Late last week, details emerged online about the plotline to a never-shot season 2 episode of “Seinfeld” titled “The Bet.” It’s an interesting story in its own right, and an extreme case in that while it was scripted and cast, cameras never rolled on it, with both the director and the actors getting cold feet prior to recording and kiboshing the whole thing due to a gun subplot they all felt uncomfortable with. Of course what’s rare about that is not so much that it happened (we’re sure there have been many other occasions) but that with “Seinfeld” as the endlessly recycled, rerun and re-examined show that it is, any off-cuts, side-stories and what-if scenarios are particularly enticing and unusually well-documented.
More frequently, producers or network execs don’t realize until after the fact that they’ve crossed the line they’re trying to toe as regards controversy and hot-button topics. With our curiosity piqued by the Seinfeld” story, we’ve dug up ten controversial episodes of major TV shows that were spiked for one reason or another. Outside of plain bad timing, the reasons for the pulling from air vary, and very often reflect the particular zeitgeist at the time. Of course the increasing permissiveness of the age, the rise of cable and the changes in viewing practices, suggest that as a phenomenon, the banning of TV shows might be dying out–or certainly having less effect than when we were more reliant on network TV schedules, syndication and reruns than we now are for catching up on all the episodes of our favorite shows. But there was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when a network deciding to pull an episode from circulation created something just a little notorious, a kind of holy grail for completists anxious to see their beloved small-screen characters contend with such buzzkills as abortion, inbreeding, sex, violence, religion and international relations. Here are ten such instances.
“The X-Files” Season 4, Episode 2: “Home”
Synopsis: FBI agents Mulder and Scully are called to a small, idyllic rural community in which time seems to have stood still, to investigate the discovery of the body of an extremely congenitally deformed baby. Their investigation leads them to a family of inbreds who live in unimaginable depravity and who turn murderous when the forces of modernity intrude upon their squalid, incestuous existence.
Why was it pulled? The first ‘X-Files’ episode ever to air with a viewer discretion message at the top, and the return to the show of writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, “Home” was also the only episode never to be re-aired on its home network of Fox. While the violence is usually cited as the reason — there are a couple of fatal beatings, a decapitation, an impaling, a home childbirth sequence and lots of shooting — really it’s the gruesome, grotesque way the violence is portrayed that is so upsetting (and also quite brilliantly achieved, it should be said). The mountain-men-style inbred family are part Leatherface, part Frankenstein’s monster in conception, the episode uses ironic sountrack counetrpoint very effectively (a cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful, Wonderful” plays over a brutal double murder) and the bookending of the show with the live burial of a mutant baby and the discovery of its quadruple amputee mother (loosely based on an anecdote related by Charlie Chaplin) is pretty stomach-churning stuff even now.
What was said: Kim Manners, the director of the show, referred to a shot in the baby-burying prologue as “the most awful shot of my career.”
“Married With Children” Season 3, Episode 10 “I’ll See You In Court”
Synopsis: Deplorable couple Al and Peggy Bundy, along with neighbors Steve and Marcy, decide to sue a local motel for invasion of privacy following the discovery that both couples had their sex sessions recorded without their knowledge. Of course it all turns into a series of ritual humiliations for Al as his and Peggy’s tape is found to be a few seconds long and possibly not even technically sex, whereas Steve and Marcy’s athletic coupling goes on for hours.
Why was it pulled? While the gross-out crude humor of the show often saw it have run-ins with network Fox, only one other episode had been actually pulled, and then only temporarily: “A Period Piece” (name subsequently changed to “The Camping Show”) was pushed back by a month while producers wrangled with network execs over, yes, its menstruation-related storyline. But “I’ll See You In Court” remained unaired in the U.S. for thirteen years after it was recorded; ironically the show’s syndication was so widespread that it actually ran in several foreign territories first. Sex and sexual language was said to be the reason, but to be honest, it seems super tame now, not just in comparison to the stuff we might have on TV nowadays, but to other episodes of the same show that passed more or less without remark. In fact, it’s probable that a previous complaint and a call for advertisers to boycott the show, or at least vet the episodes more thoroughly, was the major contributing factor to “I’ll See You In Court” running afoul of the censors, rather than any unusually lewd language or behavior in this episode (we say unusually, as it was a show that prided itself on lewdness, after all.)
