The other weekend, sick and stuck in bed, I spent three consecutive days binge-watching Friends. The sitcom has always been one of my favorites, and it’s usually my go-to show when I can’t fall asleep at night, or I just need to veg out to something for a while, but it’s been a long, long time since I watched the series straight through. As I lay in bed with my tea and tissues, streaming through the first eight seasons, I was struck with how problematic Friends actually is.
There are storylines and plot points in the show that range from not cool to downright offensive. And as I thought more about it, I realized that Friends isn’t the only offender. Plenty of TV shows over the last two decades shows that we all love and watch regularly have some really difficult-to-stomach plot points. So here’s a look at 16 TV shows that are actually pretty problematic — next time you watch them, you’re certain to see them in a different light...
We’ll go ahead and start with Friends. While there are multiple things about this show that aren’t great, the one thing that really stands out as the worst is the thread of toxic masculinity that runs through the whole thing. Ross is the worst offender — from being uncomfortable with hiring a male nanny for Emma because it’s “not a man’s job,” to being threatened by Rachel’s career success, to disapproving of Ben playing with a doll. Ross is horrified by anything that doesn’t fit within the typical “male” role. He’s not the only one with a toxic attitude about gender roles, Chandler and Joey have their moments too, but he’s by far the worst. Then there all of the transphobic references made towards Chandler's dad, gay jokes, and the 'old Monica' always being fat-shamed.
There are lots of really great things about Pretty Little Liars, but there are a few storylines that are so horrible we’re not even sure how they ever made it on air. During season one, Aria and Mr. Fitz hook up and start engaging in a romantic relationship. They meet in a bar, so at first glance, it may seem excusable (Mr. Fitz may not know how young his paramour really is). But when it’s revealed that he knew she was a high school student all along and hooked up with her anyways, things get inexcusable. That kind of behavior is illegal, writing material be darned, and the fact that he never faces any repercussions for it is just not cool. You know what else isn't cool? The whole 'CeCe Drake is A and was assigned male at birth' thing. Many fans were concerned, and rightly so, that this plays into the "trans people are sociopaths" trope that's been bumping around Hollywood for ages. That was one twist the show surely could have done without.
Shows aimed at teenagers have a bigger responsibility to watch what they promote than those aimed at adults do. Teenagers are more easily influenced, and, especially those on the younger end, often adopt behaviors and beliefs that they see played out on screen. One Tree Hill had a lot of good things going for it, and we mostly love the ride-or-die friendship that Peyton and Brooke share, but there’s one moment that the show truly could have done without. When Peyton finds out that Brooke slept with Nathan, she paints the word “whore” onto Brooke’s prom dress and punches her in the face. No amount of hurt feelings or betrayal can justify this amount of slut-shaming. And the fact that Nathan never faces any backlash for his equally guilty part in the fling just makes it worse.
Queer as Folk was revolutionary and groundbreaking when it first premiered back in 1999. It followed the lives of three gay men, was one of the first shows to depict gay sex, and just generally was a major step for the normalization and inclusion of the gay community in media. But there was one major flaw in it. Two of the show’s main characters, Stuart and Nathan were in a relationship with each other, despite the fact that Stuart was a 29-year-old man and Nathan was a 15-year-old kid. The age gap meant that every (incredibly graphic) sex scene between the two was actually a portrayal of statutory rape. Several viewers also thought that the relationship promoted the stereotype that gay men were predatory and promiscuous. Pretty much any way you look at it, the age gap was not okay, and the show would have been much better without it.
There’s an episode in Saved by the Bell where Zack learns that some of his ancestors were Native American. After uncovering this information about his genealogy, Zack dresses up in a stereotypical Native American costume (headdress and war paint included) for a presentation in front of the class, uttering the line, “Me Zack Morris, me smoke-um peace pipe.” The explicitly racist scene didn’t create much of an uproar when it first aired because people, as a whole, were generally less sensitive to political correctness in cases like that. But Mark-Paul Gosselaar who played Zack has since apologized, acknowledging that the whole thing was in poor taste, saying, “That’s another ‘I’m Sorry’ moment. I hope the kids don’t catch that episode.” It wasn't the first, or last thing, Zack should have apologized for, however. Throughout the entire run of the show, he continually comes off as a pervert and a pretty creepy one at that. Remember when he sold pictures he took of his female classmates in the locker room without their consent? We do. His behavior continuously gets a pass because he's "cute," but it definitely didn't justify it.
Since Sex and the City premiered 20 years ago, there have been plenty of instances in which its caught some flack for the way it’s handled certain subjects. One example of this is the way the girls talk about bisexuality. There’s an episode where Carrie goes on a few dates with a bisexual man, and as she’s discussing the relationship, she says that she doesn’t believe that bisexuality “exists” but rather it’s "just a layover on the way to Gay Town.” Whoops! We’re not sure what gave her the right to dismiss bisexuality as a valid identity, but we are sure that that joke would have been better left on the cutting room floor, along with some others made on the show's six seasons.
For an adult cartoon that’s been on the air for decades, The Simpsons hasn’t faced too much controversy. It manages to be funny without crossing lines, or at least too many of them. The one place that they have faced some backlash is with Apu. The sole Indian character works in a convenience store, has a huge number of kids, and is in an arranged marriage — some truly racist stereotypes. Apu is also voiced by a white actor, who was asked, in auditions, to use “an offensive Indian voice.” After being called out on the issue, The Simpsons team promised to make some changes in upcoming episodes, saying, “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing.” Which is at least progress!
