Despite all the advances in technology and the inevitable but plodding progress towards a society that doesn’t treat huge swatches of its population like second class citizens who are allowed to starve to death, there is one thing that just keeps getting worse and worse. Something that is so fundamentally important to the development of our children and our culture that its decline in quality is a legitimate societal tragedy.
Those of us thickly in the middle of our 20s were spoiled, spending our formative years watching Saturday morning cartoons that really pushed boundaries and tried to be as subversive as possible.
That isn’t to say there aren’t quality cartoons nowadays, but the best ones are more obvious in their catering towards the stoner/bored parent demographics while the ones directly geared towards the younger generation are generally. In the 90s, they just snuck all that stuff past the censors. Simpler times and all.
The Toxic Crusaders
Now, the content of the Toxic Crusaders was not particularly objectionable – it was essentially Captain Planet with a grotesquely malformed mutant instead of a sort of creepy blue skinned guy who lives in a bunch of kids’ Ring Pops. That might piss off the people that think the Lorax was “librul progapaganda” but wouldn’t make it a no-go to regular people who actually, you know, like having a planet to live on. No, the reason Toxic Crusaders wouldn’t happen now is because of what it is based on. Rather than explaining Troma and their awesome brand of filmmaking, I’ll just leave this video here to make my point for me.
And here’s the cartoon version:
With Google, Youtube, and parents apparent inability to make sure their kids aren’t looking at boobs and nuns getting run over without complaining to your local news show or congress first, there is no way a network would give this a chance now.
Even the good cartoons that make it onto the airwaves in the 2000s tend to treat their stories like Lindsamanda Bynehan treats the law – as if they don’t matter. Most cartoons in the English speaking world adhere to the cyclical status quo, where no matter how outlandish the events of an episode are, it comes right around to where it started and are usually never acknowledged again. Whether that’s because they just don’t think the younger crowd has the attention span for intricate plots and strong characterization. They usually replace all that junk with bright flashing colors and fast paced butt jokes.
Gargoyles was a show that didn’t feel that way. Quite the opposite actually. Story arcs were long and given time to develop, characters were complicated, and there isn’t a bright color to be found anywhere – especially evident in the grayness of its morality. This show was so dark that it probably did more to create teenage goth kids than Ian Curtis.
I know I said “90s kid’s cartoons” in the very beginning of this article, I figured I’d throw SWAT Kats on here anyway. Plus I’m pretty sure none of you care about the accuracy as much as you care about me saying funny things about stuff you are getting nostalgia boners over. SWAT Kats was really not a cartoon for kids, at all. It was Hannah-Barbera seeing the writing on the wall about Japan’s future cartoon dominance and wanting to get the west in on the action. In order to compete with a country that already considered cartoons an adult form of entertainment, and a good place to watch tentacles have sex with school girls, SWAT Kats ratcheted up the intensity. Unlike Gargoyles, which focused more on slow burning character arcs, SWAT Kats was all about the action. And the body count. The krime fight-.. er crime fighting Kats themselves don’t pull any punches. Bad guys get killed, people get betrayed, innocents get sacrificed, and a major part of the show revolves around drug running. Catnip, naturally.
For some reason, SWAT Kats is considered an obscure show. This was despite it being the highest rated cartoon in syndication during its run. Ted Turner, wanting to make sure that cartoon enthusiasts had a chance to hate him as much as classic movie buffs and professional wrestling fans already do, pushed hard for it to be canceled so they could focus on shows that didn’t “encourage kids to shoot people.” Despite the people who actually created the show telling him that it wasn’t for kids.
Seriously Ted, fuck you.
Right on the corner of Gargoyles Street and SWAT Kats Drive would be Exosquad. Once again, not really a show that was geared towards kids, but in the early 90s network execs thought anything animated was targeting the same audience as Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears. If that same audience turned on an episode of Exosquad, they’d see permanent death, bloodshed, good guys doing bad things and bad guys doing good things, realistic representations of prejudice, and a whole lot of questioning towards the necessity of war and all the tragedies it causes. Pretty much all kinds of serious things parents don’t feel like talking to their kids about until they are old enough to vote.
Exosquad is incredibly underrated, criminally so even, and holds up against almost anything from the Land of the Rising Sun. Like SWAT Kats, it was canceled despite being well received. Maybe I should have named this article “Cartoons from the 90s that would be canceled today AND the 90s because they totally were. Seriously, it is like nobody knows what the fuck “good” is.”
Might have been too wordy though.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
Speaking of me stretching the definition of my articles to include shows I want to talk about, Courage the Cowardly Dog barely makes the cut for the 90s. It debuted in November of 1999 and ran until 2002, but hey the 90s are the 90s. Plus Courage was a truly fucked up show. Following the adventures of the titular high strung dog as he is loved and abused by his elderly owners, this show wandered its way into nightmare territory every ten minutes. I can’t even think of a singular example to use in a witty analogy like “this part is creepier than something creepy from a different thing” because of how often Courage had a justifiable reason to be cowardly. All you have to say to somebody who is familiar with this show is “Freaky Fred” if you want to watch somebody pee their pants.
Have fun sleeping!
Ren & Stimpy
If you haven’t seen Ren & Stimpy and I need to explain why it is still mindblowing that it was actually on television, on Nickelodeon no less, you have been living one sheltered life.
If there was ever a Saturday morning cartoon that could be considered “too smart” it would be the Animaniacs. There are jokes in this show that I’m still not old enough to get. Not only that, but Yakko, Wakko, and Dot probably cost more censors jobs than every recession combined. If you Google the term “subversive” I give even odds that you can find one definition that, in lieu of words, is a picture of three anthropomorphic dog/cat things trying to make out with an incredibly busty nurse.