It was the show that made every single viewer laugh out loud (and deeply cringe). That's right, we're talking about the Nov. 18, 1992, episode of "Seinfeld" titled "The Contest" — where George (played by Jason Alexander) is caught in a moment of personal pleasure by his elderly mother (played by Estelle Harris), who was so shocked by the sight of her son masturbating that she fell, injured herself and needed to go to the hospital. At the time the show premiered, network execs didn't think using the word "masturbation" was appropriate, so instead, the actors had to use euphemisms (like "master of my domain"), making the show even more hilarious. In honor of the 25th anniversary of that very special episode, Wonderwall.com is taking a look back at other controversial TV episodes over the years. You won't believe how far some shows pushed the envelope — and how tame some older controversies seem today. Keep reading for more…
It's no secret that "Game of Thrones" lives to keep our jaws hanging. From incest to murder, the controversies keep coming, but even "GoT" outdid itself (and upset a lot of viewers) with its April 20, 2014, episode during Season 4 titled "Breaker of Chains." (Spoiler alert) In the episode, Cersei is mourning the death of her son, King Joffrey, while standing beside his body in the temple. Her twin brother, Jaime (who's also Joffrey's father), arrives to console her, but ends up forcing himself on his sister against the altar that holds their dead child's body. Fans and critics took to the internet to protest the grotesque rape scene, which caused the show's network, HBO, to issue an apology, calling it "in bad taste."
At first, the 2017 Netflix original series "13 Reasons Why" was hailed as revolutionary TV — an important show covering teenage suicide that could (hopefully) get parents and their kids talking. However, as viewers reached the 13th and final episode in the series, titled "Tape 7 Side A," many were shocked by the show's graphic depiction of Hannah's (played by Katherine Langford) suicide in her bathtub. Instead of helping raise awareness of suicide, the show was accused of glorifying it and potentially driving kids to imitate Hannah's elaborate death ritual.
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While some controversies stem from shows incorporating taboo subjects, others come from fans who are totally peeved at a show's direction. Such is the case for Season 2, Episode 7 of the Netflix sci-fi drama "Stranger Things," which aired (as part of the complete series) on Oct. 27, 2017. In the episode, Eleven (who's also Elle and even Jane) leaves the bubble of Hawkins, Indiana, to find her missing "sister" Kali (played by Linnea Berthelsen) in Chicago. Fans complained the departure from the storyline was both confusing and unnecessary and seemed to be a totally new show. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer finally spoke up after hearing fans' unhappy reactions, claiming it was an "experiment" and saying even if it was unsuccessful, testing "a little other pilot episode" in the middle of the season kept their jobs interesting and enjoyable.
On Nov. 7, 2017, the award-winning NBC drama "This Is Us" aired an episode titled "The Most Disappointed Man in the World" and gave fans a verbal shock. (How is that even possible in 2017?) During the episode, Rebecca and Jack Pearson (played by Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia) attempt to finalize the adoption of baby Randall, but the African-American judge (played by Delroy Lindo) presiding over the case wasn't going to make it easy. When they ask to speak with him privately in his chambers, the judge comes clean, saying: "That child belongs with a black family… How else will he see himself? Understand who he is?… I never understood what my blackness meant until a white man called me a n—–." NBC didn't censor the use of the "N" word, which caused a strong reaction from fans. Surprisingly, although many people expressed shock over the word, they weren't mad at NBC or the show, but with the judge for preventing Randall from having a permanent, loving home, based on his own experiences with racism.
It was Nov. 14, 1972 — two months before the historic Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade made it legal for women to have abortions in the U.S. — when Bea Arthur grappled with the decision over whether or not to terminate her pregnancy on "Maude." The monumental subject was broken into two separate episodes titled "Maude's Dilemma 1" and "2." Maude, who was 47 on the show, realized that she didn't want to raise a second family and opted to end the pregnancy. It was the first time a lead character on network television had used the word "abortion" and had one on TV, marking a pivotal moment in entertainment history. The two episodes incurred the wrath of viewers who took up an angry letter-writing campaign to the network, flooding its offices with more than 7,000 pieces of hate mail.
On the penultimate episode of Season 4 of the Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black," the show took a dark turn when prison guards at Litchfield cracked down on the female inmates who were peacefully protesting the abuse they'd sustained at the hands of the guards. The officers, led by Piscatella (played by Brad William Henke, center) became violent with the women, causing chaos and (spoiler alert) the death of one of our favorite characters, Poussey (played by Samira Wiley). The horrifying scene was meant to remind viewers of the many actual deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers that could be prevented if they were properly trained and criminal cops were held accountable.
