Defining Moments in TV History That Changed the Status Quo

After a long day, we all like sitting back, relaxing, and watching television. Since our favorite TV shows are soothing and familiar, they can help us relax after a pretty hectic day. But other times, what we really enjoy about TV is how it can stun and astonish us.

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And most of the time, these are the moments we remember for the rest of our lives. We’ve compiled a list of 49 of the most remarkable TV moments that genuinely pushed the boundaries and altered the course of American history. Which of them impacted you the most?

The Beginning of Binge-Watching

How wonderful is it to just binge-watch in one weekend the entire season of a show your friend just recommended? But anyone who’s been a TV show fan for years know it wasn’t always like this. We just can’t imagine watching a show in an old-fashioned way.

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That old-time way is waiting a week for the next episode to air. It’s completely unbearable. How did we manage? Did you know that it was House of Cards, one of the first Netflix shows to broadcast a whole season in one sitting, that helped transform us all into compulsive binge-watchers?

When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Got Real

Will Smith’s legendary show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air remains in our hearts and minds even now. It reserved its profound moments for when they truly mattered—and yes, they did pack a punch because it was primarily a humorous and entertaining adventure with the lovable rogue.

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Remember when Carlton and Will realized how racial bias exists in the United States, the police force, and society as a whole? It taught us all an extremely important lesson and tugged at our heartstrings. We still remember how wonderful it felt when Uncle Phil threatened the racist cop.

When Murphy Brown Became a Single Mother

Even today there is a stigma associated with being a single mother. Many people are still pressured to build a family that consists of a mother, a father, and a child, which quite several people believe isn’t the best way to live or what they desire.

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Murphy Brown, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of this debate back when she opted to be a single mother. Some of the country’s authorities even criticized it, which says everything about the situation of things back then. But we’re glad the show stood firm in its decision.

Mister Rogers and the Fight against Racism

Mister Rogers is a character that almost everyone in America of a particular age knows and loves. However, few people realize that beneath Rogers’ soft and family-friendly style were some very important societal themes, delivered in his own distinctive style. But one episode changed everything.

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The episode where Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons cool off in the pool seems like any other TV show. In fact, it was a subtle but effective jab at racial divisions in the United States at the time when Black people were still barred from using public pools.

A Golden Lesson from The Golden Girls

On the legendary sitcom The Golden Girls, Blanche discusses her brother’s forthcoming marriage to a man, a very memorable TV moment. Blanche loves her brother and wishes him the best, but she expresses concern that gay marriage will complicate his life—something we still hear today.

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But it was a crucial conversation that taught the world a golden lesson. It also altered the way things went. This episode not only addressed the very real challenges queer couples face today but also demonstrated the significance of love and acceptance. Everyone deserves that chance!

The Delightful Kiss on Dawson’s Creek

It’s hard to believe that this was once such a taboo topic, but back when the teen drama Dawson’s Creek was airing, we had never seen a queer couple kissing on TV. It was a prohibited topic that everyone wanted to avoid. Can you imagine?

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Dawson’s Creek was a delightful show but not particularly daring—which is why it’s incredible that they decided to be the first show to feature two males kissing on screen. The much-liked Jack McPhee and his lover had a proper kiss on camera. And that one kiss changed everything.

The Difficult Conversation about Abortion on Maude

It’s unbelievable that topics like abortion are still taboo today. However, when the beloved Maude aired, the subject was brought up. Although we talk about it more often these days, when Maude contemplated an abortion in her 40s, it was a rather daring issue to talk about.

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Addressing it today, let alone back then, would be risky. In most settings, when you talk about abortion, it’s almost like you’re a terrible person. Well, that started changing the moment Maude contemplated it, and she responded, “Whatever you decide is gonna be alright with me.”

A Valuable Lesson about Love in Star Trek

When Star Trek first aired, it was a dark time for America with racial tensions and social unrest in the country. Racism and hateful prejudices seemed to be larger than ever, and society was becoming further divided.

