It’s no surprise that many of the most controversial shows ever on television are reality shows. In fact, Digital Trends could produce an entire list of just controversial reality shows, many of which took ridiculously troubling premises too far to try and differentiate from a sea of similar shows, and/or reach viral status (before viral status was even a thing).
But not every controversial TV show was of the reality ilk. Some sparked negative conversations from viewers and critics who felt they pushed boundaries, even during decades when cultural, political, and social sensitivities were not as prominent as they are today. The following is a list of the 10 most controversial TV shows ever aired (or in some cases, streamed).
The Idol (2023)
Yes, a show from 2023 makes the cut. The Idol has been marred with controversy since it was released in May 2023, with allegations that the show portrays “rape fantasy” and relies too heavily on nudity and sexually explicit scenes.
The drama show, created in part by Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, who also stars alongside Lily-Rose Depp, is about an aspiring pop idol (Depp) and her relationship with a self-help guru, cult leader, and night club owner (Tesfaye). Plagued with negative reviews, an exposé about the show by Rolling Stone alleges toxic practices, creative clashing, and more drama around the project behind the scenes as well, making it one of the most controversial shows ever.
Stream The Idol on Max.
Teen Mom AND (2009-2021)
Despite its long run and millions of viewers, Teen Momnow known as Teen Mom AND to differentiate from the numerous spin-offs it sparked as well, remains one of the most controversial shows ever on television. Naysayers argue that the series glorifies the idea of teenage pregnancies, even though it purports to showcase the hardships teenage parents must endure.
Following each young woman’s story on the show, many of them went on to experience intense scrutiny and became involved in various scandals. From one star joining the adult film industry to another going to prison and other criminal behavior from both the moms and the fathers, the message Teen Mom sent was not one of positivity and education. Instead, it comes across as capitalizing on the misfortunes of these young, unprepared parents.
Stream Teen Mom AND on Paramount+.
13 Reasons Why (2017-2020)
Before shows like Euphoriathere was 13 Reasons Why. Executive-produced by Selena Gomez, the show elicited strong reactions from viewers, many of them negative. While 13 Reasons Why set out to deliver a real and emotional depiction of teenage suicide, many people found it to be far too raw, particularly the actual suicide scene featured in the first season.
There was a public outcry that led to trigger warnings before episodes. The show, however, didn’t shy away from controversy in subsequent seasons, featuring a storyline about a school shooter and an equally graphic and troubling scene of rape with an inanimate object. Some feel the stories are important to tell and the show serves as a good educational tool for parents to watch with their teenagers and encourage an open discussion about mental health. But others felt it was far too graphic and triggering, believing the show did more damage than good. Nonetheless, 13 Reasons Why lasted for four seasons, perhaps due to the controversy it kept generating year after year.
Stream 13 Reasons Why on Netflix.
Beavis and Butt-Head (1993-)
Chances are that if a show like Beavis and Butt-Head was pitched today, it would never see the light of the day. With that said, Paramount+ has ordered a revival of the show, proving that despite controversy, Beavis and Butt-Head made its mark in pop culture history. But not everyone was all for the adult animated satirical black comedy, which followed the two title characters (both voiced by creator Mike Judge) as teenage slackers who are unintelligent, lowbrow, and apathetic.
The show’s scathing commentary on the political and social state of the world was praised by fans, but some believe the series had a negative influence on its younger viewers. In fact, the show was even cited in two deaths whereby allegations claimed the children involved had gained inspiration from scenes they had witnessed on the show. In both cases, the claims were refuted, but Beavis and Butt-Head ended up moving to an 11 p.m. time slot. A disclaimer was also added to advise young viewers that the characters are not real or role models and that some of the things they do could actually hurt people. Later episodes also featured the obligatory “don’t try this at home” messaging.
Stream Beavis and Butt-Head on Paramount+.
So many reality shows fall into the most controversial TV shows ever category, but arguably none so much as Bridalplasty. The competitors were 12 women competing to win a dream wedding and plastic surgery they so desperately wanted. Each week, the winner of a specific challenge would win one procedure they wanted, from a nose job to a tummy tuck.
