Television shows for kids are generally full of lighthearted silly fun that the target audience can enjoy. Nothing is too harmful or dangerous, and whatever problems the main characters are facing in the episode, they are eventually resolved by the end, at least for the most part.
Some writers for children’s television shows like to push the boundaries in what is deemed appropriate for children and explore mature themes and adult subject matter in certain episodes. Sometimes, the episodes are dark and depressing, while others are just so messed up that you have to wonder what was going through the writer’s head when he or she was scripting the episode. One should never assume that a kid’s show is completely free of disturbing or dark content because even the most innocent fun-filled show can have writers that take a hard left and take the audience down a path they’ve never been down before.
Depending on what kind of shows you watched growing up, you may have been exposed to the horrors and realities of real life at a young age. Just because a show is designed for kids, doesn’t mean it’s 24/7 sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes, things get real. A little too real, in fact. Here are 15 surprisingly dark episodes of children’s shows (where things got a little too real).
15. “Speed Demon” — The Powerpuff Girls
There are lots of shows that explore an alternate future in which the main character or main characters aren’t around to save the day and the whole world basically falls apart. The Powerpuff Girls was one of them. In this particular episode, the girls are excited to go on a vacation to the Bahamas. Barely able to contain their excitement, they race home, going faster than the speed of light. Unfortunately, this causes them to warp reality around them and send them fifty years into the future, a very bleak future.
The Professor is aged and miserable and thinks the girls are hallucinations, Townsville has been reduced to a barren wasteland, and Him is in charge. All the citizens have gone crazy and blame the girls for leaving them in their time of need, leaving them guilt-ridden and distressed. Luckily, they find a way to get back to the past.
14. “Cherie Lifesaver” — Punky Brewster
Punky Brewster was an ’80s sitcom about a girl named Penelope “Punky” Brewster who is taken in by a grouchy apartment manager after her mother abandons her in a shopping center, which is pretty messed up. But that’s not the only thing. In “Cherie Lifesaver,” Punky and her classmates receive CPR training at school. But one of the kids, Allen, goofs off during the lesson and is sent to the principal’s office, missing the important, you know, life-saving parts. After school, Punky plays hide-and-go-seek with her friends, and her best friend, Cherie, hides in an old refrigerator, where she suffocates.
Allen finds her. But thanks to him goofing off in class earlier, he has no idea how to perform CPR and revive Cherie. Fortunately, Punky and another friend named Margareaux arrive on the scene and perform CPR, bringing Cherie back to life. A child almost died in this episode. That’s a little too dark.
13. “Helga On The Couch” — Hey Arnold!
Hey Arnold! was a show that was full of compelling characters, and there was no character perhaps more compelling than Helga Pataki. She was a highly complex figure, one of the most complex female characters seen in a cartoon. On the surface, she was a tough-as-nails and aggressive bully, but on the inside, she was a massively insecure girl who had to deal with neglectful parents who consistently ignored her. A therapy session with a psychologist who comes to the school reveals all of the issues that Helga had been hiding away behind her jerk facade.
She shares with Dr. Bliss about what’s going on in her dysfunctional household with her dysfunctional family, consisting of her alcoholic mother, her emotionally abusive father, and a perfectionist daughter whom Helga’s parents often compare her to. The episode may have only been 22 minutes but there was a lot to go through.
12. “The Puppetmaster” — Avatar: The Last Airbender
The events in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode “The Puppetmaster” could just have easily been taken out of a horror movie. Creepy village where villagers have mysteriously disappeared? Check. Seemingly nice old lady who isn’t what she seems? Check. Sinister technique that allows someone to control others like puppets? Check. Bloodbending is basically waterbending that allows a waterbender to control the blood inside other people and move them around as they see fit.
After she discovers that Hama is a fellow waterbender like her, Katara starts to feel an affinity towards the elderly woman and is eager to learn waterbending techniques from her. Unfortunately for Katara, bloodbending is one waterbending technique she was probably better off not knowing about, especially since she breaks down sobbing at the end of the episode when Hama is being arrested and she congratulates Katara for becoming a bloodbender.
