How Has Courage The Cowardly Dog Changed Children?
How has the cartoon canine with a tone for terror held up over the years ?
Courage the Cowardly Dog was released as a promo in 1996 with "Chicken From Outer Space". That little short animated snippet was enough for a green light to have John R. Dilworth's tale about a terrified little purple anthropomorphic dog facing various frightening foes to be apart of the Cartoon Network lineup in 1998. Now it holds a reputation of inspiration and has grown to be apart of the classics of cartoons. It holds a place in the hearts of all the kids from the new millennium including myself. Courage the Cowardly Dog was the show that had the perfect blend of scares and smarts.
Of all the shows I loved on Cartoon Network: The Powerpuff Girls was invigorating, Ed, Edd, N, Eddy was a cluster of comedy gold. Courage was unlike anything I'd ever seen that kept me entertained. It is a blend of bold and bizarre, I stopped everything to sit down on the couch and watch that half hour show. Thinking on it of how it worked well to showcase to kids, it was a tricky story to use the genre of horror for a kids cartoon but blend it seamlessly with comedy in storytelling. I can recall my reactions to it as child, I wasn't alarmed by the monsters or disturbing figures, it was intriguing and I could understand what was going on. Kids do enjoy something mature, Courage was the perfect story that kids could get away with watching horror and enjoying the genre.
I wanted to relive that feeling again, and I bought the first season on DVD to have that again. But, there's something else then just the nostalgia when I went to rewatch this show. I am a writer, I’m a trivia lover, and it never ceases to amaze me to find a different perspective on something in any story's origin. I love to see what the idea was behind an episode that made it come to the screen. I found some very interesting information behind one of my favorite childhood television shows. It wasn't too hard to look at this with an adult perspective since the show already had an adult appeal from the get go, which its why it stayed in the back of my mind that I never truly forgot it.
So here are some questions I had to think about before I began my venture into my childhood show and change the way I saw the show: But what else is there about Courage? What went unnoticed? What are the secret gems of this show? How did this show change TV?
I'll be covering various episodes that you'll find out why they are worth a second viewing and see that there are moments that can be interpreted a different way. I did my trivia research, to see what there is to know about this spectacular scary series.
The First Season
The first episode set the tone for the show and now it serves as my example to write dark humor, A Night At Katz Motel has the casual reaction to macabre nature with comedic nerve, the villain having a likeable and entertaining demeanor for the perfect intro to a villain. The tone of the show was set, it went to the lengths to showcase horror in a way that had a perfect balance to enjoy the eerie nature of the show, but not be too terrified. Like I mentioned in my intro, I never felt scared or alarmed at all, which means this show worked the horror angle perfectly.
Throughout the first couple of episodes, it was evident that this was a show that would soar. Recalling what I saw as a child, it was entertaining and now as an adult, I was surprised to remember the entirety of it all. But it was enjoyable to re-watch these episodes as an adult to analyze the writing and pacing. It's different to analyze this as an adult and catch how smart this show truly was.
One of the stand-out episodes that has the gutsiest plotlines of a demon exorcism. The Demon In The Mattress was a risky episode to show a parody and homage to the 1973 classic horror movie, The Exorcist. There are some shows that can creatively insert a parody into a children's cartoon, but with the The Exorcist? Courage already had an adult appeal to it's identity of the show. It's a children's show that isn't too childish , so it can tackle a reference like that of The Exorcist.
Besides the dark humor and dangerous moments of this show, the delicate moments should be considered as an equal high point. One of the first that comes to mind is the episode 'The Hunchback of Nowhere." Looking at that episode, that's the first one that has a moment of kindness. It's the first time a character has been introduced that has no malicious intentions, even Courage knows that. He doesn't scream in fear at the hunchback, that is a a great example of empathy for children.
The episode “Everyone wants to direct “ was a nod to Quinten Tarantino, I was laughing so hard, I had to skip the episode because. It was just too clever to utilize a play on a Hollywood director.
In some animated shows, it's hard to get certain names in the industry to be associated with the production of a show. Courage the Cowardly Dog was on the radar and off the radar at the same time. John R. Dilworth's production got whoever they could, but it was an achievement when they finally got someone from Hollywood. The episode finale, "The Great Fusclini" had the talented voice actor Jim Cummings starring in the show for the episode. To viewers, it might just be a random story just like the other ones. However, the crew would see this as a landmark of their production to finally have someone from Hollywood on their show. Knowing that information it makes me think differently about this episode to appreciate all their hard work. As someone who is also working to have her own story as a TV show one day, I would hope that I get to have that same level of achievement even though the viewer won't know it.
