Controversial themes are a surefire way to succeed in the TV world - but sometimes a show can go too far. Here are ten of the most controversial television shows of all time - from the instantly axed Generation KKK to that moment in 13 Reasons Why.
Some are here for what they showed on screen, others for what went on behind-the-scenes, but all caused phonelines to melt and the interwebs to explode.
Brass Eye (1997 – 2001)
Chris Morris’s Brass Eye was a scathing satirical attack on the media. The show delighted in pushing buttons as Morris, playing a particularly venomous news anchor, hosted a faux news show. Pre-dating fake news by decades, the show was a lawyer’s worst nightmare as British politicians and celebrities were duped into talking on the show about topics that in hindsight, were obviously not real, including the infamous “made-up” drug called cake. And then there was the paedophile special.
“Paedogeddon”, released after the original series was broadcast, sent the phone lines into overdrive. The most complained about show on British TV ever, Morris was even discussed in parliament, so many feathers did he rustle. But Morris was concerned with poking spiteful jibes at the media and the British tabloids responded in spades. Proving the point Morris had been making all along.
Heil Honey, I’m Home (1990)
In 1937, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun live in Berlin, next door to a Jewish couple, Arny and Rosa Goldenstein. That’s the “hilarious” set up of possibly the most misjudged and poorly conceived sitcom of all time.
Yes, the Brits have a habit of knocking out a bad taste sitcom or two - Love Thy Neighbour and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum spring to mind – and Allo Allo delighted in finding laughs in war torn France during WWII but Heil Honey, I’m Home, lasting only one episode, was just offensive. Even though the makers of the show claimed they were, in fact, spoofing bad taste sitcoms.
Black Mirror (2011 – present)
The British Prime Minister is being blackmailed. A member of the royal family has been kidnapped and unless the PM has sex with a pig, live on television, she will be killed. You cannot say Charlie Brooker didn’t start his techno-nightmare anthology show with a bang. Or a pork crackle!
It helped that the scurrilous inkies were riding high on “Piggate” after the actual British Prime Minister allegedly put a "private part of his anatomy" into a dead pig's mouth as part of an initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston Society. Life imitating art imitating life. Oink.
Romper Stomper (2018)
A television follow-up to Geoffrey Wright’s film of the same name. The original movie seethed with rage as Russell Crowe’s white supremacist declared war against the local Vietnamese community. The new show, set in present day, parallels a mainstream where the far right and far left do battle in the media and on the streets.
Where Crowe’s Hando wore his extreme views proudly on his sleeve, and skin, the new Romper Stomper is a different beast. Lachy Hulme’s leader hides his hatred behind a facade of suburban bliss. And that is even scarier.
Skins (2007 – 2013)
The British teen drama did not pull any punches. With a hot to trot young cast including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel and Jack O’Connell, the series delighted in showing us everything that is great about being a teenager, you know, the stuff parents do not want to know about. Skins also didn’t shy away from dysfunctional families, mental illness, adolescent sexuality, gender, substance abuse, death and bullying.
The American version only lasted for one season, the youthful shenanigans proving to hot for MTV. The Canadian teen show Degrassi Junior High also gets an honourable mention for corrupting minors.
24 (2001- 2010)
Damn it! Playing out in real time over 24 hours, the Kiefer Sutherland starring actioner pitched his counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer against terrorists who were usually out to kidnap or kill the US president or destroy the United States. Despite the brilliant central conceit and ever-ticking countdown, the show was often criticised for the excessive and bloody violence on display.
Bauer so frequently tortured the bad guys to get his job done that the graphic physical and mental suffering became the norm. The show’s negative portrayal of Muslims, the regular villains on the show, was also often under scrutiny.
13 Reasons Why (2017)
Based on a young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why follows a series of distressing events that led up to a young teen’s suicide. 13 Reasons Why is often criticised for glorifying suicide, although anyone watching the final episode will not see any glory in the act. The producers stated that this is a subject that needs to be pushed in the media and by toning down the inevitable climax of the show, they would have watered down the show’s important message.
South Park (1997 – present)
One of the most politically incorrect TV shows ever. Created by The Book Of Mormon writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the anarchic animated show was definitely not for kids. From racism and homophobia to religion and Tom Cruise stepping out of the closet; nothing was sacred as Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Eric braved alien anal probes, Chef’s chocolate salty balls and a Christmas poo.
Always controversial, the show is now in its 21st season and still going strong. Screw you guys! I’m going home.
Generation KKK (Never broadcast)
What could possibly go wrong with a reality show that gave viewers an insider’s view of the infamous hate group the Klu Klux Klan? Unsurprisingly the mere announcement of the show caused a huge backlash. Viewers fearing that the show would promote the right-wing organisation.
To add insult to injury, there were also rumours that the KKK were paid to participate in the show. Proving too-hot-to-handle, Generation KKK was cancelled before the first episode was ever broadcast.
Summer Heights High (2007)
Comedian Chris Lilley’s follow-up to his much-loved mockumentary We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year was a hilarious look at the goings on at a typical high school with Lilley portraying three characters.
He revisited Mr G, a teacher he first created for the sketch show Big Bite plus played upper class schoolgirl Ja'mie and Tongan troublemaker Jonah. Apart from the obvious concerns with a white comedian “blacking-up” to play a school boy from Tonga and children copying racist and homophobic lines from the show, the program makers got into hot water when a character’s death on the show paralleled the real-life drug-related death of a schoolgirl of the same name.
David Michael Brown is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Filmink and Empire Magazine where he was senior editor for nine years.