Girls, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men are just a few of the current series that push the boundaries of how we view television, but there have been numerous TV shows that stretched the limits of prime time. Controversy has followed trailblazing showrunners and writers who introduced graphic stories, radical characters, and uncomfortable subjects to an audience of millions watching at home. We’ve rounded up ten of the most controversial television episodes and found out what their creators had to say about them.
When the Girls season two episode “On All Fours” aired, we thought it was one of the most “sincere, stripped down, and emotionally powerful” of the series yet. It was also one of the darkest. Hannah’s obsessive-compulsive disorder resurfaced in a cruel way. The Adam storyline also took an upsetting turn. With Adam’s alcoholism rearing its ugly head, a troubling sexual encounter with his new girlfriend Natalia left audiences wondering if they had just witnessed a rape. Natalia was willing to play along, but became uncomfortable with the sex. Adam was clearly trying to regain his power and control. Many argued that she never said no, but as our Julia Pugachevsky pointed out, not everyone feels comfortable saying no in a situation like that, or is prepared to even comprehend their own feelings in the moment.
Earlier this week, show creator and star Lena Dunham spoke about the episode, and particularly, the question of rape. “Did what Adam do constitute rape? That’s hard for me to answer. I’m a rabid feminist. And no woman should ever be placed in a sexual situation that leaves her feeling degraded or compromised. That’s not what sex is supposed to feel like,” she told the LA Times. “But I don’t think Adam is a villain. If he thought he had even touched the R-word, he would be unable to live. To me, it seemed like a terrible miscommunication between two people who didn’t know what they really wanted.” She also defended the explicit shot of Adam’s orgasm. “A moment like that, which is so humiliating to Natalia, wouldn’t be visceral enough unless you show the offending substance.” There’s no doubt that people will be discussing the episode and Dunham’s response to it for some time.
“First and foremost what I wanted to do was scare people’s pants off. I said I want to do something as scary as a show that was on when I was a kid, which was Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” X-Files creator Chris Carter once said. He achieved his goal and then some with the unbelievably creepy and controversial episode, “Home.” Scully and Mulder became trapped in a small-town nightmare when they investigated the death of a newborn found in a shallow grave near the frightening Peacock family’s house. The episode marked a big return for the extraordinary writing team Glen Morgan and James Wong, who were absent during the show’s third season. Incest, murder, dead babies, rape, and other gruesome and shocking moments horrified audiences. Even producers initially felt the script had gone too far. Since then, the episode has been praised for its darkly satirical look at American life, and strong writing and direction.
Co-writer Morgan talked about crossing boundaries in the horror genre, in relation to “Home,” during a 2011 interview. For Morgan, “you can cross any line,” but he prefers it be crossed because of “a theme or character motivation.” He explained:
“I think it’s how the idea is treated… I prefer the horror to arise usually out of a non-horrific situation, you know. Ellen Burstyn is going through a divorce in The Exorcist. Janet Leigh steals forty thousand dollars, and that in a way, gets her to Norman Bates’ hotel. So, it could be something grounded and real that we could all go through, experience, that launches us into this horrible effect.”
In the case of “Home,” the horrible effect comes from an isolated, inbred family who didn’t know any better and eventually spiraled out of control. The episode was banned after it first aired due to the taboo subject matter.
NBC didn’t re-air Seinfeld’s 1998 episode “The Puerto Rican Day” until 2002, due to a scene in which Kramer accidentally burns and stomps on the Puerto Rican flag. The episode was severely criticized, and sparked protests and death threats. Apart from the flag scene, many felt the episode portrayed Puerto Ricans in a negative light, due to a bit of dialogue that insinuated they were violent.
NBC and show creators responded to the matter, stating: “We do not feel that the show lends itself to damaging ethnic stereotypes, because the audience for Seinfeld knows the humor is derived from watching the core group of characters get themselves into difficult situations. Our appreciation of the broad comedy of Seinfeld does not in any way take away from the respect we have for the Puerto Rican flag.” Puerto Rican organizations vehemently disagreed.
Star and co-creator Jerry Seinfeld tried to meet with concerned groups before the episode aired, but to no avail. After taping the final episode of the series, Seinfeld approached angry protestors again. The air started to clear after that. NBC eventually reintegrated the episode during its repeat lineup.
Our skin is still crawling after watching Mad Men’s “The Other Woman.” In the episode, Joan sacrifices her dignity to secure an account with Jaguar by sleeping with one of its grotesque executives. It was a polarizing, emotional episode, but it also became one of the series’ most critically lauded, winning multiple awards. Show creator Matthew Weiner was “surprised” by the reaction to the story:
“I knew it was a dramatic moment, and I expected it to be treated as drama, because the stakes were so high, and we knew Joan so well. But I also felt on some level, if we hadn’t used the word prostitution in there, it was more about the public nature of what was going on, and also their love for Joan, and the fact that she was put in this position that was so upsetting to people. I was stunned, though, by the suggestion that there were some people questioning about whether she would have actually done this or not. That shocked me. Maybe what they were saying is they were questioning whether they would have done it, but I was hoping, certainly judging on the history of the show and what Joan has done, obviously this is not the first time this has been an issue for her.”