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We’re glad Star Trek used its voice to preach something valuable love. When the sci-fi classic broadcast one of the first-ever interracial romantic kisses on its show, it taught us all that love between people of different races and religions shouldn’t be considered a taboo.

The First-Ever Female Doctor in Doctor Who

Since the 1960s, fans of the British television show Doctor Who have adored the Doctor in his different forms. We were always curious about who would be the next Doctor and how their regeneration process would unfold. The Doctor explores the universe using his time-traveling spaceship, TARDIS.

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But there was something no one noticed. Did we ever wonder why the Doctor, an alien disguised as a human, only chose male bodies all the time? So, it was in 2017 that Jodie Whittaker made television history by becoming the first female Doctor.

When the Cancel Culture Struck Dana Carvey

We use the term “getting cancelled” a lot these days, but it can denote many different things. However, The Dana Carvey Show was cancelled back in the day when Dana Carvey featured a very controversial scene. Some viewers found the depiction of a well-known (male) figure breastfeeding to be too much.

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After all, some people are still startled when they see someone breastfeeding in cafes today. The bawdy scene featuring Carvey as President Bill Clinton breastfeeding puppies destined the show for cancellation before the eighth episode. And not even its star-studded cast—including Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert—could save it.

Miss Grotke’s Words of Advice

It’s no secret that the history books have recounted history in a not-so-even way. The classic Disney show Recess was one of the most popular and beloved shows of the late 1990s through the early 2000s, but you probably don’t recall it being full of class-A gems.

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It’s related to the social and racial constructions we should strive to eliminate. Maybe you didn’t hear Miss Grotke’s brilliant comments, such as the one where she reminds her students that history favors old, white men. However, it created quite a fuss at the time!

An Honest Discussion about Beauty on Full House

Beauty standards have always been unrealistic. But a ground-breaking scene on Full House changed things. It’s a little ridiculous to think Candace Cameron shot a strong scene and memorable moment raving about how unattractive she was, but it does highlight how ridiculous Hollywood beauty standards have gotten.

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Even in the 1980s, women’s beauty standards were so absurd that Cameron’s character, D.J. Tanner, gave a touching speech about feeling like she doesn’t measure up. Even today, watching it brings up a lot of emotions. Everything changed from there, and people started seeing that beauty isn’t a one-way street.

The Female Contraception Conversation in Seinfeld

We can’t believe that the topic of female contraception is still taboo in large sections of society. But Seinfeld tried to address it. When the show’s beloved Julia Louis-Dreyfus began waxing lyrical about her difficulty finding a proper method of female contraception, viewers were taken aback.

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We now have shows that cover far more difficult themes, but back when Seinfeld was on the air, this was a rather radical topic for a TV conversation. That much was clear from the reaction from people. It’s incredible that this is still an issue for so many women today!

The Topic of Homosexuality in Friends

Friends has a bad rep these days because of some of the themes discussed in the show, topics that can seem a little off-color or inappropriate when viewed through a modern lens. Carol and Susan’s romantic relationship provided numerous cheap laughs, which many people today find offensive.

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Despite the slapstick humor, it was one of the first shows to represent a joyful, loving, and positive LGBTQ relationship. And while their wedding had a few awkward moments, it was also a wonderful boundary-breaking moment both in TV history and in the way society perceived queer relationships.

The Moment Ellen Came Out

Ellen DeGeneres is now (or at least was until recently) one of America’s most popular and beautiful comedians. But it was a different scenario when she first came out as a queer on her TV show all those years ago. Ellen’s revelation that she was queer sparked a huge uproar.

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It was so bad that it almost destroyed her entire career in what would be considered a rather normal moment by many fans today. Even though we recall it vividly, it’s still astonishing to consider how negative the reaction was. It’s amazing how much strength she showed.

Oprah and Ellen’s Heart-to-Heart Conversation

Ellen DeGeneres appeared on Oprah to discuss her experience with the talk show host and the consequences of her coming out. Even though we know Oprah for her ability to discuss sensitive issues and difficult themes, it’s still incredible to watch this ground-breaking show.

