Would these classic TV shows fly today?
We love the TV shows that we love, and there are very good reasons that we love them. However, much like elderly relatives, television is a product of its time and, like all things that are products of their time… there are sometimes aging problems. Today, we're taking a look at beloved television shows with moments or recurring themes that, if put on air as is today, would likely drum up a Twitter storm. Here are twelve classic TV shows and their aspects that have NOT aged well…
12. The only Korean in Korea
M*A*S*H is a classic and a televisual gold standard. Its humor is ageless, as are its messages on war, and what it does to people. It aired during the Vietnam war, but was set during the Korean. The entire series took place in Korea. And yet they employed a grand total of one Korean actor during the series' eleven year run. This would manifestly not fly today. It is somewhat understandable why this happened. There weren't all that many Korean actors in Hollywood at the time, so they cast actors of other East Asian heritages to compensate. Thankfully they never succumbed to using yellow-face or anything wholly unacceptable (a technique still in use at this time), but if they were making M*A*S*H today, they would undoubtedly receive flack for this decision. Still… good for Soon-Tek Oh, who was cast in the series as five different Korean characters over the show's run.
11. It's a little more complicated than that…
Spaced was the show that launched Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. It was co-written by the frankly awesome Jessica Hynes, and featured a brilliant cast, with cameos and guest spots from the great and good of British comedy. It was a fascinating exploration of the family of the 21st Century, pop-culture's impact on people's perceptions of the world, and the platonic relationships between men and women. And also someone calls someone else a tranny. Considered now, by many, to be an unacceptable slur, a character played by David Williams (whose gender is indeterminate) in the show is referred to as such on several occasions in the episode he appears in. Granted, Pegg's character, who says it, is not held up as having the moral high-ground (and is hopped up on speed at the time), but the moment would probably be considered tactless by today's standards.
10. The Doctor is.. Pro-Life… kind of? It's hard to tell…
Doctor Who has a long, proud and complicated history. Like any show with such it has been subject to the mores of its times, but, despite missteps here and there, it generally always came around to a forward thinking point of view. And then Kill the Moon happened. Shockingly recent (the episode aired just a couple of years ago), the Doctor and co find out that the Moon is an egg, and it is hatching. They don't know what's inside… will it kill the Earth if allowed to hatch? Can they take that chance? In the end, they do, and everything's fine. However, the decision making process is worrisome. The Doctor at first leaves it up to the human race, then takes matters in to his own hands, and then appears to side with the Pro-Life camp, even while espousing mostly Pro-Choice values. As a metaphor, it's confusing, and the message it sends is unclear at best. It was very out of place.
9. From Abby to Zsa Zsa…
Scrubs is a wonderful show. Brilliantly funny, with cast that we all loved to love. The show illuminated a goofier, more human, and laughably tedious side of the medical profession. So why was it casually misogynistic in almost every episode? John C. McGinley as Doctor Cox was a fantastic lovable curmudgeon. Who also used being a girl as an insult in every episode and was never brought to task for it. Perry Cox would frequently put down his unwanted protege JD by referring to him by a girl's name. Insinuating that being a girl is a negative thing. Now, Dr. Cox is never held up as being a bastion of unblemished morality, but also no one ever called him on this in the show. Ever. That's a writing issue, and something that could have been addressed at least once in Scrubs' nine seasons. Scrubs is still a wonderful, funny show, but this omission is glaring.
8. No sex please, we're doctors
There are a couple of moments in House that have shifted context over time (understandable given the fluctuating morality of Dr. House), but this is perhaps one of the more subtle ones. In the episode Better Half, House is dealing with a couple who claim to be asexual. He is convinced that asexuality does not exist and by the end of the episode 'cures' the male of his asexuality. He also uncovers that the female in the relationship has been pretending to be asexual because of how much she loves her partner. So asexuality doesn't exist. Except it does. It totally does. It was even portrayed, very sympathetically, on screen in the last two seasons of Bojack Horseman. Dr. House being complicit in asexual erasure is, well… not out of character for him, but would the moment have been played differently amid today's sexual politics?
7. Monty Python and the then socially acceptable depiction of race
Monty Python is groundbreaking surreal comedy. They redefined what you could do on television, and are rightly revered for being game changing comedy geniuses. They also did blackface and red-face on more than one occasion. While acceptable on TV at the time (Doctor Who also had a yellow-face episode around then), that doesn't make it okay. These episodes are rarely played nowadays, the sketches featuring it are (mostly) left off 'best of' compilations, and the Pythons themselves are unlikely to defend them. However, they still exist, and if you were to do them today, well, you could imagine the outrage.
6. The One With the Casual Homophobia
Friends defined a generation's sense of humor, and forever ruined the standards of apartment hunters in New York. It was pretty modern in a lot of its attitudes, but it never quite solved its issues with gay people. Ross's marriage is ripped apart when his wife leaves him for a woman. Understandably he's upset about this, but it takes years for his fragile masculinity to recover from the fact that a woman stole his woman. How little of a man was he if he was less manly than a woman? And the buck doesn't stop there, in The One with Ross's Inappropriate Song, Joey and Chandler are passionately insulted that their friendship is mistaken for homosexuality. They could have learned something from JD and Turk in Scrubs, who were so comfortable in their close male-male friendship that they sang a song about it. Friends did a lot of things right, but they missed the mark on this one.
