5 Episodes Of Kids' Shows That Got Shockingly Dark
It must be hard to write for children's TV shows. When you're playing within a sandbox that limited, it must be excruciating to resist the temptations to walk into that sandbox every once in a while and stomp the hell out of the little plastic shovels and kick over someone's shitty little sandcastle. The problem is that when that happens to be in the world of TV shows aimed at kids, you doing that as a writer probably amounts to sneaking in a surprising episode where the Teletubbies start doing meth and form a gang that exclusively goes around pooping in between the handles of people's car doors and you have to back that into some thin lesson about ... I don't know ... why kids shouldn't do meth and try to perfectly hide crap in the handle of a Honda Civic.
But damn, it has to get rough to sit in that writers' room and try to find ways to make your characters do boring, safe things that will upset absolutely nobody along the way. The good news is that, sometimes, the car-shitting Teletubbies of every writer's dreams do emerge and make their way to the screen ...
Small Wonder - "The Sheik"
You know what you don't see enough of in kids' shows? Some of those kids being forced into harems. But before we get into that madness, let's get into the madness that was Small Wonder.
In case you didn't know, because you're probably a well-adjusted human that doesn't have a repository of useless mid-'80s TV shows dancing around in your brain, kicking out any useless information like mucus bullies in a pharma commercial, Small Wonder was your standard high-concept sitcom of the time. Essentially, a dude, Ted, is an engineer, and he makes VICI (Voice Input Child Identicant) a robot girl that's damn near a superhero. Soon, the family falls in love with her, starts calling her Vicki, and pretends that she is just their adopted daughter.
Just to make sure, you got the most important part here, Vicki is Ted's robot daughter. Someone who, presumably, has some kind of love for and hopefully treats as one of his own in every way.
So with that in mind, Ted, of course, lets a visiting young ruler from an Arab country draft Vicki into his harem to maintain a business advantage in that young man's nation.
The very idea of introducing the concept of a harem into a kids' show is ... daring, to say the least. It's generally a theme that most kids' shows would try to avoid. There are probably a ton of different scenarios you can draft up to show that your protagonist will go through some pretty serious lengths to maintain a business relationship and put his robot child in some sticky situations while doing so, without needing to go ahead and take this route.
It really makes you wonder if this episode was the product of serious rewrites, and this was simply the most toned-down version that the team could come up with. In previous drafts, maybe Ted sent Vicki in with a group of child soldiers to gain access to a country's diamond mine, or, better yet, for this kids show, how about Ted sends Vicki off for a sleepover at Michael Jackson's in exchange for a copy of Moonwalker for the Sega Genesis. You know, just standard bartering situations to use your (robot) child as a playing chip.
If anything, "The Sheik" episode of Small Wonder proves that when it comes to kids' TV, some shows simply aren't afraid of throwing the curviest of curveballs at you.
Looney Tunes - "Life With Feathers"
It's no secret that Looney Tunes dealt with some pretty outrageous themes and storylines. Whether through their checkered history of questionable characterizations or going balls out with some pretty extreme violence for kids' programming, it's probably not a huge surprise to find them on this list. And yet, the 1945 short, Life With Feathers, is still worth mentioning because of the way it just says, "You know what? Forget it. We're going to have a bird desperately trying to commit suicide by cat for seven-plus minutes, and kids are just going to have to deal with it."
In the first appearance for Sylvester, who would go on to be one of the company's most iconic murder animals, the short centers around a lovebird trying to do just about anything to get this cat to kill him. The reason? His bird wife was fed up with his shit and decided to kick him out of the nest, and the lovebird just couldn't take the pain anymore, so he decided to track down the closest cat.
Throughout the course of the episode, the lovebird tries to convince Sylvester to kill him. And even though Sylvester is a bloodthirsty, bird-devouring maniac, he is given pause by this lovebird's absolute death wish. Assuming that the bird has been poisoned, Sylvester suppresses his urges and resists when the lovebird crawls inside of his mouth or tunes all of the radio stations to food commercials to get Sylvester's appetite up.
If you're a kid, the messaging here may be a tad confusing. "Have a problem? Find the one thing that is absolutely best at killing you and throw yourself in front of it. Was today's homework a bitch? Well, shit, you're in a body made out of crappy skin and weak ass bones, so I'm sure that 12 o'clock train that plunders through your neighborhood every day could take that Algebra II off of your plate for good."
But don't worry, the episode ends with a valuable lesson learned and the lovebird being welcomed back home to its nest after realizing that letting this cat eat him was not the answer. Just kidding. He goes home, his old ball and chain starts annoying him again, and he goes outside and summons Sylvester to come finish the job.
Boy Meets World - "Cult Fiction"
One thing that every good kids' show needs is a nefarious group for the protagonists to brush up against. Maybe it's a gang that just moved into the neighborhood and is pushing some questionable behavior on them, or it could even be an exclusive new friend group within their school that is bringing out some less-than-stellar behavior in our heroes. One thing that most good kids show don't need is an episode where one of the protagonists joins a cult that's seemingly only really focused on brainwashing kids through the power of ... hugging?
That's precisely what happened in the Boy Meets World episode "Cult Fiction," when series bad boy Shawn Hunter is lured into a hug-happy cult, The Centre. The spelling on that is there to really let you know that these bastards are extra depraved.