In the end, the women were paraded on stage for their husbands-to-be and judges to determine whose transformation was the most compelling. It’s no surprise Bridalplasty was widely criticized for promoting body image issues among women and “pushing the limits of medical ethics.” Even reality TV fans couldn’t stomach the show, with viewership dropping exponentially as the sole season continued to air.
Rent or buy Bridalplasty at Apple TV.
While there was an American version of Skinsit’s the original British version that is widely considered to be the better of the two, and also the one that drew the most controversy. Back in 2007, openly portraying characters with fluid sexuality and issues like mental illness, substance abuse, and bullying so graphically wasn’t as common. Skinshowever, jumped head-first into controversial topics, depicting a group of teenagers dealing with everything from eating disorders to bipolar disorder, adolescent sexuality, and even death.
Widely successful and developing a cult following, looking back, many consider Skins to mark a turning point in television and serious depictions of the teenage experience. Without Skins, we would never have shows like 13 Reasons Why and Euphoria. But at the time, some critics called the show irresponsible, exaggerated, and inappropriate for teens.
Stream Skins on Hulu.
The name says it all. Soon after it premiered in 2000, Jackass made household names of Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, and Steve-O. But the dangerous nature of the stunts the men and others in the cast pulled through the reality show’s season made fans cringe and question why such a show should be permitted on television. In every episode of Jackassthe men would perform various stunts, like getting themselves tasered on purpose, pepper spraying themselves, and even getting shot in the chest while wearing a bulletproof vest. Basically, anything and everything a jackass might do.
Not surprisingly, Jackass was criticized for being dangerous, indecent, and irresponsible. The show moved to an after 10 p.m. time slot (with repeats still airing earlier) and heavily featured “do not try this at home” disclaimers. Jackass remains part of pop culture history, despite the controversy around it, and has spawned an entire media franchise of spin-offs along with nine movies, a video game, and merchandise.
Stream Jackass on Paramount+.
The Jerry Springer Show (1991-2018)
“Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” is a chant that any ‘90s kid knows well. And while The Jerry Springer Show was just another low-brow daytime talk show among a sea of many, it arguably got most of the heat. The controversy surrounded the purported exploitative nature of the show. Episodes often made a mockery of people’s misfortunes, dire circumstances, and violent personalities. Their outbursts were put on full display for selfish entertainment. Indeed, The Jerry Springer Show became so heated more times than not that security guard Steve Wilkos became a celebrity in his own right.
Nonetheless, the late Springer, who passed away in April 2023, has been credited with heavily influencing the conflict-based daytime television format that continues to do this day through numerous other talk shows. Despite being on the air for decades, he managed to garner an entirely new fanbase of Millennials in the 2010s as well.
Stream The Jerry Springer Show on PlutoTV.
Heil Honey I’m Home! (1990)
Heil Honey I’m Home! was meant to be a spoof of American sitcoms. But this U.K. sitcom arguably went too far, and was disgustingly distasteful, even for the far more liberal times of the ‘90s. Adolf Hitler (Neil McCaul) was the central character, a typical middle-class man having trouble getting along with his neighbors, a Jewish couple.
Critics called the show “perhaps the world’s most tasteless situation comedy.” The show was so controversial that while eight episodes were filmed, only the first was ever aired. The first season was supposed to have 11 episodes, and the plot was to thicken with Hitler’s attempt to kill his neighbors. It’s a wonder this series ever made it on television.
Heil Honey I’m Home! is not available to stream, rent, or buy, and for good reason.
South Park (1997-)
One of the most controversial, and ironically also one of the longest-running television series ever, South Park has been going strong for 26 seasons and has developed a strong base of devoted fans across multiple generations. But the satirical animated black comedy hasn’t been without controversy. The show is profane, dark, and deeply inappropriate, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. There are particular scenes and episodes, however, that naysayers believe were taken too far.
Beyond the general “toilet humor,” people have criticized South Park’s constant mockery of religion for cheap laughs, repeated use of racial slurs, and how it pokes fun at influential figures, including everyone from Tom Cruise to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Following an episode entitled Band in China, South Park was officially banned in that country, fulfilling its destiny as one of the most controversial and successful shows ever.
Stream South Park on Max.