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When you watch the episode again, you’ll begin to get a clearer idea of how difficult it was for Ellen and other queer people to have the freedom to love whoever they wanted. Well, we’re happy we can look at this video and be proud.

A Different World Gave a Different View of AIDS

The HIV/AIDS pandemic was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. And so were the stigma and discrimination that came with it. As the disease spread, its victims were punished as criminals, and stories about how the virus was contracted began to spread.

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When Josie in A Different World announced she had AIDS, it sparked an open and knowledgeable conversation about the disease, boosting critical awareness and refuting numerous stereotypes. We’re not going to pretend that things are perfect now, but the discrimination is significantly less now.

When Elvis Costello Was Banned from SNL

Created by Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live is one of the best late-night live television sketch comedy shows. But there’s something spectacular about this variety show. Saturday Night Live is renowned for tackling contentious and taboo subjects. So what might rocker Elvis Costello have done to get kicked off?

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Well, the truth is that he performed his popular song “Radio Radio,” a scathing critique of the entertainment and music industries. SNL told him not to play this song, but he did anyway, banning him from the show and making television history.

Felicity and the Boundaries of Assault

In the 1990s, television shows became more daring, and they addressed more important or previously sensitive issues. Harassment and abuse were becoming more widely discussed, but Felicity, the popular sitcom, did something different. When the hit show portrayed an assault in a relationship, many viewers were startled.

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It brought a lot of needed awareness to a subject that many people either were unaware of or thought was too sensitive to discuss. And it changed many things both in society and in the TV industry as more shows and movies broached the subject.

When Mary Tyler Moore Demanded Equal Pay

Even today, there are numerous challenges in the workplace where women are not paid the same as their male colleagues. But did you know it was even a problem during the prime of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when Mary Tyler Moore fought for equal pay at her workplace?

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It was just becoming an issue then, and she played a key part in making women’s voices heard about it. What’s sad is that while the show brought to light a previously sensitive subject, unequal pay is still an issue 45 years after the show ended.

The Powerful Final 10 Seconds of The Sopranos

Many TV shows today that air for years want to finish with a bang. They want to leave an impression forever—but not The Sopranos. People were anticipating great things from the final episode of the show because it was such a high-action and dramatic series, often with really out-there violent incidents.

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But in its calm ending, what we got was much more profound. We only see a large family meal in Tony Soprano’s final moments before everything fades to black. The final 10 seconds of darkness and quiet were among the most impactful in television history.

Courteney Cox’s Period Commercial

Courteney Cox is best known for her role as Monica on the hit television show Friends. But did you know that years before the show premiered, she made history with an unforgettable TV moment? That’s right! Cox surprised audiences throughout the country in the 1980s.

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It was around the time she was rocking with Springsteen. What did she do? She said the word period loudly in a tampon commercial. That was the first time the word had been spoken on television. Crazy! It’s ridiculous to think how much of a big deal it was then.

Mary Tyler Moore Didn’t Let Go of Female Contraception

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which spanned seven seasons, discussed the sensitive subject of female contraception. But that wasn’t the only thing Mary talked about. There were other times when the renowned Mary Tyler Moore Show pushed the boundaries in terms of addressing women’s challenges in society.

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Another example was when the title character and leading woman admitted to using the contraceptive pill. It’s hardly startling anymore, but it was unthinkable for a woman to speak so frankly about it back then. That show drew a lot of attention while also pushing some important boundaries.

Blanche Tackled Workplace Harassment

There are a handful of classic TV shows that question the status quo. In its long and illustrious career, The Golden Girls covered more than just the subject of homosexual marriage. Do you recall Blanche being harassed at work? She was a tremendous inspiration in her quest for justice.

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But that wasn’t all. She also delivered a fantastic statement when her employer had the audacity to inform her that she was risking her harasser’s career. It was a genuinely historic occasion in society and the entertainment industry. More women began speaking out about their experiences too.

