Maude getting an abortion, upper class black families on The Cosby Show and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, people who actually had to work for a living on Roseanne (if you forget that that's radical, look at the effortless livings earned by most sitcom stars e.g., Full House, Mad About You, Home Improvement). So here's a list of the network TV shows that are pushing the envelope, however haltingly, imperfectly, and unfortunately ephemerally.
Grey's Anatomy's atypical love interests
Shonda Rhimes shows have their problems, and I no longer find Grey's Anatomy as addictive as it once was, but I can say without a doubt that having Rhimes around (a black, female, non-thin showrunner in a land of white males) is a boon to network television. No other show boasts the effortless cast diversity that Anatomy and Private Practice bring to the table. And I don't just mean race, although that's certainly welcome; I also mean body type. Sarah Ramirez (as Callie) and Chandra Wilson (as Bailey) get to be fully realized characters without wearing a size two? And no one mentions their weight? And people (hot people!) are attracted to them? Bailey recently divorced her stay-at-home husband when he couldn't accept her long hours, and this season finally got a steamy love interest. I would say my mind is blown, but the best thing about Rhimes is that she does it so well, you don't even notice how revolutionary it is.
Pretty much everything Ugly Betty did
I'll happily admit there are representation problems on this show, and I fully understand the critique that calling America Ferrara Ugly got a little ludicrous toward the end, but this show--this show was revolutionary. Yes, because it had a heroine who didn't look like everyone else, and her path to acceptance didn't (immediately) involve looking like everyone else. But also, because that heroine was Hispanic, with an amazing, multi-dimensional Hispanic family, with "Hispanic problems," but also regular problems (see the sweet Justin coming out storyline). Because there were gay people, some who fit our stereotypes and some who didn't (see the Mark-Cliff romance). Because there was a major storyline about transgenderism, however clumsily done (and unfortunately with a cisgender actress). Few shows have done more for gay and minority visibility on the small screen, and I'm sorry to see it go.
The Good Wife's older person romance
If you know anything from watching TV, it's that all people are young and beautiful (unless they're old and wise), and young, beautiful people fall in love with other young beautiful people. Christine Barinski's Diane Lockhart is beautiful, but she's not young--she's a managing partner of a law firm, who nonetheless finds time for a tender flirtation with a Sarah Palin-loving ballistics expert. I loved the unconventionality of this subplot, despite the show's other, ahem, representation issues (almost everyone on the show is white, except the heavily sexualized--but awesome--South Asian Kalinda--which is a stereotype us Asians have had enough of, thanks.)
Candis Cayne on the canceled Dirty Sexy Money
This show is long gone, but it still sticks with me for portraying a transgendered character in a somewhat nuanced light. Candis Cayne's affair with a married senatorial candidate gave serious visibility to an all-to-often elided sub-population. Moreover, although the affair was treated as a scandal, it was also treated as genuine, tender love. I don't know how I should feel about the implication that the attraction to Cayne said something about the candidate's sexuality (there's no such thing as "transgender-sexual"--If you're male and you like a transgendered woman, you're just straight), but I think visibility--outside the context of mocking--is an important first step. We can only hope accuracy will follow.
Glee, but you knew that already
So that's it--What am I missing, folks? What other shows out there have been taking risks, and should be vying for spots on my DVR? Which shows will we remember in 20 years as pushing boundaries?
What about cable? I understand Southland is pretty amazing, and Treme is supposedly all it's cracked up to be.