In the episode, Shawn is pushed away by his favorite teacher, Mr. Turner, after Turner gives him pretty solid advice on not being a total shithead. So Shawn went and upped the shithead ante and decided to join a cult to take things to another level.
The problem with the cult is, they are about as nebulous and undefined as a cult in a kids' show would be. They're mostly only into hugging and calling each other by their first names a lot, and they kind of just walk around and get hip-to-hip while the cult's leader, Mr. Mack, promises them that they're welcome here. In this hugging cult. Where they ... don't do anything else. But honestly, if you're a boy going through puberty, a club that promises any close contact with a girl is going to have a line out the block in no time.
Keep in mind, this, like all episodes of Boy Meets World, are under 30 minutes, so they're forced to tell this entire arc of Shawn becoming brainwashed by some slightly weird huggers in the amount of time you might take an extra-long dump to get a little alone time. In a half-hour, Shawn emerges fully on board with their mission. The Centre's mission, of course, is ... well ... again ... it's basically to hug each other and be generally creepy, but not really go too far beyond that.
As you can expect, because even though this kids show took a turn and went into dark territory for a moment, Shawn eventually breaks free of the cult. But how he does so stays completely in line with how batshit this episode is to begin with.
After Mr. Turner has a horrific motorcycle accident and is hospitalized, Shawn shows up at his bedside and realizes that he's been brainwashed. So he does something even more brainwashed than following a cult leader; he gets on his knees, has a conversation with God, sets about healing Mr. Turner. Once again, proving that if your kids' show isn't out there showing children just how many options they have when it comes to finding the cult of their choosing, it's probably not doing it right.
Rugrats - "Angelica's Worst Nightmare"
Rugrats was a show that was not afraid to tackle surprisingly mature themes. Whether in its animation style or the kinds of issues it sometimes tackled, Rugrats seemed to respect its audience more than most kids' shows. That still doesn't mean that your kids' show needs an episode where the protagonist goes through a fever dream from hell, being chased by the imaginary brother set out to replace and destroy her. In "Angelica's Worst Nightmare," that's exactly what played out.
After Angelica's parents tell her that a sibling is on the way, the prototypical only child short-circuits and slips into a dream that only a Vietnam combat vet could top. In the dream, Angelica's hypothetical brother does everything in his power to push her out of the family's life, she's moved out to the laundry room, and he's given all of the attention and love.
What's particularly unsettling about this for a kids' show is just how trippy the episode is. It's probably already hard enough to find the nuance to tell the story of the feeling an older sibling may go through when someone new is on the way, but to ramp it up as this fable? That's more like Hunter S. Thompson dropped acid and got lost inside Nickelodeon Studios and just found his way into the Rugrats writers' room. The episode is this hellacious, frankly terrifying romp through Angelica's psyche as she struggles to come to grips with this potential new addition.
In retrospect, I love how the episode handles this and tries to push the boundaries. Still, if I'm to look at this through the lens of an actual child watching an actual kids' show, this one might do nearly as much damage as when I rented A Fire in the Sky in third grade and ruined my parents' sex life for at least the next year and a half with nightly drop-ins.
So I'd say, just my general rule of thumb, it might be best to deal with sensitive issues in a subdued way in your kids' shows. Dying to get that episode out where Caillou learns the value of money? You probably don't need to make Caillou part of a Point Break-esque bank-robbing unit, ruthlessly blowing away bank tellers in a grim, dark, bloody episode in order to arrive at that point.
In the end, Angelica's parents don't even end up having the baby, and they took us through this nightmare for nothing.
Thomas The Tank Engine - "The Sad Story Of Henry"
Writing a show for kids about characters that are quite literally on rails sounds like a goddamn Greek tragedy. All of the accolades may go to the prestige dramas pulling at the same heartstrings by using the same tropes with the same approach they've been doing for years, but somebody needs to get out there and give the people that work on these shows more credit. By episode three writing in this world, I'd have already given Thomas legs, arms, and a damn jetpack, and he'd also be a shirtless train that soars over drug nests in Central America and shuts that shit down through ruthless force.
But I'm not writing on Thomas the Tank Engine, and the world will have to wait for my version, where in episode five, there's a full-on, close-up sex scene between Thomas and another train because I have simply run out of other ideas. What this show actually did in their episode "The Sad Story of Henry" is somehow, maybe even more messed up?
In the episode, Henry is a vibrant green train who is proud of his shiny colors. So proud that he becomes terrified of messing them up. When a rainstorm hits, Henry parks himself in a tunnel and decides to wait it out for fear of messing up his coat. But then, he just stays there. Even after the clouds have parted and everyone has come by to tell him to get his ass back out there, the agoraphobic train simply cannot budge. Friends try to talk him out of there, and they even try to bump his ass from the tunnel, but Henry ain't moving. So what do they do? Well, they give Henry exactly what he wants.
The tracks are pulled from around him, the tunnel is filled with bricks, and everybody dips on old Henry.
His whistle stops working, and his fire goes out, and he's left there all alone, as the narrator closes with, "But I think he deserved this punishment, don't you?" A lesson that, on its face, is utterly absurd to feature in a kids show, but is also kind of the most accurate depiction of the ruthless world every kid watching will eventually be graduating in to and I have now convinced myself that "The Sad Story of Henry" is the single most important thing for any kid to see before the realities of the world come crashing down on them.