Comedy Central's adult animated series "South Park" has built its name on controversy. It was no surprise then that for its 200th episode on April 21, 2010, it out-did even itself. Episodes 200 and 201 notoriously aimed to offend every celebrity (like Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, Mel Gibson and more) and every social, political and religious group in existence. Included in the shows were religious icons like Jesus, Buddha and the Muslim prophet Muhammad. When certain Islamic radicals heard about it, they threatened the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, making it clear they could wind up like assassinated Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh if their prophet appeared on the show. Taking the threats seriously, the show ran, but cut all of the prophet's lines and blacked out his character in every scene. After the initial airing, the episodes were pulled from rotation and are no longer available for viewing. Fans accused the show of caving to extremism, but the show was still nominated for an Emmy for outstanding animated program.
Sometimes a show's just trying to tell an important story and other times, it's trying to send a message to the White House to butt out of its business. At least that was the case with the Sept. 21, 1992, episode of "Murphy Brown" titled "You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato" (which was a reference to Vice President Dan Quayle's infamous misspelling of the word "potato" at an elementary school earlier that year). In May of '92, Dan made a speech on the campaign trail in which he claimed the fictional news anchor Murphy Brown was disrupting family values by having a child out of wedlock, saying, "Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong… It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice." The comments turned what was once just an entertaining TV program into a national debate. Naturally, the show had to respond and did so with gusto on its Season 5 premiere. In the infamous "potatoe" episode, Candice Bergen's Murphy directly responds to the VP, saying, "I'm glamorizing single motherhood? What planet is he on? I agonized over that decision… Perhaps it's time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes. And ultimately, what really defines a family is caring and love." An estimated 70 million viewers tuned in for the episode.
On the Season 1 finale of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," which aired on June 18, 2009, cast member Teresa Giudice flipped out, flipped over a table and made reality TV history. The episode (aptly titled "The Last Supper") brought the New Jersey ladies together around a dinner table to hash out their differences. Danielle Staub, Teresa, Jacqueline Laurita, Caroline Manzo and Dina Manzo all attended the fateful dinner show-down in anticipation of a confrontation that had been brewing all season long: Teresa was mad at Danielle for lying and found evidence in a book that one of Danielle's exes wrote that included information about Danielle's past. When T confronted D at the dinner, things got heated before T finally screamed the infamous words "Prostitution wh—!" (and some other colorful epithets) and flipped the table over. The scene launched the "Housewives" franchise to even greater fame and became internet gold almost overnight. To this day, when fans think of "RHONJ," they remember Teresa's name and that jaw-dropping table-flipping scene.
The HBO series "Girls" starring Lena Dunham and Adam Driver stirred up a lot of controversies during its time on the air. The show was accused of whitewashing New York, being vulgar in its depiction of sex and nudity and having unlikable, self-absorbed characters. However, one of its most controversial episodes had to do with a shower. In a scene from Season 1's episode "Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too" (which aired on June 3, 2012), Hanna (played by Lena) gets in the shower with her boyfriend (Adam) and he proceeds to urinate on her. Fans called the scene "disgusting" (it was) and "over the top" (also true). Apparently, the non-consensual golden shower wasn't enough to turns fans away for good, as the show continued for five more years and won a few Emmys.
Believe it or not, the family comedy "Kate & Allie" starring former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James was considered controversial for its time. The series was about two single mothers who lived together while raising their kids. Seems tame by today's standards, but at the time it first aired (1984), the show was considered a threat to family values (especially after Kate and Allie pretended to be lesbians to get a discount on their rent). One of the most controversial episodes wasn't about their perceived homosexuality but rather when Allie (played by Jane) discovered a condom in her son Chip's pocket on the March 20, 1989, show titled "Trojan War." The topic of teen sex was considered a major taboo at the time, so forcing viewers to face it head-on was shocking and for some, going too far. A Catholic archdiocese condemned the episode, claiming it would encourage premarital sex. At a time when the AIDS epidemic was at its height, the show's producers felt the message was an important one and didn't back down, helping normalize discussions between parents and their teens about the importance of safe sex.
"Will & Grace" was always considered a progressive show that aimed to tackle stereotypes and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. On its Sept. 28, 2017, episode — the first one of Season 9 (after it was off the air for 11 years), the show added politics to its roster and made no secret of what it thought of the Trump administration. The 22-minute episode managed to take numerous potshots at the president, his family and staffers. Some of the digs included calling Melania Trump "a hostage," showing a hat that said "Make America Gay Again" and Grace being tasked with redecorating the Oval Office to make it "look like [Trump's] there from time to time" (while matching paint swatches with orange Cheetos). While many fans celebrated the flawless takedown, conservative viewers had a different reaction, calling the show "a tool for hate" and renaming it "Will & Disgrace." Still, the episode managed to attract more than 10.2 million viewers.
