The Biggest Scandals To Ever Hit HBO

It's the network of gratuitous violence, sex that's just one camera angle away from making parents uncomfortable, and that one really awkward scene where Ramsay Bolton is eating a sausage. It's safe to say that HBO doesn't exactly go out of its way to avoid controversy, but some of its scandals have definitely been uglier than others. It's one thing to offer programming that features characters engaged in scandalous behavior, and it's quite another for the people who make the pay-television magic happen to engage in their own off-camera controversies.

Probably more than any other network, HBO takes it all in stride and doesn't usually shy away from subjects it knows are going to piss people off — although it could do a better job vetting its employees, and also its elephants. At any rate, sit down, have a sausage, and enjoy this look at the dark and dirty underbelly of HBO. Just make sure you have Wet Wipes because you might feel kind of gross when it's all over.

Nothing like a little modern-day slavery to elevate the ratings

HBO has been talking about its upcoming alternate history drama for a while now, but Confederate appears to be stalled as of February 2019 — although Vulture says the network swears the delay has nothing to do with all the controversy.

So what is the controversy? As you've probably guessed just based on the title, Confederate, if it ever actually sees the light of your big screen HDTV, will present an alternate history in which the Union lost the Civil War and slavery was never abolished. Yes, that's correct, it will be a story about slaves in the age of iPhones, the internet, and pay television.

Now if you just forget the part where a Confederate victory wouldn't have necessarily meant an end to the evolution of human morality (although based on the world today you could say progress in that area is not exactly brisk or anything) the whole idea is kind of repugnant. It's insensitive to the modern struggles of black Americans, and it's likely that a whole lot of unscrupulous people will interpret the idea in a less-than-productive way.

We might not have anything to worry about, though. The show was meant to be spearheaded by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss of Game of Thrones, who are about to start work on the first of three Star Wars movies. So what do we say to the god of dumb alternative history television? Not today. Not today.

Not everyone thinks Leaving Neverland was accurate

When is it okay to slander the dead? Depending on which tabloid you work for, always. Also legally, always. But for most people, there's just something icky about bringing up all the bad things someone did long after they're in their grave. Unless the deceased person in question did something really, really bad, and then all bets are off.

There's still an awful lot of controversy about where, exactly, the late Michael Jackson belongs on the scale of god to super-extra-bad. If you watched HBO's Leaving Neverland, there's a good chance you come down in the camp of super-extra-bad. But there are still a lot of people out there who think the charges against Michael Jackson are fabricated, and that the poor, weird, dead guy should just be left alone.

In a statement sent to Complex, Jackson's family said the documentary was the work of "admitted liars." They focused on the fact that Jackson was exonerated after his 2005 trial and is also totally unable to defend himself in his current state. And the film is admittedly pretty one-sided, which means most viewers are going to arrive at the same conclusion: guilty.

On the other hand, there's a lot of pretty damning stuff in Leaving Neverland, and it really comes down to whether you believe the men making the accusations. That's just about as controversial as it gets.

The stars of Luck weren't very lucky

Film and television productions can get away with a lot of hijinks. Stars can show up drunk, directors can say stupid things on Twitter, cannons can be accidentally discharged into nearby neighborhoods ... but when actual animals are harmed in the making of this film, well, that's when the public starts to feel a little less generous.

According to the Huffington Post, back in 2012 HBO had a short-lived series called Luck, which starred Dustin Hoffman and was about the often-ugly world of horse racing. Unfortunately for HBO and pretty much everyone involved in the series, the often-ugly world of horse racing translates quite literally into the often-ugly world of filming a television show about horse racing. Horses, as it turns out, are very large and also afraid of nearly everything, so they're a lot more accident-prone than other animal stars are. After the third on-set equine death, the network released a statement defending its safety record while simultaneously explaining why it couldn't guarantee that it could keep its equine stars safe. "We maintained the highest safety standards ... with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally," it said. "Accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won't happen in the future." And with that, Luck's luck ran out.

A movie about child sex abuse that went a little too far

So as the world watched Arya Stark get it on with Gendry, a collective cry of "Oh my god ewww no she's too young" went up around the world before everyone realized that Arya Stark is actually an adult now. A creepy, homicidal adult who is capable of making her own romantic decisions, and really it was Gendry that everyone should have been concerned for.

Anyway, that might have told HBO something about how audiences usually react to stories about young people in compromising situations, but if so the advice came a little too late for The Tale, an HBO memoir starring Laura Dern, which is about a girl who was sexually abused at the age of 13.

