7 TV Shows That Were Way Darker Than Anybody Realized
One of the underrated joys of Netflix and the 75 other streaming services out there is that you can spend a whole week just reliving your childhood. Want to watch every single Friends episode ever made? Go for it! Want to revisit Urkel and the rest of the Family Matters gang to remember a simpler time in your life? Nobody's stopping you! It's not like you have a job or anything.
And it's good to get a break from modern TV, because that shit has gotten dark. Jessica Jones is a superhero show about rape and PTSD, Breaking Bad murdered a child, and Game Of Thrones has done more horrible things to princesses than Disney stepmothers. But here's the thing: When you go back to relive those innocent days of the '80s and '90s, you start to realize this stuff wasn't nearly as light-hearted as you remember. On your next binge-watching session you'll probably be surprised to find ...
Family Matters Deals With Some Seriously Dark Racial Issues
The sitcom Family Matters is best remembered today because of Steve Urkel, Jaleel White's wacky, catchphrase-spewing character who drove the show's ratings way up at the expense of its credibility. Today, that's what people remember about Family Matters -- it's that wacky show in which Urkel does things like travel back in time to hang out on a pirate ship.
But Family Matters started out as a show about the Winslows, a middle-class African-American family dealing with racial issues. Those dark storylines continued to play out in the background even during the reign of Steve "constantly confused about his own culpability" Urkel. For example, in the depressingly relevant Season 5 episode " Good Cop, Bad Cop," Eddie Winslow gets pulled over and arrested by a racist cop for failing to signal. Later, his father, Carl Winslow (himself a cop), confronts the arresting officer and confirms that, yup, Eddie was arrested for being black in a white neighborhood. He then gets told that there's no way anyone can prove it, so he and his kid can piss off.
In another episode, Carl's daughter Laura has the audacity to encourage people to learn more about black history during Black History Month. In return, she gets told to "go back to Africa" and has the N-word written on her locker.
If that wasn't enough, Family Matters also had two separate episodes where Eddie and Laura get the shit beaten out of them by gang members, causing Carl to lament how ineffective the justice system is at dealing with criminals who constantly provide each other's alibis. But in the next episode, the big joke is that Carl has to go undercover in a dress, and Urkel probably has to use the robot he built to solve a jewelry heist or something.
You can actually see the struggle behind the scenes playing out in the show, the writers trying to sneak in the topical messages while the show turned more and more into a cartoon against their will.
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Is One Emotional Gut-Punch After Another
During the run of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, Will Smith went from the Weird Al Yankovic of rap to the star of Bad Boys and Independence Day. As the seasons of the show and Smith's career progressed, the sitcom began featuring some darker plots to allow its star to flex his "serious actor" muscles, like Will weeping over his absentee father (and us weeping while watching it). Shit got way darker than that. By the end of the show's run, two things were clear: Will Smith could act, and his character would have been far better off if he'd never left West Philadelphia.
A couple of guys who were up to no good vs. attempted murder at the hands of a mugger.
In one episode, Will gets shot and the bullet comes within an inch of paralyzing him. After Carlton visits him in the hospital carrying a handgun, presumably bent on bloody vengeance, Will asks him if he "think(s) it's that easy to just shoot someone." Carlton answers, "I'll close my eyes." Being unwilling to look a person in the eye as you coldly gun them down is a pretty dark thought for a prime-time sitcom, but the line gets a laugh from the audience anyway (because Carlton is such a dork, you guys!). The episode ends with Will shouting, "I saved your life; you owe me! Now give me the damn gun!" Carlton drops it in his lap and slowly walks away, and Will unloads the gun and begins weeping as the credits roll.
In other episodes, Carlton almost dies from ODing on Will's speed, Hilary's fiance dies gruesomely on live television, and a clown strapped with dynamite holds Will, Carlton, and Uncle Phil hostage. At one point, Will shouts, "Why don't you just give it up, man! You're going to jail anyways!" in his most action-heroic voice, at which point the clown turns to him and, as the soundtrack abruptly goes silent, this happens:
Even if that had happened in one of the edgier dramas of the time, audiences would have wondered why NYPD Blue had suddenly turned into a horror movie. But as with the other super dark episodes, Will Smith's charm has a halo effect. Because the horrifying insane clown plot is studded with Will Smith doing his "Oh hell naw" thing, we don't notice that the characters are caught in a downright horrifying waking nightmare worthy of a David Lynch film.
