A Timeline Of TV's Most Rule-Breaking Moments

By Kelsea Stahler

For decades, television has been taking risks and breaking rules. Whether it is commenting on social issues or introducing viewers to a whole new way to consume shows, these 38 moments will go down as some of the most memorable in rule-breaking history.

November 1947

A Married Couple Are Shown In Bed Together For The First Time

Though I Love Lucy is widely quoted as the first TV series to break the chastity divide and show a married couple in bed together, that honor actually goes to Mary Kay and Johnny — the first TV sitcom ever, and one that often mirrored the real lives of Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, much like I Love Lucy mirrored Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

November 1968

Television’s First Interracial Kiss Airs On Star Trek

While the storyline wasn’t the most romantic to ever hit television (they are under mind control when it happens), Captain Kirk and Officer Uhura end up locking lips in this now famous episode — but it almost didn’t happen. The network originally tried to commission different versions of the scene, without the kiss, to avoid potential backlash, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

September 1972

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Addresses The Wage Gap

In this Season 3 episode, “The Good Time News,” Mary finds out the producer who previously held her job — a man — made more money than she does. When she confronts her boss, she learns the truth: She makes less because she is a woman and has no family to support. She fires back that this treatment is categorically unfair and lifts the lid on the wage gap.

November 1972

Bea Arthur’s Maude Gets An Abortion Months Before Roe V. Wade Is Decided

Norman Lear’s series are often praised for their realism and groundbreaking storylines, and Maude was no different. In the two-part episode, called “Maude’s Dilemma,” the character ultimately decides to have an abortion because she cannot afford to support more children, after much deliberation. The series faced protests and thousands of angry letters, but remained a huge moment for women.

September 1977

Fonzie “Jumps the Shark” On Happy Days

In the Season 5 premiere of Happy Days, Fonzie performs an over-the-top stunt on water skis, jumping over a captive shark. The moment was widely criticized since it seemed to undo a previous moment in Fonzie’s character arc, in which he gets hurt doing a motorcycle stunt and decides it was ultimately a stupid risk. The moment became synonymous with struggling TV series attempting a big, often out-of-left-field stunt in order to regain the declining audience’s attention.

December 1977

Elvis Costello Plays “Radio, Radio” In Protest Of Corporate Broadcasting On SNL

Costello pulled a stunt that earned him a reported 10 year ban from Saturday Night Live when he stopped mid-performance on a December 1977 episode. He was only a few bars into “Less Than Zero” when he launched into “Radio, Radio” which takes aim at the issues with live broadcasts of music and the way artists are treated by record labels.

November 1980

350 Million People Worldwide Tune In To Find Out Who Shot J.R. On Dallas

After an infamously drawn-out cliffhanger and eight months of media coverage, Dallas finally revealed the shooter in a TV moment that defined appointment television, broke viewership records, and paved the way for TV dramas that followed.

1985

Courteney Cox Is The First Person To Use The Word “Period” In A National Commercial For Tampax

Though television still has a way to go when it comes to open acceptance of periods — that thing all women tend to get as part of, you know, basic biology — it was a huge moment to hear it spoken out loud on national television.

October 1987

Designing Women Depicts A Character With AIDS

“Killing All the Right People” saw Tony Goldwyn playing a man with AIDS who asks the women to design his funeral. The episode, which delves into the discrimination AIDS patients faced from the medical community, aired only a few months after then-President Ronald Reagan finally acknowledged the AIDS crisis.

October 1990

The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Addresses Rampant Discrimination Against People Of Color By Law Enforcement

In this 1990 episode, Carlton and Will get pulled over for “stealing” Uncle Phil’s car because they are two young, black men in an expensive car. The episode delves into the many ways people of color are discriminated against by police, and even shows Carlton, whose life has been touched with financial privilege, learning about the issue for the first time, decades before the topic became a national conversation thanks to Black Lives Matter.

April 1990

The “Cooper’s Dream” Episode Of Twin Peaks Airs, Making Way For Future High-Concept Television

The scene features Kyle MacLachlan's Agent Dale Cooper experiencing a confusing dream, in which one character speaks backward and another resembles Laura Palmer, whose death he is investigating. While the scene is classic David Lynch, the inclusion of such an avant-garde moment on broadcast television was markedly unique.

February 1991

L.A. Law Shows The First Same-Sex Kiss On Television

Though the moment ultimately led to a disappointing conclusion (lesbian character CJ Lamb was written off the show and Abby Perkins ended up with a man), this scene in which CJ kissed Abby was the start of television’s long journey to better representation.

May 1992

42-Year-Old Murphy Brown Decides To Have A Baby On Her Own, Without A Man

At the end of the series’ previous season, Murphy finds out she’s pregnant after a one-off sexual encounter with her ex-husband. By the end of Season 4, Murphy decides to keep the baby and become a single mother. Then-Vice President Dan Quayle later famously criticized the character for “mocking” fathers with her decision.