5. I'm Sherlocked
Irene Adler is iconic in the modern Sherlock Holmes canon. Which is curious, since she only appears in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original short stories. In it she takes Holmes by surprise with her intelligence, and outwits him. One of the only people ever to do so. In the Sherlock episode Scandal in Belgravia, however, she is portrayed as a femme fatale and a lesbian. She is intelligent, yes, but her main skill is a knowledge of sexuality and how to manipulate it. Ultimately her downfall is that she develops a crush on Sherlock. While it's not a feminist train-wreck, it's hard not to see these key facts as problematic. Adler is sexually confident, yes, but it becomes her defining trait, superseding all others, and her emotionality is what tanks her, nearly resulting her death. Is it too much for a woman to have a clean win based on something other than sex? Particularly when she was allowed as much when the character was created in the gender repressive Victorian era? She is also kind of the prize for the good guy in the episode, proving that if you are smart and heroic enough you will be rewarded with a hot lesbian who is unattainable for all other men. (Spoilers, this rarely happens in real life)
4. In the future, women become beautiful if you think they are beautiful
Star Trek was heralded as groundbreaking in its time. And in many ways it was. They featured the first interracial TV kiss, a diverse primetime cast, and espoused themes of cooperation and unity. They also made an episode called Mudd's Women, in which women being sold to miners are taking pills to make themselves beautiful. When they don't take the pills they become ugly. However, when they meet the miners, and are seen to be ugly, they start doing useful chores in the miners' living quarters. And then suddenly the miners see them as beautiful again. The implication is, so long as you are useful to a man, you will appear to be beautiful to him. Yes, in Roddenberry's perfect utopian future, women still need male attention to be valuable. This improved as the series developed, however…
3. One step forward, two steps back
Counsellor Troi gets molested several times over the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like all molestations, none of them are particularly great, but in the Season 2 episode The Child we see probably the weirdest one, with the most twisted message. A space energy ball makes her pregnant. The child inside her grows at an accelerated rate. She gives birth in a matter of days, and the child grows quickly. She names it after her father. Soon it is eight years old, and it dies and turns back into an energy ball. And the episode portrays this as… noble? Troi gets, essentially, quantum raped, names the resultant baby after her father, then it dies and peaces out as an energy ball, all in the space of a week or two. That's got to leave some serious psychological trauma. But no, Troi is fine, and is happy to have helped an alien experience humanity. No one ever mentions it again. Ever. The future, everybody. Where rape is kinda fine, so long as you do it for a good reason.
2. Don't eat that!
It's hard to watch any of Bill Cosby's work now without the exorbitant number of sexual assault allegations against him coming to mind. It makes a lot of his catalogue unwatchable. However, one episode of The Cosby Show is a little more uncomfortable to watch than others. In it, Cosby's character resolves a tense situation by, essentially, putting rufies in his special BBQ sauce. Yup, that happened. You can watch it on YouTube. Though we understand if you don't want to.
Honorable Mention: The Great Muppet Sexual Harassment
This one doesn't quite make the list because it would probably go down very well on TV today, but it's worth mentioning because of how it has transitioned in context over time. Gonzo on The Muppet Show was famously obsessed with birds. Usually chickens, and usually Camilla, who he is in a long term relationship with. But there is an episode of The Muppet Show where an obviously infatuated Gonzo stalks, and hits on, the guest starring Big Bird. Both of these characters are male, at least as far as Muppets have gender, so having one pursuing the other romantically is… surprising for the time, honestly. When it aired it was likely seen as childish frivolity. Nowadays it reads a little different, but, if anything, it is a goofy message of gay acceptance. Although Gonzo does get a little stalkery, which is less cool...
1. Friendly faces everywhere, humble folks without temptation
Of course South Park is at the number one spot. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are magnets for controversy, and they revel in it. However, there is generally a public consensus that, although they are militant contrarians, they tend to come down on the side of their own absurd, but just, version of morality. However, if you look back on their history, there are a LOT of episodes that have not aged well for one reason or another. Some of them are understandable, others less so. That list includes: the episode where (the now known pedophile) Jared Fogle from the Subway ads is a sympathetic character; the episode where the moral is "Transgender people aren't really the genders they pretend to be"; the episode where they kind of side with people who want to maintain Confederate statues and paraphernalia; the episode where they encourage young people not to take a stand in an election because "both sides are equally bad"; and the episode where they trivialized global warming. Some of these wouldn't be worrying, except millions of people watch South Park, and, like it or not, many of them take something away from the show beyond "that was funny and transgressive!" People take on the sometimes dubious morals of the show as their own, and will quote them online and in conversation. Whether they like it or not, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are opinion-makers, and they have abused this position on more than a couple of occasions. It is worrying, and behooves the viewer, as ever, to be discerning.
No art ages perfectly. It's an impossibility. But it is refreshing to be able to look back and acknowledge that society does make progress, even if it does take time. For the most part, it's hard to blame show runners for their past foibles, and it usually won't stop you from enjoying a show that you love. However, responsible viewing and constant awareness are important, and we need to keep that in mind when we choose our entertainment.
Thomas Burns Scully is a PopDust contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter