The Top Ten True Most Shocking Moments in Television History

On Wednesday night, CBS aired a special called “TV’s Most Shocking Moments.”  Created by the Paley Media Center, this special was meant to reveal the events on television that caused outrage, discussion, awe, and even disgust.  It was an examination of how, after sixty years and a vastly different landscape, the fundamental power of broadcast media is undeniable and has captured public attention since the beginning.

It was also among the worst broadcasts I have ever seen. This was mostly because the Paley Media Center apparently forgot what the word “shock” means.  According to, the word shock means “a sudden or violent disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities.”  The special named the number one event as the “Oprah Free car” giveaway in 2003.  Surprising?  Yes.  Shocking?  Hardly; it was a stunt that was forgotten after a while (before the broadcast of the special, anyway).  To truly shock is to utilize something that has a power long after the moment is over.  Oprah’s stunt was not that – any more so than, say, the outrageous behavior of some of her guests.

I am no expert of television.  I am not nearly as knowledgeable on the subject of TV and television shows as I am on films. Yet I do know some broadcasts that, once they aired, they have never left the public consciousness.  They shocked, they awed, and they have not been forgotten.

As a note, this list does not include any sort of news event or sporting event.  This is solely an examination of scripted television, including finales that were meant to shock and some items that were not meant I guess I should say that, as I discuss a few finales on here, there will be spoilers to certain shows.

10) The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Why is this one shocking?  Because it should not exist.  If you describe the contents of the show to anyone, the look on their face will be on of true horror. Try it for yourself.  It is a variety show featuring actors from Star Wars as well as Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship.  It features ten minutes of Wookies watching cooking shows (and later a sort of pornography) while a bizarre animated segment occurs to introduce Boba Fett rather than waiting to treat the character with dignity in the next film.

Even George Lucas is embarrassed by this.  He refuses to license an official release and does not answer any questions about it.  Many even wondered if it had existed.  It did, and it was never forgotten.  Such a misguided attempt to cash on in the success of Star Wars is certainly a violent disturbance on the mind.

It was only broadcast once, but is still bootlegged.

9) The Finale of The Sopranos (2007)

Ever been in a conversation where the person speaking becomes distracted and cannot finish his story?  That is what happened in this finale. Viewers were shocked, not because of what the episode revealed in closing The Soprano’s long, successful run, but because it left bewilderment to its fans.  I will go ahead and tell you; it cuts off mid sentence to a few seconds of blackness, and then the credits role in silence.

Could it have worked?  Sure, but it doesn’t.  It is bad when an ending to a show makes people think their cable is out.  The general consensus is that Tony Soprano died; there is certainly evidence for this, but the ending continues to prove to be far too ambiguous.  By stopping, rather than ending, the show’s creator David Chase shocked the world by doing an enormous disservice to his fans.

8) Reality TV goes overboard; The Broadcast of Kid Nation (2007)

Reality TV has been a sort of fungus on television for the past decade.  Once considered an alternative to scripted shows demonstrating real people and real emotions, it has merely turned us all into seedy voyeurs.

While most of it was certainly bad, none of it was quite so shocking.  That is, until this show aired.  The premise was ripped straight from Golding; a group of kids would be dropped off in a ghost town and then be assigned to live on their own.  In most cases, such an assignment would land people in jail.  Now, it lands you on prime time.

Now, it should be noted that the show did not turn into the absolute nightmare it could have.  Most of it was actually quite dull, and the children were never as self reliant as they were initially set up to be. Yet the premise alone is what lands the show on this list.  Endangering children for money is now an acceptable form of entertainment.  That revelation is perhaps the most shocking one of all?

7) The Cancellation of Turn On (1969)

These are the only clips of the show I can find, and they are from the unaired second episode.  You see, the first one was canceled before it had even finished airing.  Several networks had turned down the show on the grounds that it “physically disturbed them.”  The whole concept of the show was that it was a sketch show that had been designed by a computer.  The show included numerous references to sex (this was back in 1969 before such things became the norm) and used poor jokes in order to illicit laughs.  Among the jokes were a pregnant woman singing the song “I Got Rhythm” and  The show didn’t work, that much is apparent.

