Some cartoons barely make it past one season while others — The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy — stretch into the double digits despite arguments that their decreasing quality doesn’t warrant such a long TV life. Networks don’t just stick things on air for the sheer fun of it — they’re businesses. So, if a show isn’t drawing in a satisfying amount of viewers, advertiser interest, or selling enough affiliated merchandise, they tend to pull the plug pretty quickly. This can seem particularly unfair when a show is struggling to find an audience, but is still of really high quality. After all, a great piece of art is still a great piece of art even if only a handful of people see it.
Even cartoon series that seem totally un-cancel-able have to fight for survival sometimes. Family Guy was canceled not once but twice by Fox early into its run because executives — despite liking the show — weren’t impressed enough with its ratings. It literally took members of some of their own families talking their ears off about how much they missed it (plus strong DVD sales and ratings from re-runs on Adult Swim) to bring it back to life. It just goes to show no toon is safe, not eve the following ones.
15. YOUNG JUSTICE
Following in the footsteps of Teen Titans, Young Justice tapped into the same fanbase that had loved the adolescent melodrama of teen superhero sidekicks and quickly became a Cartoon Network favorite. Then the unthinkable happened — two seasons in with plans for a third in place, the network axed it. Fans were shocked but what was even more shocking was the truth-bomb dropped by Paul Dini in an 2013 episode of Kevin Smith’s Fatman On Batman podcast afterwards.
Following two of his shows being recently canceled, Dini claimed he’d heard one executive say they didn’t want girls watching those kinds of shows because “they don’t buy toys.” Young Justice co-creator Greg Weisman is skeptical that sexism was to blame though. On an episode of The Hip-Hop Nerd in 2016, he blamed Mattel — the biggest funders of the show — for pulling the toy line.
14. WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN
Though some were skeptical about it jumping on the Wolverine hype-train, Wolverine and the X-Men achieved one of Nickelodeon’s highest premiere ratings. It was canceled after just one season and after setting up for an arc featuring Apocalypse for its next one. In 2010, Greg Johnson — the show’s head writer — gave an interview to a Facebook fan group to reveal what killed the show.
“The second season had so many delays that it was on the brink of of cancellation a number of times, only to have the financing studio (not Marvel) pony up some cash to give the last gasp of life […] That was pretty much it. For reasons unknown to me, the money couldn’t be secured.” Even more frustratingly for fans, he said that he had written “a VERY cool Deadpool script” with Nolan North lined up to voice Wade if the second season had gone ahead.
You’d almost hope that a show with such an infamous reputation for slipping lewd jokes past the censors would have been axed for pushing the envelope too far. Sadly, Animaniacs‘ life ended with more of a whimper than a bang. The show was masterminded as a reaction to complaints that cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s had become too violent by reviving three goofy sibling who ran amok in Warner Bros Studios during the “Golden Age” of animation.
Because of its sharp wit and reliance on self-referential gags, the show, which originally aired on Fox, appealed to a much wider age range than expected. Strangely, the idea of attracting a large fanbase wasn’t viewed as a positive by executives. In an effort to shake off Animaniacs’ adult-friendly image, it was moved to the more child-orientated WB, where — surprise, surprise — ratings plummeted, securing its demise.
12. GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Unlike the ill-fated Green Lantern live-action movie, the animated series — helmed by Bruce Timm, of Batman: The Animated Series fame — was far better received by both fans and critics because, well, it was just better in almost every way. Unfortunately, as its existence was clearly predicated on the film’s success, Cartoon Network’s decision to cancel the show was massively disappointing but annoyingly predictable.
Bruce Timm confirmed that this was the deciding factor in an interview at 2013’s Emerald City Comic Con, explaining that after the movie bombed, retailers had been stuck with a bunch of Green Lantern merchandise that nobody wanted. After this, they were “reluctant, if not downright refusing” to stock any similar products from The Animated Series either. Coupled with the costly CG show already putting Cartoon Network out of pocket, its fate was sadly sealed.
11. THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN
There have been more Spider-Man cartoons than spiders have legs, so you’d be forgiven for letting a few of them slip under your radar over the past few years. Though The Animated Series from the ’90s is perhaps the most fondly remembered, the short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man did exactly what it promised on the tin; funny, charming and full of web-slinging action.
Its cancelation was mostly to do with terrible timing… and money. It’s always about money. By the time Disney bought Marvel in 2009, the show — along with a few others — was already in production. Seeking to start afresh with some of Marvel’s properties, Disney entered into a legal dispute over rights with Sony. This head-butting clearly proved unproductive, with Spectacular Spider-Man ending up an unfortunate casualty.
10. AAAHH! REAL MONSTERS
From the pair of creative minds behind Rugrats (who were also responsible for making the Simpsons yellow) Real Monsters was a sort of Monsters Inc. prototype from the ’90s. Unlike the aforementioned schmaltzy Pixar movie though, Real Monsters took inspiration from sci-fi noir, tempered with a healthy dollop of silliness. Its animation style was a lot like the aforementioned Rugrats, and received similarly high praise.
After three successful seasons, network executives decided — for some bizarre reason — that the best way to build on this success going into Season Four was to start fiddling with a winning formula. They insisted the darker tone of the show be lightened up, which inevitably meant it lost its bite, and as a result, lost viewers and ended up canceled.
9. SYM-BIONIC TITAN
With a name like Genndy Tartakovsky’s in front of it (of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Star Wars: The Clones Wars fame) you’d think Sym-Bionic Titan‘s future would have been assured. The series followed a princess from another planet, her cool bodyguard and a chunky, humanoid robot hiding out on Earth from war and drew from sources as diverse as ’80s space anime to classic teen movies.
Its ratings were “competitive” but not amazing, which you’d think would warrant at least one more season to build on its audience. Unfortunately, despite the good relationship you’d assume Cartoon Network had had with Tartakovsky, the Animation Guild Blog reported in 2011 that he’d moved to Sony Pictures Animation. “What shut [Titan] down was it didn’t have enough toys connected to it. If you don’t have the [toy sales], you won’t get renewed.”
8. DANNY PHANTOM
Created by Butch Hartman — the man behind Fairly OddParents — Danny Phantom focussed on the heroic adventures of teenager Danny Fenton, who became something in between boy and ghost after an accident involving a portal separating our world from the “Ghost Zone.” He developed ghost-themed superpowers and used them to defend his town from danger.
Butch considers the show to be his best work, which was something critics concurred with. Despite the ratings being strong though, Nickelodeon decided the bill for the show was too large for them to foot after two seasons, and Butch was unable to find another home for the show. In recent years, though, he’s released new material for it on YouTube and in comic book form, including a crossover with Fairly OddParents.
7. HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (2002)
This early ’00s remake of the ’80s classic attempted to tone down the cheesier elements of the original to attract a new generation of modern fans. While it didn’t replicate the same campy charm that many fans love about the original, it was solidly written (with some returning writers from the first series) and well-animated enough to deserve more than just the two seasons it lasted for.
The reason it got the chop was because of poor toy sales — and He-Man is all about the toys. For some reason, Mattel really screwed up. The new toy line was apparently not very well distributed, and it was also far too limited in variety of characters. For instance, you could buy “Jungle Attack He-Man,” or “Samurai He-Man,” or “Martial Arts He-Man,” or “Ice Armor He-Man.” Who’d have thought that there’s such a thing as too much He-Man?
6. AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES
Running for two seasons between 2010 and 2013, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes recounted the origin story of the Avengers: A prison break of 75 of the world’s deadliest criminals motivates Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man/Giant Man, Wasp and Hulk to work together to help round them up. It was well-written and equally well received. Though production of it had started pre-Marvel/Disney deal, the second season premiered on the Disney XD channel as part of its Marvel block — along with Ultimate Spider-Man — in 2012.
