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A Timeline Of The Most Rule-Breaking Moments On TV

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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.

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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

November 1947

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.

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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. 

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Star Trek airs the first ever interracial kiss

November 1968

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.

CBS Photo Archive / via Getty Images

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

September 1972

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.

John G. Zimmerman Archive/Courtesy Everett Collection

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.

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Maude Findlay of Maude has an abortion prior to Roe V. Wade

November 1972

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.

CBS

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

September 1977

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.

Henderson Productions

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.

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Costello plays “Radio, Radio” on SNL in protest of corporate broadcasting

December 1977

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.

SNL/NBC

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

November 1980

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.

Rex

The important TV moment drew in 350 million viewers around the world and broke all viewership records.

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Courtney Cox is the first person to use the word ‘tampon’ on TV

1985

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.

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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

October 1987

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.

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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. 

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The Fresh Prince of Bel Air discusses law-enforcement discrimination against people of color

October 1990

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.

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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

April 1990

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.

ABC

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. 

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L.A Law aired the first same-sex kiss on TV

February 1991

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.

A&E

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

May 1992

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.

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Warner Bros.

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.

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Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of the Pope on SNL 

October 1992

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.

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SNL/NBC

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

December 1995

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.

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IMDB

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. 

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Jeanie Boulet reveals her HIV-positive status on ER and lives through it

September 1996

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.

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Photo by Sven Arnstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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

April 1997

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.

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Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

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. 

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Sex and the City airs a show about intimate toys

August 1998

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.

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HBO

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

November 1998

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.

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Touchstone Television, via Everett Collection

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.

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Tia and Tamera find out their father is white

February 1999

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.

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ABC

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

May 2000

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.

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The WB

Nowadays, gay romantic scenes have become much more accepted and the LGBTQ+ community have made major strides in acceptance in entertainment. 

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Lizzie McGuire shows the awkwardness of puberty while bra shopping

May 2001

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.

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Disney Channel

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

November 2001

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.

United Paramount Network

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. 

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Manny goes against her boyfriends wishes and gets an abortion on Degrassi: The Next Generation

January 2004

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.

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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

June 2007

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.

HBO / courtesy Everett Collection

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. 

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Netflix releases the entire season of House of Cards in one day

February 2013

This was truly the beginning of binging TV series when Netflix became the first streaming service to release a complete series in one go.

Netflix

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

March 2014

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.

CBS

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. 

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Callie from Grey’s Anatomy declares she is bisexual

October 2014

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.”

ABC

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

October 2014

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.

ABC

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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Sofia gives her fellow inmates an anatomy lesson

June 2014

While Orange Is The New Black broke lots of boundaries when it came to women in prison, one very significant moment was when trans inmate Sofia takes it upon herself to teach the other women about their female anatomy.

Netflix

She includes which places are meant for pleasure and the complex issues as well. The episode titled “A Whole Other Hole,” made wavelengths within the mainstream media and for the trans community too. 

BoJack Horseman is the first cartoon about depression to air

August 2014

The Netflix cartoon sitcom of course has its funny moments, but it also includes the very serious and relevant issue of depression. It explores the characters struggles with mental health issues, something that has always been considered quite heavy for TV, let alone to be included in a cartoon.

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Interestingly, it provided one of the most accurate and poignant representations of the complex issue of depression on TV. 

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Amy Schumer airs the “Last F able Day” Skit

April 2015

Never one to sky from the crude topics, Amy Schumer hosted a star-studded event including the likes of Tina Fey who were helping Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her last day of being sexually pleasing according to industry standards.

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Comedy Central

The women talk about how she is now doomed for roles as Mrs. Claus and movies where kitchens are on the posters. The commentary was very common of Amy Schumer and didn’t hold back in any area. 

Scandal shows Olivia Pope on the operating table during an abortion

November 2015

To begin with, Pope’s abortion on Scandal was shocking because her pregnancy was never even mentioned. It was never a plot or discussed as something that was going on, so it seriously took viewers by total surprise.

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ABC

The scene is heavy, honest and as to the point as the producers could possibly make it. It was truly a moment on the show which had everyone in tears and many commending the representation. 

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Death of Poussey generates awareness for Black Lives Matter

June 2016

One of the saddest moments on Orange Is The New Black was the death of Poussey. She is killed after being suffocated when a prison guard held her own and didn’t hear her say “I can’t breathe.”

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Netflix

The civil protest in the prison broke out and Poussey tried to help Suzanne Warren, but she’s held down by C.O. Bailey who eventually kills her. Her last words were the same uttered by Eric Garner when killed but a police officer. 

Broad City bleeped out Trump’s name

August 2017

When Trump was elected to be president, many different TV shows made comment on the controversial election and the reaction to it was seen everywhere.

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Comedy Central

However, Broad City decided to take a different approach and bleep out the president’s name whenever it was mentioned in any capacity. The extremely bold move was seen as an act of defiance and resistance, not supporting the new leader and removing his name essentially removed the power he held. 

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Doctor Who gets it first female Doctor

July 2017

In a year that was saturated with gender pay gap protests, equality for woman and the Me Too movement, Doctor Who made strides by announcing the new Doctor to be Jodie Whittaker.

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BBC

After 26 seasons and 12 different male Doctors, Jodie made history as the first female in the coveted role. The move encouraged representation of women in many different TV series that were previously male dominated. The BBC were hailed for this important appointment. 

Pose premiered a show with trans characters played by trans actors

June 2018

The trans community have made huge developments in recent years and the series director of Pose, Janet Mock, became the first woman of color to write and direct a TV show.

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FX

In addition, Mock, along with producers, made the decision to cast a bunch of transgender actors, more than any other TV show, so that it was accurately represented on screen. The series was renewed for a second and third season.

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Ruby Rose is the first LGBTQ superhero in a series

August 2018

After being a hit in Orange Is The New Black, Ruby Rose was cast to star in the Batwoman series, coming to the CW’s line of superheroes called The Arrowverse.

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The CW Network

The casting move was actually met with a lot of backlash and some fans were less than thrilled with the appointment, saying that the actress was not “gay enough” to hold the weight of this lesbian heroine. Nonetheless, other praised the casting for overall representation. 

Sandra Oh became the first Asian female to win two Golden Globes

January 2019

The former Grey’s Anatomy actress won her second Golden Globe in the category Best Actress — Television Series Drama for her portrayal of Even in BBC America’s Killing Eve.

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The year before, fans were upset after she lost out to The Crown’s Claire Foy at the Emmys, so this win was extra sweet for the actress. Unfortunately, at this years Emmy’s she lost out once again in the same category.

Read more: the most heartbreaking breakups on TV

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