20 Popular TV Shows That Were Cancelled Due To Controversy
Akin to that feeling of dropping an ice cream you just bought, there are few things more frustrating than getting hooked on a TV show that studio executives later decide to cancel. Such occurrences have only increased with the rise of streaming services, with the likes of Netflix often being quick to pull the plug on a series that, as far as we’re concerned, should have continued for many more seasons. Still, whilst cancellations most often occur because of poor ratings, below are some examples of popular TV shows that met the axe owing to controversial events.
20. The Wonder Years
The Wonder Years was one of our very favourite shows when we were growing up, meaning we were extremely sad when its sixth and final season concluded in 1993. As the central cast got older, friction grew between the show’s creators and the TV network that was keeping it on the air. While producers wanted the show’s storylines to mature along with the main characters, TV executives were concerned that more explicit plots would jeopardise the show’s long-held family-friendly time slot.
Whilst that may seem like a fairly uncontroversial reason for The Wonder Years being canceled, it later transpired that one of the show’s costume designers had also filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against stars Fred Savage and Jason Hervey. Another one of the show’s stars, Alley Mills, later claimed that the lawsuit, which she described as “completely ridiculous,” was the real reason the show ended. Fred Savage was later stated that after the “terrible experience” he had been “completely exonerated,” though the suit had actually been settled out of court with neither a conviction nor an acquittal.
19. Roseanne (2018)
As soon as she rose to fame in the 80s, comedian and actress Roseanne Barr had always courted controversy. This didn’t stop the original incarnation of her sitcom Roseanne being among the most popular and acclaimed TV shows of its time. However, by the time Roseanne was revived in 2018, Barr had become more controversial than ever thanks to Twitter, where the actress frequently expressed views that many found objectionable.
The final straw came when Barr directed a racist tweet at Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to Barack Obama during his time at the White House. ABC was quick to cancel the Roseanne reboot, releasing a statement that said “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” However, the series continued without Barr, rebranded as The Conners. The first season of this Roseanne-free sitcom proved successful enough for a second season to be given the green light.
18. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
Even in this age of sensationalist reality television, few such shows raised quite so many eyebrows as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Premiering in 2012, the reality show centred on child beauty pageant contender Alana ‘Honey Boo Boo’ Thompson and her family. In its unabashed representation of a self-proclaimed ‘redneck’ family, the show was widely blasted by critics as TV at its lowest.
At first, the negative press only helped Here Comes Honey Boo Boo gain wider attention – but by the show’s fourth season, the show runners discovered there really is such a thing as bad publicity. Early on in production of the show’s fourth season, it came to light that ‘Mama’ June Shannon’s boyfriend, who had featured on camera on the show, was a convicted sex offender. Out of concern for the safety of the children involved in the show, network TLC immediately pulled the plug, leaving an entire season unaired.
17. Man Finds Food
Adam Richman found fame as the host of Man Vs. Food, which saw him travel the world participating in competitive eating challenges. After health concerns saw Richman ditch the eating challenges and trim down, the host’s follow-up series Man Finds Food was a more grounded travel show with a foodie angle. However, the show was pulled from the airwaves late in the day in 2014, after Richman caused widespread controversy on social media.
Richman made a number of social media posts using the hashtag #thinspiration, which attracted some angry responses. Richman proceeded to pour gasoline on the flames by suggesting that those who criticised him should consider killing themselves. Still, Richman got lucky: though the show was initially indefinitely postponed, Man Finds Food did eventually air on ET, albeit two years after filming had ended.
80s TV show Airwolf is fondly remembered as a childhood favourite of many who grew up around that time. However, viewers who haven’t seen the show in a while may be surprised to learn that, to begin with, it wasn’t really geared towards younger viewers. Initially, the helicopter-based TV show went in for fairly dark storylines dealing with espionage and Cold War politics, but as it became clear kids were tuning in just for the action, the producers insisted on toning things down.
Unfortunately, these changes completely backfired: not only were they unpopular with audiences, but the show’s creator Donald Bellisario was so angry that he quit the production for good. Another significant problem was leading man Jan-Michael Vincent, a troubled man whose struggles with drugs and alcohol frequently made things difficult behind the scenes. Airwolf was brought back for a fourth, significantly lower-budget series with a completely different cast before it was taken out of the skies and off the air forever.
15. The Ren & Stimpy Show
No early 90s animated series was the cause of so much concern as The Ren & Stimpy Show. With its extreme violence, grotesque imagery and jet-black humour, the cartoon alarmed many critics and viewers, as well as executives at network Nickelodeon. One episode, Man’s Best Friend, was not broadcast at all after the network deemed it too extreme.