The Issue of Pregnancy in I Love Lucy

It’s hard to believe now but talking about pregnancy or simply saying the word pregnant was considered too provocative in the 1950s when I Love Lucy was on the air. Although both Lucys were pregnant behind the scenes, only Lucille Ball’s character was allowed to be pregnant on screen.

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Even though this was the first time a pregnant character appeared on film, they were still not allowed to use the word pregnant. What a strange situation. But it was daring for the makers to introduce a pregnant woman on screen during such a time.

Sister, Sister Discussed Race

The classic shows are those that, even though they keep us entertained, don’t fail to address crucial societal topics such as race, homosexuality, prejudice, and more. Remember Tia and Tamera Mowry’s iconic adolescent twin series Sister, Sister? Of course, we do! It feels like only yesterday.

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But it wasn’t because it was in the 1990s. Even though we remember the popular show for its amusing quips and skits, the truth is that some of the subjects it addressed were groundbreaking, such as learning about the sisters’ multiracial paternity and exploring Black history.

I Dream of Jeannie

The renowned fantasy sitcom I Dream of Jeannie was based on the conundrum of the fictional genie character Jeannie and her mortal love interest Tony. There was always a will-they-won’t-they situation. It was many fans’ wishes would come true when they ultimately married at the end of the show.

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But it also destroyed it for many people. Although Barbara Eden admitted that she thought it was a bad idea for them to marry, she did confess that it was one of her favorite episodes. It is safe to say that I Dream of Jeannie ruined its own dreams.

ER Explored Some Sensitive Societal Topics

The popular medical drama ER lasted 15 amazing seasons and turned most of its cast into megastars, most notably the swoon-worthy George Clooney. But it did more than just place stethoscopes on America’s greatest dreamboats; it also addressed a number of critical issues in society.

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Back then, the plot around Jeanie Boulet’s HIV diagnosis and how she dealt with it was controversial. It brought attention to the problem while also boosting awareness across the country. This was an important moment for TV history and society on a sensitive topic at the time.

The Many Lessons from Orange Is the New Black

The pioneering prison show Orange Is the New Black taught us a lot—not only the ins and outs of jail life but also the genuine(ish) stories of a diverse group of fascinating women. Racism, transgender issues, drugs, and relationships—you name it, the show touched on it.

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And like we said, this is the stuff the classic shows we love are made of. But all changed when Laverne Cox’s renowned character Sophia educated us all about the truth of the female anatomy—a subject she was an expert on, having created her own herself!

That Kiss in L.A. Law

The 1990s were known as a time of immense social development, and public perception of queer relationships shifted dramatically. As the acceptance of queer relationships grew, it served to remove prejudice and promote a more equal society. And it made that infamous kiss in L.A. Law significant.

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It was between Amanda Donohoe as C.J. and Michele Greene as Abby—and it crossed some crucial boundaries. We loved every bit of it because these social constructions needed to be broached. Decades after that, we’re still trying to break them down, although it’s gotten a bit better.

Fonzie’s Infamous Jumping the Shark Episode

Happy Days is without a doubt one of TV’s most popular and successful shows. And Henry Winkler’s character Arthur Fonzarelli, also known as “the Fonz,” was the show’s breakout star, winning over the hearts of the American audience. The problem was that the Fonz was too loved.

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That resulted in the show being almost entirely focused on him, resulting in the infamous “jumping the shark” episode where Fonzie demonstrated his superhuman talents by water-skiing over a shark. That was when the show became far too ridiculous to believe.

The Dream Scene in Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is widely considered one of the finest television programs of all time, with overwhelming acclaim from critics and viewers alike. It’s regarded as a watershed moment in television drama. The show developed a devoted cult in the years following its broadcast.

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It was known for its revolutionary and genre-defining television, none more so than the show’s infamous dream scene near the finale. The bizarre, perplexing episode left viewers completely bewildered, and it remains a memorable and unique moment in television history that people are still in awe about today.

Designing Women’s Funeral Episode

Designing Women was a fantastic show that depicted the amusing antics of a unique group of women and one man working in the interior design industry. When the women were asked to design a funeral for someone who had died of AIDS, things took a serious turn.