11. “The Sad Story Of Henry” — Thomas The Tank Engine
“The Sad Story of Henry” is aptly named. It’s a sad story indeed perhaps too much for this particular show. Henry was a train engine; a highly conceited train engine who drove into a tunnel and refused to come out because it was raining, saying the rain would ruin his beautiful paint job. All attempts to get him to move fail as Henry refuses to leave. He still refuses to leave even after the rain stops, believing that it will start again soon.
After brute force fails to make Henry get his wheels rolling, the Fat Controller admits defeat and tells Henry he’ll get exactly what he wants. He tells the train, “We shall take away your rails. And leave you here for always and always and always.” The rails are taken away and a brick wall is erected in front of Henry. Henry is left in the tunnel cold, lonely, and pretty miserable.
10. “Weirdmageddon” — Gravity Falls
Weirdmagaddeon was foreshadowed about throughout Gravity Falls‘ run. It was a cataclysmic event caused by the interdimensional rift being cracked which opened up an unstable rip between Bill Cipher’s dying dimension and Gravity Falls. It would bring an end to the world as Dipper and company knew it unless they found a way to stop Bill. After he gains a physical form that he had been waiting on for trillions of years and initiates a hostile takeover over Gravity Falls and reality itself, he promptly turns the town inside out, filling it with strange monsters and unworldly things.
All three parts of “Weirdmageddon” featured some hideous visuals and some pretty messed-up stuff by Disney’s standards, especially one moment where, when referring to Dipper and Mabel, Bill says, “I’ve got some children I need to turn into corpses.”
9. “Consider Me Gone” — ALF
ALF was a pretty lighthearted show with plenty of humor throughout, so the last episode was undoubtedly jarring to devoted watchers. ALF receives a transmission from two friends from his home planet who want his help in settling a new planet they just purchased. ALF says goodbye to the Tanner family and then departs to meet his friends. Unfortunately, the Alien Task Force, who had been searching for ALF throughout the show, intercepted communications between him and his friends and they abduct him. And that’s how the final episode of the series ended.
Granted, there was a made-for-television movie that picked up where the show left off on and ended with ALF becoming an ambassador for Earth, but it wasn’t released until six years after the show’s last episode aired. Way to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of ALF fans.
8. “Failsafe” — Young Justice
During an alien invasion, the entire Justice League is killed, which forces The Team, a team of teenage superheroes who go on secret missions on the behalf of the Justice League, to step up to the plate and replace the fallen League. Well, at least that’s what they think happened. It’s not until the end of the episode that we, the audience, realize that the whole thing was a telepathic simulation exercise designed to train the young heroes on how to handle stress. The Justice League was alive and well in real life.
But in the simulation, each member of The Team is killed off, starting with Artemis. The last “surviving” member, Miss Martian, is shocked out of the simulation by Martian Manhunter, as her psychic mind had taken over and made the whole thing seem real. She’s left devastated and in tears by the whole thing. Not exactly the best training exercise.
7. “Over The Edge” — The New Batman Adventures
WB’s Batman: The Animated Series garnered attention and praise for its dark tone, but things were taken further when the show was revamped in 1997 as The New Batman Adventures. At the start of “Over The Edge,” Commissioner Gordon and the rest of the police department storm the Batcave on the hunt for Batman. Flashbacks later in the episode reveal to the audience that the Commissioner’s daughter, Barbara Gordon, was killed by Scarecrow while she was out as Batgirl.
While attempting to apprehend the criminal, Batgirl is struck by his staff and falls out of one of the building’s windows where she lands on a squad car carrying her father. It isn’t until she’s dying in his arms that he realizes that Batgirl is his own flesh and blood. And then, he blames Batman for her death. It’s one of the darkest moments in an already dark show.
6. “The Mountains Of Beyond” — The World Of David The Gnome
The final episode of the Spanish animated TV series The World of David the Gnome is a good example of a downer ending. The show follows the life of a gnome named David and his wife, Lisa. The series ends with David and Lisa going off to the Mountains of Beyond because it is time for them to die. They know they won’t live past 400 years. So they tearfully say goodbye to their friends, give each other one final kiss, and then turn into apple trees.
