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Top 10 Most Controversial TV Moments

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Written by Jason C McLean They’re the kind of moments that keep network executives up at night fearing the worst while hoping for the best. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’ll be counting down our list for the Top 10 Most Controversial TV Moments. For this list, we’ll be looking at both scripted scenes from TV shows and unrehearsed or unexpected TV moments that generated controversy. Some of the content discussed may be offensive to some viewers and some entries delve into plot points from later seasons of shows, so both mature content and spoiler warnings are in effect.
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They’re the kind of moments that keep network executives up at night fearing the worst while hoping for the best. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’ll be counting down our list for the Top 10 Most Controversial TV Moments.

For this list, we’ll be looking at both scripted scenes from TV shows and unrehearsed or unexpected TV moments that generated controversy. Some of the content discussed may be offensive to some viewers and some entries delve into plot points from later seasons of shows, so both mature content and spoiler warnings are in effect.

#10: Putin’s C**k Holster
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (2015-)

Stephen Colbert managed to do something quite unlikely – pissing off Trump supporters and the LGBTQ+ community with the same joke. When responding to President Trump’s treatment of CBS journalist John Dickerson, the Late Show host went on a rant that culminated a punchline implying Trump was only useful at performing oral sex on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Colbert later apologized to the LGBTQ+ community for his choice of words, but made it clear he did not feel bad offending the President, whose supporters had called for his cancellation, and rejoiced in Trump personally criticizing him for the joke.

#9: Wardrobe Malfunction
“Super Bowl XXXVIII” (2004)

In 2004, Justin Timberlake was a surprise guest closing off the MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show starring Janet Jackson. At the end of their duet, to drive home the song's sexually charged lyrics, JT ripped at Jackson's top. That much was clearly planned. What wasn't planned was that he accidentally exposed her right nipple in the process. Timberlake and Jackson insisted it was an accident, or “wardrobe malfunction” while others speculate it must have been an intentional publicity stunt. Following the incident, the FCC cracked down on TV and tried unsuccessfully to fine CBS, who aired the game, $550 000.

#8: Hannah’s Suicide
“13 Reasons Why” (2017-)

This popular Netflix series is controversial overall due to its primary subject matter of teen suicide, which some experts accuse the show of glorifying. Others argue that it doesn’t do enough to show why main character Hannah’s decision to take her own life is wrong, and warn teens who have dealt with sexual assault and suicidal thoughts against watching the series. On top of that, the scene where Hannah actually kills herself is particularly graphic, as it depicts her slitting her wrist with a razor blade in a bathtub followed by her mother finding her body.

#7: The Addiction Demon Rape
“American Horror Story” (2011-)

American Horror Story isn’t a tame show by any standard, but one scene at the beginning of their 2015/2016 Hotel season stands out as particularly gruesome. A heroin addict named Gabriel gets high in a seedy hotel room and no sooner than he shoots up, a strange creature with no discernable facial features wearing a strap-on-dildo emerges from the shadows and proceeds to rape him. This is not implied, either – it's shown on screen in graphic detail. While it may seem to have been done for shock value alone, the show’s creator insists that it was meant to depict how addiction feels.

#6: Incest
“The X-Files” (1993-2002; 2016-)

It's an episode centered on a family of murderers, a family where one of the three brothers is father to the other two...Also, their limbless mother is stored under a bed, until she's pulled out for sex, and when the inevitable happens and is carried to term, the incestuous clan bury the baby. And believe it or not, it aired on a major US network in Prime Time. Well, once anyway, before it was banned for several years. This is by far the most gruesome and disturbing X-Files episode. The Peacock Family haven’t shown up since on the program, and probably won’t ever again.

#5: Ramsay Rapes Sansa
“Game of Thrones” (2011-)

Beheadings, child murder and even sexual violence are all par for the course in this series. There is one scene, however, that had many long-time fans saying the show had gone too far. In a season five episode, Ramsay Bolton rapes Sansa Stark on their wedding night and makes Theon Greyjoy watch. While it wasn't as graphic as it could have been, many found it gratuitous and unnecessary, given that the scene didn’t happen in the books. It even prompted one site to stop covering the series entirely. Sansa did get her revenge on Ramsay the following season, but for many the damage had already been done.

#4: Maude’s Abortion
“Maude” (1972-78)

As a spinoff of “All in the Family”, one of the most controversial shows of its day, it’s no surprise that “Maude” also took on some very sensitive subject matter. But while “All in the Famly”’s Archie bunker was controversial for his racism and homophobia, Maude turned heads due to her feminism and outspoken liberal values. One episode that caused quite a stir was the two-parter, “Maude’s Dilemma”, wherein Maude discovers she’s pregnant and, after much deliberation, decides to have an abortion. The episode’s original airing caused nearly 7000 protest letters, and even got the attention of United States Catholic Conference.

#3: Censoring Muhammad
“South Park” (1997-)

Always ones to poke the bear, South Park produced two episodes primarily dealing with censoring the image of the Prophet Muhammad due to threats of violence from extremists. In a possibly ironic twist, Trey Parker and Matt Stone received real threats of violence, and in response Comedy Central decided to censor the second episode’s visual depiction of Muhammad. While many thought this was part of the joke, seeing as Parker and Stone had their Muhammad wear a bear costume in the first episode, it wasn’t. Comedy Central’s censorship of an episode about censorship did help to drive Parker and Stone’s point home, though.

#2: Ellen’s Coming Out
“Ellen” (1994-98)

Ellen DeGeneres's sexual orientation is common knowledge today, but in the 90s a major American sitcom having an openly gay lead actor, let alone lead character, was a rarity, to say the least. That was until DeGeneres came out publicly in real life, with her character Ellen Morgan following suit. While the highly publicized coming out episode was a ratings winner, the show was canceled a year later, some argue due to the controversy the episode created. Ellen celebrated the 20th anniversary of her coming out on her talk show with guests Oprah Winfrey and Laura Dern, who were both part of the episode.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

Sinéad Rips the Pope
"Saturday Night Live"

Negan Kills Abraham and Glenn
"The Walking Dead"

Puerto Rican Day
"Seinfeld"

#1: Bill Says the N-Word
“Real Time with Bill Maher” (2003-)

Bill Maher is no stranger to controversy, and when he's under fire he typically doubles down and never apologizes. That was until he made an off the cuff joke during an interview with US Senator Ben Sasse calling himself a “house n*****”. HBO yanked the clip and Maher issued an apology the next day, but the outcry and calls for Maher’s cancellation continued. In his following episode, Maher was joined by guests Ice Cube and Symone Sanders who not only explained to him exactly why what he said was a huge problem, but that this was a teachable moment.
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