Are trigger warnings turning a harmless old sitcom into the perfect Gen Z hate-watch?

Cautioning that ‘Terry and June’ may contain discriminatory language is a surefire way to make a period piece about a cosy, middle-aged couple into catnip for censorious Gen Z streamers

Ryan Coogan
Thursday 25 April 2024 08:53 BST
Ralph Fiennes calls for trigger warnings to be scrapped saying audiences have gone ‘soft’

There’s nothing worse than going back to one of your favourite shows from days gone by – a nostalgic little comfort of a simpler time in your life, perhaps a sitcom you used to watch with your parents as a kid – only to realise that it’s aged about as badly as you have.

Wow, the Friends sure do make a lot of gay jokes, don’t they? And the How I Met Your Mother gang would be me-too’d faster than you can say “legen – wait for it – dary” if they pulled any of their unorthodox dating shenanigans today. And don’t even get me started on the class politics of Frasier.

It sometimes seems like everything from our shared cultural past is tainted in some way, which is why it’s nice when you stumble upon something that seems genuinely (comparatively) innocent. It seems even the most milquetoast of series aren’t safe from scrutiny, though, as streaming service BritBox has slapped a trigger warning on the classic BBC show, Terry and June.

If you’re unfamiliar, Terry and June was a popular sitcom from the 1970s and 80s which starred Terry Scott and June Whitfield as a middle-aged, middle-class couple living in cosy suburbia, navigating the ups and downs of modern British life. It was the epitome of comfort viewing, with the eponymous couple rarely finding themselves in situations more perilous than “my boss is coming to dinner and we have nothing to serve him”. The opening titles sequence famously involved the couple relaxing with a drink in their garden, only for Terry’s lounger to collapse.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few dicey moments that haven’t aged particularly well. In one episode, Terry’s boss appears at the house in Native American fancy dress, complete with cringeworthy accent and stereotypical mannerisms (he even does the “how” hand gesture, which just doesn’t fly in a post-Killers of the Flower Moon world). But, unless I’ve missed something, things rarely get any worse than that, which makes BritBox’s warning that the show “contains discriminatory language of the period” overcautious and a little baffling.

For comparison, just a few years before Terry and June were having minor misunderstandings with French policemen and playing dress-up, Alf Garnett, in the popular sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, was going on primetime rants about foreigners that would make Tommy Robinson blush.

Till Death was later adapted into the American sitcom All In The Family, with Archie Bunker taking Garnett’s place as the opinionated patriarch. Like Alf, Archie would often opine about the best way to “make America great again” (a phrase he genuinely used a couple of times, if you want a sense of where he’d fit on today’s political spectrum), with most of his solutions involving deporting minorities.

While both Alf and Archie were often treated as the butt of the joke, with their racist rants often being countered or exposed by the supporting cast, that doesn’t change the fact that audiences were invited to laugh with them as well as at them. Sure, Archie might share his problematic thoughts on Jews (except he doesn’t say “Jews”) or Black people (he certainly doesn’t say “Black people”), and he might believe in conspiracy theorists that would make Alex Jones say “hold on a second, buddy”, but the show made it abundantly clear that the audience was supposed to sympathise with him to some extent.

The same is true of similarly themed shows of the period, such as Mind Your Language and Curry and Chips, which ostensibly examined and tackled the subject of racism while still allowing viewers of the period to indulge their own bigotries.

But do any of them warrant a trigger warning? I’d much sooner slap one on any of those other examples before I would Terry and June – I don’t think anybody who expects to sit down for a nostalgic foray into light entertainment expects to hear a sermon on why Enoch Powell might have been on to something. But the fact that these programmes are even included in the same conversation indicates just how ineffective the practice has become.

When I watch a show that “contains discriminatory language of the period”, does that mean I’m going to hear somebody make a dated attempt at inclusiveness by calling somebody “coloured”, or will it be a three-minute rant containing words and phrases I’m not even allowed to write in this article because they’re so offensive?

The biggest victims of this over-caution are Gen Z, who seem to have made a habit recently of seeking out retroactively subversive television and binging on it on sites like Netflix. They recently hate-watched their way through Friends – mostly, just to be triggered by the lack of diversity, objectification of female characters, and dialogue that would now be verboten. Currently, they seem to be obsessed with Sex and the City.

Imagine their disappointment when they tune in to Terry and June, only to find that 90 per cent of the episodes are about June burning dinner, instead of having a torrid affair with Mr Big (a show which, if it existed, would be the only thing I ever watched for the rest of my life).

It really begs the question: who are these trigger warnings for, if the most trigger-happy generation is ignoring them? Not to mention the fact that, if you’re sitting down to watch a sitcom from 40 years ago on a speciality streaming service, you’re probably well aware that standards of etiquette change with the times, and are more than prepared to hear a few dated jokes.

There’s definitely a place for these warnings, but their overuse can at best dilute their meaning, and at worst totally mislead people. Maybe we should save them for the Archie Bunkers of the world, and trust people to make their own minds up about the rest.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in