In case you haven’t heard, ABC’s hit comedy Modern Family will air an episode next week in which Lily—the 2-year-old adopted daughter of gay couple Cam and Mitchell—will blurt the f-word.
“We thought it was a very natural story since, as parents, we’ve all been through this,” Steve Levitan, the show’s creator, told ew.com. “ABC will tell you that Modern Family gets away with a lot, because I think it’s all about context. … I’m sure we’ll have some detractors.”
Naturally, viewers at home won’t hear the actual word: A few boundaries still exist on television. You can’t lob an unbleeped, scripted f-bomb during the family hour even now.
But those boundaries are quickly disappearing. As a parent, I find myself scrambling for the remote control during commercial breaks way too often these days. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much of that moral slide has taken place in a relatively short period of time. I’m 47. I don’t think of myself as old. But recently I looked back at some TV tipping points that occurred during my lifetime, and it made me feel absolutely ancient:
• The first time TV beamed the word “h—” into our homes as an expletive was at the end of the 1967 Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” when Kirk said, “Let’s get the h— out of here.”
• During the 1972 season, Maude became the first prime-time series to show a principle player choosing to have an abortion. It was actually the title character, portrayed by actress Bea Arthur.
• Male and female nudity appeared on TV for the first time on separate occasions in 1973. The TV movie Steambath showed a woman taking a shower, while the sitcom M*A*S*H flashed a brief shot of actor Gary Burghoff’s bare backside.
• In 1974, one year after shocking theatergoers in The Exorcist, actress Linda Blair starred in the controversial TV movie Born Innocent, featuring the first rape ever depicted on the small screen.
• Also in ’74, a daytime soap opera courted scandal by having a woman call her son a “bastard.” Even if you’ve never heard of the show Love of Life, you’re probably familiar with the actor who played the son: Christopher Reeve.
• Speaking of soaps, the prime-time comedy serial Soap premiered in 1977, and featured Jodie Dallas, television’s first openly gay main character. Jodie was portrayed by actor/comedian Billy Crystal.
• For decades, NBC’s Saturday Night Live has made its mark by irreverently crossing lines of decency. But in 1981 there were actually consequences when comedian Charles Rocket got fired after uttering the first televised f-bomb.
Those are just a few classic examples. Perhaps you can remind us of others. Of course, writers and producers continue to look for ways to break taboos today; they’re just having a harder time finding any of them still intact.
Last fall, actress Whitney Cummings (who helped create the surprise hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls) addressed the fact that the word vagina was suddenly getting a lot of play in prime time. She said, “I think our tolerance for what is edgy is changing. We’re getting a little desensitized, so sometimes you have to be more and more shocking because now you have YouTube and the Internet and all the rest that’s available for us to watch.”
She’s absolutely right. With so many entertainment options at our disposal—not to mention competition from the anything-goes world of cable TV—traditional networks are as desperate as ever to get our attention. So they giggle like third-graders eager to shock us with the naughty words they’ve learned on the playground. We turn our heads. We may roll our eyes. But it doesn’t last. And the next show has to up the ante. Indeed, as we’ve witnessed for nearly 50 years, any short-term benefit to the networks is something we’ll be paying for as a society long after that program has been canceled.