For decades, generations of kids have spent a decent chunk of their childhood in front of the TV. While Scooby-Doo’s zany mysteries and Spider-Man’s web-slinging adventures might seem unimportant, cartoons and live-action kids shows are snapshots of the times they were created. Like any work of art, TV shows are products of their time. While shows reflect values and ideas that were widely accepted when they first aired, some of them feature once-acceptable content that could be found objectionable by today’s standards.
Now, CBR is taking a look back at 15 shows from your youth that would horrify today’s parents. These are the cartoons and live-action shows that would make the Helen Lovejoys of the world cry, “Think of the children!” if they were first broadcast today. To be sure, each of these shows was a cherished part of someone’s childhood, and some are widely recognized as pinnacles in TV history. In this list, we’ll simply be looking at aspects of these shows that likely wouldn’t be allowed today under ever-changing “Standards and Practices,” censorship guidelines and shifting cultural norms. We’ll also be looking at how these shows were changed when they were re-aired and how their later incarnations evolved.
15. THE REN AND STIMPY SHOW
In the 1990s, The Ren & Stimpy Show was a big part of Nickelodeon’s early success. Created by John Kricfalusi as one of the original “NickToons,” the show starred Ren, a perpetually on-edge Chihuahua, and Stimpy, an agreeable-but-dumb cat. After premiering in 1991, Ren & Stimpy ran for 52 episodes over six seasons and became a cult classic thanks to its inventive animation and over-the-top gross-out humor.
Even in its heyday, Ren & Stimpy courted controversy and pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on a kids’ TV channel. Thanks to its grotesque anatomical cutaways, violent outbursts, endless double entendres and dark humor, the show likely wouldn’t last too long in today’s more sensitive media climate. In 2003, The Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon, John K.’s even more extreme take on the characters, was pulled from Spike Network’s schedule after three episodes flopped, commercially and critically.
14. MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS
By combining action scenes from Japanese tokusatsu shows with kid-friendly high school drama, Saban Entertainment stitched together Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Shortly after that show’s 1993 debut, Saban’s patchwork masterpiece transformed into an overnight global juggernaut. While the Power Rangers franchise is still going strong, the original MMPR ran for three seasons on the Fox Kids programming block.
While Disney owned the franchise, an edited “re-version” of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers aired in 2010. Although the series always drew some criticism for its martial arts violence, the “re-version” went out of its way to edit out any potentially objectionable content. Many of the kicks and punches in the show were edited over with Batman ’66-esque graphics like “Biff!,” “Bam!” and “Pow!” Similar graphics were used throughout the series to augment old footage or cut the screen into comic book-like panels. This experiment ultimately proved unpopular and ended after 32 episodes.
13. X-MEN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
X-Men: The Animated Series introduced a generation of kids to Marvel’s mightiest mutants throughout the 1990s. Starting in 1992, Saban Entertainment’s X-Men was a cornerstone of Fox’s kids programming for five seasons. Over 76 episodes, the cartoon faithfully adapted the X-Men’s adventures in a modernized, kid-friendly format. Throughout its run, X-Men had an infamously hard time passing network censors. Thanks to public concern about violence in cartoons, X-Men‘s action scenes were usually sanitized and avoided any real consequences.
By the time Spider-Man: The Animated Series debuted in 1994, a number of things that were allowed on X-Men were not allowed on that show. For instance, Spider-Man was forbidden from actually punching any of his enemies, and the show couldn’t use seemingly innocuous words like “sinister.”While network censors have loosened up a little since then, X-Men‘s gun-toting heroes and mildly suggestive content would raise more than a few eyebrows today.
12. JOHNNY BRAVO
One of Cartoon Network’s first original animated series was Johnny Bravo. Created by Van Partible, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon ran for a total of four seasons from 1997 to 2004. Over 65 episodes, the show’s muscular-but-hapless lead tried in vain to find a date through a series of bizarre adventures, sometimes with guest stars from other Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
As Partible admitted, the fledgling Cartoon Network was pretty lenient about the content in Johnny Bravo. While the show was retooled a few times, Bravo’s persistent pursuit of the opposite gender was a foundational aspect of the cartoon. Even though Bravo’s constant rejection was a big part of the show’s humor, his unwanted advances might veer too close to harassment for many modern viewers. Still, the show’s legacy lives on in the works of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, and The Fairly OddParents creator Butch Hartman, who both worked on Bravo’s early seasons.
11. COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG
With shows like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, kid-friendly horror shows thrived in the 1990s. Starting in the final days of 1999, Courage the Cowardly Dog carried that trend on into the new millennium over four seasons on Cartoon Network. After Courage debuted in an Academy Award-nominated short by John R. Dilworth, the cowardly dog tried to save his elderly owners, Muriel and Eustace, from all kinds of terrifying supernatural creatures.
While Courage was never a lightning rod for controversy, some of its scariest moments left young viewers with nightmares for weeks. Even though the show was ostensibly a comedy, it featured flesh-eating zombies, domestic abuse, lifeless bodies and a mattress demon heavily inspired by The Exorcist. Courage‘s mixed-media jump scares might have left an impression on viewers in the early 2000s, but they would likely have to be toned down for today’s younger viewers.
10. MORTAL KOMBAT: DEFENDERS OF THE REALM
Mortal Kombat was the center of one of the biggest cultural firestorms of the 1990s. The ultra-gory, Fatality-filled fighting game and its sequels ignited a global debate about violence in video games that resulted in the creation of ratings boards like the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. While a controversial property like that might not seem like an ideal candidate for a Saturday morning cartoon, Film Roman productions created Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm for the USA Network in 1996.
Like most of that era’s other video game cartoons, Mortal Kombat featured a heavily sanitized take on the game’s general mythology. Instead of fighting each other, the show’s Kombatants had bloodless battles with generic Tarkatan monsters and robots for 13 episodes. While those changes alienated most of the franchise’s fan base, nothing could prepare modern viewers for a series based on such violent, controversial source material.
9. CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH
Throughout the 1990s, MTV’s animated shows pioneered the kind of adult-oriented animation that defines Adult Swim today. Unlike that late night block, MTV’s cartoons aired irregularly throughout the day and night, when channel-surfing kids could stumble across them. Starting in 1998, Celebrity Deathmatch began six seasons of claymation violence. While it never grabbed headlines like Beavis & Butt-Head, the show saw celebrities beat each other to a bloody pulp for 93 episodes.
Under the watchful eyes of hosts/announcers Johnny Gomez and Nick Diamond, caricatures of that era’s celebrities fought to the death with cruel, unusual and often impossible forms of punishment. With its mix of Mortal Kombat-esque ultra-violence, cartoon logic and celebrity culture, the darkly comedic Deathmatch was a perfect product of 1990s’ cynicism. In a world that’s more sensitive to gore and violence, especially against public figures, Deathmatch wouldn’t have a home outside of the overnight hours.
8. THE RIPPING FRIENDS
A few years after The Ren & Stimpy Show ended, John Kricfalusi’s next series, The Ripping Friends, was picked up by Fox. Starting in 2001, the Spumco Inc.-produced series ran for one season. The titular Ripping Friends were Rip, Chunk, Crag and Slab, a group of superhero brothers who were described as “the world’s manliest men.” Functionally, the show operated like a more extreme version of The Tick, dosed with Ren & Stimpy’s over-the-top humor.
Even though it only lasted 13 episodes, one particularly suggestive joke about a hot dog and a bun was edited out of rebroadcasts. Beyond that joke, the rest of the series featured the same kind of grotesque, boundary-pushing content that Ren & Stimpy was known for. While it was never popular enough to fuel any kind of controversy, it found a more fitting home when it was rebroadcast on Adult Swim’s late-night block in 2002.
7. DRAGON BALL Z
From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, Toonami, Cartoon Network’s action-centric programming block, introduced a new generation of American viewers to Japanese anime. While Toonami’s shows were westernized and edited for content, the spirit of shows like Dragon Ball Z was largely left intact. Starting in 1998, that Toei Animation series brought Akira Toriyama’s martial arts fantasy epic to life in homes across the country every afternoon.
Since each episode of the series seemed to feature over 9000 punches, DBZ‘s absurd level of violence always received a little criticism, even in its edited form. While DBZ was generally acceptable after-school viewing in the 1990s, Dragon Ball Z Kai, a remastering of the earlier series, has been relegated late night viewing blocks since 2014. While this has appropriately kept it on a revived Toonami, this new weekly time slot has kept it from achieving the wider cultural penetration of its predecessor.
6. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Before it became an icon of American animation, Batman: The Animated Series helped rewrite the rules of kids TV. Starting in 1992, BTAS’s mix of film noir, art deco style and classic Batman action set a new standard for superhero cartoons over four seasons on Fox and the WB. It also featured far more realistic violence than anything that had previously been seen on kids TV. While the show faced a moderate amount of censorship, it featured full-contact fights, suggestive content and, most notably, realistic guns.
