Kids’ TV is generally full of innocence, adventure, and whimsy. When our heroes face conflict and obstacles, they’re supposed to conquer them in twenty-two minutes between brightly-colored cereal commercials. And if they do happen to come across something truly challenging, the viewer can at least take solace in the fact that everything is wholesome underneath the superficial strife. It’s not as if thinking about the premise of your favorite kids’ show for just a few minutes would reveal a horrifying truth…
Oh, wait, right, it’s totally like that.
In this world of gritty reboots, original children’s programming represents the last refuge for unfettered delight. But, of course, not everything can be as gentle as Sesame Street or as optimistic as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The following shows may have been intended for kids, but their underlying premises are grim enough to make any adult a little creeped out. Here are the 15 Kids’ TV Shows With Shockingly Dark Premises.
15. The Wild Thornberrys
There was a lot to love about The Wild Thornberrys. A spunky pre-adolescent hero with a kickass superpower? Check. A classy, talking, British monkey that wore people clothes? Check. Tim freakin’ Curry delivering a memetastic catchphrase? Triple check. It’s a super fun show, you know, if you ignore the oppression and murder of countless millions.
See, Eliza Thornberry had a very special gift; she could talk to animals. As she traveled around the world filming nature documentaries with her family, she talked to pretty much every animal one could imagine. Now here’s the tricky part: they all talk back. Every single animal she talks to expresses complex feelings and emotions to Eliza, in complete English sentences. That means that every animal on Earth is a sentient being with hopes and dreams and capable of complex reasoning. Now think about the way that human beings treat animals.
The really messed up part? Eliza couldn’t tell anybody about her gift or else she’d lose it. That means she could never make anybody believe her; she could never prove the inherent intelligence of animals. Still, it makes you wonder how she can galavant around the world with the crushing knowledge that every chicken farm in the US is basically a concentration camp. The show doesn’t even make it clear if Eliza herself is a vegetarian!
14. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar: The Last Airbender (or A:TLA) has been praised as one of the greatest animated shows of the past 20 years. Its brilliant world-building and unbridled levity in the face of darkness make Avatar a perfect respite from the pressures of the real world. Except, of course, when the show makes you cry your eyes out and question the objective value of life itself.
The protagonist of A:TLA is an Air Nomad named Aang. As the titular “Avatar”, Aang is the only one on the planet who can control (or “bend”) the four elements of nature: air, water, fire, and earth. Prior to the main events of the series, Aang froze himself in the ocean for 100 years following an attack by the jingoist Fire Nation that wiped out his entire people. Did we mention he was twelve years old at the time?
So, to recap, this child is woken up after 100 years to find that: a) basically everyone he’s ever known has died, b) his entire culture is dead, systemically culled through genocide, and c) the world is now almost totally under the control of the Fire Nation (which, remember, killed everyone he ever loved) and it’s pretty much all his fault. That’s a staggering burden for anyone to bear, let alone someone who has yet to hit puberty.
Hey, at least it’s better than the movie (check out our review here).
13. Thomas & Friends
You probably remember Thomas & Friends as a mostly harmless piece of preschool-level entertainment designed to sell toy trains. Sure, the titular Thomas and his friends had an unfortunate case of creepy-dead-eyes, but the core values must have been about the importance of friendship and the value of teamwork or whatever. Right?
The actual elements of the show and spin-off movies include: institutionalized racism, vying for the mercurial love of a tyrannical overlord, and shunning those who lack value to the state. See, Thomas and the rest of the upper crust of the Island of Sodor (the home of the trains) are steam engines. They are encouraged by the railway baron Sir Topham Hatt to demoralize and disdain the inferior diesel engines that also populate the island. Hatt (called “The Fat Controller” in the British version) rules Sodor with an iron fist, relegating machines he considers less-than-useful to the hellish Smelter’s Yard to be cannibalized for materials.
12. Courage The Cowardly Dog
Seen as the epitome of dark kids’ shows, Courage the Cowardly Dog is a veritable feast of terror. The intrepid, if admittedly cowardly Courage is an incredibly gifted lavender dog living in the fictional town of Nowhere, Kansas with his owners Muriel and Eustace Bagge. Courage’s life story reads like a particularly grim piece of Russian fiction.
After having been abandoned when his parents were forcibly shot into space by a crazed vet, Courage places great value on the integrity of family. Although easily frightened, he goes to great lengths to protect Eustace and Muriel from all manner of monsters, aliens, and straight-up demons. He even develops a complex system of non-verbal communication (including shape-shifting!) to warn them of impending danger. His reward? He is frequently tortured by Eustace, both psychologically and physically. Muriel, his only source of comfort, is mostly oblivious to his warnings and almost never acknowledges his astounding heroics. On the bright side, at least he has access to a computer!
11. Voltron: Legendary Defender
Another success for Netflix’s original content initiative, Voltron: Legendary Defender is a re-imagining of the 1980s series Voltron: Defender of the Universe. While the original series was much more focused on selling toys, and the show itself was cobbled together from pieces of a Japanese property called Beast King GoLion, the new Voltron has an intricate and dark backstory.
