dangerous to democracy.” Despite frequent criticism, Parker and Stone have rarely backed off from telling the story they want to tell on South Park — and when they do, it’s usually not because someone asked them to, either.
3. Heil Honey I’m Home!
In the realm of bad ideas, this British sitcom might take the cake. Designed to be a spoof on traditional domestic sitcoms, Heil Honey I’m Home! followed a grumpy Adolf Hitler — yes, that Adolf Hitler — his wife, Eva Braun and their Jewish next door neighbors. Yeah, it doesn’t even sound funny on paper.
The series first hit TV screens in 1990 on the Galaxy network in England, and scandalized audiences for its attempts at a humorous depiction of one of history’s most monstrous men. Heil Honey‘s creators swore that the series was meant as a criticism of how easily Europeans had accepted Hitler in the 1930s — but that subtext was certainly lost in translation. Only one episode of the series aired before it was canceled.
4. Married… with Children
Dysfunctional families are a staple of television sitcoms. So Married… with Children was hardly revolutionary when it premiered on Fox in 1986. Over the years, however, the Bundy family wracked up its share of controversy due to the series’ sometimes overt sexual content.
After an 1989 episode that featured a slew of scantily clad women and a man wearing women’s clothing, a Michigan parent led a boycott that resulted in some advertisers dropping their support of the series. This, in turn, caused Fox to refuse to air another episode, entitled “I’ll See You In Court,” due to its content, and fans of the series had to wait years to get a chance to see it. While the hullabaloo surrounding Married… with Children may have scared away some viewers, many others decided to tune in to see what all of the fuss was about. The series continued to be a hit for Fox, and remained on the air until 1997.
5. Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?
Since the mid-1960s, dating game shows have been a staple on TV. From The Dating Game to The Bachelor, fans of this cheesy-yet-addictive genre have tuned in to watch countless contestants battle it out for one person’s affection. While some of these series have gone on to have long-lasting success, others have caused viewers to raise an eyebrow.
Perhaps the most appalling was Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, which aired around Valentine’s Day in 2000. The premise itself was seen by many as distasteful and an obvious example of Americans’ unhealthy obsession with money. It was also demeaning to both the female contestants and the bachelor. Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? drew more than 20 million viewers, but was nevertheless mired in controversy. The winner, Darva Conger, ultimately annulled the marriage and viewers later learned that her husband, Rick Rockwell, was more or less a fraud with a history of domestic violence. Fox canceled any future syndication associated with the series.
HBO has a pretty decent track record as far as their original programming is concerned. But in 2012, they tried their hand at a compelling drama about horse racing and ended up biting off way more than they could chew.
Luck premiered to positive reviews, thanks to its compelling storytelling and prestigious cast, led by Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins. The entire first season aired on HBO — but concerns about production began to surface as Luck‘s team started work on Season 2. After two horses were euthanized following incidents on set, it came to light that there were several safety violations surrounding the care and treatment of the animals. This angered animal rights activists and fans alike, and HBO ultimately suspended production of the series for good because they felt the risk for future accidents was too high.
7. Generation KKK
In 2016, the presidential election signaled a turning point in the United States. Issues like racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism made headlines — which explains at least some of the uproar over a planned A&E reality series.
Generation KKK was created to give an insider’s perspective of the infamous hate group. And as soon as it was announced, the show faced immense backlash, as it was perceived as promoting the Klu Klux Klan. A&E insisted that the series was designed to do exactly the opposite, but the firestorm persisted. The network considered changing the title — but ended up canceling the series instead, after news came to light that some members of the KKK had been paid to participate in filming. In the end, Generation KKK was so controversial that it never saw the light of day; and we might all be better off because of it.
8. Big Brother
Big Brother has a pretty basic premise: lock a bunch of attention-seeking individuals in a house together and film their every move. What could go wrong, right? Since it premiered in the Netherlands in 1997, it’s been produced in several countries, including the United States. And over the years there have been plenty of controversial incidents between housemates.
Some critics feel the series has a detrimental impact on its contestants, due to the isolation they face and the constant scrutiny of having cameras pointed at them. Others have claimed that Big Brother has allowed some terrible things to happen — including incidents of alleged rape on Big Brother South Africa and Big Brother Brasil. In the U.K., several sponsors pulled their funding from Celebrity Big Brother 5 after a contestant was filmed making racist remarks. The creators of Big Brother haven’t allowed any of these controversial moments to stop them, though. The series continues to air across the globe.
