In the past decade, television has pushed boundaries and sparked conversations like never before. From tackling sensitive social issues to exploring graphic content, some shows have ignited debates, backlash, and even cultural shifts. Here’s a look at the 13 controversial TV shows that stirred the pot and became the most talked-about for their content.
1. “Game of Thrones” – Redefining Brutality and Nudity
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” redefined what epic fantasy could entail, with its complex characters and intricate plotlines. However, it also drew criticism for its graphic depictions of violence and sexual content, including scenes of rape and brutality.
The show was both hailed for its storytelling and critiqued for its often-gratuitous use of nudity and violence. Its portrayal of women and the handling of sensitive subjects remained a point of contention throughout its run. Despite this, it became one of the most popular and discussed series of the decade.
2. “13 Reasons Why” – A Polarizing Take on Teen Issues
Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” sparked an intense debate over its portrayal of teen suicide, bullying, and mental health. Critics argued that it glamorized suicide and could negatively impact vulnerable young viewers.
The show’s explicit scenes of assault and suicide led to public outcry and calls for censorship. Despite the controversies, it sparked important discussions about mental health awareness among teens. The series highlighted the need for responsible storytelling, especially on sensitive topics.
3.”The Handmaid’s Tale” – A Disturbing Dystopia
Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” presented a dystopian future that was as compelling as it was horrifying. The show’s depiction of women’s oppression and the stripping away of their rights resonated with contemporary political and social issues.
It was both praised for its bold storytelling and criticized for its brutal and often hard-to-watch content. The show became a symbol of resistance in women’s rights movements but also faced backlash for its intense and graphic scenes. “The Handmaid’s Tale” remains a powerful yet divisive piece of television.
4. “Breaking Bad” – The Moral Decline of Walter White
AMC’s “Breaking Bad” was lauded for its writing and performances, particularly Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White. However, the show was controversial for its unflinching look at drug manufacturing and violence.
It raised questions about morality, depicting the protagonist’s descent into criminality. Some viewers felt it glorified drug trade and violence, while others appreciated its complex character study. “Breaking Bad” stands as a masterpiece of television, albeit one that continues to spark debate.
5. “Orange Is the New Black” – Prison Life Unfiltered
Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” offered an unfiltered look at life inside a women’s prison. The show was groundbreaking in its diverse representation but faced criticism over its portrayal of prison life and racial stereotypes.
It was both praised for bringing light to issues within the penal system and critiqued for its sometimes sensationalized storytelling. The series navigated a fine line between drama and reality, making it a continual subject of discussion.
6. “Black Mirror” – The Dark Side of Technology
“Black Mirror” on Netflix became synonymous with its dark, often unsettling tales about the impact of technology on society. Each episode presented a new, often dystopian vision of the future, leading to mixed reactions. Some episodes were accused of being overly pessimistic and nihilistic.
However, it was also praised for its thought-provoking content and innovative storytelling. “Black Mirror” consistently pushed the envelope, making it one of the most talked-about shows in terms of its controversial themes.
7. “Homeland” – Espionage with Ethical Quandaries
Showtime’s “Homeland” was acclaimed for its intense drama and complex characters but faced backlash for its portrayal of Muslims and the Middle East. The show was criticized for promoting stereotypes and for its sometimes-one-dimensional representation of terrorism.
Despite these controversies, it was praised for its gripping narrative and performances. “Homeland” walked a tightrope between thrilling television and cultural insensitivity, sparking much debate.
8. “Louie” – Blurring the Lines Between Fiction and Reality
“Louie,” created by and starring Louis C.K., was a critical darling for its unique blend of comedy and drama. However, the show became controversial in light of sexual misconduct allegations against Louis C.K. The semi-autobiographical nature of the show led to questions about the separation between the artist and the art.
“Louie” went from being celebrated for its originality to being scrutinized under a moral lens, highlighting the complexities of evaluating art in the context of the artist’s personal life.
9. “Girls” – Millennial Life, Unvarnished and Unapologetic
HBO’s “Girls,” created by and starring Lena Dunham, was a candid portrayal of millennial women navigating life in New York City. The show was both praised for its realistic depiction of young women and criticized for its lack of diversity and Dunham’s off-screen controversies.
“Girls” sparked conversations about representation in media and the responsibility of creators. It remains a polarizing yet significant part of television history.
10. “True Detective” – A Dark Dive into Crime and Corruption
HBO’s “True Detective” was acclaimed for its gritty storytelling and strong performances, especially in its first season. But, the show faced criticism for its depiction of women and violence.
The dark themes and graphic content, while integral to its noir style, were points of contention. “True Detective” was a critical success but also prompted discussions about the portrayal of gender and violence in television.
11. “House of Cards” – Power Plays and Real-Life Scandals
Netflix’s “House of Cards” was a political drama that became embroiled in controversy following sexual assault allegations against its star, Kevin Spacey. The show was groundbreaking in its storytelling and format, being one of the first successful streaming series.
However, the off-screen scandal overshadowed its on-screen achievements, leading to discussions about the impact of real-life controversies on television shows.
12. “American Horror Story” – Pushing the Boundaries of Horror
FX’s “American Horror Story” pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on television with its graphic and often disturbing content. The show was both lauded and criticized for its bold approach to horror and dark themes.
While it gained a cult following for its unique style, it also faced backlash for its sometimes excessive gore and shock tactics. “American Horror Story” remains a divisive yet influential series in the horror genre.
13. “Westworld” – A Philosophical Puzzle Box
HBO’s “Westworld” combined sci-fi with Western elements to create a complex narrative about consciousness and humanity. The show was praised for its thought-provoking content and visual splendor but criticized for its convoluted plot and treatment of violence, especially against women.
“Westworld” challenged viewers in both its storytelling and its ethical implications, making it one of the most debated shows of the decade.
The Past Decade of Controversial TV Shows
The past decade has seen TV shows become more daring and divisive, reflecting and challenging societal norms. These 13 shows, with their controversial themes and execution, not only entertained but also sparked important conversations, underscoring the power of television as a medium that influences and reflects the zeitgeist.
Tamila McDonald is a U.S. Army veteran with 20 years of service, including five years as a military financial advisor. After retiring from the Army, she spent eight years as an AFCPE-certified personal financial advisor for wounded warriors and their families. Now she writes about personal finance and benefits programs for numerous financial websites.