Over time, there has been a dramatic shift on what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate to portray on TV shows. Producers and studios have been constantly pushing the boundaries to get a greater reaction from fans and make their shows a newsworthy item and draw in audiences in their millions.
Whether it is social or political issues, these rule-breaking moments had fans shocked they even managed to get to air.
Married couple share a bed
There is much debate whether it was I Love Lucy or the first TV sitcom Mary Kay and Johnny to show a married couple sharing a bed for the first time. It turns out that Mary Kay and Johnny win this one and the show provoked much controversy in showing such scenes.
Prior to this, married couples were always shown sharing a room, with single beds on separate sides. However, a married couple sharing a bed was only the beginning of what was to come in the future.
Star Trek airs the first ever interracial kiss
While we wouldn’t bat an eyelid on seeing interracial couples on TV today and it is very much engrained in our culture, in 1968 Star Trek made wavelengths by showing Captain Kirk and Office Uhura kissing in an episode.
Despite the two being under mind control, eliminating the romance in the ordeal, the network initially tried different scenarios of the scenes to avoid being hit by backlash, but the importance of having this version air was overt.
The gender wage gap is addressed in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
In season 3 of the series in an episode titled “The Good Time News,” Mary comes to find out that the producer who previously held her job made a significantly higher salary than the one she was offered.
It isn’t until she confronts her boss about the situation that she finds out that the salary difference is purely down to her being a woman and doesn’t have a family to support. The shocking realization led Mary to become enraged and states it is totally unfair and the conversation surrounding the gender wage gap was opened up.
Maude Findlay of Maude has an abortion prior to Roe V. Wade
Producer Norman Lear was never afraid to break down boundaries in his TV series and his show Maude was no different. In the two part episode titled “Maude’s Dilemma,” Maude tackled the very difficult and controversial decision of whether to have an abortion or not.
In the end, she decided to have it after being unable to support her child. Needless to say, it came with a lot of backlash.
Fonzie jumps over a shark
The season 5 premiere of Happy Days saw Fonzie water-skiing where he jumps over a captive shark. Audiences were up in arms at the stunt as they believed that producers had gone for the shock factor to draw in greater numbers.
Previously, Fonzie was hurt in a motorcycle stunt and at that point decided he was done with stupid risks. The water-skiing incident had in turn undone the character development of Fonzie and fans were not impressed.
Costello plays “Radio, Radio” on SNL in protest of corporate broadcasting
Elvis Costello was performing “Less Than Zero” on Saturday Night Live when he quickly switched into the controversial song “Radio, Radio”. The song took aim at the issues within live broadcasting of music and how the artists are treated by their record labels.
Unsurprisingly, the move seriously annoyed producers of Saturday Night Live and Costello earned himself a 10-year ban from the show. Since then, the show has seen much bigger controversies.
350 million people watched to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas
The mystery of who shot J.R. in the popular TV show, Dallas, was something that was drawn out for months on end with plenty of speculation and cliffhangers, leaving fans desperate to find out the truth. After eight months since airing the shooting, Dallas finally revealed who the culprit was.
The important TV moment drew in 350 million viewers around the world and broke all viewership records.
Courtney Cox is the first person to use the word ‘tampon’ on TV
Despite the fact that talking about periods and womanly issues on TV is a common thing today and all kinds of intimate commercials are aired, it was still somewhat taboo back in the 80s.
This all changed when Courtney Cox was seen in a national commercial for Tampax, talking about tampons and periods. Although it was just part of the basic biology of a woman, it caused quite the stir among viewers who thought it was inappropriate to show on TV.
Designing Woman shows a character who has AIDS
In the popular sitcom Designing Women, the episode titled “Killing All The Right People” saw actor Tony Goldwyn portraying a man with AIDS. The character was included as he was asking the women to design his funeral. The episode tackled important issues which talked about the discrimination against AIDS patients.