What was said: The original complaint, which caused sponsors inducing Coca-Cola to start to examine the show on an epsiode-by-episode basis, was from an “angry Michigan mother” who stated: “I care that there are advertisers out there paying the freight for this. They’re taking my dollars and putting them into soft-core pornography.”
“Hannibal” Season 1, Episode 4: “Oeuf”
Synopsis: Will is brought in to profile the killers behind a series of family murders, and discovering that each of the families endured the kidnapping of one of their sons, deduces that the killers are in fact a gang of stolen children, being forced to execute their “old” families in a show of allegiance to their “new” one. Meanwhile, Hannibal creates his own family unit for an evening by withdrawing Abigail from the hospital, feeding her magic mushrooms, and sitting down to dinner with her and Alana.
Why was it pulled? Unusually for this list, but also indicative of a new approach to banning/pulling, NBC never aired “Oeuf” and instead elected to make it available through digital platforms for those viewers who wished to watch it, given all possible forewarning about its potentially upsetting content. But while the episode was recorded before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, and they are often cited as one of the reasons it was removed, it did actually have an April 25th airdate scheduled, four months after that tragedy. And so the Boston Marathon bombings are now usually given as the reason for NBC pulling the plug, despite the fact that creator Bryan Fuller himself has said that was not the case, and that the decision was made just a few hours prior to air, and was not prompted by any one event. In fact, it kind of feels like since “Hannibal” so frequently deals in grotesque, ritual killing and is certainly not a show that fears to tread in psychologically unsettling waters, the confluence of a controversial episode with a national tragedy or two seems almost inevitable in retrospect, given the alarming regularity with which they now occur. Consequently, we’re not sure quite what statement it makes, if any, about either the show or our response to traumatic real-life events that shifting “Oeuf” onto digital platforms was regarded as the right move by Fuller and NBC. Was it a real act of self-sacrificing sensitivity on their part (remember, it was a paid download), or simply an acknowledgement of the fact that this is the way TV is tending anyhow? Cynics might also point out that it has created a certain mythos around one of the weaker (despite an awesome Molly Shannon) season one episodes.
What was said: Creator Bryan Fuller: “With this episode, it wasn’t about the graphic imagery or violence. It was the associations that came with the subject matter that I felt would inhibit the enjoyment of the overall episode. It was my own sensitivity… We want to be respectful of the social climate we’re in right now.”
“I Love Lucy” Season 6, Episode 9 “The Ricardos Visit Cuba”
Synopsis: Lucy, Ricky, little Ricky, Fred and Ethel all go on a trip to Cuba. Lucy is nervous about impressing Ricky’s influential Uncle Alberto, but manages to do everything wrong, ruining his straw hat, insulting him with her bad Spanish, spilling a drink on his suit and destroying his handmade cigars. As ever, her attempts to make things better only make everything worse, until little Ricky saves the day by playing on stage so adorably alongside his father that Alberto concedes that any woman who is the mother of such a boy has to be ok in his books. So, yeah.
Why was it pulled? In contrast to several other entries on this list, this culture clash episode wasn’t pulled due to the complaints from people of foreign culture being portrayed (and in fairness, Cuba comes in for no particularly derogatory treatment save possibly how obsessed everyone there is with their cigars) but because actual international events made the cheery, wacky tone of it inappropriate. First airing in December 1956, by the early ‘60s U.S. relations with Cuba had deteriorated to the degree that the episode was pulled from regular rotation, and wasn’t aired again until 1967. There are a couple of potentially political, if hardly incendiary, lines, like Lucy suggesting that her social ineptitude could spark another Spanish/American war, but overall it’s pretty much the definition of quaint and harmless, more likely now to cause offense because of its archaic presentation of gender relationships than politics. And even at the time, it wasn’t pulled for inflammatory content–if anything just the opposite, with the beloved Ricardos’ fond ties to the country leaving potentially a sour taste for with a nation on the brink of war with Cuba. In fact, it may be one of the only examples we can think of of an episode being pulled from air because it was simply too innocuous for the charged times.
