Figuring out just what is and isn’t appropriate to show on television is a tricky thing, as artistic and cultural standards change all the time. Once upon a time, showing a married couple sleeping in the same bed would be an inappropriate scene, which is why Lucy and Ricky slept in separate twin beds like 6-year-olds on I Love Lucy. Still, there are times when audiences themselves decide that TV shows have simply gone too far. Here’s a look at some scenes that fans at the time thought were wildly inappropriate (and in some cases, still do).
Hannibal: the face-eating scene
Standards and practices may have varied over the decades, but there’s one thing that has always been a given in network television: don’t show a guy eating his own face. Well, Hannibal apparently didn’t get that memo, because in 2014, they decided to let the world know exactly what that would look like. Not only did character Mason Verger rip off his own face and eat it, he also fed some of it to his dog first, because he’s a good and loving master apparently. NBC sure has come a long way since Golden Girls.
Tiny Toon Adventures: ‘One Beer’
You wouldn’t think a scene about dudes drinking beer would be considered inappropriate. But consider that this scene took place in the decidedly kiddie cartoon Tiny Toons, and the dudes drinking the beer are loveable (and underage) animals Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Hamton Pig. Also, consider that the scene ends with them drunkenly driving a car off a cliff to their deaths. Needless to say, parents were definitely not amused, and the episode was immediately yanked from reruns forever.
The X-Files: Home’
Some consider "Home" the best episode in the history of the classic sci-fi series X-Files. Other consider it one of the most depraved moments ever shown on television. Both might be right, but does the fact that the episode is good make it appropriate? That’s what critics and fans were left debating after a terrifying scene where Mulder and Scully discover the inbred and mutated Peacock Brothers have been procreating with their own mother, a quadruple amputee they kept under their bed. The episode was the only one in series history to receive a TV-MA rating, for mature content. Ya think?
Nathan Barley: underage acts
Not content with causing one major child abuse outrage, Chris Morris stepped up to bat again with his 2005 six-episode satire on London "media twats" with Nathan Barley, co-written with Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker. This time, he smashed the ball of offense so far outside the park of good taste that it left a flaming trail of cringe all the way into the stratosphere.
Episode 5 featured the eponymous hero and proto-hipster/social media celebrity Nathan Barley paying a highly vulnerable drug addict for oral sex. That in itself would be inappropriate enough on any other show, but Nathan Barley cheerfully twists the knife even further. While the act is happening, Nathan receives a call from his love interest. She has some urgent news. The girl Nathan is with is only 13 years old. Just as he hears this, Nathan climaxes. (Yes, this was a real show that was really shown on mainstream TV.)
But fear not, traumatized viewers! The episode’s big twist comes when, after a full-blown meltdown panic, Nathan discovers the prostitute is actually 18-pretending-to-be-13. Even after that, bad taste wins when Nathan’s vacuous friends are impressed that he seemingly abused a minor. The episode ends with Nathan sat on a bus, loudly boasting about "splashing the tonsils" of someone "illegal." Ugh. Time for a shower.
Seinfeld: a Puerto Rican mistake
In the penultimate episode of the groundbreaking sitcom Seinfeld, a little too much ground got broken, as the humor went from offbeat to downright incendiary. Literally. While attending a Puerto Rican Day parade, Kramer accidentally set a Pureto Rican flag on fire, then tried to put the flames out by stomping on it. Needless to say, many Puerto Ricans were less than amused at the sight of their flag being burnt and trampled on for a cheap laugh, especially since the episode turned out to be the second highest rated in the show’s history, with nearly 39 million viewers. After numerous protests and complaints by activists, NBC apologized and pulled the episode from reruns.
Brass Eye: way too many jokes about kids
Most comedy shows wouldn’t touch pedophilia with a barge pole. Brass Eye wasn’t "most comedy shows." A 1997 series by Chris Morris for Channel 4 in the U.K., it used a serious 60 Minutes-style format to satirize controversial reports on everything from AIDS to drug abuse to an elephant getting its own trunk stuck up its backside.