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There wasn’t a single dry eye in the house at the end of this very special episode that deviated from the show’s usual humor. It was an important episode that served as a watershed moment. It had a worldwide impact and helped raise awareness about AIDS victims.

The Eight-Month-Long Cliff-Hanger in Dallas

Although Dallas initially focused on the marriage of Bobby Ewing and Pamela Barnes whose families were bitter rivals, it grew in popularity for something else. The destiny of one of the most beloved characters on the iconic show was one of the most riveting cliff-hangers in television history.

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Everyone wanted to know, “Who shot J.R.?” As if the mystery wasn’t intriguing enough, the producers made all of us wait an agonizing eight months for the next episode to air. Since people had to wait so long, it created a complete frenzy about the mystery.

The Unexpected Twist in Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl fans all over the world were stunned when the unknown titular character was confirmed to be none other than one of their favorite main characters—and a boy—in one of the most unexpected twists in television history. Gossip girl was never a girl.

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Many fans were taken aback when it was revealed that the hidden rumor source for Manhattan’s elite was none other than Dan Humphrey. The explanation had a few flaws, but the TV mystery plot was forever changed when an already-familiar character’s secret part was revealed.

The Moment Buffy Discovered a Foe She Couldn’t Defeat

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the legendary fantasy and teen drama, pushed boundaries in a variety of ways, but season five’s “The Body” was probably one of the most memorable and ground-breaking episodes in the series’ seven-year run. Buffy Summers discovers her mother, who is motionless on the couch.

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Then she realizes that she has died. With no action scenes and no musical score, this episode is unlike any other on the show. The quiet, searing grief of that scene when she discovered something she could never beat remains one of TV’s most powerful moments.

The Infamous Kiss between Willow and Tara in Buffy

Not only did creator Joss Whedon breach the bounds of the show and genre he established in the same episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he also made a mark for a completely different reason. This is also the episode where Willow and Tara first kiss.

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Even though they had been together for almost a year, a queer kiss was allowed only when Buffy moved to a different network. It’s refreshing to know that between the action scenes and fight sequences, this classic was brave enough to push the boundaries.

When Game of Thrones Let Us Down

The final episode of the beloved and long-running Game of Thrones was widely seen as a major letdown by fans of the show. It not only disappointed and misled viewers but also completely ruined one of the most dramatic character journeys in the history of storytelling.

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After years of development, including rising from slavery to become a queen and leading her own army to reclaim control of her own kingdom, Daenerys’ entire life is shattered in an instant as she becomes insane and massacres everyone. Even the show’s stars expressed their dissatisfaction with the ending.

Setting the Tone for Pranks

Jackass was on the air for only three seasons, but that didn’t stop it from making an impact. A cast of nine performed stunts and pranks on each other and on the general public throughout the show’s episodes. Prank shows and risky feats are common these days.

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However, when the original daring reality TV show Jackass was initially broadcast, it established a completely new standard for the genre. Viewers were surprised, appalled, terrified, and amused in equal measure as they saw Johnny Knoxville and his pals test the limits of acceptable human behavior—while having the fun of their lives.

Friends Taught Us Motherhood Isn’t a One-Way Street

We believe Friends is a classic. Even though the popular TV show gets a lot of flak these days for its gags—and many of them fall flat on current, more enlightened ears—the truth is that it was quite liberal and forward-thinking back in the day.

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After all, the storylines of all three primary female characters highlight three atypical ways to parent. Rachel decides to be a single mother, Phoebe supports her brother when he decides to become a parent through surrogacy, and Monica chooses to adopt. When you think about it, it’s quite astounding.

The Disappointment from How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother is undoubtedly one of TV’s best series of all time. But if you haven’t seen it and don’t want any spoilers, it’s time to look away now. There were millions of fans who stuck with the sitcom for its entire nine-year run.

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But they felt completely betrayed (for all the right reasons) when they eventually saw the series conclusion. While we do learn who the mother is, she is only present for a few minutes before being killed and replaced with Robyn. So unfulfilling and tacky.