Okay so it's an important topic, but does it need to be seen so vividly in movie form rather than just discussed in a much safer venue? According to Rolling Stone, filmmakers made sure to exonerate themselves from certain icky questions by letting everyone know at the end that the questionable scenes were filmed with an adult body double, though how much better does everyone actually feel knowing that? Either way, sexual abuse survivors will almost certainly find the film triggering, and there are a lot of real questions about the ethics of visually recreating that kind of abuse for the entertainment (?) of a television audience, adult body-double or no.

Journalist behaving badly

Ari Shavit's book My Promised Land is a love story to the nation of Israel, and it had such a profound impact on HBO chief Richard Plepler that he wanted to make it into a film. "What a privilege," Plepler said during a panel at the 2014 INTV conference in Jerusalem, "to capture the essential truths of this book and to make a film that could reach millions of people not only in Israel and the U.S., but all over the world."

Then, a reporter named Danielle Berrin came forward with a story. She didn't exactly name Shavit as the man who "lurched at [her] like a barnyard animal," but she did say her attacker was a well-known Israeli journalist who had just written an important book. Everyone sort of figured it out, and Shavit insisted it had all been a "misunderstanding." Then a second woman came forward with similar accusations, and Shavit kept on insisting he had no idea his actions would upset anyone and he was so very sorry. Ugh.

It was too late for HBO, though, which was already in the end stages of the My Promised Land documentary. "There is nothing more to say at this time except that this project is in the post-production/editing stage," HBO said in a 2016 statement. And then in late 2017, two more women came forward with accusations against Shavit, so there's that. As of 2019, My Promised Land is still not listed among HBO's offerings.

That one time when Louis CK was inappropriate

Then Louis C.K. said something offensive. Right? You're so shocked right now you had to sit down and fan yourself. It wasn't just C.K. being offensive this time, though, it was also Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais, while Jerry Seinfeld looked on in disgust.

According to USA Today, the incident happened in 2011 on a HBO special called Talking Funny. Chris Rock told C.K. he was the "blackest white guy I know," and then C.K. rather inexplicably came back with, "You say I'm a n****a?"

Instead of staring in shocked horror as C.K. took the joke way, way too far, Rock then (also inexplicably) responded with "Yes, you are the n****aest f*cking white man," and then even more inexplicably, Ricky Gervais cracked up and not in an uncomfortable, shocked, silence-filling sort of way, either. Only Jerry Seinfeld seemed uncomfortable. "I don't think he can do that," Seinfeld said. And then as Rock and C.K. went on to explain why it's okay for them to use the "n" word and Gervais actually did use the "n" word, Seinfeld said, "You've found the humor of it. I haven't found it. Nor do I seek it."

So hooray for Jerry Seinfeld, and boo everyone else on that stage. Poor HBO, another social-media driven scandal that probably won't go away. Ever.

More stars behaving badly

T.J. Miller, who stared in the HBO series Silicon Valley, has been facing the same sexual misconduct allegation since before he was a star. The accusation comes from an anonymous accuser, who says Miller hit, choked, and sexually assaulted her while the two were in college. Miller denies it all, and he even issued a statement to the Daily Beast that basically said his accuser was using the "current climate" as a place to "bandwagon," which actually seems odd since she also wanted to keep her identity private, but okay. "It is unfortunate that she is choosing this route as it undermines the important movement to make women feel safe coming forward about legitimate claims against real known predators," said Miller, and also every real known predator who's ever been accused of such a thing.

Anyway, the Daily Beast did find people who could corroborate the details of her story, although the original incident was handled by the "student court" at the university and privacy laws prohibit them from discussing the outcome. Miller graduated early and was also "expelled after he graduated," which seems to indicate that something didn't go well for him.

By the time the accusations resurfaced, T.J. Miller was no longer working on Silicon Valley, so HBO got off the hook with a simple statement: "There were no reports of sexual misconduct during T.J. Miller's time working at HBO," it said. Next.

Producers behaving badly while making movies about people behaving badly

HBO doesn't love when its stars get accused of sexual misconduct, but that sure as heck doesn't mean they're going to shy away from shows about sexual misconduct. Because as awful as it is to say out loud, sexual misconduct equals ratings.

According to local news station WGAL, Penn State players were angry about Al Pacino's depiction of coach Joe Paterno in the HBO movie Paterno, which spotlighted the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. They were so angry, in fact, that 300 of them signed a statement that called the movie "a work of fiction."

The whole "work of fiction" thing sounds at first like a criticism, but producer Barry Levinson never disagreed with Sports Illustrated's use of the term in a 2018 interview, although he also says that filmmakers worked hard at "double-checking the dates and getting some factual information straight." That's good and it isn't, because then it becomes difficult for viewers to separate truth from fiction, and most viewers won't even know they're supposed to try. After all, it's Al Pacino. He can do no wrong ... can he?