Oh, and while it was no Family Matters, Fresh Prince wasn't afraid to take on institutionalized racism, either. Will was thrown in jail for crimes he didn't commit on multiple occasions. In one episode Will and Carlton are stopped for driving too slow. While Carlton thinks it's just the system doing its job, Will and even Uncle Phil angrily assure him that they were pulled over because of racial-profiling. The episode ends with Carlton coming to terms with the fact that the system is rigged to screw over black people. Then, shortly after the events of the series finale, everyone involved is presumably killed as that murderous clown tracks them down one by one.
Friends: Gunther Is Probably The Saddest Character In TV History
The "sad sack" character is a comedy archetype that probably dates back to when comedy was being performed in caves and acts were routinely interrupted by wolf attacks. In Friends, that guy is Gunther, the manager of the coffee shop they all hang out in, and somehow he's, just, so much worse. He actually holds the record for most appearances on the show after the main cast, even if most of the time he's just standing there in the background ... silent ... listening ... dreaming of being part of the gang but never being let in. For year, after year, after year ...
We've already mentioned that Gunther pretty much has the iconic Friends couch and armchairs on permanent reservation in case the gang wants to use it at any time. But ... why? Well, considering how much he seems to know about the lives of Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe, it's obvious he badly wants to be part of their world, mainly because the show implies he has nothing whatsoever to look forward to in his own life. He knows most of the Friends' likes and dislikes, he shares with them details about his own life ... and all he gets in return is dismissive snark. For year after year ...
In Season 4, during a wacky dispute about who will be the best man at Chandler's future wedding (Ross or Joey), Chandler sarcastically resolves it by announcing it'll be Gunther. He coldly replies to this with a simple question: "What's my last name?" When literally no one in the vicinity knows, Gunther gets up and leaves the party. No one stops him, or reassures him, or hints that they'd be happier if he stayed. In a later episode, when Ross starts chatting with him about Monica and Chandler's upcoming wedding, Gunther reminds him that he wasn't invited. Ross makes a dismissive quip and just walks away.
And this is all without mentioning Gunther's series-long, unrequited love for Rachel, probably the series' longest-running joke. But we don't even think he's really into Rachel -- he's just into what Rachel has: a group of friends who all care about each other and look out for one another. People who will treat him like a human being, instead of a prop or loser sitcom archetype.
When we see Gunther, we see the cold reality that it doesn't matter who you want to be close to, or how much love you have to give -- if you're weird-looking, or creepy, or lacking in people skills, you'll be left out in the cold. He is a harsh reminder that the world does not owe you companionship and may very well deny it to you if you don't meet society's ultra-strict standards for what qualifies as "cool." And that's when you run smack into the cruel paradox that says the harder you try, the more off-putting you come across and the more likely you are to remain alone (no, you're seeing too much of yourself in Gunther, goddammit!).
Boy Meets World Is The Story Of Parental Abandonment And Teen Depression
Boy Meets World features Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) as he grows up with his best friend, Shawn, the kid from the wrong side of town, the Huckleberry Finn to Cory's Tom Sawyer. Shawn is portrayed as a lovable troublemaker looking for a good time, but behind the wisecracks and goofing off, Shawn is dealing with some serious shit at home.
When you go back and watch old episodes, just focus on what's going on with Shawn: In the second season, his mom takes off and his dad leaves him with the Matthews family so he can chase after her. Eventually, Shawn ends up living with Mr. Turner, one of his teachers, but for a large part of the show, Shawn's everyday reality is multiple rounds of the "Where am I sleeping tonight?" game.
The kid feels so lost and alone that he joins a freaking cult in the episode "Cult Fiction," a cult that he leaves only when Mr. Turner gets into a serious accident. And if you think that his dad's return in later seasons helps bring some stability back into his life, think again: Shawn's father eventually dies of a heart attack, after which his runaway mom admits she's not his biological mother, because why not kick the poor kid when he's already down? And then fart in his face?
So, the whole time the spotlight shines on Cory as he meets the girl of his dreams and learns about life, while Shawn is in the background realizing that the only people who were ever decent to him (other than the Matthews family) were his teachers, whom he won't see after graduation. In short, Shawn's entire story arc on the show is basically: Boy meets world, world shits on boy.
Hannah Montana: A (Real) Brother Living In His Sister's Shadow
Hannah Montana follows the adventures of a teenager named Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) as she lives a double life of a high-schooler and celebrity singer, in contrast to the double life that Cyrus leads now as a celebrity singer and a stoned naked person. On the show, Miley is aided in her deception by the people around her, including her brother, Jackson, who unlike the rest of the family doesn't have any musical talent or fame. Jackson works as Miley's assistant, chauffeur, and longtime resident of her shadow all while struggling at school, being made fun of for his country ways, and having only a few friends. He's generally just a walking disaster of a human being.
