Operating in the Realm of Darkness: Courage the Cowardly Dog (TV Showcase #45)

What is it about classic Cartoon Network that was so engaging? Shows like “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”, “Codename: Kids Next Door”, “Dexter’s Laboratory”, and many others that were on about the same time took the imagination of kids to new heights, allowing them to think creatively past the point which they were able to before watching. It’s too bad that nowadays Cartoon Network seems to be the leader in a long line of dumbed-down cartoons that essentially tell kids what to think, or to not think as they sit there and watch a whole bunch of nonsense. But before all of that, back in the good ol’ days, there was a cartoon that many people my age remember as being different than even the shows I mentioned above, and that show is “Courage the Cowardly Dog”. 

“Courage the Cowardly Dog” (CCD for short) began as a short in 1996, which was nominated for an Academy Award, being beaten only by Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave. After this, a series developed and ran on Cartoon Network beginning in 1999, airing 102 15- to 30-minute episodes over four seasons, ending in 2002, with one seven-minute special airing in 2014. The series centered around Courage, a purple dog who lives with an elderly couple (the kind-hearted Muriel and the selfish, grumpy Eustace) in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. For some reason, strange and supernatural things just tend to happen in Nowhere, where nobody lives except for Courage, Muriel, and Eustace, and Courage, who usually catches on to the problem before anybody else, has to fight his fear and save the day, protecting his owners and often saving their lives. So how is this that different from other kids’ shows that were out there at the same time?

Every other kids’ show I can remember seeing has operated in a world of light: the good guys must fight the bad guys, there’s teamwork involved, and ultimately, the villain of the episode feels out of place to the viewer, so that way the viewer cheers when the good guys beat the villain and all is back to normal. But CCD is reversed: while Courage, Muriel, and (most of the time) Eustace are the protagonists, they’re operating in a world of darkness, in which they feel out of place to the audience. Their farm is in a desert valley, far from civilisation, and they’re left alone with only the supernatural or unexplainable things, people, and events that go on. Additionally, there’s almost no teamwork for the protagonists: virtually every episode involves Courage saving Muriel and sometimes Eustace. So while Courage does defeat the villain in the end, he’s the one that feels out of place, not the villains, and this makes for an interesting atmosphere to the show.

CCD is clearly a kids’ cartoon, and it’s full of comedy, albeit mostly dark comedy. But through its excellent use of CGI and setup of the lone farmhouse, the show creates a strange balance in which it can get away with just about anything. When engrossed in an episode, a viewer can feel the atmosphere of loneliness and the feeling of “I’m trapped, I might die, what am I going to do” that is similar to what might be felt in a nightmare. Even more nightmarish is the fact that Muriel and Eustace almost always appear to be unaware of the magnitude of the problem, and Courage can’t convince them otherwise. CCD plays on feelings that the viewer, especially a child, fears to experience, and thus creates an engaging plot and a unique subcategory of horror that is extremely difficult to pull off well: children’s horror.

At the other end of this balance, of course, is all the goofy moments, catchphrases, and stock sounds that are repeatedly implemented to give the show its childish and somewhat immature feel at first glance. This is how the show got away with things like a mock-exorcism and a Sweeney Todd parody (called “Freaky Fred”, which has become a large source for creepypastas) and still be considered by Cartoon Network as okay for kids to watch. But because the show operated in the realm of darkness, even the comedy was just a necessary lightening of the mood, which was often terribly dark. And even though there was so much comedy in each episode, each joke was necessary for that lightening, just to keep things light enough for the target audience.

So, up there with the greats of mine and many others’ childhood stands “Courage the Cowardly Dog”, which, although a funny kids’ cartoon, stood out among its competitors because it came from a place of darkness instead of the usual place of light, and as such, it became a memorable and well-put-together show. What do you think?

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