M*A*S*H: “Abysinia, Henry”, March 18, 1975
TV characters had died before, but not in a heart-stopping, completely unexpected way such as this. The Season 3 finale shocked viewers when it was announced that Colonel Henry Blake’s plane had crashed, and there were no survivors.
The anguish of it all was compounded because that plane was finally taking him home after a much-anticipated honorable discharge from war-ravaged Korea. We were all rooting for him. He was going home to his family. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. There was a collective gasp among viewers all across the country, right along with the 4077 MASH unit.
Mary Kay and Johnny: November 18, 1947 - March 11, 1950
This show was the very first sitcom broadcast on network television in the United States. That’s groundbreaking enough, but the show also featured the first married couple to share a bed on a primetime TV show.
It seemed to be okay because they were married in real life, but I Love Lucy featured a real-life married couple who had separate twin beds on their show, despite debuting a full year and a half after Mary Kay and Johnny had left the airwaves.
Saved by the Bell: “Jessie’s Song”, November 3, 1990
Prior to this episode about Jessie’s addiction to caffeine pills, the subject of teenage addiction, in any sort of meaningful way, was nowhere to be found on primetime television. While caffeine pills may seem mild compared to other addictions, the motivation behind Jessie’s pill habit was something most teens can relate to.
She wanted to be popular, successful, and have the energy to excel in academics. She felt like she was falling behind and thought this would help her keep up. I’m pretty sure we can all relate to those feelings, even if we didn’t reach for stimulants. In the end, Jessie’s friends at Bayside High helped her and all ended well. Real life doesn’t wrap up so neatly in a 30-minute episode, but this one at least this one showed us what NOT to do.
The Apollo 11 Moon Landing: July 20, 1969
It wasn’t a TV show, but NASA made sure the world was watching when humans walked on the moon for the first time. Most Baby Boomers remember being mesmerized by this historic moment.
This “giant leap for mankind” would spark an unprecedented interest in the space program and prompt many children to have dreams of being astronauts.
Star Trek: The Original Series: “Plato’s Stepchildren”, November 22, 1968
Widely considered to be the episode with primetime TV’s first interracial kiss, it seems to come down to the definition of a kiss. Sammy Davis Jr. gave Nancy Sinatra a peck on the cheek on Movin’ with Nancy a year earlier, but if we’re talking about mouth-to-mouth, real kissing, look no further than this lip lock between Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura.
There was so much concern from the network and advertisers about this kiss between a white man and a black woman that several takes were filmed with varying levels of physical contact. In the end, William Shatner made sure all takes without the kiss were unusable and history was made.
ER: Season 2 - Season 6
The character of physician assistant Jeanie Boulet appeared in Season 1 of this long-running medical drama, but she made waves in Season 2 when she learns she is HIV-positive. To add insult to injury, her ex-husband’s wandering eye is what led to her eventual diagnosis.
The difference in this storyline is that Jeanie lives, showing us that HIV doesn’t automatically mean a death sentence. Years after her diagnosis, she adopts an HIV-positive baby boy whose mother has died. How can you not love her for that?
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: “The Good Time News”, September 1972
This show embraced feminism with humor and intelligence, and this episode was particularly powerful in addressing the wage gap. Mary confronts her boss when she learns the man who previously held her job earned a much larger salary. She points out the unfairness of being a single woman without a family to support as justification for wage differences.
I Love Lucy: 1952 - 1953 episodes
Against the advice of the network and advertising agencies, Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy was written into the show’s storyline. The actors were not allowed to say “pregnant” and had to refer to Lucy as “expecting”.
The birth of Little Ricky on the show aired only 12 hours after Lucille Ball gave birth in real life. The episode was widely anticipated, and the viewership was off the charts. I Love Lucy also broke ground as a whole for featuring a lead primetime couple with a Caucasian woman and a Cuban man.
Ellen: “The Puppy Episode”, April, 30, 1997
Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in a Time magazine cover story two weeks before her character, Ellen Morgan, came out on the Ellen show. It was the first time a lead character on a primetime show had done so.
The magazine exposure added to the buzz, along with an interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show that aired on the same day as the much-discussed episode of Ellen.
Designing Women: “Killing All the Right People”, October 1985
A character asks the women in this clever show to design his funeral. The episode deals with AIDS discrimination faced by patients and the stigma associated with the disease. It aired a few months before President Ronald Reagan acknowledged the AIDS crisis in America.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: “Mistaken Identity”, October 15, 1990
This episode brought to light rampant discrimination of people of color by police. Carlton and Will get pulled over for “stealing” Uncle Phil’s car simply because they are young, black men in an expensive car.
