Looking the tv at home
Milan Markovic/istockphoto

TV Shows That Wouldn't Have Aired a Generation Ago

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Looking the tv at home
Milan Markovic/istockphoto

21st Century TV

We’ve living through a golden age of television, one that doesn’t just entertain, but often pushes back against everything we thought was true. How many of today’s shows could have aired a generation ago, though? Whether because of technology, streaming services, or new cultural expectations, these TV shows definitively belong to today.


Related: Beloved Classic TV Shows You Can Still Watch 

Legion
Amazon

‘Legion’ (2017-2019)

This candy-colored superhero-conspiracy thriller was noteworthy for its vibrant sets, a mix of utilitarian antiques with sci-fi modernism. It was all built on dizzyingly unrecognizable geography, creating a vertigo that lasted throughout the series. Such challenging SFX and cinematography might have been hard for any studio to deliver in the pre-streaming TV world, when two dozen or more episodes had to fill out a season.


2000s counterpart: “Pushing Daisies”


Related: The Most-Watched TV Show Finales

Pose
Amazon

‘Pose’ (2018-2021)

In this award-winning show, drag queens and transgender individuals exist not as punchlines, but as protagonists, in all their complexity, joy, and struggle. Interestingly, the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, was called out by the advocacy group GLAAD for his earlier show, “Nip/Tuck,” which had multiple storylines that were found offensive to trans people – and that show went off the air just 12 years ago.


‘90s counterpart: “Will & Grace”


Related: The Best TV Shows Starring Boomers

Fleabag
Amazon

‘Fleabag’ (2016-2019)

It’s a new era for hard-living female antiheroes. “Fleabag,” created and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridges, featured a foul-mouthed, heavy drinking, and decidedly promiscuous lead character who regularly addressed the camera without shame. 


‘90s counterpart: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Killing Eve
Amazon

‘Killing Eve’ (2018-2022)

A cop tracks a serial killer, and by the end of the series, you’ll care more about the killer than the cop. That’s a new twist on its own, but the fact that both characters were women, and the entire run of the series was laced with their homoerotic cat-and-mouse game, made this a series that would have been far beyond the edge just a few years ago.


2000s counterpart: “Fingersmith”

Black-ish
Amazon

‘Black-ish’ (2014-2022)

On the one hand, this hit show starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross builds on “The Cosby Show,” featuring a wealthy black family in sitcom land. But while Cosby celebrated jazz legends and otherwise lived a seemingly conflict-free life, “Black-ish” has mixed its laughs with unflinching looks at hot-button issues, including the everyday use of a racial slur and a call for unity after the 2016 election.


1980s counterpart: “The Cosby Show”

Awkwafina is Nora From Queens
Amazon

‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ (2020-present)

The past decade has been a boom era for Asian American representation on television, and not just for Sandra Oh. No longer were Asians thick-accented punchlines on TV or peripheral to the main story (“M*A*S*H) . Instead, they were intense surgeons (Sandra Oh on “Gray’s Anatomy”), mid-level spies drawn into a homoerotic assassin chase (Oh in “Killing Eve,”) Indian American single guys looking for a career (Aziz Ansari in “Master of None”) and Egyptian American single guys looking for a career (Ramy Yousseff in “Ramy”). But no one broke the mold better than Awkwafina, playing a number of characters we missed out on in the 20th century: a first-generation Chinese American, a slacker woman, and an unrepentantly pot-smoking woman. 


1990s counterpart: “All-American Girl”

Lovecraft Country
Amazon

‘Lovecraft Country’ (2020)

Racial history blends with horror as a trio sets out from Chicago in a roadtrip across 1950s America. They carry a Green Book to identify safe lodging for African Americans, and battle monsters of both the horror-movie and racist varieties. This kind of genre-bending never would have made the cut in the past. 


1990s counterpart: “The X-Files”

Game Of Thrones: Seasons 1-7
Amazon

“Game of Thrones” (2011-2019)

It’s hard to think of a show this violent airing in the last century, but what really makes “Game of Thrones” a marker of its times is its refusal to service audience desires. From killing off the show’s star in the first season to taking a very dark turn with a beloved character, the show’s creators didn’t care who they horrified — and audiences loved them for it.


1980s counterpart: “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

Mr. Robot: The Complete Series [DVD]
Amazon

‘Mr. Robot’ (2015-2019)

This cyber thriller could not have existed even a few years before it debuted, because its technology was simultaneously advanced and realistic, with sophisticated hacking and surveillance underlying the entire series. Rami Malek’s Elliot, a mentally ill but brilliant hacker with a morphine addiction, would have been an unlikely TV series protagonist a generation ago, even if antiheroes have been popular in films since the 1970s (“Dog Day Afternoon,” “Midnight Cowboy,” etc.)


1990s film counterpart: “Fight Club’”

Naked and Afraid XL: Season 1 [DVD + Digital
Amazon

‘Naked and Afraid’ (2013-present)

The title alone would have kept “Naked and Afraid” from seeing the air. While no actual nudity is seen, the premise of this reality show — two strangers dropped off naked in the wilderness with almost no supplies — was too edgy and too naked for past generations, not to mention that blurring private areas is likely easier with newer technology.


2000 counterpart: “Survivor”

The Sex Lives of College Girls
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ (2021-present)

HBO’s new series, created by Mindy Kaling (“The Office”), features four young women in their first year of college. It’s “Girls” for 18-year-olds who live their sex lives with abandon. Race is mentioned, but never stands in the way of a hook-up, whereas, despite the early pairing of Lucille Ball and her real-life Cuban husband Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” and the kiss between Captain Kirk and Uhura on “Star Trek” in 1967, such interracial pairings have been a notably rare element on TV in the past. One episode revolves around the characters attending an all-nude party, too.


1990s equivalent: “Sex and the City’”

The Walking Dead
Amazon

‘The Walking Dead’ (2010-2022)

The unmitigated violence and gore of this zombie series would never have made it to basic cable in the past. Although basic cable channels were always outside the eye of the FCC, for the first few decades of their existence, they chose to largely adhere to broadcast standards. On “The Walking Dead,” based on a comic book series, it’s nothing to see limbs ripped apart, and human viscera splattered across the mouth of a hungry zombie.


1990s counterpart: “Twin Peaks”

I may destroy you
Amazon

‘I May Destroy You’ (2020)

In earlier eras, a wild girl always got her punishment — and the audience agreed with it. Micaela Coel creates a young British woman who drinks, drugs, and still holds down a professional job. When she is drugged and raped in a club, the series follows the aftermath, in a completely original way. 


1970s counterpart: “All in the Family”

Pen15
Amazon

‘Pen15’ (2019-2021)

In Hulu’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, real-life best friends Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play 13-year-old girls floundering their way through middle school — even though the lead actresses are over 30. That’s unusual enough, but that title? Never would have aired in an earlier era.


2000s equivalent: “Don’t the Trust the B in Apartment 23”