Television has a rich history of not only entertaining viewers but also helping them feel less alone.
Since the 1970s, television shows have addressed sensitive and controversial topics like death, abortion, and prejudice.
When it's done right, viewers feel even more connected to their favorite characters and can't get enough, even when the events on screen or tragic.
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They might even laugh at a well-timed joke on a comedy about a serious situation!
What's your favorite show that takes on serious issues without being a downer?
Check out our picks and then share yours in the comments!
Before Dorothy Zbornak, Bea Arthur was Maude Findlay, Edith Bunker's cousin and Archie's nemesis, who faced her own share of controversy on her own show. Most memorably, Maude decided to have an abortion at age 47 -- something that had been recently legalized at the time the show aired. A later episode dealt with the discovery that she had bipolar disorder. Viewers loved Maude and laughed with her while they rooted for her during these and other stories.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Before Murphy Brown, there was Mary Richards -- the original woman trying to make it on her own while working on a TV news show. While this show never got super serious, it did write characters that were true to life and their struggles with issues relevant to the times. One memorable episode dealt with anti-Semitism in a quiet way; when Mary's new friend Joanne excluded Rhoda because she was Jewish, Mary said she was Jewish too before asking Joanne to leave.
Differ'nt Strokes engaged in "very special episodes" so often that people laugh at its efforts today, but some of the stories were important, and the show's intention was to highlight them. The two-part episode about child molestation is a great example. Gordon Jump did a good job of playing a creepy pedophile that everyone thought was just a nice guy who went out of his way to help the neighborhood children, and the episode included a PSA by Conrad Bain.
Family Ties was the type of popular family comedy that tried to be relevant as well as (mostly) feel-good, but it addressed its share of sensitive issues too. For example, in a one-hour special episode, Family Ties dealt with Alex's emotions after his friend died in an automobile accident. Although the drama was cheapened by the fact that this friend had never been seen on-screen before, the death was still handled sensitively and realistically.
Although Picket Fences was known for its quirky characters and weird situations, it often delved into serious issues. A first-season episode drew the wrath of evangelical Christians for its sensitive depiction of teenager Kimberly exploring the possibility that she was attracted to girls, while later episodes explored a wide variety of ethical and legal issues. The character may often have been silly, but the issues themselves were treated sensitively.
Homicide: Life on the Streets
Homicide: Life on the Streets is best known for its gritty realism and for the relationship between Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton and Kyle Secor's Tim Bayliss. In its later years, it also became one of the first shows to feature a bisexual character when Bayliss began exploring his attraction towards men. Bisexuality is underrepresented on TV, but Homicide treated the issue with respect, making the story memorable decades after it aired.
Although Scrubs was a comedy, its hospital setting required the characters to confront death and disease on a regular basis. This subject was handled sensitively more often than not, such as when JD was reluctant to let an elderly woman refuse treatment for kidney disease and when Turk lost his Christmas spirit after seeing so much death in the ER on Christmas Eve.
A Million Little Things
A Million Little Things premiered in 2018 and immediately dived into a bunch of serious, timely topics, including the suicide of one of a group of friends and breast cancer in both men and women. The characters are engaging and realistic and the topics are taken seriously without being depressing.
Major Crimes not only brought us the entertaining, wisecracking Lieutenant Provenza but also became an advocate for LGBT equality through Rusty's coming-out story and related storylines. Notably, it also featured a story about the murder of a transgender teenager, making it one of the first shows to shine a spotlight on transphobia and transgender issues in general.
Law & Order: SVU
No list about sensitive-topic TV shows is complete without Law & Order: SVU. This show explores issues related to rape and sexual assault on a weekly basis and has also addressed cyberbullying, child abuse, and other matters, always while doing its best to respect survivors and never glorifying the crimes on which it focuses.
Brothers & Sisters
The early 2000s saw the return of family dramas with Brothers & Sisters. This show did its best to portray a family dealing with serious issues in a sensitive manner. One standout among many was Justin's addiction and the way his substance abuse impacted his family.
The all too short-lived Black Box starred Kelly Reilly as a psychiatrist who struggled with bipolar disorder. It was an unflinchingly realistic portrait of the disease and the stigma that mental illness carries.
American Crime addressed a myriad of sensitive topics throughout its three-year run, including the stigma and doubt surrounding a boy reporting sexual assault, racism, poverty, and drug use. You name it, this series covered it -- all without being preachy, condescending, or dismissive.