These days, just about everything is controversial, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the land of TV. From Game of Thrones to even more polite fare like Downton Abbey, fans and critics love nothing more than collapsing onto their fainting couches and furiously scribbling church lady like calls to arms with one hand while fanning themselves with the other.
But in the course of TV history, a handful of episodes have gone above and beyond when it comes to controversy. These are the episodes that managed to rile up everyone, piss off sponsors and occasionally even get an entire series axed. These are not just “problematic” episodes, in the unfortunate parlance of our times, but the truly controversial. Indeed, they are the nine most controversial TV episodes of all time.
9. ‘The Bicycle Man’ – ‘Diff’rent Strokes’
Arnold and his friend Dudley befriend a kindly bike shop owner, and, well, let’s just say the episode ends with Dudley drugged up and naked while the old bike lover gets ready to give him his kickstand. Sitcoms used to do weird shit like this all the time, completely inappropriate “message” episodes that came across as completely creepy and insane, especially when you consider the ever present laugh track. And this is one of the biggest examples, as before Dudley was almost done wrong, the episode contained the boys getting Jesus Juice from Old Man Pedo, porn and even naked pictures of the old perv, all while the laugh track did its business. It was completely nuts, and naturally it has earned a place of high honor in the controversial TV episodes Hall of Fame.
8. ‘Partial Terms of Endearment’ – ‘Family Guy’
It’s a Family Guy episode about Lois getting an abortion. I mean, come on, they pretty much made this episode just so they could end up on lists like this. Believe it or not, Seth McFarlane and company didn’t exactly handle the episode with gentle tact and quiet dignity, and the result was that Fox pulled the episode so that it didn’t air in the United States. I’m sure it would have gone over well if it had, especially given our totally productive, sensitive, and at all times levelheaded and rational national dialogue on abortion.
7. ‘Chris’ – ‘Skins’
MTV took a big risk when they imported the English hit Skins, which was known for being brutally honest about teenage life, which of course meant that it was raunchy as hell and borderline obscene. By the time the episode “Chris” hit the airwaves, which saw a teenage boy take Viagra and run buck naked down the streets amongst other wholesome acts of debauchery, MTV was bleeding sponsors and articles were being written in major newspapers discussing whether or not the show had violated various pornography laws. Well, okay then. It eventually sank the show completely, and proved that the Puritanical streak that first separated the colonies from England back in the day is still alive and well.
6. ‘I’ll See You in Court’ – ‘Married… With Children’
Maybe the raunchiest sitcom ever, Married… With Children’s controversial zenith was this episode, which centered on a sex tape and was just a half hour of sex jokes and references. I fail to see how that makes it that much different than any other episode in the show’s long, glorious history, but apparently Fox felt otherwise, as they freaked out and refused to air the episode, banning it from the airwaves for over a decade. Of course, their decision was probably aided by the fact that a Michigan housewife was in the midst of a national campaign to get the show canceled for being immoral filth. But the Bundy’s survived, and eventually so did the episode, which was finally aired years after the show itself had run its course. Can I get a “Woahhhhhhhh, Bundy”?
5. ‘The Puppy Episode’ – ‘Ellen’
This episode was controversial for one reason and one reason alone: Ellen came out of the closet. Yup, that’s it. It’s a sign of how far things have come that it seems ridiculous these days, but back then it was a huge deal. It was the first time a show’s lead character had come out, and it mirrored star Ellen Degeneres’ real life public coming out. The moral majority threw a fit and sponsors got nervous, but in the end, it helped pave the way for a nation to stop and say “What’s the big deal?” Were we ever so naïve and ridiculous about Ellen Degeneres being gay? Yes. Yes, we were.
4. ‘Pilot’ – ‘NYPD Blue’
The pilot episode for NYPD Blue wasn’t just controversial, it changed TV forever. That’s because it was the first show to just ignore all the old taboos and include a little nudity and swearing. Sure, it was all pretty tame, especially by today’s standards, with a few bare asses here and there, but it caused a huge uproar back in the day. Weirdly, network TV has actually pulled back a bit since then, especially following the FCC crackdown after Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Tittygate fiasco, but this is the episode that pretty much made cable networks like FX and AMC viable. Most of their shows wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for NYPD Blue creating all kinds of controversy by admitting that, yes, human beings do in fact have butts.
3. ‘200’ and ‘201’ – ‘South Park’
Look, there’s controversy, and then there’s creating an episode – or a two-part episode in this case – that pisses off an entire religion, a billion people, and gets the creators death threats. That’s the sort of uber-controversy that Trey Parker and Matt Stone willingly brought upon their show and themselves when they decided to show an image of the prophet Muhammad. Yeah, that’s it. After everything they’ve done, all the people they’ve lampooned and outright savaged over the years, that’s what brought down a shit-storm. The episode was eventually banned from TV and everyone in the Muslim world lived happily ever after, finally content because they had won a great victory over a cartoon.
2. ‘Edith’s 50th Birthday’ – ‘All in the Family’
Happy birthday, Edith! You’re gonna get raped! Wait… what? Yeah, All in the Family, perhaps the most controversial sitcom ever, went there. For some reason. This is another of those insane “very special” episodes, which saw Edith get attacked in her own home by some stranger who wouldn’t take no for an answer. By the time she fought him off with baked goods and gawped in traumatized horror while the police tried to get her to ID the perp, the live studio audience didn’t know what in the hell to do and people at home wondered what in the hell they had just watched. But it didn’t end there, as Edith then had to deal with the aftermath in OCD fashion, burying herself in housework before slapping the shit out of her daughter Gloria after Gloria called her selfish for not wanting to deal with the attack. Yeah. Just read all that again.
1. ‘Maude’s Dilemma’ – ‘Maude’
This is perhaps the most special of any “very special episode” because it was pretty much explicitly designed to be controversial. It’s an entire episode about Maude deciding to have an abortion. Well, okay then. What takes it over the top and makes it the most controversial episode of them all is that it aired in 1972, which was a year before Roe v. Wade really changed the abortion game. I mean, just think about how taboo a subject this is today, when a big chunk of us have lived our entire lives in a post-Roe v. Wade world. Now imagine how controversial and taboo that would have been over 40 years ago, when abortion wasn’t even talked about, and wasn’t even legal in many parts of the country. And they made an entire sitcom episode about this! A sitcom! Starring Bea Arthur! Good Lord.
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