While other cartoons replaced realistic firearms with lasers and sci-fi blasters, Batman: The Animated Series regularly featured gun-toting villains, and Bruce Wayne even went skeet shooting on one occasion. Since BTAS first aired, censors have become more sensitive about gunplay in cartoons. Later entries in the DC Animated Universe and later Batman series like Beware The Batman featured less realistic laser firearms.
5. LOONY TUNES
For the better part of a century, Loony Tunes has entertained generations of kids with some of the most famous cartoon characters of all time. While Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the other Warner Brothers characters have become international icons, some of their antics simply don’t sit comfortably in today’s world.
With the exception of modern revivals like Space Jam, most of the classic Looney Tunes were created between 1930 and 1969. While they were released unquestioned a half-century ago, several Looney Tunes shorts have violence or unfortunate ethnic stereotypes that wouldn’t be shown anywhere in a modern setting. Over the years, characters like Speedy Gonzalez have been at the center of minor controversies, and some fleeting moments of violence have been edited out completely. Despite that, nothing could redeem the “Censored Eleven,” an infamous group of shorts that the WB deemed too offensive for modern viewers and locked away.
While it paled in comparison to blockbuster video game franchises like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, Capcom’s Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors kicked off another successful fighting game franchise in the mid-1990s. Most of the fighters in the Darkstalkers franchise were based on classic monsters and supernatural creatures like vampires and zombies. Despite those horrific origins, Graz Entertainment gave the monsters a showcase in DarkStalkers: The Animated Series, which ran for one, syndicated 13-episode season in 1995.
Even though the cartoon offered a heavily sanitized take on the franchise, most of the Darkstalkers fighters would have a hard time finding a place in today’s children’s programming without major alternations. Two of the franchise’s most notable characters, the vampire Morrigan and the cat-lady Felicia, are primarily known for wearing ultra-revealing outfits. Lord Raptor, a zombie rockstar, killed hundreds of his own fans, and a few other main characters are literal demons.
3. CAPTAIN POWER AND THE SOLDIERS OF THE FUTURE
For one season in 1987, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future made an ambitious attempt to mix live-action drama with ground-breaking special effects and “interactive television.” In this post-apocalyptic syndicated series, Captain Power led a human resistance against Lord Dread and his machines. The show also spawned a somewhat infamous toyline where light guns could interact with videotapes and new episodes of the show on TV.
While the show was targeted at kids, Captain Power tried to satisfy older viewers with a surprising number of adult themes and death-filled storylines. Amid a perfect storm of criticism over questionable content and excessive merchandizing, the show was canceled in 1988. Today, those same criticisms would arise again, and there would likely be concerns about the toys encouraging childhood gunplay. Despite all that, series co-creator Gary Goddard announced his intentions to revive the series under the title “Phoenix Rising” in 2016.
2. G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO
Starting in 1982, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero spectacularly updated the classic Hasbro toyline for the booming 1980s. That wildly successful toyline eventually spawned a syndicated Marvel Productions cartoon that ran irregularly from 1983 to 1986 and a DiC Entertainment follow-up show that ran from 1989 to 1992. With a humongous cast of characters and toyetic vehicles, the show was a massive hit with kids who were enthralled by the Joes’ explosive battles against Cobra, a hapless group of would-be tyrants.
Even in its heyday, G.I. Joe drew the ire of parents for its overt commercialization, excessive merchandizing and the franchise’s ethnic stereotypes. In today’s hyper-charged atmosphere, G.I. Joe‘s proximity to the military-industrial complex would likely ruffle just as many feathers. Despite several attempts to revive the franchise for wide audience, the gunplay-filled action of the military franchise hasn’t really clicked with new modern viewers.
1. GARBAGE PAIL KIDS
If Garbage Pail Kids was too offensive for TV in the 1980s, there’s practically no way the cartoon would be allowed on air today. Created by the Topps Company in 1985, the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards were a gross-out, pun-filled parody of that era’s Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Even though the cards were a lightning rod for controversy, the Garbage Pail Kids were popular enough to warrant a movie and a cartoon series in 1987.
While it was schedule to air as part of CBS’ Saturday morning cartoon lineup, Garbage Pail Kids was pulled from the American broadcaster’s schedule before it debuted. During the significant ad campaign leading up to the show’s premiere, the cartoon’s potentially objectionable and vulgar content drew protests from conservative watchdog groups like Action for Children’s Television. Although it aired internationally, it was canceled after local stations and advertisers refused to support the show.
Stay tuned to CBR for all the latest in comics and pop culture news. Let us know what your favorite show that couldn’t be made today is in the comments!
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