Raising kids is a weird sort of balance between protecting them and preparing them for the world’s more insidious elements.
Parents often turn to children’s entertainment to fill in the gaps and articulate things in a way that’s easily digestible. More often than not, kid’s entertainment keeps things light and fun, offering an escape to worlds of hilarity and high adventure. But every now and then, the lighthearted world’s our kids adventure in turn dark seemingly without warning. Here are five examples of children’s entertainment that got a little too real.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers: Mind Pollution
It wasn’t unusual for a lesson to be planted within an episode of Captian Planet and the Planeteers. In fact, that was its bread and butter. In the nineties, the state of the Earth was on everyone’s mind. Earth Day was new and in vogue, Biosphere 2 was in full swing, and Captain Planet assured us that the power to fix global problems was ours. If only he could see us now. Growing up I was sure we'd take the reigns to save the rain forest, the whales, and our comfy spot on this orb. Instead, we've treated the problems of pollution and global climate change like the body I found behind the dumpster at Denny's last weekend, repressed, never spoken of, and someone else's problem. But we're not here to talk about how my prints could have gotten all over the crime scene (allegedly), we're here to talk about messed up kid's programming. Lack of focus was what got me into this mess.
Each episode of Captain Planet presented an environmental problem that was addressed by the Planeteers and their power rings, with a little help from the captain before the end of the episode. That is until the first episode of the second season, entitled, Mind Pollution.
In it, the villain Verminous Skumm, deals a drug called Bliss which pulls its users into an addiction so deep, they’ll do anything he tells them for another hit. The episode stepped away from the threat of polluting the planet to explore, as the title of the episode suggests, the dangers of polluting the mind.
Linka and her cousin Boris (because he's Russian see... the nineties marked progress in many things, casually racist stereotypes weren't one of them) fall victim to Bliss’ grasp and, with Linka’s mind clouded by her addiction, the team is unable to call in the captain for help. Things take a turn to the dark side when, in an attempt to score more drugs, Boris lunges through a window, shattering and slicing his arms open in the process. The scene shows him lying on the ground, blood pooling around him.
Don't worry though, Boris survives his drug addled maiming and boy, it's a good thing. Later, during a rooftop struggle, Verminous tosses Boris a bottle of Bliss in exchange for his promise to kill the Planeteers. You know, the team of kids that includes his cousin. Boris guzzles a mouthful of pills before collapsing and dying on screen.
Don’t do drugs, kids.
Thomas the Tank Engine: Grandpuff
Based on The Railway Series of books on the island of Sodor, Thomas the Tank Engine tells the tale of a steam engine named Thomas and his friends, a group of sentient trains. Overall, the series is tamer than grandma's favorite custard but under the surface lies a darker world.
While the trains and their human counterparts live a mutually beneficial existence, one that both parties seem content with, a closer examination of the television and book series reveals that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In an episode entitled Grandpuff, two young engines are having a bit of fun while an older, wizened engine named Duke scolds them. When rebuked, Duke tells the two youngsters of another engine called Smudger who wouldn’t play by the rules and often came off the rails. He didn’t heed Duke’s warnings either and after one too many spills, was bricked up behind a shed and turned into a generator, never to move again.
If history tells us anything, it's that it's perfectly acceptable to enslave or imprison people so long as they're inconvenient and look different from us. So says the fat controller on the island of Sodor. So say we all.
In the eighteenth installment of The Railway Series, entitled Stepney the Bluebell Engine, an engine called Percy sings a song about the Bluebells of England. When another engine mistakes his singing as a tale about flowers, Percy explains that the engines at other railways outside of Sodor are no longer safe. The conductors don’t like them anymore and systematically remove them from the tracks and cut them to pieces with blow torches. The accompanying illustrations show train engines in various states of disassembling, some with sad or scared faces, others with no faces at all.
Despite the off center state of things on Sodor, it seems things could be much worse for Thomas and his friends.
Beginning as one of the most beloved newspaper comic strips of all time, Garfield has spawned numerous animated series and live action movies. There isn’t much nefariousness found within the panels of this story about a narcissistic cat who loves lasagna.
That was until the week leading up to Halloween of 1989. Creator Jim Davis wanted to tell a tale of true fear and asked around to friends and family to find what really terrified them. The answer, being alone
To that end, Davis penned the following strips, weaving a story day after day that placed the titular orange cat in his home, alone. With the windows boarded up and no sign of Dave or Odie, Garfield comes to the realization that he’s on his own and starving, his companions nothing more than figments of his imagination, the only comfort of a fractured mind, cracked beneath the weight of loneliness and despair.
This series of strips has spawned fan theories that Garfield is indeed abandoned in his home with no one to care for him, slowly dying, or already dead, and that everything that takes place in the series after this are the hallucinations of the damned
Thankfully, Davis has refuted these ideas, reportedly laughing loudly at the notion
Tiny Toon Adventures: One Beer
Tiny Toon Adventures took a concept already geared at kids and dialed it down even further. Reimagining all of the familiar tropes of Looney Tunes cartoons and characters of yesteryear with and for a younger crowd. Until one very special episode that, in the words of Buster Bunny, was meant to teach the evils of alcohol consumption to kids
In this episode Buster goes to the fridge to get a drink for himself and his two friends, Plucky Duck and Hampton Pig. There, he finds a “cold one” and convinces his pals to imbibe with him
The three of them get utterly tanked on this one beer and go on a bender that includes sleazily picking up on ladies and stealing a police car. Their adventure under the influence finds them winding up a sheer mountain road, they reach the top where the road is out and plummet to their deaths
The car falls and keeps falling until it makes contact with the ground, pancakes, and the souls of the three boys float skyward with harps in hand.
Despite the episodes good intentions, it was pulled off the air after just one showing
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Ai: Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse
The show that brought the world Will Smith was typically funny and light. Will would have some minor obstacle, make fun of Carlton, overcome the obstacle, we’d all laugh, and the credits would roll. Harmless fun, so long as you're not Carlton.
For a long time Will Smith was seen only as a musician and a comedic actor, sometimes both at the same time.
it wasn’t until later in his career, with films like The Pursuit of Happiness that his real acting chops came to the forefront. Even I Am Legend with its many problems, housed a Will Smith who was a powerhouse of emotion. Subtract the terrible monsters from that movie and you’re left with one hell of a performance.
Those movies may have been when the world realized Smith could act, but there were hints earlier on, specifically in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air entitled Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.
In it, Will’s father, Lou, returns for the first time in fourteen years and Will couldn’t be more excited to spend time with him. Uncle Phil remains skeptical of Lou’s promises while Will is pulled deeper and deeper. After the promise of a trip together, Will gets his father a present and packs his bags, only to come face to face with his dad leaving him once again
Lou makes excuses, he’ll call in a week, they’ll go on their trip, and Will shrugs it off like he isn’t impacted but you can see the veneer beginning to crack. After Lou leaves, Will keeps up the act, lamenting over all of the things he's accomplished without his father and all of the things he’ll accomplish in the future while Uncle Phil stands off to the side, struggling to comfort the boy he's come to think of as a son. The emotions in the room escalate until finally, Will breaks down with a line that, no matter how many times I watch it, opens the floodgates.
That rounds out our list of five times that children’s entertainment got a little too real. If you have a moment I missed drop them in the comments below.