Television has always pushed boundaries. Despite fairly strict guidelines and an obligation to satisfy advertisers and networks, showrunners and writers have always used the medium to approach serious subjects and themes which many viewers wouldn’t expect from their favourite shows.
BBC’s 1992 horror special Ghostwatch duped viewers into thinking they were watching a live paranormal investigation. In reality, the show had been recorded in advance and the events showing on screen – which included an outside broadcast exploring a haunted house and the presenters in the studio being possessed by a strange ghost called Mr Pipes – were completely scripted. After the show was broadcast, the BBC was inundated by phone calls from frightened people asking what was going on. The controversy escalated further when an 18 year old man with learning difficulties killed himself because he believed that the rattling pipes in his home were possessed by the ghost from the show. The BBC and the show’s producers issued an apology and Ghostwatch was never repeated on television.
9. Ellen – The Puppy Episode
It’s strange to think that less than 20 years ago homosexuality on television was still a taboo subject, but the episode of Ellen in which its star announced that she was a lesbian drew huge controversy. The 1997 episode served as a coming out for both the character and Ellen Degeneres herself and it instantly became a huge television event. Although Ellen was praised for her bravery and the episode won many awards, some advertisers refused to buy air-time for the broadcast (which was unfortunate for them as it drew 42 million viewers) and the network struggled with the show’s new identity. Degeneres was vocal in condemning ABC for running parental advisory warnings before subsequent episodes which saw Ellen embracing her new sexuality and exploring the LGBT community as the network hadn’t included the warnings before she came out.
8. Diff’rent Strokes – The Bicycle Man
Plenty of classic sitcoms have attempted to tackle more sincere issues than typical comedy situations, but the infamous molestation episode of Diff’rent Strokes stands out as a particularly tone-deaf approach to what should be a very serious scenario. In the episode ‘The Bicycle’ Man, the owner of the local bike shop, Mr Horton, attempts to seduce young Arnold and his best friend Dudley by buying them gifts. He later shows them pornography and gives them alcohol before convincing Dudley to take his shirt off so he can take photographs of him, but the police arrive before anything worse happens. Despite the serious subject matter, the entire episode is still played for laughs.
7. Buffy the Vampire Shot – Earshot
In the Season 3 episode ‘Earshot’, Buffy is infected by demon blood and is able to hear other people’s thoughts. At school the next day, she hears a fellow student think “This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all” and is desperate to find out who the potential killer is. Buffy manages to corner the student as he is loading a rifle in the clock tower, but he reveals that he was actually going to commit suicide. Although Buffy stops him from turning the gun on himself and is mistaken in thinking that there was going to be a shooting spree, the broadcast of Earshot was postponed for 6 months because the Columbine High School massacre occurred a week before the episode was originally set to air.
6. Beavis and Butthead – “Fire! Fire!”
Since its launch in the early 80s, MTV has produced its fair share of controversial programming. The network’s anarchic cartoon Beavis and Butt-head was accused of inspiring many reckless acts of behaviour from its audience, but the worst incident by far came in 1993 when a five year old boy set fire to his mobile home, killing his two year old sister. The mother claimed that the son had been watching Beavis and Butthead and was influenced by Beavis’ obsession with fire. MTV was quick to act and all references to fire were removed from future episodes and reruns of the show.
5. X-Files – Home
Although X-Files was typically labelled a sci-fi show, many of its episodes proved that real horror didn’t always come from supernatural beings who went bump in the night. Opening with a group of children discovering the corpse of a baby buried under their baseball field, it was clear that Home was going to be a very dark episode of the show. The story followed a strange family of recluses who locals believe have been inbreeding for generations. One of the final scenes of the episode revealed that the three brothers had been breeding with their mother – a quadruple amputee they kept hidden under the bed – and burying the offspring that didn’t survive. The episode’s graphic content and twisted plot makes it one of the most disturbing episodes of television ever made.
4. Brass Eye – Paedophile Special
British comedian Chris Morris made a name for himself by fronting pitch-black satirical shows Brass Eye and The Day Today, but the 2001 one-off ‘Paedogeddon’ special incited media uproar. Deliberately lampooning the frenzy which had taken over the UK press when 9 year old Sarah Payne was abducted and killed in 2000, the Brass Eye Special was a scathing parody on the ‘name and shame’ campaigns and paranoid hysteria which surrounded the subject of paedophilia. The show received more than 3,000 complaints and many influential MPs, including the then Home Secretary David Blunkett, publicly denounced the show as sick and tasteless (it was lately revealed that Blunkett, along with some other critics, didn’t actually watch the show). Ironically, the backlash proved the point that Morris was trying to make all along.
3. NYPD Blue – Nude Awakening
American cop show NYPD Blue was known for its grim take on modern day police work, but it wasn’t the gritty realism of the show which landed it in hot water. The aptly-titled Nude Awakening episode featured the character Sipowicz accidentally walking in on a female detective as she was about to get in the shower. Although it was a relatively tame scene of partial nudity (the actress, Charlotte Ross, only showed her nude rear and side), the FCC acted in typical fashion and slapped the network with a record-breaking $1.2 million fine for indecency in broadcasting. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals saw sense and threw out the massive fee.
2. Star Trek – Plato’s Stepchildren
It’s hard to overstate just how ground-breaking a character Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek was. Not only was she a strong, dynamic woman working alongside a mostly male crew, she was played by a black actress and her race was completely irrelevant to the show. At the time, black women on TV were reduced to stereotypical roles as maids and nannies, so the character was seen as an empowering role model to many black viewers. However, the show courted controversy with the 1969 episode Plato’s Stepchildren when Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura shared a kiss together. Although the two were being forced to kiss under mind control by aliens, the network braced itself for outrage and even tried to film an alternate take for its less liberal Southern audience where the two characters didn’t kiss. However, both actors deliberately kept ruining the takes and the network was forced to show the kiss in its national broadcast. To everyone’s surprise, the vast majority of the response to the episode was positive and the show was unanimously praised for showing the first interracial kiss on television.
1. South Park – 200 / 201
An entire list could be dedicated to the controversies caused by South Park. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always pushed the boundaries of what they can get away with on television, and they have never shied away from targeting influential and powerful (not to mention highly litigious) people or organisations with their unique brand of crude, satirical humour. To celebrate the 200th episode of the show, a two-part storyline featured all the celebrities who had been mocked or ridiculed in the past coming together to sue the fictional town and its inhabitants. In reference to an earlier controversy the show had faced in 2006 (another two-part episode – Cartoon Wars – mocked the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon frenzy of 2005), the celebrities announce they will drop the lawsuit if South Park surrenders the Muslim prophet Muhammad. In the week following the 200th episode, Comedy Central along with Stone and Parker faced a huge backlash from Muslim extremist groups who threatened violence if Muhammad was depicted on screen. Predictably, Comedy Central censored the episode and bleeped any mentions of Muhammad’s name and placed a black ‘Censored’ box over the character. At first, it seemed like this was South Park’s tongue in cheek response to the situation, but Parker revealed in a subsequent interview that the censorship wasn’t intended and was the result of network intervention. An uncensored version of the episode has never been released or broadcast.