Yes, folks, we've arrived at one of the most controversial TV episodes of the '90s and it was all over a haircut. Fans of the critically acclaimed series "Felicity" nearly revolted when, during Episode 2 of Season 2, Felicity (played by Keri Russell) chopped off all her glorious, curly hair. You would think we were talking about murder, but nope, the outrage was all about Felicity's new pixie cut. Many fans quit watching the show, claiming they felt "betrayed" by her decision to change her hairstyle. The network's executives even had to apologize for their decision, claiming they should have paid "better attention" to their star. Some say it was the haircut that caused the massive dip in ratings, while others point to the weekday change of schedule. Either way, even Keri herself said (20 years after the cut) that it was a mistake.
The March 1, 1994, "Roseanne" episode "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was so controversial for its time, ABC initially refused to even air it. On the show, Roseanne and sister Jackie (played by Laurie Metcalf) were invited by their lesbian friend Nancy (Sandra Bernhard) to join her and her girlfriend Sharon (played by Mariel Hemingway) at a gay nightclub. While at the club, Roseanne decides to play "gay" (hoping to score free drinks) but when that leads to Sharon kissing her, Roseanne was quick to wave her "not gay" flag (actually wiping her mouth and tongue off after the kiss). Network executives initially said they wouldn't air a show where a woman kissed a woman, but after the public (and Roseanne) put pressure on them, they relented. The show had high ratings but was later accused of co-opting lesbianism as a gimmick to get more viewers and not actually doing anything to help the gay community.
Fans of the award-winning ABC drama "Lost" had come to expect a lot from their show and usually, those expectations were met and even exceeded. However, the show's series finale, which aired on May 23, 2010, was met with major disappointment from viewers, mostly because they felt cheated by creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, who failed to wrap up many of the show's mysteries (like those damned numbers) and finished the drama on a confusing note (so, were they actually dead the entire time, even though J.J. and Damon promised us they weren't?). While some viewers (a rare few) seemed at peace with the show's inclusion of an afterlife after Jack (played by Matthew Fox) died, others felt like they'd wasted nearly six years of their lives searching for hidden clues to explain confusing plot elements that were ultimately never answered.
The hit Netflix comedy "Grace and Frankie," which follows two senior citizens (played by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) as they rediscover their lives as single women, has produced several controversial moments, including their former husbands' decision to leave them and come out as a gay couple, the women's pursuit of sexual fulfillment in their golden years, and even Frankie's pot-smoking habit. However, on the penultimate episode of Season 2 (dubbed "The Party"), the show tackled an issue that's hardly ever mentioned on the small (or big) screen: assisted suicide. In the episode, the women attend a party for their longtime friend Babe, who, after learning her cancer has returned and spread, wants to end her life after her spectacular celebration via drugged pudding. The show raised discussions about the ethics of assisted suicide and whether or not people with terminal illness have the right to end their lives on their terms. While controversial, audiences were largely supportive of the show's handling of such a delicate and still debated issue.
Today, we'd call a kiss between a white man and a black woman just that — a kiss. But in 1968, at the height of the battle for civil rights in America, it was branded a major controversy. On the Nov. 22, 1968, episode of "Star Trek" titled "Plato's Stepchildren," Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) passionately kisses Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols). What we didn't see behind the scenes were the many retakes they filmed and the decision by the show's director to only show the couple embracing for audiences in the Deep South. However, Bill decided to ruin the shot of them hugging by purposely crossing his eyes in the scene, which no one noticed until the film was in the editing room — causing those scenes to be unusable. Forced to air the kissing scene across the entire country, Bill and Nichelle ended up making history with the first ever interracial kiss on American network television.
Tina Fey's comedy "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" starring Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess managed to spark some controversy over a controversy on the show, making it sort of an "Inception" of controversial episodes. Let us explain: On the Season 2 episode "Kimmy Goes to a Play!," her roommate Titus (played by Tituss) decides to perform a one-man show in which he explores his past lives, including that of a geisha named Murasaki. Donning full geisha makeup and attire, Titus becomes the target of a group of online Asian-American media activists (whose forum, "Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment," has the unfortunate acronym R.A.P.E.) who assail his use of cultural appropriation but later change their minds after attending his performance in person. Actual activists who watched the episode noted how the show's portrayal of Asian-American protesters was one-dimensional, giving an already marginalized community even less footing to speak up against harmful stereotypes used in media and turning their voices into nothing more than a joke.