But, when a third season wasn’t confirmed, its future seemed to suddenly be in jeopardy. This was confirmed by Jeph Loeb at the Marvel Television panel at SDCC in 2012, who assured fans it would get an “epic conclusion” before making way for a brand new show — Avengers Assemble, which would be more episodic and tie-in better to the MCU.
5. INVADER ZIM
Considering that Invader Zim ran for just two seasons, it’s incredible how great a legacy it left behind. During its short run, it picked up an Emmy, Annie and World Animation Award, drew huge critical acclaim and inspired an entire fan convention, “InvaderCON,” to mark its tenth anniversary in 2011. The story of the unhinged imperialistic alien was pitched to Nickelodeon by comic book writer Jhonen Vasquez, inspired by their call for shows that would hook a teenage audience.
Unfortunately, when ratings for the show started to fall, the network did a U-turn, deciding it was no longer interested in trying to reach an older audience any more. Its decision to pull the plug was also fueled by the show’s high production costs and its working environment becoming difficult — something the creator concurred with. Perhaps this stunted lifespan has contributed to its cult status, though.
Like Family Guy, Doug has the distinct honor — or rather, dishonor — of being canceled twice. Unlike Family Guy however, it didn’t make a miraculous recovery. Premiering in 1991, the show’s premise was simple — a character-driven, lighthearted snapshot of the life of an adolescent boy who becomes “the new kid” in town. The first four seasons of Doug aired on Nickelodeon.
In 1994, despite the show doing incredibly well with Nick’s core demographics, the network no longer wanted to fork over the amount of cash needed to keep it going. The show was then resurrected by Disney, who promptly slashed its budget — which meant firing Doug’s voice actor, Billy West. Disney’s Doug was considered to be of much poorer quality by fans, and again, despite being hugely popular, was canceled after three seasons.
3. PINKY AND THE BRAIN
Pinky and the Brain‘s demise was solely down to that thing that TV creators fear the most: network executive meddling. In 1997, after two years of the show winning awards and legions of fans, a restructuring at the WB led to new department heads wanting a restructuring of Pinky and Brain’s motives — away from world domination to bringing in a new titular character. Essentially, it was a real-life Poochie situation.
In 1998, Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain premiered. Elmyra was a Tiny Toons character, violating producer Steven Spielberg’s explicit wish that his two cartoon universes not crossover. The existing staff’s discontent at this unwanted meddling was also clear in the episode title, “You’ll Never Eat Food Pellets In This Town Again” as well as more obviously in the new title music’s lyrics, “It’s what the networks want, why bother to complain?” Thirteen episodes later, it was axed.
2. HEY ARNOLD!
Created by Craig Bartlett, Hey Arnold ran for an impressive five seasons with the TV movie Arnold Saves The Neighbourhood serving as a good bookend. Though it aired in 1998, Nickelodeon released the film in cinemas in 2002. But, as Hey Arnold! fans know, the biggest loose end of the show hadn’t been tied up — the status of Arnold’s missing, jungle-adventuring parents.
Bartlett planned to answer this question left hanging by the series finale in a second movie, Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie. After renewing the show for a fourth season, Nickelodeon also gave Bartlett the chance to make two movies. They were even still willing to make good on this when the first film flopped in cinemas but with a big catch — Bartlett had to sign an exclusive contract with them. Bartlett, who had a project in development with Cartoon Network, refused, and Hey Arnold was shelved… until 2017.
Matt Groening’s story of a slacker delivery boy catapulted into the future to become… another delivery boy was filled with silly characters and smart writing that garnered loads of awards and a loyal fan following. Sadly, all of this love was just never quite enough for either of the networks that aired Futurama.
Ignoring Groening’s suggestion to put the show straight on after The Simpsons on Sunday evenings, Fox tossed the show around the schedule like a football, making it hard for it to keep consistent ratings. Though it was never technically “canceled” by Fox, the network had no problem letting Comedy Central poach it for a “revival” in 2009. The Season Six premiere pulled in record numbers of viewers to the channel and the show was renewed for a seventh season that would turn out to be its last.
Which show do you think didn’t deserve to be canceled? Let us know in the comments!
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