It aired only a few months after Ronald Reagan acknowledged the AIDS crisis and was an incredibly poignant and important moment in TV sitcom history.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air discusses law-enforcement discrimination against people of color
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air had a wonderful way of dealing with real issues in a light-hearted but to-the-point way. In one episode, Carlton and Will were pulled over by police for “stealing” Uncle Phil’s car as cops believed they were two suspicious young black men in an expensive car.
The episode goes deeper in the ways people of color are discriminated against and even opens Carlton’s eyes, having grown up in an affluent and sheltered family.
Twin Peaks episode “Cooper’s Dream” made wavelengths in future high-concept TV
Separate to movies, TV sitcoms weren’t exactly ahead of their time in coming up with creative, avant-garde and cinematically perplexing moments that had audiences in awe.
However, in Twin Peaks, the “Cooper’s Dream” episode changed all of this when Agent Dale Cooper was presented experiencing a confusing dream when one character speaks backwards and another directly resembles Laura Palmer, the death he was investigating. The unique moment went down in TV history.
L.A Law aired the first same-sex kiss on TV
In the last 10 years we have come a long way in accepting and celebrating same-sex couples and equality for all. However, in the early 90s, it was still very much a controversial topic to cover on TV.
L.A Law decided to air a scene with same-sex couple CJ Lamb and Abby Perkins kissing. Unfortunately, the romance was short-lived as CJ Lamb was written off the show and Abby Perkins ended up with a man.
Murphy Brown had a baby on her own at 42 without a man
In sitcom Murphy Brown, Murphy was shocked to find out at the end of the last season that she had fallen pregnant. The father of the child was her ex-husband who she had a one-off intimate night with.
At the end of season four, fans tuned in to find out that Murphy had decided to keep the baby and raise the child by herself. Then Vice-President Dan Quayle criticized the character for “mocking” fathers.
Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of the Pope on SNL
In an attempt to protest the abuse in the Catholic Church, controversial singer Sinead O’Connor carried out the shocking stunt on live TV. Despite her intentions, she was largely ridiculed at the time due to her ignorance of the issue which turned into a SNL sketch starring Jan Hooks.
Nonetheless, the bold move was recognized a protest and making her voice heard on a national television stage.
Seinfeld tackled the intimate issue of obtaining contraception
In the episode “The Sponge,” Elaine is seen having trouble finding a suitable birth control and also being judged for how she uses it. After walking 25-blocks to find this certain sponge contraception, she buys it in bulk at the pharmacy, much to the dismay of the clerk.
Due to her difficulty in finding the contraception, she then weighs up whether her boyfriend is “sponge-worthy” as it is entirely her responsibility to sort out each month.
Jeanie Boulet reveals her HIV-positive status on ER and lives through it
Instead of the controversy just being about covering HIV-positive patients on TV, it was also about the patient surviving the disease. Usually, a character on a medical drama with a life-threatening condition is almost certain to die at some point, but this wasn’t the case for Jeanie Boulet.
Audiences watched her journey, learned from it and understood the complex issues surrounding it and it was a poignant moment in TV history.
Ellen DeGeneres comes out on Ellen and then talks to Oprah about it
Ellen DeGeneres was one of the most loved people in the entertainment business. A Few weeks after her Time cover story titled “Yep, I’m Gay,” was published, Ellen spoke candidly on her show about her sexuality, leaving audiences in tears and in awe of her bravery and inspiration.
Ellen then went on Oprah and spoke to the talk show queen about her thought process, her fears and finally opening up about her true self.
Sex and the City airs a show about intimate toys
Sex and the City was never a show to hold back and tried to portray the lives of 30-year old single women living and loving in New York City. In season one, producers shocked fans from the outset when they aired an episode all about intimate gadgets and how Charlotte was afraid of the stigma surrounding them.
The episode broke down the barriers of the stigma and about the feeling of embarrassment of using the toys for pleasure.
Felicity addresses the possibility of assault from a partner
Felicity was directed to mainly a teenage audience and with this, WB decided to tackle some important and worrying issues about growing up and the dark side of intimate romances.
In the episode, Felicity’s friend Julie is dating a new guy who wanted to be intimate, but was “pretty aggressive.” Julie went on to explain that even though she had told him no, it carried on and happened anyway.