What was said: Lucy saying ruefully “With what I did last night Cuba may cut off America’s sugar supply” is about as edgy as the episode gets. “Heavens to Betsy,” indeed, Fred.
“South Park” Season 14, Episodes 5 & 6: “200” / “201”
Synopsis: When the kids spot Tom Cruise working in a candy factory (they’re on a field trip) Stan sparks a new Cruise vendetta by calling him a fudge-packer (he’s packing fudge). Cruise, teaming up with a host of celebs who’ve been targeted by “South Park” in the past (Paris Hilton, Barbara Streisand and Rob Reiner feature prominently) threatens to sue the town into oblivion unless they deliver the prophet Muhammad to them, as Cruise believes he can steal the prophet’s “superpower” of not-being-made-fun-of. Visiting the Super Best Friends’ lair, the kids get Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Krishna etc. to agree to Muhammad’s participation, under strict rule that he may not be seen. But a group of militant gingers, themselves tired of the relentless persecution, threaten to bomb South Park if the prophet is not released to them instead, prompting the Celebrities to release a Godzilla-like Barbara Streisand to unleash destruction on the town.
Why was it pulled? In every conceivable way a double-down from the “Trapped in the Closet” show which had taken aim at Scientology and at Tom Cruise’s sexuality, the first half of this double episode aired unexpurgated, that is, with mentions of the world “Muhammad” left intact. The resulting furor, including death threats from the organization Revolution Muslim, led to “201” being censored and having every mention of his name, as well as Kyle’s finale speech in its entirety, bleeped. “200” was removed from digital streaming, while “201” was never made available via that platform; both, however can be found on home DVD and Blu-Ray release. Thing is, it’s actually a pretty great double-episode from a later “South Park” season, taking oddly even-handed and extremely accurate pot shots at the nonsense surrounding almost every organized religion (a lesser-reported factoid: Sri Lanka banned the whole show due to scenes from “200” of Buddha snorting cocaine), as well as basically straight-up taunting Cruise, as if double-daring him to sue or complain. Ironically sending up the fact that they can’t send up the prophet Muhammad, but uniting that concept with their other great (if soft) target in Cruise, creators Parker and Stone deliver something smart and inventive, which arguably the heavy censorship of the second half actually enhances, rather than detracts from.
What was said: Here’s an excerpt from the finale speech in “201” that’s happening under the bleep, transcribed after an uncensored version of it leaked online: Kyle: “Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve all wanted to show things that we weren’t allowed to show, but it wasn’t because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve all learned, it’s that terrorizing people works.”
“Family Guy” Season 8, Episode 21 “Partial Terms of Endearment”
Synopsis: Much to Peter’s disgust, Lois agrees to become a surrogate mother for an old college friend who cannot conceive. But when the friend and her husband are killed in an accident, Lois has to decide whether or not to go through with the pregnancy. Peter, who had never been a fan of the baby idea, and in fact had enacted several plans designed to induce a miscarriage, accompanies her to the clinic where Lois makes the decision to terminate just as Peter gets converted by the protesting pro-lifers outside.
