10 Most Controversial Television Moments

The most controverisal tv moments are from The Office, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos.

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

Since the rise of social media, it seems like any episode of television could be considered controversial by someone, which lessens the impact of true controversy. There have been countless controversial tv episodes in history, but the ones here on this list have either stood the test of time or made history when they first aired. Amazingly, not all of these entries are from scripted shows, and a few forever changed television after they aired.

10. “The Puppy” – The Ellen Show

There was no puppy in the Season 4 finale of Ellen, and the episode was given that working title to hide what it was really about: Ellen Degeneres publicly coming out as a lesbian. Today, it’s not controversial for anyone to say that they’re gay, but in 1997, this was a major moment that helped shine a positive spotlight on the LGBT community. The episode was the most controversial episode of tv up to that moment, but thankfully, it’s now considered to be quaint.

Advertisers pulled out of supporting the show to the tune of over $1 million, but NBC pushed forward, and a decade later, Ellen DeGeneres was the most beloved daytime host on television. The episode, co-starring Laura Dern as the woman that sparks DeGeneres’ announcement, was so successful that it’s been normalized.

9. “The Puerto Rican Day” – Seinfeld

For a show about nothing, Seinfeld had a few controversial tv episodes, not including the disappointing finale, which aired only two weeks after “The Peurto Rican Day.” In a real-time episode, the gang is stuck navigating the traffic around New York’s Peurto Rican Day parade, which doesn’t sound too bad. Yet, it ends with Kramer (Michael Richards) catching the Peurto Rican flag on fire, attendees attacking Jerry’s (Jerry Seinfeld) car, and at the same time, George (Jason Alexander) quips, “It’s like this every day in Peurto Rico.”

To say that the New York Peurto Rican community was offended would be an understatement, but the show’s producers defended their choices by saying that “it could have been any parade.” The episode wasn’t part of the syndication package for five years until Sony felt like enough time had passed for it to be included.

8. Tom Cruise Sofa Jumping – The Oprah Winfrey Show

Tom Cruise is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood today, but in 2005 while promoting War of the Worlds, he became the biggest meme of the pre-social media era with his couch-jumping antics on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Talking about his love for Katie Holmes, Cruise became so passionate that he jumped up and down on the couch, which was a brief moment egged on by the audience, but it was so out of character and so bizarre the internet latched on and blew it out of proportion.

By itself, this isn’t one of the most controversial tv episodes to air, but taken in the context of Tom Cruise’s stature at the time and the many memes and parodies that followed, it perfectly captures a moment in time that will never happen again.

7. Spike’s Behavior In “Seeing Red” – Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The most controversial tv episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and one of the most in television history, “Seeing Red” forever changed how fans viewed Spike (James Marsters). Spike attempts to rape Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller), only stopping when she makes him, in one of the most graphic depictions of the act on network tv at the time.

With prestige cable shows and the rise of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, rape on television is more common in storylines, even if it’s very rarely shown on camera. The choice to show attempted rape from a friend, and at the time, lover as well, makes it even more horrific than the strange man breaking into the home trope employed by most crime procedurals. Today, “Seeing Red” is taught in college courses, while Buffy fans wish it never existed.

6. “Scott’s Tots” – The Office

The Office had a lot of controversial tv episodes, never forget one of the first episodes, “Diversity Training,” but none are as hard to watch as “Scott’s Tots.” It became time to make good on his promise after Michael Scott (Steve Carell) promised an entire third-grade class he’d pay for their college tuition if they graduated. The awkwardness that follows makes it hard for anyone to watch the episode, especially once the class breaks out a tribute musical number.

As for why it’s one of the most controversial television episodes in history, it’s because the main storyline involving college tuition was considered to be mean. A few critics referred to it at the time as depressing, and to this day, it goes so far that even The Office diehards are prone to skipping the episode.

5. “The Contest” – Seinfeld

Seinfeld’s second appearance on this list, “The Contest,” coined the term “Master Of My Domain” as a euphemism for masturbation. The episode is one of the most controversial in tv history, not just for the topic, but how it’s discussed, in the form of a contest based on who can go the longest without self-pleasure.

A wickedly funny episode that manages to be all about a previously taboo subject without ever once saying the word “The Contest” managed to actually prove controversial….by not being controversial. NBC only reported 37 complaints after the episode aired, and advertisers, scared away from it by the topic, came right back for future episodes.

4. Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction – Super Bowl XXXVIII

The incident that brought the term “wardrobe malfunction” to prominence, Janet Jackson’s accidental exposure during the Super Bowl 38 half-time show kicked off a firestorm about indecency in America, all because of a half-a-second shot of a human nipple. Justin Timberlake escaped the brunt of America’s anger, for some reason that’s been lost to time, but Jackson became a pariah for over a decade.

The most controversial moment to air on live tv to that point, and arguably even afterward, the immediate reaction was a crackdown on “sexually suggestive” performances during broadcasts and a new oppressive FCC rule. From then on, live television could be considered “live,” with a seven-second delay.

3. “Made In America” – The Sopranos

The final episode of The Sopranos is still one of the most controversial tv episodes in history, more so than Lost and Game of Thrones, with the very last shot suddenly fading to black instead of giving a clear resolution to the saga of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). In fact, it was such a sudden shift to black that HBO received thousands of complaints from viewers that thought their service had suddenly cut out.

Beyond the editing choice, what makes “Made in America” a controversial episode of tv is the ambiguous ending, though creator David Chase has gone on record that, yes, Tony is dead. That hasn’t stopped fans from endlessly debating the ending, though it’s no longer the worst finale in history, it’s still guaranteed to raise blood pressure whenever it’s brought up.

2. Who Shot J.R.? – Dallas

It was the controversial tv season finale heard around the world when J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was shot at the end of Dallas’ Season 3 finale. Fans were left hanging for an entire Summer, debating who it was that pulled the trigger, even Queen Elizabeth asked the cast, none of whom would talk about it.

In this case, a show was controversial as intended, with the media frenzy resulting in Season 4 putting up record-setting viewership numbers, which meant 76 percent of all televisions in the United States were watching Dallas when the killer was revealed. That roughly translated to 90 million viewers, a number that today, is impossible to achieve.

1. The Red Wedding – Game Of Thrones

plot twist

Readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels knew this was coming, leading to videos hitting social media of newbies to A Song of Fire and Ice being horrified over the sudden bloody betrayal of Walder Frey (David Bradley) and Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton). Even knowing that Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Caitlyn Stark (Michelle Fairly), and Talisa Stark (Oona Chaplin) were going to die, watching the dagger go into a pregnant Talisa’s stomach and across Caitlyn’s throat was too much for some viewers.

Robb’s corpse, paraded by Lannister soldiers with his dire wolf’s head mounted on top, was one of the most disturbing images from a series known for blood and sex. The Red Wedding, which resulted in the villains winning, depressed some viewers so much that they stopped tuning in. Ironically, they got off easy, considering the series finale killed off the fanbase.