Adding another layer to the story, Carlton, raised in a wealthy family, faces real discrimination for the first time. The episode prompted important conversations long before the Black Lives Matter movement.
Murphy Brown: Season 3 finale - Season 4 finale
So, a 42-year-old single, professional woman finds herself pregnant after a little hanky panky with her ex-husband. The pregnancy is revealed in Season 3’s finale. Season 4 opens with Murphy deciding to keep the baby and raise it on her own, without the father being in the picture, while continuing her demanding career, and taking us on her pregnancy journey for the remainder of Season 4.
The last episode of the season features the birth of Murphy’s bouncing baby boy, but did not escape the dismissal and ire of then Vice-President, Dan Quayle, who criticized the show for “mocking fathers”. At the other end of the spectrum, many single moms applauded the series.
COPS: March 11, 1989 - present
“No scripts, no real actors, no plot.” This show has allowed us to ride along with real police officers on real calls for 32 seasons. It changed the look and feel of crime shows and has given viewers unprecedented access to the types of calls law enforcement answers every day.
Beginning on FOX and making a huge contribution to the early success of the network, the show moved to Spike TV, now known as Paramount Network, in 2013. The “new” might have worn off, but the format remains the same, and it has influenced countless other shows over the years.
Diff’rent Strokes: “The Bicycle Man”, 1983
For a comedy most known for Arnold’s catchphrase, “Wha’choo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”, this two-part episode went against the grain by taking a hard look at pedophilia. Arnold agrees to help a shop keeper in the neighborhood, who is a child molester, in return for a “reward”.
It was such a controversial episode that Conrad Bain, who played the father in the series, stepped out of character to speak directly to the audience. He prepared them by saying, “Good evening, folks. Tonight, we’re going to be covering an issue that we have no rightful business in the field of situation comedies.” This was quite a departure and led to some uncomfortable—but important—conversations in American households.
Roseanne: “Crime and Punishment”, 1993
This Season 5 two-part episode shed light on domestic violence in a gritty way. Roseanne leans her sister, Jackie, is being abused by her boyfriend. Roseanne tells her husband, Dan, who promptly finds the boyfriend and beats him up. Dan ends up in jail. Jackie finds the courage to leave the relationship.
Viewers are given a realistic look at the realities of domestic violence and how hard it is to leave an abuser, or even tell family and friends. It also shows how violence can lead to retaliation and, in some cases, punish those who think they are helping the victim.
All in the Family: “Sammy’s Visit”, 1972
Extremely narrow-minded and racist Archie Bunker takes a second job as a cab driver to earn some extra cash. One of his passengers just happens to be the very famous, and very black, Sammy Davis, Jr. As uncomfortable as Archie is about driving around someone of color, things get even more uneasy for him as the episode progresses.
Sammy leaves his briefcase in the cab and must pick it up at the Bunker home. Archie is less than pleased about having anyone of color in his home. Sammy shows up to retrieve the briefcase and plants a huge kiss on Archie. It’s a classic episode of a show that has broken all the rules more times than I can count. It has spawned numerous spin-offs, but most importantly, it has helped open a dialogue about topics other shows wouldn’t touch.
The Golden Girls: September 14, 1985 - May 9, 1992
This show, as a whole, was not only progressive when it originally aired, but still remains relevant today. Normally taboo subjects were often showcased. Episodes addressing s*xual orientation, elder rights, disability awareness, death, dating, and feminism were just a few of the topics presented in a humorous, but thoughtful, way.
Most of all, the show challenged our ideas of aging as we saw these strong women leading full, productive, and passionate lives.
Friends: “The One with the Lesbian Wedding”, January 18, 1996
Susan and Carol tied the knot in the first lesbian wedding portrayed on American TV. Carol had previously been married to Ross. Monica catered the wedding. The whole gang was there, with much witty banter about the ceremonies at hand.
Some things were said that I hope we have learned better from today, but this was 1996. It might not seem that long ago, but in some ways it was a completely different lifetime. The episode did open doors to the topic, while Susan and Carol remained frequent recurring characters throughout the span of the show.
Roots: Part One: Miniseries from January 23 - 30, 1977
This was an epic, critically acclaimed event in the late ‘70s and remains etched in the memories of those who watched. For the first time, African Americans were taken seriously in primetime television and were able to share the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching reality of slavery from their point of view. I remember crying while watching and being in disbelief about the harsh, grossly unfair reality of it all.