Why was it pulled? This episode of the never-knowingly-inoffensive “Family Guy” has in fact never aired in the U.S. due to its up-front treatment of the hot-button abortion issue (though the rape joke and the Wile. E. Coyote-style sequence in which Peter lures a pregnant Lois into the desert with “free Grey’s Anatomy DVDs” and tries to shoot her in the stomach with a punching-glove arrow are pretty extreme in their own right). But aside from same-old, same-old lapses of taste and the inherent sexism of a lot of its gags, ‘Partial Terms’ is actually pretty clever about abortion itself, especially about satirizing pro-life propaganda and scare tactics (though admittedly some of that doesn’t really require satire, just statement of fact as in “Really, you’re going to kill a bunch of doctors to protest killing?” when Peter threatens to bomb the clinic). It’s just a shame that, as happens so often with this show, it raises an interesting issue, makes some truly pointed jokes, and then kind of fluffs the ending–while Peter makes it clear that they had the abortion by a quick comment right before the cut to black, the actual process by which they came to that decision, and why he changed his mind, is avoided in favor of some last-minute cheap misdirection (Lois talking about a new member of the family) which doesn’t really work.
What was said: Peter: “I’m here to save the unborn, Brian. After they’re born they can go fuck themselves.”
“Boy Meets World” Season 5, Episode 22 “Prom-ises, Prom-ises”
Synopsis: It’s Prom night and Cory and Shawn are both hoping it’ll be the night they lose their virginity. But while that’s taken off the cards early for Shawn by girlfeind Angela, Cory and Topanga make it all the way to a bedroom in the hotel…conicdentally the same hotel Cory’s dad is taking his mom to after the revelation that she is pregnant. A hi-larious (and totally uncontrived) thing happens with room keys and Cory ends up in the room with his mom while his dad finds Topanga, but it’s all sorted out sweetly enough, and Cory and Topanga decide to wait for another time, and rejoin the prom party, of which they are, of course, king and queen.
Why was it pulled? Some seriously raunchy stuff, this episode of the Disney family sitcom had REMOVED JACKETS and FULL-FRONTAL face-kissing among its more outre moments. Okay, it’s easy to laugh, but it’s hardly the most debauched of scenarios and was clearly written with a respectful and squeaky-clean Disney agenda in mind. And arguably, with the show following the coming of age of the titular ‘Boy,’ suppressing the prom episode left a bit of a hole in the series. But suppress it Disney did, one of only three episodes to suffer that fate (“The Truth about Honesty” and “If You Can’t Be with the One You Love” being the other two, rejected by Disney for sex again, and underage drinking respectively). While to a modern eye, with kids of this age reared weekly on “Game of Thrones,” it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about, it’s still surprising to note that as late as the mid-nineties, a show that purported to (and in fairness, often did) deal with “young people’s issues” still gave everyone the willies when discussing teen sex.
What was said: Shawn: “Tonight we leave as boys and come back as men!” [note, they come back as boys].
“Maude” Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10 “Maude’s Dilemma Part I,” “Maude’s Dilemma Part II”
Synopsis: At 47 years of age, with her divorced daughter Carol and 8-year-old grandson living back with her and her third husband, Maude discovers she is pregnant. Carol tries to persuade her to have an abortion, while Maude debates what to do, with issues of her life stage, her attitude toward abortion historically, and her assessment of her relationship dynamic with her husband Walter all coming into play. At the end of the double episode, having first decided to keep the baby, Maude opts for an abortion, much to her own and Walter’s relief.
Why was it pulled? There are many ways in which we can look back on the TV of the ‘50s-’80s and roll our eyes in amazement at how antiquated are the attitudes displayed therein. And indeed, “Maude’s Dilemma” starts off on just such a note, with Carol didactically and not a little condescendingly explaining to their black housekeeper Florida the feminist advantages of the honorific “Ms” as opposed to “Miss” or “Mrs” and Florida replying that Carol is still on the hunt for a husband and would gladly embrace the “Mrs” if she could. With pointed and on-the-nose references like that still dating the show, it’s kind of astonishing that abortion, while portrayed as a very difficult decision, can have formed such a central part of this double episode, especially so often flippantly referred to, and especially considering it’s the option Maude ultimately chooses. At the time of airing, abortion had just been legalized in New York (there are several references to that in the show) but Roe v. Wade was still a couple of months away, and what feels oddest now is that, the legality of the procedure thus established, there’s very little agonizing over its morality. Maude’s concerns about having/not having a baby are largely practical ones: will she be too old to be a good mother, will childbirth be too hard on her body, will it disrupt the lifestyle she’s worked for–it hardly even exists as an issue that Maude, or others, might consider it morally wrong to terminate a pregnancy. But perhaps it shows just how short-lived that kind of non-judgmental, non-polarizing attitude toward abortion was that these episodes, when they re-aired after Roe v. Wade, were rejected by 25 CBS affiliates in response to advertiser pressure. They remain among among the least-aired installments of a now little-seen show.