But it was the 2001 pedophile special that really went off the deep end. The "Paedogeddon!" episode didn’t so much slaughter sacred cows as shove the entire herd into a meat grinder and dance on their bloodied remains.
The episode featured scenes as outrageously offensive as a pedophile disguised as a school, a crippled pedophile being rebuilt like The Six Million Dollar Man then attacking a jungle gym, and a gang of vigilantes trying to catapult themselves over a prison wall to kill the pedophiles within. The biggest controversy of all, though, was caused by the scene where Morris’ presenter demands to know if a pedophile (played by Simon Pegg) wants to have sex with his 6-year-old son while the 6-year-old is actually standing there.
"Paedogeddon!" made the British viewing public go wild. It aired at the height of a sex offender panic and generated a record number of complaints. Morris was dubbed by the tabloids "the most hated man in Britain," ironically the sort of newsroom overreaction the show itself was satirizing.
Game of Thrones: ‘Breaker of Chains’
The X-Files may have had both incest and potential rape during "Home," but the folks behind Game of Thrones decided to do everything in their power to top that with their 2014 episode "Breaker of Chains." Incest, of course, was old hat for the series by this point, thanks to the central relationship between siblings Cersei and Jamie Lannister. So it would take a lot more than that to shock viewers. Like, say, Jamie raping his sister right next to the murdered corpse of their own son. Adding insult to utter grossness is the fact that the scene was portrayed as consensual in the books, making the decision to turn it into a rape particularly questionable. For a show that makes its living showing inappropriate scenes, Game of Thrones outdid even themselves.
Skins: too much skin
Just how inappropriate this scene from Skins was really depends on your point of view. Many people simply shrugged when one of the show’s main characters ran down the street in the nude, but the hyper-vigilant Parents Television Council had a big problem with it. Why? Because the actor was only 17, making it, in their eyes, inexcusably illegal. Sponsors agreed the scene was inappropriate, with Taco Bell leading the charge in abandoning the show. MTV was forced to issue a statement saying that going forward, the series would "not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers." Still, the controversy crippled the show, and MTV ended up canceling Skins soon after.
South Park: the Prophet Mohammed comes to visit
Sure, if you’re watching South Park, you’re basically accepting that you’ll be offended. Inappropriate scenes are South Park‘s bread and butter. Still, there are moments when even Matt and Trey manage to outdo themselves, creating something so offensive it’s still talked about years later. Something like the Prophet Muhammad visiting South Park in an episode that concludes that violence and terrorism is the only surefire way to get what you want.
Episodes 200 and 201 managed to offend a lot of people. Some Muslim extremists considered its gag about Muhammad wearing a giant bear costume so offensive they published a thinly veiled death threat in retribution. In response, Comedy Central placed a giant black "censored" bar over the character of Muhammad and bleeped his speech and any speech relating to him. The episodes are even heavily censored on the DVD releases. An uncensored version of 201 was reportedly hacked off the South Park servers and can supposedly be found online. (You can do your own digging if you want to chance it.)
Threads: post-nuclear holocaust stillbirth
In 1984, the BBC imagined what would happen if a hydrogen bomb exploded over Sheffield. Threads was a nuclear holocaust drama so bleak it made The Day After look like The Mickey Mouse Club. It set out to show in painfully realistic detail what would happen if Britain was caught up in a nuclear attack. The answer was so unrelentingly grim that some say it traumatized a generation.
It’s hard to know where to start. You see a hand consumed in flame, its blackened skin flaking off as it hopelessly grasps at nothing. Wailing people swaddled in bloodied bandages, unable to relieve their agony due to a lack of drugs. Society is so broken down that children become semi-feral and guards publicly display executed looters. It was the sort of dystopia Cormac McCarthy might reject as too depressing, and it was shown during primetime on BBC 2.
But in this two hours of misery, one scene stands out. Thirteen-year-old Ruth, raised in the aftermath of the bombing, is raped by a boy and gets pregnant. Nine months later, she graphically gives birth to a stillborn baby (it’s a little disturbing) in a makeshift hospital atop the smoldering ruins of irradiated Britain. Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw has said the scene so disturbed him he felt depressed for weeks.