If that's all there was to the character, he wouldn't really be that depressing -- every sitcom has that guy. But, unfortunately for Jackson, he is obviously based on Miley Cyrus' real brother -- the whole troubled brother-sister dynamic mirrors that of star Miley Cyrus' relationship with Trace Cyrus. Despite the real Miley's best efforts at being edgy, Trace is the real black sheep/outsider of the family, not just because of his tattoos and dropping out of high school, but mainly because he literally is an outsider to the Cyrus family.
Trace was actually born Neil Timothy Helson but had his name changed after he was adopted by Billy Ray Cyrus. We are in no way suggesting that he was ever made to feel anything but a member of their family out of the public eye, but consider this: Billy Ray has put so much of his energy into promoting his biological child, and despite being a pretty talented musician himself, Trace never achieved a 10th of the success (or promotion) Billy and Miley had, which must've hurt a little. Jackson is basically a light-hearted version of that, strategically toned down for the Disney Channel.
So the real brother merely had to watch himself be portrayed as a wacky, bumbling screw-up with an IQ of about 75 in episode after episode:
Let's hope he at least got paid for it.
Related: Miley Cyrus Writes Heartfelt Letter To Hannah Montana In Honor Of The Show's Fifteenth Anniversary
Miami Vice: Crockett Totally Shoots A Kid
Although it's hardly The Wire, it's not like Miami Vice deals solely with yarn theft at inner-city knitting clubs. The crimes investigated by Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) and Crockett (Don Johnson) sometimes involve some really heavy stuff, like drug trafficking, rape, and murder, averaging about five corpses per episode in the first season. But they did it all while driving a cool car and wearing cool '80s pastel suits, which is what most people focused on. The show was so stylish at the time that the style is all most people remember -- America spent the next decade trying to look like Crockett and/or Tubbs.
If you go back and watch the old eps hoping only to soak in the shallow, glitzy cop adventures, you'll run smack into the episode " Child's Play," in which Crockett accidentally shoots a freaking child while trying to stop a guy from killing his girlfriend. After the smoke clears and he realizes his mistake, Crockett begins to exhibit symptoms of PTSD, clearly cracking under the strain of what he did and wrestling with his guilt. He even goes out of his way to ensure the shot kid gets the best medical treatment possible, because he doesn't believe a poor black kid will be treated as well as wealthier patients. The incident also causes racial tensions to flare up, with leaders from the black community demanding Crockett resign and face punishment.
And this was all in 1988!
Of course, it being Miami Vice and not HBO, it later turns out the kid was a runaway recruited by a gang that uses children to carry out their hits -- we can't go having the main character of Miami Vice make a morally unambiguous mistake that humanizes him. The drop in sales of oversized white jackets with shoulder pads would have irreversibly crippled the economy. Try not to think about the fact that they thought, "Don't worry about those kids getting shot; they're probably all tiny gang assassins anyway!" was somehow a less horrible message to convey.
General Hospital: Luke Rapes Laura; She Marries Him In Response
General Hospital is the longest-running American soap opera in production, starting way back in 1963 and most likely continuing until the heat death of the universe. The series also has the distinction of creating the original " supercouple," i.e. the "Brangelina" of its day, after it paired off Luke and Laura, two of the show's main characters whose 1981 wedding was watched by over 30 million people. If for some reason you decide to go back and watch all, uh, 13,000 episodes (now over 14,000), your first thought will be, "Wait, is she actually going to marry her rapist?!"
By the late '70s, General Hospital, despite its name, basically had shit-all to do with hospitals and instead focused on run-of-the-mill soap stuff: infidelities, fake deaths, comas, etc. But then, in 1979, the show aired a story where disco manager Luke (Anthony Geary) -- believing that he'll be killed soon -- wants to spend one of his last nights on Earth with his friend Laura (Genie Francis). She refuses. He doesn't care.
And so, one day, when they're alone, Luke drunkenly rapes Laura on the floor of the disco while she screams "Luke, no! NO! NOOO!" and Herb Alpert's "Rise" plays in the background.
Just listen to the woman's voice in that scene. There's zero ambiguity here.
A woman falling in love with her rapist? Holy shit, have we come a long way since 1981. Well, aside from the fact that the exact same thing happens in Season 1 of Game Of Thrones.
Turns out we might have blanked out a lot of dark stuff in our favorite sitcoms. Like Alf's ultimately gruesome fate, or that molestation stuff on Diff'rent Strokes. See more in The 7 Most Soul-Crushing Series Finales In TV History and 5 Inexplicably Horrifying Episodes Of Classic Comedies.
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