Ellen DeGeneres wasn't always our favorite daytime talk show host with seriously smooth dance moves. In the 1990s, Ellen was the star of her own primetime comedy series, "Ellen," on which she played an OCD-ish bookstore owner trying to navigate the ups and downs of life, including friendship dramas and dating. Throughout the first four seasons of the show, Ellen (the character) dated men and lived a typically average heterosexual life. In April 1997, however, that changed when Ellen (the woman) decided to publicly reveal she was homosexual via the cover of Time magazine (which famously stated, "Yep, I'm Gay") and in an interview with Diane Sawyer. Two weeks later, Ellen also decided to give her character the same sexual freedom by coming out on the show. "The Puppy Episode" aired on April 30 and showed Ellen announce to an openly gay woman named Susan (played by Laura Dern) over an airport intercom system that she too was gay. The show drew an astounding 42 million viewers, but that didn't spell good news for its future. Alt-right religious groups and longtime show sponsors like JCPenney, Chrysler and Wendy's pulled their advertisements, causing the show to lose ratings and promotional value. By the next season, the show was officially cancelled and while Ellen was finally free to be herself in real life, the entertainment world wasn't yet ready to accept her with open arms.
We're not sure if we can call the final episode of "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life" a controversy as much as it was a "WTF" moment for viewers. The last words Rory (played by Alexis Bledel) utters to mom Lorelai (played by Laura Graham) before the closing credits run is (MAJOR spoiler alert) that she's pregnant. Okay, no big deal, right? Not exactly. Rory, 32, was dumped by her boring boyfriend Paul minutes before the revelation and had enjoyed a longstanding affair with a very engaged Logan, meaning we don't know who the baby daddy is and may NEVER know. What bull is this? The controversy is that fans (like us) wanted resolution, not another decade of not knowing what the hell is going on with the Gilmore girls.
Someone always has to be first. "Leave it to Beaver" aired the first image of a toilet on-screen (the shock!) and "Star Trek" aired the first interracial kiss, but it was Mark Harmon on "Chicago Hope" who uttered the first "s–t" on network television. The episode "Vigilance and Care" aired on Oct. 14, 1997, and included the line "s–t happens." It was so controversial, the network notified the public well in advance, so everyone's delicate ears could prepare for the most horrific word ever mentioned on television. It all seems rather funny now, but back then, it was something kids stayed up late for, hoping to catch the cuss word as it was broadcasted into millions of homes across the nation.
Since its inception in 1975, "Saturday Night Live" has enjoyed numerous controversies, but none caused as much scandal as the Oct. 23, 2004, musical non-performance of Ashlee Simpson, who was busted lip-syncing live. Seen around the world, Ashlee, who was the show's musical guest, was on stage, ready to perform her hit song "Pieces of Me" when, either by mistake or sabotage, the lyrics she was supposed to lip-sync to played too soon, catching her off-guard and revealing her deception to viewers. Clearly embarrassed, Ashlee did a strange jig before walking off the stage (causing even more drama). The singer later blamed the band for playing too soon, then "SNL" for messing up the timing of the music. Either way, the humiliating moment was replayed on the news for days and is still considered to be one of the most controversial moments in "SNL" history.
You might be wondering why a picture of the beloved Fred Rogers from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" is somehow (mistakenly) in this roundup of controversial TV episodes because there's no way that he could ever have a controversy under his belt. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Mr. Rogers wasn't just teaching kids how to tie their shoes and play nicely with others — he was showing them how to handle nuclear war. In 1983, during the height of the Cold War, Fred devoted an entire week of episodes (airing from Nov. 7 through Nov. 11) to the theme "Conflict." The beloved puppet King Friday believed an adversary was making bombs, which leads him to also stockpile weapons. In the end, kids learn the "enemy" was just trying to build a bridge to unite them all. Once the Cold War ended, PBS pulled the episodes from rotation, but thankfully, someone mysteriously uploaded them to YouTube in 2017 to remind us all of the importance of avoiding an arms race.
On Nov. 14, 2017, the hilarious comedy "The Mindy Project" came to an end. During its five-year run, the show explored more than a few controversial topics, but none were as shocking (and liberating) as the Season 3 episode "I Slipped," which tackled the complicated issue of non-consensual backdoor penetration between a man and a woman. In the episode, viewers learn Danny (played by Chris Messina) tried to go there while Mindy wasn't expecting it. Mindy, understandably, is outraged, believing Danny "missed" on purpose. Although Danny denies it ("I slipped!" he claims), we later learn he indeed was hoping for a night of passionate rear-ending. The show opened the door for many couples to talk about this all-too-common "mistake" and why consent is always required before one "slips."