The Facts of Life: Episodes ranging from 1980-1984
Geri Jewell was spotted performing a comedy act and a recurring role was written just for her throughout 4 seasons of this long-running show. Her character on The Facts of Life was also named Geri and she was first introduced to viewers as Blair’s cousin. In that initial episode, Blair is embarrassed by Geri because she has cerebral palsy. Blair comes around by the end of the episode and has a much better understanding of her quick-witted and resilient relative.
Geri, the actress, broke barriers by being the first disabled person to have a recurring role on primetime. She was also the very first to have cerebral palsy. Her appearances on the show were inspiring and helped pave the way for disabled people in the industry.
One Tree Hill: “I love you, but I’ve chosen darkness”, Season 4, 2006
The relatively new subject of online stalking was addressed when Peyton starts sharing live feeds of herself from her bedroom. It doesn’t take long before someone starts messaging her, pretending to be her long lost brother. It turns out to be a creepy dude who is obsessed with her.
Things get really ugly, and terrifying, throughout Season 4. These over-the-top-but-it-could-really-happen episodes can be seen as a warning about how much of our private lives we share online.
The Lucy Show: 1962 -1968
Lucille Ball was larger than life and had a handful of TV shows throughout her successful career. The groundbreaking aspect of this show, however, comes from another actor/character. The role of Vivian Bagley was the very first divorced woman in a leading role on primetime television.
This was a huge deal at the time, and some viewers were not happy about it, thinking it might encourage divorce.
The Jeffersons: January 18, 1975 - July 2, 1985
This popular spin-off from All in the Family turned our preconceived notions of race, wealth, and social status upside down. It was an early portrayal of an affluent African American family, who earned their success and sometimes flaunted it.
Much of the interaction on the show was with the neighbors, a happily married interracial couple who were constantly needled by George Jefferson. It was a new portrait of family for many viewers.
Felicity: November 1998
The reality that s*xual assault could happen in a committed relationship just wasn’t something talked about in 1998. Sadly, this is a topic that still begs for our attention. In this episode, Julie admits to Felicity that her boyfriend was “pretty aggressive” and did not stop when she said “no”.
It was an episode that left some viewers realizing that they had in fact been s*xually assaulted by their significant others under the guise of love. The episode sparked conversations among both women and men, with an emphasis on “no means no”.
Diahann Carroll broke several barriers in her portrayal of the title character in this late ‘60s program. Julia was a professional, African American, single mother whose husband was killed in Vietnam.
Any one of those things would have been groundbreaking in one way or another, but the combination was barrier-breaking gold. She was a refreshingly new kind of role model for young girls and women.
The Simpsons: Debut: December 17, 1989
Setting the template for countless animated shows with a decidedly adult sense of humor, the cleverness of each episode of The Simpsons still makes audiences giggle after all these years. Phrases like “Doh!”, “Eat my shorts!”, “Cowabunga, Dude!”, and “Oh, Homie.” have been instantly recognizable, and often quoted, since the early days of this dysfunctional-but-lovable family.
Everything from politics to racy plotlines have peppered this little cartoon, that started as a short, with sass and occasional life lessons along the way.
The Real World: NewYork: May 21, 1992
“This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” That narration invited us to start a new journey with a totally different kind of programming.
The birth of reality shows as we know them started with those words on MTV. There had been previous reality shows, but not with this kind of formula. The same basic format has been the foundation for many of today’s reality TV.
Maude: “Maude’s Dilemma”, November 1972
Another Norman Lear show, and spin-off from All in the Family, did not shy away from controversial topics. In this two-part episode, Maude terminates a pregnancy after realizing the harsh reality that she can’t afford more children. The character puts much thought into her decision and ultimately feels this is the best choice in her circumstance.
Despite much hate mail and protests, this was a huge moment regarding the discussion of women’s’ rights.
My So-Called Life: 1994
Rickie Valquez, portrayed by Wilson Cruz, was the first openly gay teenager on primetime television. This show was short-lived but has received much critical acclaim for the honesty in storytelling and its harsh, real look at life as a teenager. Rickie’s storyline is a great example of a broader feeling of legitimacy in programming.
Seinfeld: “The Sponge”, December 1995
Leave it to a show about nothing to have an entire episode seeking a soon-to-be unavailable, favorite form of birth control for Elaine. Along with the laughs, the difficulty of obtaining a preferred method of birth control, and the judgment that often goes along with it, are front and center.