While the show continued to command a cult following, The Ren & Stimpy Show was cancelled in 1996, owing to persistent criticisms and the behaviour of the show’s creator John Kricfalusi (who was actually fired three seasons before the show went off the air). Years later, a more disturbing reason for Kricfalusi’s firing would come to light, when it emerged that his alleged sexual harassment of underage girls had been an ‘open secret’ within the industry.
With a career dating back to the early 80s, Louis C.K. was for a long time one of the most highly-regarded stand-up comedians in the US. This eventually led to him getting his own TV series, Louie, a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama that CK also largely wrote and directed. While the show attracted rave reviews and many big-name guest stars, it came to an unceremonious end in 2017.
After years of rumours doing the rounds, CK was publicly accused of sexual misconduct by several women. Although CK initially denied these allegations, he finally admitted they were true in late 2017. This effectively ended CK’s career, as he was immediately dropped by his agent and FX – the network that broadcast Louie – terminated his contract.
Launched in January 2012, Luck seemed to have all the makings of a truly prestigious TV show. Created by David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), Luck had no less a leading man than multi-Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman, and Michael Mann directing its first episode. However, the drama set within the world of horse racing proved to have the very same problem as horse racing itself: animal safety.
After it came to light that two horses had been killed during the shooting of the first season, network HBO pulled the plug. Only nine episodes, of the show’s first season, were ever aired, while a planned second season was scrapped after a third horse was put to death during the shooting of the season’s second episode.
Writer, director and actor Frankie Shaw created and took the lead role in SMILF, a comedy series that expanded on her short film of the same name. The show followed the trials and tribulations of Shaw’s Bridgette, a working-class single mother struggling to get by. SMILF was met with positive reviews and two Golden Globe nominations, but behind the scenes, things were less golden.
It emerged in 2018 that Shaw and the producers of SMILF were under investigation for inappropriate behaviour on the set of the show. Actress Samara Weaving quit the series claiming her contract was breached by “inappropriately handled” sex scenes. Weaving was not alone in making these claims, and there were also allegations of racial discrimination on set. While Shaw denied these charges, things were soured with the network, and SMILF was cancelled after just two seasons.
11. The Dana Carvey Show
Millions remember funnyman Dana Carvey as Garth from Wayne’s World. However, there are probably far fewer of us who remember that in 1996, Carvey also headlined his very own TV comedy sketch series. There’s a good reason you might never have heard of The Dana Carvey Show, and that’s that the show was over almost as soon as it began.
The Dana Carvey Show prompted widespread outrage from its very first sketch, in which Carvey gave a satirical impersonation of President Bill Clinton while sporting multiple prosthetic nipples, from which various small animals and babies were suckling. Further confrontational jokes tackled racism, homosexuality and other sensitive subjects. Unsurprisingly, it was all a bit too much for network ABC and their commercial sponsors, and the show was axed after eight episodes.
10. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
This 1987 sci-fi action series is one of the greatest TV oddities of the era. Produced in conjunction with toy line Mattel, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future promised an interactive TV experience, with the toy line selling action figures, vehicles and guns that literally reacted to the action on screen using Laser Tag-style technology.
While cartoon shows designed to sell toys were commonplace in the era, there hadn’t been a live-action show made with that specific intention before. However, the makers of Captain Power wanted to make mature, serious sci-fi, and the result was a show that was too mature for kids yet too childish for adults. After one season of 22 episodes, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was history.
9. 19 Kids and Counting
Introduced in 2008 as 17 Kids and Counting (which should give you a clue as to how things developed), this reality series was a big hit for network TLC. The show centred on Arkansas family the Duggars, devout Baptists who do not believe in birth control and who would home school their substantial brood. However, after seven years the show was abruptly cancelled when one of the 19 kids, Josh Duggar, was embroiled in a scandal.
A police report was uncovered dating back to 2006 – two years before the show began – revealing that the eldest Duggar child had multiple accusations of sexual molestation made against him from five girls, four of whom were his own sisters. By the time this was made public, the statute of limitations had expired, and Duggar was never charged. However, he did not deny the charges, publicly admitting that he “acted inexcusably.” Public outrage saw 19 Kids and Counting cancelled by TLC, and the show was pulled from rerun syndication.
8. Paula’s Home Cooking
Celebrity chef Paula Deen first appeared on screens in 1999, and got her own Food Network series, Paula’s Home Cooking, in 2002. While Deen drew her share of criticism for her old-fashioned love of sugar and butter, a cause for greater concern was her alleged racism. Lisa Jackson, previously a manager of Deen’s restaurant, sued her former employer in 2013 on grounds of racial and sexual discrimination.
Amongst many other complaints about her time working for Deen, Jackson stated she had heard Deen make numerous racist remarks about African Americans. While the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, Deen did admit under oath that she had used the N-word in the past. While Deen issued public apologies, her wholesome image was tarnished, and Paula’s Home Cooking was promptly cancelled.
As the name might suggest, this comedy series launched in 1977 as a parody of that long-standing TV staple, the soap opera. The show gave an early role to future big-screen comedy star Billy Crystal, who played one of the first openly gay characters to appear on US television – which, of course, didn’t go down well with some of the more conservative viewers and critics.
Nor did Soap’s provocative content end there, as the show tackled all manner of sensitive subjects. Network ABC was uncomfortable with all the taboo subject matter, and insisted that Soap (which aired at 9.30pm) be preceded by a ‘viewer discretion advised’ warning. When the sitcom was axed in 1981, declining ratings were given as the official reason – but it’s widely believed that problems with sponsors over the show’s content is what really killed it off.
6. Freddy’s Nightmares
By 1988, with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the horror movie franchise’s central villain Freddy Krueger was a pop culture sensation, so studio New Line Cinema decided to branch out to the small screen. Anthology horror series Freddy’s Nightmares used Robert Englund‘s claw-handed dream demon served primarily as a host, although the notorious killer often had a knife-tipped hand to play in proceedings.
However, the show was during its run met with widespread complaints from parents’ groups who feared the show glamorised violence, even though constraints to network TV meant the series was nowhere near as gruesome as the movies. Even so, Freddy’s Nightmares was aimed at a mature audience, but some small networks foolishly aired the show as early as 5pm, when kids were watching. Outrage from parents ultimately led to the show being cancelled.
5. The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show was widely acclaimed and popular among audiences on its initial run from 1984 to 1992. However, in more recent years the title has lived in infamy because of what we now know about the man who gave his name to the show. The formerly beloved comedian Bill Cosby is now serving three to ten years at the State Correctional Institution in Phoenix, Pennsylvania after being found guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2018.
Since its cancellation, The Cosby Show had remained popular in syndicated reruns, but this predictably changed as its leading man became among the most hated men in America. Networks across the nation gradually pulled the plug, and now The Cosby Show is almost entirely off the air everywhere. This looks unlikely to change, even though Cosby was freed in June 2021 when his verdict was overruled.
4. Garbage Pail Kids
The Garbage Pail Kids were among the weirdest child-oriented products of the 80s, and the cause of much upset. A parody of the considerably more wholesome Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, the Garbage Pail Kids began life as a trading cards series. The grotesque designs and dark humour of these cards delighted mischievous youngsters, but enraged many parents and teachers.
Still, the popularity of the card series was enough to get a TV cartoon show into production (not to mention a live-action movie). However, such was the controversy surrounding the Garbage Pail Kids brand that the show was dead in the water almost immediately. 13 episodes of the Garbage Pail Kids animated series were produced in 1987, but these never even aired in the United States.
3. The Dukes of Hazzard
Not unlike The Cosby Show, The Dukes of Hazzard is another TV hit that was beloved at the time but has since become problematic. Back in the 80s, audiences simply enjoyed the show for its light-hearted humour and action. However, in more recent years concerns have been raised about the paint job on Bo and Luke Duke’s celebrated car, the General Lee.
The Confederate Battle Flag had for many years been popular in the American South, but has become increasingly frowned upon due to its troubling historical associations. As the flag is on the roof of the Duke boys’ car, it’s pretty much an unavoidable presence in every episode of show. For the simple reason that times have changed, many TV networks now refuse to air reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard.
When news broke about a TV reboot of 1989 cult teen movie classic Heathers going into production, the project was immediately swathed in controversy. To begin with, much of the anger came from fans of the original movie, who disliked the new take on the concept. The Heathers series was to rework the concept of the movie by making the traditionally marginalised teens (one plus-sized, one mixed race, one non-binary) the ‘Heathers,’ and as such the show’s villains. Many critics considered this counter-productive.
However, Heathers ultimately wound up being cancelled as its core plot device – high school teens killing one another with guns – was simply too close to real life. The show was about to hit the air shortly before the horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, which in turn led to the largest gun protest in history. Heathers was pulled from the airwaves over concerns about sensitivity, and soon thereafter the network opted to cancel it outright.
1. House of Cards
On its launch in 2013, this US adaptation of the British mini-series of the same name was considered a major coup for Netflix.
Executive produced by David Fincher, House of Cards boasted a very respectable cast, not least two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. However, the show hit a serious problem when multiple accusations of sexual misconduct were made against Spacey.
Spacey was immediately removed from the show, with his character Frank Underwood being unceremoniously killed off between the events of seasons five and six. That sixth and final season would be hastily rewritten, giving Robin Wright the lead role. Eight final episodes were made before Netflix pulled the plug for good.