Voltron, a 100 meter tall robot composed of five smaller lion mechas, is the “Defender of the Universe”; a super-weapon built by a technologically advanced alien race called “Alteans.” Prior to the events of the series, the sinister Galra Empire destroyed planet Altea, forcing its leader to dismantle Voltron and disperse his constituent parts across the universe. His daughter and heir was placed into stasis with her retainer Coran, waiting for new pilots worthy of Voltron.
So… that’s genocide, right? Almost all of the Alteans are dead? Making it a xenocide, technically? Look, we get that the series makes up for it by being wacky and fun, but that is some heavy psychological baggage for kids to deal with.
10. Pinky And The Brain
Most of us know the story of Pinky and the Brain. In fact, you probably have the theme song stuck in your head right now. For the uninitiated, the series follows the exploits of two genetically enhanced mice as one (Brain) tries to take over the world. He usually fails due to a combination of his own hubris, his sidekick’s (Pinky) ineptitude, and outside circumstances. The world remains unconquered and we get to see our hilarious duo try again the next night.
Here’s the thing, though: the people who created them at Acme Labs are monsters. Like, for real, just terrible people. Pinky and the Brain only preform their wacky hijinks at night, after being subjected to a full day of scientific experimentation. That means the scientists who work with them are experimenting on sentient beings that they created. One can make the argument that the scientists don’t know the mice have human-level intelligence (which seems unlikely given the obvious physical mutations they’ve undergone) but that only makes it worse. Imagine being treated like a dumb animal all day while an incompetent scientist preforms vicious experiments on you. It almost makes Brain’s megalomania understandable.
9. SpongeBob SquarePants
Come on, what could be wrong with SpongeBob SquarePants? That incredibly upbeat sponge is a joyous presence in the lives of children today and a cherished memory for many adults. The citizens of Bikini Bottom have brightened the day of countless people, especially our eponymous SpongeBob. But, we have to ask ourselves, why is SpongeBob so happy?
Let’s look at the barebones facts of SpongeBob’s life. He lives by himself, completely alone except for his pet snail (basically a cat). While his age is indeterminate we know that he is both old enough to be on his own and have elderly parents, thus we can assume he is developmentally in his mid-to-late 20s. He is severely mentally unstable, often experiencing intense mood swings. He can’t drive, indeed he seems to have a border-line learning disability regarding boats. His neighbor, whom he considers one of his closest friends, can’t stand him. He works as a fry cook with no hope for career advancement, despite his boundless creative energy.
8. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters
Aaah!!! Real Monsters was always intended to be a fairly creepy show. The main plot follows three monsters (Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm) as they train to become expert “scarers”. The monsters live underneath a landfill in what appears to be New York City, and many devote their lives to scaring human beings.
When you break down the seemingly-juvenile premise, it turns out to be pretty legitimately terrifying– monsters exist. A whole race of horrifying beings devoted to tormenting humanity is actually real — or “aaahh!!! real”, as it were. They have a complex economy based on the collection of human toenails and appear to be born from the “Pool of Elders”, a sort of primordial collection of fear from which the monsters derive their existence.
The monsters seem to have evolved specifically to interact with humans. Oblina, for example, can induce nightmares in people by sticking her finger in their ears and tickling their brain while they sleep. A sentient race of individuals capable of inducing neurological damage in Homo Sapiens through sheer instinct prowl beneath the streets of New York. Why anyone ever thought that would be appropriate for children, we’ll never know.
7. Hey Arnold!
There are certain elements of entertainment that we take for granted as children. We normalize them and accept them without question because of the joy the media offers us. Hey Arnold! certainly did not lack joy. From the creatively designed characters to the often reinforced message that it’s okay to be different, Hey Arnold! offered a seemingly benign distraction from the unique pressures of childhood.
As an adult, however, it’s difficult to ignore the very real problems in Arnold’s fictional city. Take, for example, Harold Berman. Harold was a Jewish American classmate of Arnold’s, and when he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah some of us were exposed to the ancient and beautiful world of Judaism for the first time. Here’s the thing: Harold is in the fourth grade. He is thirteen years old in the fourth grade. The kicker? He’s one of two thirteen-year-olds in Arnold’s class. The other is Torvald, a large and aggressive young man with an apparent learning disability, who barely even bothers showing up for class.
Hey Arnold! deals with organized crime, the struggle of immigrants, and school budget shortages in just some of its storylines. In short, the series was really about the crippling poverty of inner cities and the challenges that poses to public education.
6. Adventure Time
The Land of Ooo is a mystical place full of wonder and excitement. The main stage of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, Ooo is replete with kingdoms (made and populated with everything from Candy to Slime) and there is seemingly never a dull moment for our protagonist, Finn the Human.
His title, however, hints at the dark nature of this magical environment. Finn the Human. Finn is the only human left on the planet. Adventure Time takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, after the Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war. It’s not just humankind as a whole that has had a rough time of it, however. Finn was abandoned by his father (his mother was out of the picture), is constantly exposed to danger both mystical and metaphysical, and undergoes physical and mental abuse with a reasonable amount of consistency. Oh, and he’s 12 years old at the start of the series.
Adventure Time, at its core, is a story about a human child trying to grow up in a world that is inherently alien and hostile towards him. So it’s really not all that unlike most people’s experience in middle school.
5. The Ren & Stimpy Show
One of the three original Nicktoons (alongside Rugrats and Doug) The Ren & Stimpy Show often considered the progenitor of adult animation such as South Park and Beavis and Butt-Head. The shows was defined by its sexual innuendo, absurdist humor, and good ol’ fashioned slapstick. The Ren & Stimpy Show, colloquially called Ren & Stimpy, was produced in the early days of animation aimed specifically at children. This meant that the animators and writers got away with some truly dark stuff.
Ren and Stimpy– a Chihuahua and a house cat, respectively– are mentally unstable, occasionally homeless, and confronted by absurdist nightmares almost daily. Ren has zero problems assaulting people brutally, and even the seemingly good-hearted Stimpy is not above using mind control to get what he wants. When you go back and watch the show now, it feels like nothing so much as a bad trip. Ren & Stimpy must have left some deep psychological scars on unwary children.
4. Rocket Power
The kids from Rocket Power-– Otto, Reggie, Twister, and even Squid– had a pretty idyllic life. They spent most days outside playing sports and games with their friends, they got to hang out with Tony Hawk, they even qualified for the X-Games! And all this while enjoying the abundant California sunshine and basically no adult supervision.
Wait, when you think about it that last part’s kind of weird. Where are their parents? Like ever? The gang in Rocket Power seem to have unlimited permission to engage in high-level extreme sports with little to no adult involvement. Hell, the most concerned party seems to be the Rocket’s crotchety neighbor Merv Stimpleton, and he’s often portrayed as the antagonist. The adult we see the most, however, is Raymond “Raymundo” Rocket. The father of Otto and Reggie, Raymundo seems to have had a complete breakdown after the death of his wife. He basically lets his children do whatever they want, focusing his efforts instead on his often struggling restaurant.
3. Invader Zim
An enduring symbol to emo kids everywhere, Invader Zim was one of the most boldly bleak shows of its time. Intended as a series for Nickelodeon’s increasingly older demographic, it pushed the envelope on what could still be reasonably considered children’s television.
Invader Zim stars an emotionally insecure and cruel alien protagonist– the titular Zim– as he attempts to conquer Earth with his advanced technology. Diminutive in stature, Zim infiltrates human society by enrolling in a public school. A human classmate named Dib Membrane– a conspiracy theorist obsessed with both the occult and the extraterrestrial– is the only one who challenges him. That’s an insane premise for someone to digest, let alone someone who can’t even watch a PG-13 movie yet.
The series poses a scenario in which: 1) aliens are revealed to be real and dedicated toward conquest and 2) they can basically look like a normal person and blend in among us. Toss in the fact that Invader Zim has some of the most disturbing visuals of any mainstream animated series, and you’ve got a veritable recipe for children’s nightmares.
2. Rocko’s Modern Life
Memories about the landmark Nickelodeon series Rocko’s Modern Life are… confusing to say the least. Created in 1993, the series was intended to be accessible to both children and adults. The show may have wound being decidedly more popular with children, but there were definitely some very adult moments. Today, Rocko’s Modern Life is remembered almost exclusively for its sexual innuendo, satirical commentary on the nature of society, and double entendre. The show’s creators even had several well-documented battles regarding censorship with the network. In fact, a fictional restaurant named the “Chokey Chicken” had to be renamed the “Chewey Chicken” in the fourth season due to the obvious masturbation reference.
Rocko was a lonely Australian immigrant who lived in O-Town, USA. He briefly works as a phone sex operator after losing his job, and it appears that most of his city is owned and operated by the Conglom-O corporation, a metaphor for the dangers of capitalism. Rocko’s Modern Life told the story of how generally terrible it was to live in modern day America, using a host of anthropomorphic animals to stand in for U.S. citizens.
1. The Care Bears
Originally developed for greeting cards, the Care Bears franchise is the embodiment of love and treacle. Clearly aimed towards children, the series encouraged viewers to interact with the program, entreating them to aim “positive thoughts” at the TV. The Care Bears themselves were your typical joyful, cuddly, unyieldingly strict thought police.
In case you’re foggy, the Care Bears’ adventures always started out with the “Caring Meter” directing our heroes towards a child who was undisciplined, or rude, or just plain sad. The Care Bears would then confront the kid (when they were alone, of course) and bombard them with their ideology and a nice long hug to ensure the young one conformed to their notion of “happiness”.
So, that’s messed up on a couple of levels. First off, the Care Bears are watching everyone, all the time. That’s treated like a given, but it’s terrifying. Secondly, they are fundamentally altering the personalities of children they don’t know either through their hugs or their more powerful Care Bear Stare.
Look, being sad sucks. We get it. But it’s also a fundamental part of growing up! By never allowing these childrent o experience sadness, the Care Bears may have forced a generation into arrested development.
Are there any other kids’ shows that you’ve realized are actually really dark and disturbing? Let us know in the comments!