Because Brexit is not already controversial enough

So even if you just ignore the part where Benedict Cumberbatch looks really, seriously not-at-all-sexy in the HBO movie Brexit and that alone should be a scandal, the HBO movie Brexit has been quite controversial.

Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, the man behind the Brexit campaign. Even before Cumberbatch made himself look unattractive so he could play the guy, Cummings was already a controversial figure, and the film doesn't paint him in an especially even light. He says racially charged things like, "Is it immigration? You can be honest. Is it race? Which countries don't you like?" That's nice, we hate him already. And for Brits who did vote for Brexit, well, the movie sort of puts the whole "if you voted for Brexit you're a racist" thing out there and lets it hang where everyone can see it.

The film's timing is controversial, too, because in the real world there's an ongoing investigation into the tactics of the pro-Brexit campaign, and critics say the film could inadvertently interfere with that. One journalist compared it to a hypothetical scenario in which an American studio released a film about the Mueller investigation while it was still ongoing. Though frankly, anyone who thinks that idea is shocking doesn't know Hollywood very well because Hollywood would totally do that. But never mind. Benedict Cumberbatch is not sexy in Brexit and that's the real story.

Fire and blood but not if you're gay

Some episodes of Game of Thrones play out just like a blood drive, but without the tubes and bags and stuff. No one wants to donate themselves, but every character thinks it's important that someone spill some blood every week. So someone thought it would be cute if Game of Thrones sponsored a blood drive, because, you know, blood. And just like that, a noble attempt at doing good rather than just killing off your favorite characters every week ended up turning into a scandal.

According to the Daily Beast, the blood drive was called "Bleed for the Throne" (haha adorable) and participants got entered to win a trip to the season premiere in New York, and they also got a limited-edition Iron Throne T-shirt with blood splattered all over it. (Not real blood, of course.) That wasn't the news, though. The news was that gay men were excluded from participating unless they'd been celibate for at least 12 months. The reason: Because the FDA said so.

Gay men have actually been prohibited from donating blood since the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Today it's a pointless and discriminatory restriction, since HIV isn't exclusively a disease of the gay community and donated blood is already screened for infectious diseases. There were alternate ways for people who couldn't donate to enter the competition, but the press materials didn't exactly make that information obvious, and it seems like the kind of thing we could move on from now.

Your movie was full of inaccuracies. About me.

Before Brett Kavanaugh, before #MeToo, there was Clarence Thomas, the original guy who got accused of sexual misconduct and still ended up on the highest court in the land. And as we have learned, HBO is super-fond of making movies about sexual misconduct, so they decided they were going to make one about Clarence Thomas and his accuser, Anita Hill, just so when you're shopping around for some decent sexual misconduct entertainment you'll have lots of choices.

According to the Wrap, though, D.C. lawmakers were not especially pleased with the film, mostly because they were annoyed about the portrayals of themselves, which is actually pretty hilarious. Former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming even said he'd sue. "An attack unanswered is an attack believed," he said, though that was back in 2016 and it seems like it was a hollow threat. He also complained that the script "seriously distorted" the actual events of 1991, when Anita Hill was called to testify at Thomas' Senate confirmation hearing, especially one scene where a staffer chases some guy with a subpoena, which is a pretty low-stakes thing to be annoyed about.

HBO defended their process and said the film was researched and vetted and "speak[s] for itself." And the fact that it upset a lot of people is probably just points in its favor, really. Controversial things don't usually make their subjects happy.

The elephant in the cutting room

Cersei Lannister was annoyed when she found out there weren't going to be any elephants in her army. That was funny because Cersei hearts elephants, but if you know anything about the elephant scandal that happened on sister program Westworld, you have to kind of wonder if Cersei was truly robbed of her elephant soldiers because they're "not well-suited to long sea voyages," or if it was because HBO's last experience with elephants was such an unmitigated disaster.

For centuries, elephants have been horribly abused by their captors — they're not domesticated animals, so the only way to make them do what humans want is to be inexcusably cruel to them. According to Show Snob, Westworld got in trouble with PETA not just because they employed elephants on their show but also because the elephants came from a company that PETA says is known for abusive training practices.

Now obviously it's cheaper to use real elephants than to just CGI them, but if Game of Thrones it did it with their direwolves and dragons, it seems like Westworld could have, too, thus avoiding the whole ugly scandal. Of course there's also the fact that there isn't a single likeable character on the whole show, so really, the elephants were Westworld's best shot at actually creating a plot point someone might care about. You should have thought that one through a little more carefully, HBO.