October 1992

Sinéad O’Connor Rips Up A Photo Of The Pope On SNL To Protest Abuse In The Catholic Church

Though she was largely ridiculed at the time of the event due to ignorance of the issue at hand, and later became the butt of a joke in an SNL sketch starring Jan Hooks, O’Connor’s bold move certainly did not go unnoticed. In hindsight, it’s recognized as a protest, speaking truth to power on a national television stage.

December 1995

The Seinfeld Episode “The Sponge” Addresses The Difficulty In Obtaining Female Contraception

This mid-season episode finds Elaine not only having trouble finding birth control, but later, being judged for how she uses it. After walking 25 blocks to find a pharmacy that sells her contraceptive sponge, she buys a whole case and the clerk side-eyes her. Later, because they’re so scarce, she spends the rest of the episode deciding whether or not her boyfriend (Gilmore Girls’ Scott Patterson) is “sponge-worthy” — because of course, contraception is on her to sort out.

September 1996

ER’s Jeanie Boulet Reveals Her HIV-Positive Status And Lives

The storyline was a rarity for a primetime series, not just because it involved HIV, but because, unlike most AIDS and HIV storylines at the time, this character did not die. Instead, audiences were able to follow her journey and actually learn from it — and considering ER was the top series in primetime, that message reached a lot of people.

April 1997

Ellen DeGeneres Comes Out On Ellen & Talks To Oprah About It On The Same Day

These moments came weeks after her Time cover story, titled, “Yep, I’m Gay,” was released. The episode brought her story into the televised space, where audiences could see her discuss her truth and share the reality of coming out, made her moment all the more powerful.

August 1998

Sex & The City Airs An Entire Storyline About A Vibrator

The storyline in this Season 1 episode sees Miranda convince Charlotte, who’s afraid of the stigma around vibrators, to try out the trendiest new gadget to get yourself off: The Rabbit. While the conclusion of the episode, which finds Carrie and Miranda worrying about Charlotte getting so attached she has no interest in actual men, is a little behind the times, the episode depicted 30-something women masturbating and loving it and encouraged women everywhere to get their hands on the famous vibrator and find their own moments of bliss.

November 1998

Felicity Addresses The Possibility Of Sexual Assault By A Romantic Partner

The WB series, which spoke to a largely teenage audience, shed light on the fact that sexual assault can sometimes happen in a consensual relationship. Felicity’s friend Julie is dating a new guy, but later tells Felicity that she didn’t want to have sex, but he was “pretty aggressive.” Julie also confirms that she told him no, but that it happened anyway.

February 1999

Tia & Tamera Find Out Their Birth Father Is White On Sister, Sister

The sitcom’s “twist” reflects Tia & Tamera Mowry’s real life and offered visibility and representation to interracial families — something that was extremely rare on television at the time.

May 2000

The First Romantic Kiss Between Two Gay Male Characters Happens On Dawson’s Creek

While the first gay male kiss technically happened between BFFs Will and Jack on Will & Grace, that moment was a peck between friends. This moment of passion between Jack and his boyfriend Ethan was groundbreaking because it was genuinely, deeply romantic.

May 2001

Lizzie McGuire’s Bra Shopping Episode Shows The Awkward Side Of Becoming A Woman

“Between a Rock and a Bra Place" finds Lizzie begging to buy a bra after her rival Kate gets one and her popularity soars (most women who’ve been tweens know this illogical feeling well). While Lizzie initially tries to hide her search for a bra, she ends up screaming about wanting one to her whole family — and serving as an avatar for the awkward moments every tween girl has been through.

November 2001

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Airs One Of The First Musical TV Episodes Ever & Starts A New Trend

“Once More With Feeling” found the badass, vampire-fighting heroine and her supernatural friends swapping witty bon-mots for singing show tunes all over Sunnydale, which was a certifiable risk on television at the time. And while Buffy’s wasn’t the first, it certainly popularized the practice. Now, it’s commonplace for a musical episode to appear in the catalog of many a beloved, fandom-skewing series, from Riverdale to Bob’s Burgers and even a crossover of Supergirl and The Flash.

January 2004

Manny Gets An Abortion On Degrassi: The Next Generation Despite Her Boyfriend’s Protests

After finding out she is pregnant, Manny tells her boyfriend Craig, who says she should keep the baby. Later though, Manny realizes it’s her body and her future and decides to get an abortion after all. Craig is upset, but Manny’s friend Emma defends her. The controversial episode wouldn’t be aired for another two years in the U.S., when Manny actor Cassie Steele named it as her favorite during a “Cast Picks” marathon on The N.

June 2007

The Sopranos Airs Its Series Finale, Which Ends With 10 Seconds Of Pitch Black

The finale was not only surprising — the final scene appears to end accidentally, in the middle of Journey’s beloved chorus of “Don’t Stop Believin’” — it was also largely upsetting to many fans, who felt the series ended without any real closure and that the ending was a cop-out or a gimmick. Now, however, the series is regarded as brave, for bucking expectations by refusing to wrap up a TV series with a bow — something many see as a remark on the nature of television itself.