Who’s Your Daddy ran for one episode on FOX in 2005 before low ratings and heavy controversy prompted the network to shelve the rest of the first season. The concept was simple and totally not okay. An adult who had been adopted as a child was placed in a room with 25 men, one of which was her biological father. If she could pick out the correct biological father, she’d win $100,000. We can’t believe that this ever made it past the drawing board. Adoption agencies, foster families, and individuals who had been adopted all used their voices to make sure that this got the boot immediately, with one individual summing it up perfectly. “This isn't just offensive, it's destructive ... How can anyone think to turn such a personal, involved and poignant experience into a game show?” Like really, did we lose all decency?
There’s so much good stuff in the Netflix Original Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s pretty inclusive, pretty funny, and pretty aware of what’s pushing boundaries and what’s crossing over them. But it did miss the mark on Titus’s one-man show “Kimono You Didn’t.” When season three debuted, fans and critics were quick to point out that the act, and the episode, seemed to normalize and promote cultural appropriation. They also felt that the episode suggested that those who felt uncomfortable by the act were just “overreacting” and weren’t appreciative of “good art.” We do agree that art is meant to push boundaries, but there is a difference between pushing them and having no regards for them.
The second-half of the final season of Seinfeld faced criticism for a whole host of reasons. One among them? The “Puerto Rican Day” episode. During the ep, the gang finds themselves stuck in traffic because of the Puerto Rican Day parade, and lots of nasty jokes ensue. At one point, Kramer even catches the Puerto Rican flag on fire and then throws it on the ground and stomps on it to get the fire out. At the end of the episode, when all the chaos is over, he says, “It’s like this every day in Puerto Rico!” Not shockingly, thousands of people were furious, and NBC received a lot of letters trashing the episode and the executives who let it run. There was even a protest outside of Rockefeller Center. NBC eventually apologized, and the episode was pulled from syndication, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that someone made a very poor choice.
Surprised to see South Park on our list? You shouldn’t be. The adult cartoon has been offending people for years and almost every episode has some sort of controversial material in it. Well in 2010, they took it to a whole other level when they decided to depict the prophet Muhammad on the show. Obviously, plenty of Muslims had issues with the series mocking and defaming their religious leader. South Park’s offices at Comedy Central received dozens of death threats and security had to be increased for a while until things blew over. In the end, Comedy Central put a censor bar over the prophet’s image and beeped out his name in an attempt to pacify those they’d offended. Though, it still seems like an issue that could have been totally avoided if only Trey Parker and Matt Stone had been more thoughtful.
There are a couple of things that feel a little bit problematic about Gilmore Girls including their intense lack of diversity, but nothing stands out quite as much as Rory’s fat-shaming episode. After being sent to review a ballet performance for the Yale Daily News, Rory searches for a way to make her piece stand out and feel original so that she can get better beats in the future. She decides the best way to do this is to attack the ballerina rather than address her performance. She mocks the dancer’s “roll of fat” and compares her to a hippo in a total body-shaming moment. Even worse, she doesn’t seem to get it when Lorelai calls her out on being mean-spirited and taking down another woman unnecessarily. We expect better things from you Rory Gilmore!
How I Met Your Mother was a beloved sitcom for many reasons, but there were a few pretty problematic storylines that we can't get behind. In fact, almost episode has a hidden misogynstic subplot - and we're not only talking about Barney constantly manipulating and taking advantage of women to get them into bed - which, BTW, is sexual assault. But during the final season, HIMYM was also accused of racism after featuring the main cast in stereotypically "Asian" costuming during a "kung fu" sequence. #HowIMetYourRacism started trending after the incident, with many claiming the scene was effectively yellowface. An apology was issued, but that doesn't mean there wasn't someone with some very questionable ideas on the writing staff.
Hannibal made a lot of people feel a lot of different ways. Generally, people enjoyed the show, which was critically praised. But there were a few who just couldn’t get past the fact that it was about a cannibal. Things got especially dicey when an episode entitled “Oeuf” aired. The plot was about a group of kids who were brainwashed and went around injuring and killing people with guns. The episode aired in 2013, mere months after Sandy Hook became the then-deadliest school shooting of all time. Obviously, the material was problematic for a lot of people, and, to their credit, NBC never actually aired the episode. It eventually ran on the website, but it was heavily edited and altered and much of the controversial material had been cut out.
If you’re going to watch Game of Thrones, then you have to be pretty okay with problematic behaviors being shown on TV. There’s incest, and gore, and kidnapping, and all sorts of weird sexual and romantic relationships. And there’s rape. Lots of it. One particular rape scene cause quite a stir when it aired back in 2015. In the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” Sansa gets raped by her new brutish husband, Ramsay Bolton, in front of her childhood friend Theon. The rape wasn’t so much the issue (although, of course, there were several commenters who thought it was unnecessary and they are probably right). The issue was that the scene cuts away to Theon’s face, which left many people upset that the moment was portrayed as more traumatic for Theon than for Sansa. There was a major outcry about how it didn’t help bring gravity and support to the victims of rape and the traumas they struggle with. But seriously, you could fill a book with all of the times GOT has been accused of being problematic.
Finally, there’s 2 Broke Girls. The sitcom faces a lot of criticism for being lazy and promoting gender and sexual stereotypes instead of fostering inclusion and a conversation about how these things are changing. But perhaps the worst and most problematic thing about the show is its blatant racism. There are very few characters of color on the show, and those that are there are really clichéd. For example, the diner’s owner, a short Asian man portrayed as asexual and incompetent. At one point, when speaking about the character, Kat Dennings even utters the line "You can't tell an Asian he made a mistake. He'll go in back and throw himself on a sword." You can’t try to tell us that we’re living in a world where speaking that way is okay. We’re not having it!
This site is part of the Clevver Network.