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."