The 6 Most Controversial TV Shows to Win Emmys
These TV shows may be award-winning, but they caused quite a stir.
The Primetime Emmy Awards represent the highest honors in television, recognizing actors, writers, producers, and more for their work on the small screen. The stiff competition has us wondering who will be awarded the coveted "E" in EGOT every September. But while these honors are typically bestowed on the best of the best, there are some winners who have proven a bit more contentious than others. Read on to discover the six most controversial TV shows to win Emmys.
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones was a pop culture phenomenon. Viewers tuned in to HBO live every Sunday night to watch characters vie for their place on the Iron Throne.
The show, based on the book series by George R.R. Martin, ruffled some feathers due to its depiction of violence and sexual assault. It remains a constant topic of discussion when it comes to controversial TV, with the series' much maligned ending causing even more of an uproar from devoted fans.
Still, Game of Thrones is one of the most awarded TV shows of all time, claiming a whopping 59 Emmys through its eight-season run.
All in the Family
One of the most beloved and also controversial shows of all time, All in the Family followed the daily life of the Bunkers in the 1970s. What set the show apart was its discussion of current events, not shying away from touchy subjects like race, gender, and inequality. The approach ended up requiring the CBS show to start out with a disclaimer about its true intent to put "a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns."
Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) spewed out his bigoted comments, going back and forth with his kind-hearted wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his liberal daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her husband Mike, AKA "Meathead" (Rob Reiner). Ultimately, the controversial approach paid off. The series has 22 Emmys to its name, claiming Outstanding Comedy Series in 1973 and 1978.
"I would get mail by the tens of thousands. Whether they agreed with Archie or disagreed with Archie, what they all said was, 'My father… my mother… my sister… my family… we argued about this, that and the other thing,'" the show's executive producer Norman Lear said in 2009, per USA Today. "I think conversation about those issues is what our democracy is all about."
Lear added that the show did this intentionally, going after "the most controversial topic" at hand. "That was our stock in trade—to make trouble," he said.
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Two and a Half Men
While it never nabbed the award for Outstanding Comedy Series, Two and a Half Men did win nine Emmys over its 12 seasons, including two for Jon Cryer in 2008 and 2012. Lauded or not, the show still had plenty of critics.
The Hollywood Reporter documented five of the show's biggest snafus, including the presence of its endlessly controversial star, Charlie Sheen.
Two and a Half Men was also frowned upon for some of its "bawdy content," per THR, as well as its representation of gay marriage in its final season. In order to adopt a child, Alan, played by Cryer, and Walden, played by Ashton Kutcher, agree to get married, even though they are both straight men. The plotline didn't sit well with many, including those in the LGBTQ+ community.
"We hope the show will acknowledge not only the progress made in acceptance of gay and lesbian couples, but also the fact that—in many areas of the country—same-sex couples are often under greater scrutiny or still barred from adoption options that straight couples have," Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in response at the time, per Entertainment Tonight.
Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the main character on Fox's drama 24, is iconic. And the show itself collected 20 Emmys during its nine seasons. But 24 came under fire for its violence, stereotypical depictions, and for "normalizing torture."
Bauer, an anti-terrorist agent, is considered controversial, too, as some question his morality in his frequent "life-or-death situations." Beyond that, the depiction of women left a lot to be desired, according to Penny Johnson Jerald, who played the calculating character of Sherry Palmer.
"When you think about it, all of the prominent women on 24 are packaged so that they're up to no good," Jerald said, per Entertainment Weekly. "I used to joke [to the writers] a lot, 'Are your wives reading this stuff? Come on!"'
However, she did concede that the "femme fatale" angle is more suitable "for exciting TV."
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The Handmaid's Tale
In April 2017, a riveting adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale premiered on Hulu. The show presented a stark view of the future, where America has devolved into a patriarchal theocracy called Gilead. The cautionary tale has carried on for five seasons and earned a total of 15 Emmys, but its first season won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series—a decision not everyone was thrilled about.
An article published in The Guardian claimed that the show "did not deserve" its win, citing its representations of grief and lead actor Elisabeth Moss' statements about the show not being "a feminist story." The outlet also claimed that the show was favored due to "the nature of the current U.S. administration," but did concede that Ann Dowd, who plays the ruthless Aunt Lydia, received the "most deserved award of the night."
A separate article in The Guardian points out that while characters of different races are included on The Handmaid's Tale, the topic of racism isn't central to the plot. Subsequent seasons also caught flak for their depictions of torture and women's roles in a patriarchal society.
The New York Times called Maude "one of the most controversial shows on television" in its first years, but that's not necessarily surprising for a spinoff of All in the Family. Another brainchild of Lear, the show starred Bea Arthur, who won the 1977 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, accounting for Maude's sole win out of its 12 nominations.
Maude, who was Edith Bunker's cousin, is described by the NYT as "an abrasive, quick-witted Roosevelt liberal, who took delight in raising everyone's consciousness," regardless of the consequences.
Maude was known to delve into political and social issues, with the most controversial episode airing in Nov. 1972. During the episode, Maude realizes she's pregnant unexpectedly and decides to have an abortion. Per the NYT, the plotline sparked protests, and some CBS affiliates refused to play the episode at all.
Even so, the impact of the show can't be denied, and Arthur told the NYT that she believed both Maude and All in the Family "changed television."
"Think of the subjects that are being tackled now. Nothing is taboo," Arthur said in a 1978 interview. "Maude was the first time that a woman on television had looked real, and it was the first time she said what she felt and could tell her husband to go to hell. I would get letters from women saying, 'Not only have I never spoken to my husband that way, I never permitted myself to think of doing it.'"