Tia and Tamera find out their father is white
Sister, Sister was the sitcom based on the real lives of Tia and Tamera, but with a twist. In the show, the two sisters found out that their biological father was white. In a bold move, audiences were shown a real life representation of interracial families, something that had never been shown on TV prior to this.
The moment was heartwarming and paved the way for other shows and sitcoms to have all cultures and families represented.
Dawson’s Creek aired the first all male kiss
With the turn of the century came more acceptance for gay couples and this began with airing the first male on male kiss. Although Will and Grace had shown a male kiss, it was between friends and not passionate. Dawson’s Creek showed Jack and his boyfriend Ethan have a moment of romance that truly made audiences melt.
Nowadays, gay romantic scenes have become much more accepted and the LGBTQ+ community have made major strides in acceptance in entertainment.
Lizzie McGuire shows the awkwardness of puberty while bra shopping
Lizzie McGuire accurately depicted the lives of teenage 90s girls, through the ups and downs and a lot of awkwardness. In one episode, Lizzie’s rival Kate gets a bra and her popularity at school soars.
When Lizzie wants one herself she tries hiding it from everyone at first but then ends up getting into an awkward situation and has a moment of panic and proceeds to start shouting about it to her whole family.
Buffy goes musical and everyone goes crazy for it
In the episode “Once More With Feeling” Buffy the Vampire Slayer was seen belting out show tunes all over Sunnydale. This was something that hadn’t really been done on a TV show like this before and it was a big risk for writers.
It ended up being a hit with fans and today it is not unusual to find your favorite TV stars bursting into song. Series including Riverdale, Bob’s Burgers and Supergirl and The Flash have all adopted this idea.
Manny goes against her boyfriends wishes and gets an abortion on Degrassi: The Next Generation
When Manny finds out she is pregnant, she tells her boyfriend Craig, explaining she will be having an abortion. When Craig tells her to keep the baby, Manny realizes she doesn’t want to and it is her body and goes ahead with the procedure.
When Craig is upset, Manny’s friends come to her defense. It took two years for the episode to air and the actress who played Manny explained it was one of her favorites.
The Sopranos ends its series with 10 seconds of pitch black
When the final song of Don’t Stop Believin by Journey was playing out the last scene of The Soprano’s, the screen suddenly went black and the series was finished.
Fans were extremely upset to find out that this was the way it was going to end and initially thought it was a mistake by the network. Many thought the ending was a cop-out, but looking back on it, it was a brave and bold move by executives.
Netflix releases the entire season of House of Cards in one day
This was truly the beginning of binging TV series when Netflix became the first streaming service to release a complete series in one go.
Instead of keeping audiences hooked, tuning in to watch week after week, the decision ended being a huge success and brought in bigger number than anticipated. Now, both Netflix and Amazon drop their entire original series in one go and haven’t looked back.
Will’s death on The Good Wife was kept a massive secret without any leaks
Usually, fans and journalists know when a main character is leaving a TV series due to plenty of press speculation and indirect answers from producers. Usually, something slips out from someone.
However, in The Good Wife, Will’s death came as a complete shock to everyone. When Josh Charles wanted to leave, no one caught on to the story and it was truly a moment in TV that no one could really come to terms with.
Callie from Grey’s Anatomy declares she is bisexual
In season 5 of Grey’s Anatomy, Callie bravely comes out to her father, and she did it in a way that TV wasn’t ready for. In the episode, she confidently, loudly and a little bit drunkenly, she declared “So, I’m bisexual.”
Those words hadn’t been spoken on a major network TV show and it was another great moment for the LGBTQ+ community. It was fitting for Callie who is now the longest running gay character on network television.
Annalise Keating removed her wig on How to Get Away With Murder
It was hailed as a truly incredible moment in TV for black women. In How To Get Away With Murder, they showed Anallise Keating remove her wig, a move that represented black women across the world and the beauty routine they go through every day.
Not only this, but it showed her as vulnerable, uncovered and raw something you don’t get to see too much from a black woman on a major TV show.
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