But what is truly surprising how quickly the show ended due to its shocking content.  Today, all sorts of bad shows are given long life spans.  The network apparently realized the poor taste that accompanied the show, and canceled it on those merits.  I could not find any references to the show’s ratings. All I could find is how shocking the content was and how strongly network affiliates reacted.  A show pulled for its content?  That certainly has the air of one of TV’s most shocking moments.

6) Madonna’s Music Video for “Justify My Love” Being Banned from MTV (1990)

MTV has long stopped being a truly shocking network.  Well, let me clarify that.  It still is shocking, but for all the wrong reasons.  There was once a time when the network was on the cutting edge of youth culture, rather than just turning over time slots to fools who can barely tie their own shoes.

The controversy surrounding this video represents that time.  Madonna’s music video (as you can see above) resembles some sort of obscure art film from the 1960s.  It features transvestites, sadomasochism, frank discussions of homosexuality, and frank discussions of ANY sexuality.  Madonna had always been controversial, but now it was felt that even she may have one too far.This was the first time MTV had banned any music video; as with Turn On, the fact that something was so shocking that even television executives were scared of it.

MTV refused to air it, igniting a fire storm of controversy, and even lead to the broadcast of the video on network TV, thus giving an even larger amount of people exposure to the video.  Then they could be just as shocked as MTV had been.

5) Cop Rock (1990)

It is hared to make a musical on television.  There have been only three successful ones; the Scrubs episode “My Musical,” the Buffy the Slayer episode “Once More, with Feeling,” and yes, Glee. They are successful because the music was not a gimmick.  It is referenced in the story itself, it is used to convey emotions and character’s innermost thoughts, and the songs themselves are catchy.

Cop Rock is not a successful musical.  It is one that is all gimmick and no substance.  It is also one of the biggest flops in television history and a black mark on a creator (Steve Boncho) that should know better.  The main problem with the show is that the songs were never really important to the story.  They are not referenced to by any of the characters, they are poorly written, and often they make no sense. It was quickly canceled and has rarely been seen in syndication.

What is shocking is not the content.  What is shocking is that such a gamble was taken in the first place.

4) The Living With Michael Jackson Documentary (2003)

In light of the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death this month, it is important to remember how quickly he skyrocketed after his death.  It was not always positive for him.  In the last few years of his life, he would barely come out and the world had pretty much forgotten his music in favor of his bizarre persona.  Some of that persona may have been a touch embellished, but most was not.  This documentary is proof.

Originally seen as a way for Michael Jackson to make himself more publicly accessible, but the backlash against him was enormous.  It showed a man who was so over the top that it was impossible to take him seriously.  He was seen climbing trees and pattering around his personal amusement park, his house was shown featuring outlandish art featuring Jackson as a sort of Roman God, and finally, he was shown still hanging around children, despite the accusations of molestation. It is shocking because this was the final chance Jackson had with the public.  Once he lost it, well – look what it took for him to restore his reputation.

A program that shows a celebrity trying to maintain a facade of his fame, only to lose it all as audiences watch with amazement and then pity is truly a shocking program.  Yet this is exactly what happened with this documentary.

3) Sinead O’Connor Tears up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live (1992)

Note: I did manage to find the video, but could not embed it.  You can watch it here.

Out of all the items on this list, this is the one that television executives are trying the hardest to make people forget.  NBC edited out the footage from subsequent reruns and refused to release it on any sort of home media. The only place it was available was some four disc box set of Saturday Night Live music performances.  I was surprised to find it on Youtube, but there it is.

For those who do not remember, Sinead O’Connor was a pop musician known for her soulful voice, shaven head, and her ability to cover Prince.  Actually, her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” ranks among the best in history.  Additionally, her performance of the Pink Floyd song “Mother” is a haunting rendition that is so full of emotion it is hard to believe Sinead O’Connor is not dictating directly to the family matriarch.  Yes, Sinead O’Connor had the voice, the attitude, and the ability to

And then this happened.

