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Incest is a big deal. It's sexual relations between family members and close relatives, and it's often non-consensual. As a result, it's important that any TV shows that featured incest treat the issue with the respect it deserves. And it's a topic that's just not going anywhere. Whether it be a comedy of errors like Arrested Development, the fantasy of Game of Thrones, or even an animated sitcom like Futurama, shows keep tackling incest. Here's 10 shows that addressed the taboo.
Queue the ABC because George Michael (Michael Cera) has been hit with a poison arrow: he's fallen for his cousin Maeby Fünke (Alia Shawkat). The running gag started in the pilot episode when George Michael got a big smooch from Maeby. The kiss was meant to annoy her mother; instead it drew George Michael into an infatuation that spanned the show's entire run. He'd try to down-low DNA test Maeby, he watched as Maeby fell for a man who himself turned out to be a cousin, and he even accidentally married Maeby in a pretend ceremony. What made it all work was that from the get-go the show taught its audience how to view the Maeby/George Michael dynamic: it's all for laughs. Any philosophical investigations into the nature of cousin romance would have really diluted a show where David Cross is always wearing short-shorts into the shower because he's a never-nude.
Considered one of the best television shows of all time, I, Claudius is about the lengths people go to maximize power and the brutality of their machinations. Set in the early days of the Roman Empire and narrated by the elderly Emperor Claudius, the 1976 BBC program didn't shy away from how it depicted the depths of humanity's depravity.
On the show, Emperor Caligula was depicted fathering a child with his sister Drusilla; he then murdered Drusilla, removed his progeny from her womb, and ate it. It was a visceral image, and it was entirely the figment of the screenwriter's imagination! But Caligula would prove to be an enduring well of inspiration. Just three years later the emperor was portrayed by Malcolm McDowell in the star-studded historic, erotic drama Caligula, which made up for its absence of baby eating scenes with plenty of orgies.
It took nine seasons and thousands of cut-away jokes for Family Guy to finally have Chris and Meg make out. Set during the episode "Halloween on Spooner Street," the brother and sister end up playing spin the bottle and spend seven minutes in heaven together in a closet. Of course, since they're both wearing costumes they don't know who they are. What kept the gag from entering deviantArt territory was how everyone reacted to the revelation: the guests were shocked, Meg and Chris were shocked, and the only person onboard was Bill Clinton. And if we've learned anything from welfare reform in the 90s it's that if Bill Clinton's onboard, it's no bueno.
Game of Thrones
Dragons, White Walkers, and twins—having an incestuous relationship as part of a larger history of siblings intermarrying to maintain aristocratic hegemony. Of all the TV shows that featured incest, none have brought the topic into the modern zeitgeist as effectively as Game of Thrones. The twin brother and sister duo of Cersei and Jaime Lannister have a relationship that is at once an exploration of how desperate people seek emotional intimacy in the harshest of contexts and how the transactional nature of love is itself a symptom of a cyclical abuse. It's a Red Wedding every day inside their hearts!
If you want to see one of the TV shows that featured incest treat the taboo like little more than soap opera fodder, look no further than Inspector Lewis. Inspector Lewis is a spinoff of the long running BBC detective show Inspector Morse. In one particularly convoluted episode, Lewis encounters what's basically a spoof movie gag of a case that involves a brother and sister duo who are fraternal twins who were separated at birth but somehow fell in love and are now on a murder journey that's meant to conclude with the killing of their mother who, it turns out, was actually their first victim. The episode was actually twelve hours long because it took Lewis half an hour to explain what was going on every time he found a new clue.
If Lewis is the nadir of TV shows that featured incest, then Boardwalk Empire is near the peak. Set in the prohibition era in Atlantic City, Boardwalk Empire featured a complex relationship between Gillian and Jimmy Darmody—a mother and son separated in age by 13 years. Their relationship always had a strong sexual dimension. For example, Gillian once told Jimmy's wife that she used to "kiss his little winky," when she changed his diaper. So when it's finally revealed in a flashback that Jimmy and his mother slept together one drunken night, suddenly a whole lot of behavior makes a more sense, like why Jimmy left Princeton to enlist in the World War. How's that for small talk in the trenches? "All quite on the Western Front? This guy won't shut up about his mother!"
Futurama is a show about Fry, a pizza delivery guy who gets cryogenically frozen, wakes up in the future, and works for a distant nephew's shipping company. And the whole time Fry's his own grandpa. Unlike Back to the Future or even the song "I'm My Own Grandpa," Fry actually hooked up with a familial matriarch.
It happened when Fry traveled backward through time and became obsessed with making sure his grandparents didn't accidentally get killed. Fry locked up his pappy in a safe house, but that left his grandmother free to indulge her wandering eye. Figuring that sleeping with his own grandmother would somehow kill him, Fry used his own existence as an excuse to bag his me-maw. And the rest was Emmy history. That's right, of all the TV shows that featured incest, Futurama's "Roswell That Ends Well" was the only one to win an Emmy for the episode where the act took place.
American Horror Story: Roanoke
Of course a show that has the word "Horror" in its name would one day be one of the TV shows that featured incest. For their sixth season, American Horror Story (AHS) went a bit meta: the program became about actors re-enacting the lives of Matt and Shelby Miller, a couple that survived one brutal assault only to move into a house in rural North Carolina where they were subjected to more brutal assaults. Some people have the worst luck! Like the Polk Family. Sure, they kidnap Matt and Shelby, but the Polks are also hillbillies led by the vicious Mama Polk. That ain't no fun! And while the Polks aren't making rompers out of the skin of their victims, it's strongly implied that the sons have sexual relations with their mother. Mama Polk even calls her grandchildren, "her babies." Woof. Incest may be a horror cliché, but it never loses its power to evoke emotion, whether it be revulsion or sympathy.
If all these TV shows that featured incest taught us anything it's that if you're going to be amassing power, you're going to have to be okay with having sex with a relative. That's just how it works, and there are no exceptions—not even for Pope families! On the Showtime drama The Borgias, which centers on the reign of Pope Alexander the VI, the brother and sister duo of Lucrezia and Cesare get down on the night of Lucrezia's wedding because her husband gets cold feet. Given the Catholic Church's history of sexual impropriety, this hook-up between two consenting adults shouldn't even turn heads. Even a twin couple in heat like Cersei and Jaime Lannister feel uncomfortable near the Catholic Church.
David Lynch's masterpiece of television is both emotionally evocative and intellectually mystifying. The show's first run in the early 90s was derailed by network interference, but Lynch still managed to capitalize on his success by releasing a feature length prequel. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, fans learned that Laura Palmer—whose death kicks off the series—was the survivor of abuse at the hands of her demon possessed father (masterfully portrayed by Ray Wise). With that added subtext Twin Peaks entered the pantheon of TV shows that featured incest, backwards talking in red rooms, and damn good coffee.