February 2013

Netflix Releases The Entire First Season Of House Of Cards In A Single Day, Starting A New Television Trend

It seemed outlandish at the time, but Netflix was ahead of its time, anticipating the fervor with which audiences now marathon entire seasons of their favorite series. But it was a success, and now Netflix and Amazon drop entire series in a single day, allowing for an intense, collective viewing experience unlike anything we knew before this momentous drop.

March 2014

Will’s Death On The Good Wife Is Somehow Kept A Secret From Fans & TV Journalists Alike

Not only is it a major rule that you don’t kill the central love interest in a will-they-won’t-they relationship that practically drives an entire series, it’s also generally a rule that fans at least know something like this is coming. But when Josh Charles’ Will was killed, to accommodate Charles’s decision to leave the series, no TV journalists managed to pick up the scoop that he was leaving the show ahead of time, making Will’s death one of the most shocking TV moments of all time.

October 2014

Sara Ramirez, As Callie Torres, Proudly Declares “So I’m Bisexual” On Network Television

While fans saw Callie come out to her father in Season 5, it’s extremely rare for the word “bisexual” to be proudly spoken on TV, and Callie did it loudly and happily (also a bit drunkenly) in this 2014 episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Add to it the fact that Callie is the longest running LGBT character on network television, and you’ve got yourself a pretty powerful moment.

October 2014

Annalise Keating Appears Without A Wig On How to Get Away With Murder

It was a moment comedian Phoebe Robinson wrote was “THE SINGLE GREATEST MOMENT IN BLACK WOMEN TELEVISION HISTORY” because not only did it represent a black woman’s beauty routine, but it showed her as vulnerable, something lacking in most representations of black women on television (and in film).

June 2014

Sophia Gives Her Fellow Inmates A Detailed Vaginal Anatomy Lesson On Orange Is The New Black

When Sophia hears that her fellow inmates have never been taught about their own “cha-chas” in the episode titled “A Whole Other Hole,” she takes it upon herself to teach them where everything is — and she makes sure to include the part about which parts are for pleasure. Considering female pleasure has been extremely censored in media, this moment was huge… and pretty educational.

August 2014

BoJack Horseman — A Cartoon Comedy About Depression — Premieres On Netflix

Though it is a goofy, cartoon sitcom, the series bravely and openly explores its titular character’s struggle with depression. It’s not funny, it’s a bit heavy for a cartoon, but the series dove right in, busting open the genre and offering one of the most accurate representations of depression on television.

April 2015

Inside Amy Schumer Airs The Star-Studded “Last F***able” Day, Featuring Celebs Skewering Their Own Industry’s Standards

In the revolutionary sketch, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette are helping Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate her last day of “f*ckability” — the event on which the industry decides they are not believably “f*ckable.” After that, she’s doomed to audition for Mrs. Claus and movies “with kitchens on the poster,” while men are “always f*ckable.” The commentary is steadfast, brutal, and unflinchingly real.

November 2015

Scandal Shows Olivia Pope On The Operating Table During An Abortion, Without Ever Mentioning Her Pregnancy

While many characters before her have decided to get abortions, what makes this moment remarkable is the fact that her pregnancy was never mentioned or made a plot point on the series prior to this scene. What’s more, is that the scene pulls no punches, and takes us into the procedure, and all of its weight, with Olivia. Absolutely revolutionary.

June 2016

The Death Of Poussey On Orange Is The New Black Evokes Black Lives Matter & Generates Awareness Of Police Brutality

In one of the most heartbreaking, if not the most heartbreaking, scenes in OITNB history, Poussey Washington is killed after prison guards attempt to clear out a civil protest at Litchfield. When Poussey tries to help Suzanne Warren, she’s held down by C.O. Bailey, and dies after struggling to get him to hear her saying “I can’t breathe” — the same words uttered by Eric Garner when he was killed by an NYPD officer.

August 2017

Broad City Bleeps Out Donald Trump’s Name Throughout Season 4

While many TV series got in on the desire to comment on the most controversial U.S. president in history, Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer took a different route and refused to utter his name on their show, effectively taking away his name and much of his power. It’s a simple, yet bold gesture.

July 2017

Jodie Whittaker Is Announced As The First Female Doctor Who

After 26 Seasons and 12 different doctors, the minds behind Doctor Who finally cast a Time Lord to at least start to even things out and offer representation to the millions of women who stan for the beloved series. Even better? The female doctor will make her debut on Christmas Day, 2018.

June 2018

Pose Premieres With A Cast That Includes A Record Number Of Trans Actors Playing Trans Characters

What’s more is that in addition to the representation on screen, series director Janet Mock became the first trans woman of color to write and direct a television episode. And luckily, the series will continue to break ground, as it was renewed for a second season in July 2018.

August 2018

Ruby Rose Is Cast As The First LGBTQ Lead In A Live-Action Superhero Series

The Orange Is The New Black actor was cast to star in the upcoming Batwoman-standalone series, coming to the CW’s lineup up of superhero series, a.k.a. The Arrowverse. Rose faced significant backlash in the wake of the news, but fans were quick to defend her and speak out in praise of the representation her casting offers.

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