Death and mortality are heavy themes for any show and are especially heavy in a show targeted towards children, even more so since up to this point, the show had been pretty light with its subject matter.
5. “Things Change” — Teen Titans
If you’re like me, your heart probably broke a little when you saw the final episode of Teen Titans. Terra was seen in Jump City by Beast Boy clearly alive after she was previously believed to be dead, having sacrificed herself to save the city from a volcano earlier in the show. However, she shows no memory of her past or of her geokinetic abilities and seems quite content with living life as a normal schoolgirl. Beast Boy tries everything he can to make her remember, but all his attempts fail.
At the very end of the episode, Terra tells Beast Boy that things aren’t as he remembers, things change, and that she is no longer the girl he remembers. She fades into the background until she can no longer be seen, and Beast Boy leaves to go help his teammates on a mission. It’s a lesson that shows you have to keep moving on with life.
4. “The Bicycle Man” — Diff’rent Strokes
Diff’rent Strokes was known for its “very special” episodes that dealt with mature subject matters such as racism, illegal drug use, and kidnapping. One of these special episodes focused on child s*xual abuse. The two-parter episode saw Arnold and Dudley getting acquainted with a weird bicycle shop owner who gives them food and wine and shows them dirty magazines, all the while compelling them to keep their “visits” to his apartment a secret. If you couldn’t already guess, Mr. Horton, the shop owner, is a child molester.
But what’s even more disturbing than the episode’s subject matter is hearing the laugh track at inappropriate times. Or perhaps the writers intentionally did this to relieve the tension in a very heavy episode in terms of themes. It’s also strongly implied at the end of the episode that Dudley might have died.
3. “Jimmy” — Static Shock
In the episode, Jimmy Osgood is a high school student who’s a bit of a loner, preferring to surf the Internet on his laptop than engage in social activities with his classmates. As a result, he becomes an easy target for bullies who torment him relentlessly. Things come to a head after they pull a vicious prank on him and he is beaten up and stuffed in a locker, leaving him frightened and shattered. Jimmy goes back home, steals his father’s gun, and goes to the Community Center where he pulls it on Nick, the leader of the bullies, with tears of anger streaming down his face.
Richie manages to talk him down, but just as Jimmy is lowering the weapon, the two other bullies jump him and the gun goes off, shooting Richie in the leg. Richie survives, and a shaken-up Jimmy is sent to juvie while Nick and his cronies are forced to undergo community service.
2. “Changing Nature” — Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs was a ’90s family sitcom that focused on an anthropomorphic family of dinosaurs (portrayed by puppets) and served as a satire of the typical American family that drew parallels to The Simpsons. The show ran for three years but ABC decided to cut the show’s run due to falling ratings—by killing off all the dinosaurs. In “Changing Nature,” Earl, the show’s protagonist and patriarch of the Sinclair Family, accidentally orchestrates a series of events that lead to the end of the world.
He gathers his family in their house while the Ice Age wipes out all life on Earth approaches and apologizes for everything he’s done. Baby reassures him by saying that no matter what happens, they’ll always be a family. The ending credits show the Sinclair home covered in snow and empty of life.
1. “Twisted Sister” — The Powerpuff Girls
Feeling overworked, the trio decide to manufacture another sister in the Professor’s lab, you know, to help them out with catching criminals and stuff. Only, they didn’t use the right ingredients, causing the fourth sister to come out enormous, mentally disabled, and deformed. Regardless, they name their new sister Bunny and send her off to complete missions for them. But Bunny doesn’t fully comprehend what she’s been told and she frees the criminals and jails the police, causing the girls to get mad at her, call her “bad,” and send her away.
Bunny later saves them from the recently-released criminals, saying, “Bunny do good,” before she explodes in a flash of light, due to her unstable atomical nature. The girls weep over a piece of fabric from her dress, realizing that Bunny was good while they were bad.