What was said: Carol: “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It’s not now.” — perhaps the most un-prescient statement ever made by a TV character.
“Seinfeld” Season 9, Episode 20 “The Puerto Rican Day”
Synopsis: On their way home from a Mets game, Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer run into heavy traffic because of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Targeted by a malevolent driver in a Volkswagen Golf, it becomes clear that they’re not getting home soon, so Elaine elects to try and walk, while George wants to repeat a witty joke he made at a film about the Hindenburg at another screening of it, and Kramer needs a restroom, so soon the car is empty and, following Kramer inadvertently setting fire to a Puerto Rican flag with a firecracker, targeted by an angry mob of parade-goers.
Why was it pulled? As any “Seinfeld” fan (i.e. anyone) will know, the unshot episode that spurred this feature was not the only time Jerry and the gang caused controversy. In this May 1998 episode, not only does Kramer set fire to the Puerto Rican flag, he also delivers the line “It’s like this every day in Puerto Rico” during a near-riot, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, many viewers of Puerto Rican descent were offended by what they saw as the negative stereotyping of their country and people. In the wake of a plethora of complaints, NBC issued a formal apology and withdrew the episode from the rerun schedule and also excluded it from the syndication package, despite the fact that it had attracted the highest rating of any “Seinfeld” episode to that date. It’s an odd one, this, because on the one hand it’s entirely true that despite boasting the most-ever writers on any episode, there is a nasty streak of cheap shots at a minority here. But on the other hand, preceding a double-episode clip show and a very disappointing double episode finale, there’s a lot here which can be regarded as the last hurrah for a beloved series coming to an end–George’s desire to recreate his “That’s gotta hurt!” quip; Elaine’s “Poseidon Adventure”-style odyssey beneath the bleachers; to say nothing of Kramer, Jerry and George all getting to use their pseudonyms (it’s hard for us to stay mad at Art Vanderlay). Perhaps that’s why, after a period of radio silence, the episode did begin to creep back occasionally into reruns in 2002, is on the DVD, and is now regarded as a compromised but by no means worthless entry in the series.
What was said: “Latinos love Seinfeld; that’s why this hurts so much,” Sonia Gonzalez, 28, of Washington Heights told the New York Daily News. “It’s like when you think someone is your friend, and you find out they’ve been laughing at you behind your back.
“The Twilight Zone” Season 5, Episode 31: “The Encounter”
Synopsis: A Japanese-American man, Takamori, reluctantly accepts the offer of a beer from World War II vet Fenton, whom he had approached initially for yard work. In the cluttered attic Fenton is clearing out are souvenirs of his wartime experiences, including his old uniform and a sword he confiscated, he claims, from a surrendering Japanese soldier. The door mysteriously closes behind them, trapping both men in an increasingly fractious and violent conversation in which both are revealed to be harboring guilty secrets about the war, culminating in tragedy which may or may not be the result of the sword’s uncanny hold over them both.
