When you don’t have children, kids shows don’t really make it onto your radar unless they annoy parents so much that they’ll vent about it to anyone who’ll listen. That’s the only reason I was aware of Barney, Teletubbies, and that little red bastard, Elmo.
So when I had two little goblins of my own, I braced myself for 10 years of cartoon waterboarding. Much to my delight, I discovered a whole world of strange, gothy, and even horror-lite kids shows, mostly thanks to the odd proclivities of my weirdlings. I recommend screening any of these shows yourself before letting your kids watch, because while they’re all specifically for children, some of them have some really bizarre and intense visuals.
Maybe your kids will love that like mine do. Maybe they’ll wake up shrieking and crawl into your bed. I don’t want that on me; do your due diligence.
The New Adventures of Figaro Pho
B is for Barneyphobia – the fear that children’s programming will suck. Okay, that isn’t a thing, but I’m putting Figaro first, because I enjoy watching him as much as the kids do. Figaro started life as a series of film shorts about a weird little boy with a whole alphabet of phobias, from the stock standard fear of spiders (arachnophobia) to the not-so-common fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth (arachibutyrophobia).
Each episode tackles a new phobia, and the unique and spooky look and feel of the Figaroverse can be attributed to The Nightmare Before Christmas art director, Deane Taylor.
It was your second year working at Hot Topic and you were starting to think you’d never get out of Topeka. That’s when he started working there; brooding and gloomy, his black swoopy bangs had a little red stripe. His nametag said Daniel, but you knew him as Damien.
And when you made dark and terrible love in front of all your Skelanimals, you didn’t expect that nine months later, little Astrid Victoriana Hekate-Jones would be born. But she was, and now you need something to watch while Damien’s My Chemical Romance cover band is on tour in Ohio.
Ruby Gloom is there for you.
Watch the intro on YouTube for the full spoopy palette of purples and darker-purples.
Full of sad-looking monster characters and perky goth protagonist Ruby Gloom, this is a kids show that seems designed as much for Hot Topic merchandise as for entertainment.
Casper’s Scare School
Everybody wants to be monsters until it’s time to do monster shit. That’s what Scare School is here for; to teach little monsters how to terrorize the living, which is the closest analogy I can find to my own parenting ethos.
Let’s take a moment to ruminate on the fact that Casper (yes, that Casper) is the friendly ghost of a dead child. Casper attends Scare School along with all the other proto-monsters to learn how to stop sucking at being a ghost. He makes friends with a living boy whose dad is a paranormal investigator. Wackiness ensues.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
I was 20 and well on my way into surly, misguided adulthood when Courage first hit the scene, so other than a vague awareness, I didn’t know much about it until my son wanted to watch “the one with the dog” on Netflix. I thought, “Yeah, okay. I remember this sho-HOLY SHIT.”
Courage, you see, is a horror cartoon. I didn’t know that. But the eponymous Courage is a (you guessed it) Cowardly Dog who lives with a sweet old lady and a mean old bastard in a little cottage on a surreal, Clive Barkerian hellscape. Constantly beset by supernatural existential threats to which they are largely oblivious, Courage is the first and reluctant line of defense between Muriel and Eustace Bagge and the forces of hell.
I find myself thinking Jesus Christ! a lot while watching it, but my kids love it. Even the haunting, slinky Katz theme that I can still hear in quiet moments when I feel most alone.
Mah favrit berks!
So, some things you should know about Goosebumps:
- It’s for slightly older, school-age kids. There is definitely some intense imagery, and it’s intended to be scary, and for kids, it is. If you loved it, that’s why.
- It doesn’t hold up as well as you think it does. It’s sooooo 90s, but pretty fun to watch as a grownup for nostalgia and if it gets your kids interested in reading, fantastic.
- lol, Ryan Gosling.
Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy
Billy and Mandy win a limbo contest against the Grim Reaper and enslave him as their best friend forever! Yay!
The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy is the sole survivor of a series of animated series for Cartoon Network in the early 00s, and as such, it is full of jokes and references for the parents of the day; Harry Potter jokes probably won’t be lost on you in 2017, and the dialogue still feels fresh, so it’s quite watchable. And what kid doesn’t want power over life and death?!
Was that just me?
A dark Disney offering, Gravity Falls follows the adventures of Dipper Pines and his twin sister Mabel who are sent to spend the summer with their great-uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan, in a mysterious town full of paranormal forces and supernatural creatures.
If Gravity Falls has a whiff of Adventure Time weirdness about it, it might be because series creator Alex Hirsch worked on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack with Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward. Neat!
Gravity Falls, again, is of the nuveau variety of children’s animation that is written to be quite watchable by adult captive audiences. With references to horror films, Twin Peaks, Tarantino movies and even Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ll get Gravity Falls, and you’ll like it.
And also, Mabel is voiced by Kristen Schaal, who you might recognize as Sarah Lynn on BoJack Horseman, which is very definitely not for kids.
Invader Zim hasn’t been on television for 11 years, but Johnny the Homicidal Maniac creator Jhonen Vasquez (pronounced “JOHN-hw-WYNN-h VASS-skwez) accidentally made a kids show for goth 20-somethings and Nickelodeon ran with it.
This show is about plucky and amibitious Irkin named Zim, who’s sent to Earth by the leaders of his race (the Tallest, in fact), to destroy and subjugate humanity, and he does a really bad job at it for a surprising number of seasons.
This show spawned a LOT of Hot Topic merchandise, novelty backpacks, people who sing The Doom Song without much provocation, and a loooooooot of Gir tattoos. I used to love it. I have no idea if my kids would love it. I just remembered that I used to have the whole collection on DVD, but my ex took it when she moved out.
Small price to pay, tbh.
I leave you with one of the best animated series intros of all time: