7 most controversial Netflix shows ever

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Netflix has introduced so many shows since it began producing its own original programming. Some believe that House of Cards was the streaming service’s first original series, it was actually Lilyhammer, a Norwegian comedy crime drama. From there, Netflix shows have run the gamut with favorites like Chef’s Table and shows that have run for multiple seasons, like Grace and Frankie and The Witcher. Lately, however, Netflix has started to become more adventurous, and because of this, its shows have also become more controversial.

In fact, Netflix is behind some of the most controversial TV shows ever, each raising eyebrows for different reasons.

13 Reasons Why (2017-2020)

Hannah from 13 Reasons Why wearing a white shirt, standing with a white light behind her.
Beth Dubber / Netflix

Intentions were good with 13 Reasons Why, a teen-centric show that was executive produced by Only Murders in the Building star Selena Gomez. The idea was to show the darker side of teenage life through the lens of a young high school woman who dies by suicide. The story sees Hannah (Katherine Langford) narrate her experience through cassette tapes she leaves for each person who played a role in her making the harrowing decision to end her own life. It became all too real. The graphic suicide scene was also considered by many to be counterproductive, glamorizing such an act and triggering negative feelings versus educating teenagers in a more responsible way.

Netflix started offering warning title cards at the beginning of some of the more problematic episodes along with a support website with crisis numbers. The show continued for three more seasons, delivering more controversial storylines, including one centered around a school shooter, and another with a graphically disturbing scene of the rape of a young man with an inanimate object. Despite the controversy and polarizing opinions on the show, however, some critics praised 13 Reasons Why for its depictions of situations with honesty and truth, despite how hard it was to watch. Some even suggested that parents watch the show with their teens and use it as a catalyst to have important conversations.

Stream 13 Reasons Why on Netflix.

Atypical (2017-2021)

A young man sits in his room looking down and smiling in a scene from Atypical.

Another show with good intentions, Atypical was meant to show an honest depiction of autism. However, the autism spectrum is diverse, and some criticized the depiction of a young man on the spectrum. (Though one could argue that since everyone on the spectrum exhibits different traits, his portrayal could theoretically not be inaccurate). More so, however, the criticism came due to the lack of autistic actors on the show, which centers around an 18-year-old autistic character.

Netflix addressed the concerns, hiring more autistic writers and actors for the second through fourth seasons, allowing them to represent their community. Atypical was more positively received once this change was made. But initially, the show sparked a controversy around both representation and generalizing characteristics of disorders like autism.

Stream Atypical on Netflix.

Messiah (2020)

A man with long hair wearing a yellow robe stands, light illuminating his face in a scene from Messiah.
Hiba Judeh / Netflix

Mehdi Dehbi stars in Messiah as a young man named Payam Golshiri, who goes by the name al-Masih, professing to be the second coming of Christ. While there’s suspicion around his claims, he appears to be performing miracles, some of which can’t be explained away as trickery. This turns the speculation of some into a belief that he might truly be who he claims to be. Nonetheless, a CIA Case Officer named Eva (Michelle Monaghan) is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Messiah was an interesting show, but it was met with controversy for its seeming mockery of religion and religious beliefs. The Royal Film Commission of Jordan asked Netflix not to stream the show in the country because of the “provocative subject matter and controversial religious content.”

Stream Messiah on Netflix.

Insatiable (2018-2019)

A young woman wearing an oversized, wide-brimmed hat and blue dress standing in front of a microphone in a scene from Insatiable.
Tina Rowden / Netflix

The very premise of Insatiable struck a wrong chord with people. The idea is that a teenager loses weight and seeks revenge against those who bullied her when she was heavier. The assumption that the lead character would only gain confidence to fight back after becoming a thinner version of herself didn’t sit right with viewers.

Many found the plot itself thin of both substance and humor and did not like that the show focused too much on our cultural obsession with body image. Another common criticism was that Insatiable implied that being overweight was synonymous with disordered eating habits.

Stream Insatiable on Netflix.

Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022)

Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer looking down at something ominously in Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.

Many family members of victims of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer spoke out against Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, criticizing not only their own portrayals and that of their familial victims but also the kid gloves that were apparently used to handle the character. Dahmer was presented as a lonely, troubled young man who could even be sympathized with given his personal struggles and the implication that he just wanted someone to love him.

Kudos goes to Evan Peters for his convincing portrayal, which earned him an Emmy nomination. The show also counts among the most-watched English-language Netflix series to date, ranking behind only Stranger Things’ fourth season and Wednesday season 1. Nonetheless, the handling of a real-life killer who brutally tortured, murdered, and even desecrated the bodies of his victims, led to questions about whether the story should have been used for entertainment value at all.

Stream Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix.

Cooking on High (2018)

A man holding a sandwich in the air looking at it, cheese oozing out in a scene from Cooking on High.

The cooking competition show space is crowded. There’s even a show, after all, where contestants have to decide whether a supposed baked concoction is actually a real item or cake. So, it’s no surprise that Netflix wanted to think out of the box, but the streaming service ended up diving headfirst into the hotbox with this show. Cooking on High involves dishes that all have one important ingredient: marijuana.

From cannabis-infused brownies to southern comfort food that will make you feel relaxed in more ways than one, the competitors cooked all types of unique dishes. But the show, while popular among viewers who love to partake (particularly in states and countries where recreational marijuana is legal), was met with displeasure in some regions. Particularly, Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) sent Netflix a request to remove the show from its version of the service, given the country’s zero-tolerance policy for illicit drugs and lengthy sentences for those found guilty. Saying “I saw the recipe on a cooking show” wasn’t going to get anyone off. Nonetheless, if you’re interested, Cooking on High is still available to stream.

Stream Cooking on High on Netflix.

You (2018-)

Joe looking at a rope tie in a scene from You season 4 on Netflix.

Accused of romanticizing a serial killer, the lead character in You didn’t quite hit every viewer the way he should. While Penn Badgley does a wonderful job portraying the troubled Joe Goldberg, the controversy stemmed from the way fans reacted to the character. Goldberg is considered charming, even likable, despite the fact that he stalks and obsesses over women and murders them (and others) in cold blood.

It’s not so much the show that is controversial, then, but rather the fan reception to a character who should be loathed, not praised. While many draw comparisons between Goldberg and Dexter Morgan from Showtime series Dexter, Goldberg is not a vigilante killer ridding the world of heinous people (though there’s no justification for that either). He irrationally rationalizes his killing of innocent humans who get in his way, and the intense obsession and romantic desire so many fans have for him has been considered disturbing, to say the least.

Stream You on Netflix.

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