Why was it pulled? Another example (there are a few on this list) of an episode being pulled because of sensitivity to the very issue it is highlighting in a potentially intelligent and illuminating manner, “The Encounter,” starring George Takei and a storming Neville Brand was withheld from further airings and from syndication in the U.S. following the complaints that greeted its 1964 premiere. With many Japanese-American advocacy groups uncomfortable with the use of the deliberately incendiary language and epithets Fenton hurls at Takamori, to say nothing of the revelation of Takamori’s backstory as being more complicated and ambivalent than it first seems, the episode was deemed offensive to these interests and suppressed thereafter (though it’s widely available now on home video formats). But the shame of it is, it’s a pretty strong piece of work with both actors acquitting themselves well, particularly the sweating, hulking Brand, and both characters, crucially, revealed to be victims of their own war-induced guilt. Also the parallels at the time of airing, when President Johnson was escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with Fenton recalling how they were encouraged to think of the enemy as “less than human” were striking. And in its portrait of the broken, alcoholic and haunted Fenton, who is unable to rid himself of the bigotry that was bred into him in the military and bitterly uncomprehending about the new attitude towards the Japanese as a highly cultured and refined people, it’s quite the chilling foreshadowing of the type of PTSD issues that would face Vietnam veterans many years later.
What was said: George Takei: “It has the unique distinction of being the only ’Twilight Zone’…that was aired only once. It’s never been re-aired, it’s never enjoyed a rerun. And shucks darn, I missed out on my residuals on that one.”
There are several examples too of children’s programming being pulled from air due to inappropriate content: “Pokemon” had several episodes withdrawn from air in the U.S., most famously “Electric Soldier Porygon” which was even satirized in an episode of “The Simpsons” as it caused over 600 strobe-induced seizures when first screened and is still (wisely) all but unavailable for anyone except those longing to track it down for a “The Ring”-type experiment. MTV product-of-their-time “Beavis and Butthead” had the episode “Comedians,” in which they try their hand at stand-up, pulled after an incident it allegedly inspired in which two young children burned to death in a trailer fire–the duo would also use their catchphrase “Fire, fire, fire” markedly less frequently following this tragedy. “Ren and Stimpy” episode “Man’s Best Friend” was deemed just too violent for scenes in which they beat George Liquor to a pulp with an oar (his bulging eye socket and bloodied, mottled face are really quite grotesque). There’s an utterly misjudged episode of animated series “The Mask” called “Flight as a Feather” in which a suicide bomber dresses up as a belly dancer in a bikini outfit make of dynamite, and an infamous “Tiny Toon Adventures” short “One Beer” which sees our cute central trio get instantly wasted on one beer, steal a police car which they then crash into a cemetery and die, floating up to heaven as angels…before removing their wings and stepping out of their costumes to deliver the PSA message, in case you hadn’t guessed, that Drinking Is Bad. And finally, there’s a whole series of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episodes, titled “Conflict” in which the residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe engage in essentially a war of weapons proliferation, and the message of how to behave in the (seemingly very likely) event of world nuclear war sits, well, a little oddly alongside jolly, friendly Rogers in his zippered cardigan. So it’s no wonder that hasn’t proven popular on the rerun circuit.
Otherwise, there’s a whole further category of TV show episodes that were banned for short or long periods, purely because of bad timing: the events or themes they showed were deemed too close for comfort to some national tragedy or recent news event and the episodes were held back until wounds were not quite so raw. These included “Earshot,” an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that features a potential school shooter in a clocktower and was originally scheduled to air one week after the Columbine High School shootings occurred; “Mike and Molly” had a tornado-themed season finale episode postponed due to the real-life devastation incurred by the Oklahoma tornadoes; the “Reunion” episode of “Haven,” which featured gun violence occurring in a school, was due to air the very same day that the Sandy Hook shootings took place and was hastily pulled; “Family Guy” episode “Turban Cowboy” showed Peter plowing through the runners at the Boston Marathon, and when the bombings occurred a few months after it aired, it was immediately pulled down from digital platforms by Fox, who have no plans to air it again at this time; while Adult Swim comedy series “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” inadvertently caused a bomb scare in Boston when electronic placards advertising the show were mistaken for explosive devices. Not so much their fault perhaps, but the episode “Boston” which satirized the response to the guerilla marketing campaign (which had led to a resignation and a $2m fine) was a bridge too far and it became the only episode of the show not to air. And finally, it took five or six years for “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” to come back into rotation after the September 11th attacks, as there are various scenes set in and around the World Trade Center–some of which have been excised even in the versions that run today.