Leave It to Beaver Showed a Toilet

You may wonder why there’s anything special about showing a toilet in a TV show. It’s amusing to reminisce about societal expectations from the past. We may think that people are more sensitive these days, but you wouldn’t believe some of the things that were offensive in the 1950s!

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Did you know that showing a toilet on television was considered so disturbing back then that it was banned? Leave It to Beaver was the first show to show a toilet on television, but even then, they could only show the top half.

All in the Family Gave Us a Heads Up

We know that viewers were a little more sensitive back then than they are now. As a result, network officials took great care not to air anything that could be construed as offensive or indecent. All that changed in 1971 when an episode of All in the Family aired.

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The episode started with a broadcast warning that it was “suggested for a mature audience.” This statement paved the way for increasingly risqué shows. Now, more TV shows and even films feel they can take more risks as long as they warn the audience in advance.

Chicago Hope and the Beginning of Curse Words on the Air

Television restrictions have softened throughout time, with more and more shows being allowed to depict or express things that were once considered shocking or offensive. However, in a 1991 episode of Chicago Hope, the TV network authorized a real, uncensored curse word to be aired on the show.

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That altered everything. Profanity on television has become much more mainstream since then, albeit it is still restricted. Now, when people hear curse words in TV shows and movies, few bat an eye. But the revolutionary moment came from this memorable episode in Chicago Hope.

The Tragic End of Tommy Cooper

Tommy Cooper’s tragic end was a turning point in stage comedy. The legendary British comedian was known for his outrageous quips and on-stage antics. But that’s what made his last appearance on stage even more popular and frightening to the audience. It wasn’t a joke.

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Cooper sat down in the middle of his broadcast comedy routine and began making strange facial gestures before dropping to the floor. Everyone thought it was one of his odd, humorous routines. The audience joined in the laughter—until they realized he had died, live on television.

Cheers and the Will-They-Won’t-They Romantic Story

Romantic chemistry with twists is one part of TV shows we always look for. One of America’s most favorite couples—none other than Ross and Rachel from Friends—is almost always associated with the typical will-they-won’t-they ongoing romantic tale, particularly on long-running, famous comedies.

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But, it was another classic sitcom pair, Sam and Diane from Cheers, who pioneered the path for this much-loved theme. And three decades and 275 episodes after Cheers ended, Sam and Diane remain one of the first TV couples to launch this infamous sitcom situation.

No Continuity in American Horror Story

We all enjoy getting sucked into a new TV show and binge-watching season after season as the plot develops and the characters become more well-known. But with the arrival of the critically acclaimed American Horror Story, everything changed. With this show, the concept of continuity was completely abandoned.

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Each season, all the show’s characters and stories were discarded, and new ones were introduced. So American Horror Story not only redefined itself, but it opened the door for more TV shows to use the same format. More shows began airing new stories each season or episode and introducing more characters.

Sex and the City Redefined the Meaning of Womanhood

The famous ’90s naughties sitcom Sex and the City (SATC) is another show that has aged terribly and does not hold up well when viewed through a contemporary lens. Many screenwriters, producers, and directors contributed. Though it was mocked for its lack of diversity and cringe-worthy statements, it was actually quite revolutionary at the time.

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The sitcom portrayed the lives of four women who, despite their distinct personalities and ever-changing sex lives, stay intimate and confide in one another. SATC gave women a fresh perspective on their relationships, allowing them to be proud of their single status and empowering them to make their own choices.

Smallville Educated Us about Tornadoes

Considering how often we hear of natural disasters, it’s pretty surprising that not many TV shows and movies explore this topic. You may think tornadoes are now a pretty normal fixture on TV. They portray nature’s terrifying yet wonderful energies. But we didn’t always see much of them on screen.

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The truth is that until this legendary episode of Smallville, a tornado had never been seen on TV. Not only were viewers astonished and amazed, but after the episode aired, there was an increase in people studying tornadoes and educating themselves about safety. Now that’s what you call an impact.