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 39 moments will go down as some of the most memorable in rule-breaking history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A post-Grey's Anatomy Oh won her second Golden Globe in the Best Actress — Television Series Drama category, this time for her portrayal of the titular Eve in BBC America's Killing Eve. The victory was extra sweet considering it came after she lost out to The Crown's Claire Foy at the Emmys in September 2018 in the same category, though Oh still made history then as the first Asian actor to be nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama. Oh is nominated again in 2019 for an Emmy in that category, so there may be even more historic moments to come.