Animated shows have carried the stigma of being nothing more than cheap distractions for children. However, in spite of most cartoons being directed at children, shows creators have been known to add aspects that only adult viewers could appreciate. This is a strong difference to animated shows like Archer and South Park which are intended for adult audiences in spite of being animated. However, animated shows don’t just gather a mature audience with a few risque jokes that go over most kid’s heads, it can be the simple fact that the show’s writers have crafted a genuinely engaging story with interesting characters. Then again, sometimes it’s just about the risque jokes.
These are cartoons, intended for young audiences, which have inadvertently gained a more mature following thanks to the content sprinkled throughout their episodes.
On the surface, Courage The Cowardly Dog sounds like a classic cartoon scenario: an easily frightened dog must rescue his adopted family from evil forces with plans to either cook them in a stew or trap them on a deserted island. Sounds like a rather heartwarming cartoon about how one little dog must overcome his fears to save the people he loves, right? In reality, Courage The Cowardly Dog is that and a whole lot of crazy.
This show is full of dark and disturbing imagery thanks in part to the unique monsters that plague the Kansas town of Nowhere where the show takes place. Courage has tackled mobster foot fungus, Norse goose gods, and even went through the entire plot of the Danny Boyle film Sunshine years before it was even made. The strange designs, hilariously dark humor, and clever use of horror movie tropes have garnered a solid cult following by people way outside the show’s target demographic.
This is a show that needs no introduction. It’s a Warner Bros. classic which, to this day, remains popular for its zany antics, witty scripts brimming with pop culture references, and their Emmy award winning songs. Being produced by Steven Spielberg also doesn’t hurt. The result was one of the best cartoons that many children of the 90’s remain fond of.
Be it the whacky adventures of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, the doomed to fail plots of Pinky and The Brain, or the seedy misadventures of the Goodfeathers each and every animated short was intended not just for children but for adults as well. Again, this show made a point to reference any and every piece of pop culture at that time. The Goodfeathers were, obviously, references to the mobster films Goodfellas and The Godfather but as a kid you just see some funny sounding pigeons. On top of pop culture references, Animaniacs also made a point to fill their shorts with enough of innuendos to make The Todd blush. If you need a reminder, here’s a handy YouTube video of some of the stuff Animaniacs managed to get past the radar. Good night everybody!
8. The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
Two kids manage to trick Death into being their servant and get into crazy adventures usually involving denizens of the underworld and pretty much everything between that and aliens. No this isn’t Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, it’s The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. The show was originally part of the much darker animated sketch show Grim & Evil but was eventually turned into a somewhat lighter standalone series that has remained popular in the eyes of viewers of all ages.
Much like fellow Cartoon Network series Courage The Cowardly Dog, this show heavily relied on dark comedy due to its setup. It also made numerous references to classic horror films such as Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Terminator, Se7en, and even a fair share of Dune references. The result was a strong following composed of more mature viewers who could appreciate the show when it referenced the Cthulhu Mythos. You read that right, a children’s cartoon referenced the Cthulhu Mythos.
In the mid-to-late 90’s, Disney’s usually bright and lighthearted animated television shows were given a dose of dark and gritty when Gargoyles came onto the scene. The series followed the story of a group of gargoyles who are frozen in stone during the middle ages until being released in modern day New York. The show was hailed at the time as a bold new step in the realm of animated storytelling due to its dark dramatic tone and complex plots full of revenge, mythological figures, and deep characters.
Oh, and the voice cast consisted almost entirely of Star Trek actors. TNG stars like Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis were series regulars on Gargoyles voicing the antagonists billionaire Xanatos and genocidal gargoyle Demona respectively. Pretty much every Star Trek actor–be it from the Original Series, TNG, Deep Space 9 or Voyager–had a guest starring role on Gargoyles at some point. When not giving Trek actors a place to go after filming, Gargoyles also had prolific sci-fi actors like Keith David, who voiced Goliath the leader of the gargoyles in what is probably his most awesome performance ever; and Salli Richardson (of Eureka fame), who voiced the character Detective Elisa Maza. Needless to say, Disney’s intent to sell the show to the 6-11 year old demographic was quickly overshadowed by the sci-fi crowd who came for the voices and stayed for the stories. Sadly, the third season of the show would try to rectify that with disastrous results.