In case you do not watch the clip, she sings an a capella version of “War.”   It makes very little sense in context; she cannot do reggae to save her life, and trying to add soul to the song eliminates any sort of sound of street rebellion the song initially had.  Try and imagine, say,  Norah Jones singing “Anarchy in the UK.”  It is bad. But then it gets a whole lot worse; right at the end, she takes out a picture of Pope John Paul II, tears it up, tells the audience to “fight the real enemy” and the performance ends, leaving befuddlement and outrage in its wake.

Apparently it did not take long for the fallout.  SNL immediately cut to commercial (no applause can be heard at the end of the clip, as is usually customary) and they were swamped with calls. Tim Robbins (the host that night) did not thank her for performing and at a Bob Dylan concert, O’Connor was booed off the stage, and collapsed into Kris Kristofferson’s arms.  She never again had nearly the sort of chart presence (her latest album only sold 375,000 copies worldwide) and any interview she conducts seems to offer her the chance to apologize (something she has refused to do).

It was such a shocking moment that it managed to kill a career.  Very few television moments can claim to have done that.

2) The Quiz Show Scandals (1958)

The Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s continue to live in infamy.  There were the basis of the excellent film Quiz Show as well as the basis for any sort of security protocol that follows Deal or No Deal and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  Yet it was nothing that was planned and it was nothing that was meant to be malevolent. It was simply meant to keep the sponsors happy.

And it was successful, for a while.  Contestants had the opportunity to become famous, television executives had the opportunity to make money, and audiences were entertained.  Yet some people, once their celebrity faded, became very angry.  They started discussing the deception, which lead to a Congressional investigation and captivated audiences even more than the shows themselves had.

The fallout was enormous.  The people who had come to trust television felt betrayed.  Any idea that television could be used to educate was thrown out the window.  Van Doren, who appears in the above clip, went from being on the cover of Time magazine to being a persona non grata in the academic world. Audiences were shocked around the world; people they had come to trust had duped them.

Now, luckily, changes were implemented very quickly. Fixing game shows became a federal crime, and all sort of security is currently in place to prevent it from happening (not the least of which is that no single sponsor owns a game show).  But the damage is still felt throughout the medium.

People were hurt, confused, and wondered if they could ever trust the medium again.  That is about as shocking as television can be.

1)  The Opening of the Ninth Season of Dallas (1986)

Why is this number one and not the Quiz Show Scandal?  Because television managed to recover from the Quiz Show Scandals.  It remains to be seen whether television can recover from this.

I suppose this needs a little bit of background to explain.  I have never seen an episode of Dallas , but have certainly heard of it.  Everyone had; it was one of the biggest television shows in history. Everyone tuned in to the season seven finale in which Patrick Duffy’s character died.

But wait, isn’t that Patrick Duffy taking a shower in the opening of season nine?  Well, yes.  Apparently, once he left, the ratings slipped, and Duffy was rehired to help the show’s sagging fortunes. He came back, but then they had to figure out a way to reinsert Duffy onto the show. This is what they came up with; erasing the previous season’s continuity completely.

Yes, the show did continue for another four years.  But it never really recovered from this; the fantasy world had been interrupted by network negotiations. It was shocking that, for one brief moment, audiences everywhere could see the negotiations as they unfolded.  Any artistic merit was sacrificed. Television had lost all credibility as an artistic outlet, and it will take a strong push to make it so again. It is a lesson that television still has not learned.

This reveal is  shocking, and remains shocking, not just because of the reveal that conned viewers.  It is shocking because such a con continues to be pulled on audiences world wide.
Honorable mentions: The Ren and Stimpy Episode “Man’s Best Friend,” South Park’s “It Hits the Fan,”  The Janet Jackson Super Bowl Halftime Show, William Hung’s performance on American Idol, the death of Cordelia Chase in Angel, the death of Joyce Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the death of Jack Bauer’s wife in the first season of 24, the finale of Twin Peaks (which still remains unresolved), “The Bad Old Days” episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the finale of St. Elsewhere, and finally Harpo Marx’s appearance on I Love Lucy.

This entry was posted in Best of Lists and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s