Skins wasn’t the first TV series to show teens behaving badly — but the lengths that it sometimes went to depict youth culture still caused an uproar. This British series, which premiered on the E4 network in 2007, followed a large and diverse ensemble of teen characters as they navigated school and their social lives. It never shied away from showcasing their drinking, drug use, or sexual activity. Since the series was aimed at teens, many parents felt that Skins was glamorizing unsavory behavior. The series became so popular that decadent get-togethers called “Skins parties” began to crop up around the United Kingdom.
The series really caused an uproar when a remake hit the U.S. in 2011. Detractors like the Parents Television Council called it “the most dangerous show” on TV due to its depiction of sex and drug use. In an effort to get advertisers to pull funding from the series, they even claimed that MTV was violating child pornography laws because some of the actors depicted in their racy promotional materials weren’t 18. Ultimately, Skins fizzled out in the United States after it proved to be far less exciting than the Parents Television Council seemed to think it would be.
10. Game of Thrones
In its many seasons on the air, Game of Thrones has managed to become one of the most talked about TV series ever. It’s broken all kinds of records for HBO and inspired legions of devoted fans who anxiously await each new season. That doesn’t mean GoT is without its faults, though — for all the attention it’s received for its dragons and plot twists, it’s also caused some legitimate uproar over its depiction of sexual violence.
Twice in the series’ history, female characters have been raped. When fans voiced their disapproval, the series’ creators shrugged it off, which in turn made it a bigger issue. The second incident, in particular, involved the teenage character Sansa Stark — and it was so appalling to some viewers, including Claire McCaskill, a U.S. senator, that they vowed to quit watching the series altogether. HBO received a huge number of complaints about both episodes, and Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff allegedly decided to scale back the violence toward women in future seasons.
11. Iron Fist
Marvel’s Iron Fist series on Netflix was mired in controversy before the avalanche of poor reviews ever arrived. Things got testy the moment Finn Jones was cast as Danny Rand, when many thought that the series was a great opportunity to get Asian-American actors the representation they deserve in Hollywood. More than that, there was something deeply unsettling about the whole “white savior of martial arts” motif.
Things weren’t helped much by a series of ill-timed Twitter rants from Finn Jones, sinking the proverbial Iron Fist ship well in advance of its premiere on Netflix.
12. Fresh Off the Boat
Any time a show is completely disavowed by its creator, it’s bound to have people talking. The saga as it stands now: Eddie Huang parlayed his published memoir into an ABC series by the same name, Fresh Off the Boat. The only problem was that ABC apparently neutered Huang’s original vision for the show so much, that he distanced himself from it entirely. He even went so far as to claim that after the pilot of the series, “it got so far from the truth that I don’t recognize my own life.”
Today, it’s still airing on ABC, continuing to run without the blessing of the person whose life the show is based on.
13. The 100
Spoilers ahead for Season 3 of The 100
The 100 didn’t start out as much, but after a rocky start, it evolved into one of the most nuanced and thrilling sci-fi shows on television. The real groundbreaking moment though came in Season 2, when the show prominently featured LGBT characters, Clarke and Lexa, front and center. And not only were they major players in the story, they were the leaders of their respective people, entrusted with the fate of their societies.
Things blew up in Season 3, when Lexa was killed by a stray bullet. This played heavily into the TV trope of LGBT characters getting killed off, dating all the way back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In turn, many fans of the show quit watching in droves, while a debate over Lexa’s death still rages on the internet to this day.
14. NYPD Blue
Before NYPD Blue, the idea of uttering even a single swear word on network television was virtually unheard of. The ABC police procedural completely changed that though, featuring more nudity and obscene language than any other show before it. This led to the American Family Association taking out ads urging people not to tune in, and a $1.4 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission for an episode in 2003.
It seems insane to think that the level of language and nudity featured on NYPD Blue caused such a stir by today’s standards, but the show was a one-of-a-kind animal when it first debuted in 1995.
15. Fear Factor
Fear Factor was a show with a premise that seemed destined to get it into hot water eventually. The first bit of controversy cropped up when American Humane cited the show’s cruelty to animals. Contestants would often have to kill and eat insects, and even featured an incident with rats in a blender. It didn’t get much better from there, when an episode where contestants were forced to eat donkey semen(!) and urine was pulled before it aired.
Additional reporting by Nick Cannata-Bowman.
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