Weiner referred to Joan’s marriage to Greg Harris, who raped her, as an example of her “whole different set of values.” He concluded:
“The fact that she’s being compromised, or expressing ambition, or all of those things, on some level … to me there’s a horrible reality in this entire situation is that it ends up being a career-changing moment for her, as we see. That’s probably why she did it, but that said, I think people were hoping that she would maintain some higher morality and suffer through the rest of her life.”
Boxing’s tragic hero Mike Tyson was convicted of raping an 18-year-old girl during the 1990s. It was just one of many incidents that made the fighter a feared man outside the ring, as well as inside. Earlier this year, Tyson appeared in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode “Monster’s Legacy” as a sexually abused inmate on death row. Advocate groups fiercely protested the episode, furious that a convicted rapist would appear in a series about sex crime victims.
Show creator Dick Wolf stood firmly by the casting decision. “It focuses on what can happen when there is an emotionally charged rush to judgment and it is, in my opinion, one of our strongest episodes in the last five years,” he told early screeners of “Monster’s Legacy.”
Tyson also spoke about the controversial role, denying any biographical connection to the “ripped from the headlines” story: “Since I’m clean and sober five years, I haven’t broken any laws or did any crimes. I’m just trying to live my life… I just got the script and did the best I could. I have no emotional connection to the role. As a human being I can relate to it, but it has nothing to do with me.”
Glee‘s Ryan Murphy thought “Shooting Star” was “the most powerful, emotional Glee ever,” but many critics and audiences considered it too exploitive and insensitive. The episode about a school shooting aired only four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. The program did air a disclaimer before the show that read: “This episode of Glee addresses the topic of school violence. Viewer discretion is advised.” Still, seeing the glee club locked inside McKinley High after hearing gunshots, and listening to characters record goodbyes to their families was too much for many to bear.
An encounter with a demon leaves Buffy, the fearless vampire slayer, with the ability to hear people’s thoughts. While the chatter floods her mind, she hears a desperate, angry voice: someone wants to murder everyone at school. Season three episode “Earshot” was filmed before the massacre at Columbine High School and scheduled to air the week after the shooting. “We knew right away that we weren’t going to air ‘Earshot’ for some time, which was ultimately necessary. It simply wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. We knew that,” creator Joss Whedon said on a Buffy DVD commentary. Despite the shadow of the real-life tragedy hanging over the episode, Whedon felt it was strong work: “It took us to a place that was somewhat darker and allowed us to get a message out, which is sort of the key to the whole show.” Writer Jane Espenson agreed and praised Danny Strong’s performance as the anxious student who almost commits the atrocity.
Few television shows have tackled difficult topics with the solemnness, grace, and humor that CBS’ Maude did — thanks in large part to star Bea Arthur (as Maude) and cast members like Rue McClanahan and Adrienne Barbeau. The revolutionary abortion episode — which found the outspoken, liberal, radical Maude struggling with telling her husband about an unplanned pregnancy and choosing to have an abortion — aired only two months before the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal. “For you Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing,” her husband told her in an unprecedented show of support.
“We went deep into it and explored all of the things we might have done — false pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy, you know, anything but facing this almost 50-year-old woman having a baby,” creator Norman Lear said in an interview. “It just wasn’t in our nature by that time to wish to take the easy way. So then we had to face, ‘Should we have the baby? Would Maude have the baby?’ We could figure her tortured about it, but not at that age, and that marriage, at this time of life, deciding to have a baby. Let’s face that.” The episode aired with no major issues, according to Lear, but later saw deeper controversy. “When the shows were about to go into reruns, that’s when the religious right took off,” he said. “Maude’s Dilemma” was groundbreaking for 1970’s television.
Ellen DeGeneres’ self-titled show, Ellen, drew criticism from conservative groups after DeGeneres’ character revealed she was a lesbian. Simultaneously, the star came out to the world. The controversy prompted ABC to place a parental advisory at the beginning of each episode. Co-writer Mark Driscoll talked about the development of award-winning story:
“It was hard to believe it would ever happen until four weeks before we shot it. We thought the studio or network would come in and squelch it. We had a big meeting with Dean Valentine at Disney and Ellen expressed how personal the project was, and he responded. When we turned in the first draft of the script, the studio told us we didn’t go far enough. He said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it.’ Once he said to go as far as we could, it became great fun to write.”
When news about the episode leaked early, Driscoll noted that everyone wanted to be part of it. “It had a buzz around it that it would be a historic episode. When Oprah came on — and she was so wonderful and open and giving — it suddenly had this great weight to it,” he said. Sadly, ratings began to decline after the show’s revelation and when writers started directing their focus at gay issues, but the impact of “The Puppy Episode” lives on.
“The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” found the animated family heading to the Big Apple to retrieve their illegally parked car at the World Trade Center. The network pulled the episode after the September 11 attacks and have occasionally re-aired it in edited form. “We have 480 episodes, and if there are a few that they don’t want to air for a while in light of the terrible thing going on, I completely understand that,” executive producer Al Jean told press.
“The really bizarre thing about [“The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson”], which you might be aware of where there was a pamphlet that Bart holds up that says, New York on $9 a day with the Two Towers,” he later said of the episode. “It’s really bizarre. [The episode] came out years before 9/11. People have used it to say there’s a conspiracy that somehow The Simpsons knew about it beforehand. I guess, I would say just don’t believe in conspiracy theories.”