One of the cartoon conspiracies of Courage The Cowardly Dog
Before I go on to talk about the second season there is something that I want to point out that maybe people have noticed, and it's even been a cartoon conspiracy over the years. It's been speculated that everything: the monsters, the eeriness, it's all in courage's head because he isn't taken outdoors as much due to his owners being unable to do that. So I thought I'd throw my metaphorical hat in the ring and give my take on the make of it. I definitely never noticed as a child that most of the adults don’t really have visible eyes. Muriel and Eustis have glasses on and you never see their pupils. Most of the other characters in the show usually have their eyes hidden behind their hat, or glasses. So maybe that dives into the whole idea that this is all in Courage's head, and everyone not having prominent features of identification on the face, that might also be the reason why he's skittish. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm just like the other cartoon conspiracy fans, but it's something that I noticed and I wanted to share that.
The Second Season
Now, I'm gonna be biased and personal to say that the second season is the best season out of the four seasons of the show.
In the second season the overall direction of the show started to go further for storylines, and not relying heavily on the horror for telling a story of any kind. One other factor that I'll be discussing later on is the music.
The beginning of the first episode has such a dramatic shift from the very first episode of the first season where it was inclined for the dark humor. The first episode of the second season was more reformed to making courage emotionally impactful. The Magic Tree of Nowhere was the episode that changed the show. There was no monster, there was a crisis about keeping the tree that had changed their lives on the farm. When the tree has been chopped, it's the first time in the show that Courage was too late to save something, he's a character that always saved Muriel or stopped the havoc. Unfortunately, he was too late and he lost something he cared about. It’s the first time you see Courage truly get upset and break down in tears for what he couldn't save. It had a great message from the magic tree that said "Anything worth it's value is worth fighting for." It's a message that children should learn.
Yes, there are other cartoon shows that did present the characters faced with loss or defeat after an ordeal happened, and it is sad, tough slice of life. I remember in The Powerpuff Girls episode, Twisted Sister after one of the characters combusts and dies, there is no send off, the sisters just sit and be sad as opposed to showing how they can move on and remember her fondly. I'm critical of to mention the difference in the example I set because it's important to show kids that while there is sadness, you'll be able to move on in life. With the ending of how "The Magic Tree Of Nowhere" went, it encapsulated that feeling and presented how everything moves on in life, and it'll be Ok.
Looking back on that episode it almost reminds me of Jeff Bridges character from the 1984 film Starman, Where his character is dying but addresses that everything is going to be OK.
Another episode I want to present for analysis is one that has strangely stood the rest of time, even as I grew up I remember it and found that others have shared clips of it online. The one episode that still holds a memory for most of the fans of the show was the episode, Human Habitrail.
Over the years there's been a debate about what is considered to be the scariest episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. Most fans point to Curse of King Rameses or Freaky Fred. As I was writing this episode and skimmed through the trivia of the show, IMDb trivia lists Remembrance Of Courage Past is also considered one of the most terrifying episodes (we'll get into that episode later). Yet, in a further analysis of this episode, this might be scarier then a cruse or a unhinged barber character. I think that is the darkest episode for two reasons: One, that it’s experimentation on two old people having drastic alterations to their body.
Two, knowing the fact that this villainous character has taken multiple people, and did these experiments on them, so who knows how many people this gerbil has taken (and if they are still alive). To me, horror is scariest when you don't know what happened, if this character has taken numerous over the years without knowing the amount, that's a horrifying thought to the imagination to wonder what the death toll is.
In my last tangent about this episode, I want to point out that the chase scene has been shared prominently because of how it was paced and the music included. It's not a memorable song for plot, but people remember the chase scene that had the dramatic music that you wouldn't expect to be in a show like Courage The Cowardly Dog. Earlier in the article I mentioned how the music in this show was better? Never would anyone think that an eerie echo opera song would be used for a chase scene for a dog running away from a gerbil.
Most cartoons upped the ante to end a season with a full thirty minute story to end and not two eleven minute stories. I do recall that The Powerpuff Girls did that, and so did Courage.
Most of the villains on Courage had cruel intentions for their own desires or amusement, this was a turn to have a villain you could automatically sympathize with. The time on the show was utilized wisely to correctly introduce a villain and make him stand out for his actions and motives. It’s a character who is malicious because he is miserable, and he wants people to know what misery is like.
It was the most interesting villain on the show that was automatically sympathetic, and the way that it progressed went back-and-forth between the cause and the effect. Usually in cartoons when you have an evil scientist character they often aren’t very sympathetic. It was also the most interesting way to see the reoccurring background characters or ones that were mentioned previously and to see them as a cameo. It really connects the world together to show this odd little occult world works in Nowhere, Kansas. Despite the critical nature of the show aimed towards the idea of a scientist that’s making people sad it does have some good comedic moments.
Now there is another reason I'm buttering this episode up for praises, and not because of the writing, and the villain presentation. This episode is different for me as I could identify with Dr. Zalost in his struggle for happiness. I found that this episode inadvertently has a commentary for depression. There are many parts to that episode that can be associated with depression. Finance or architectural things doesn't always improve one’s mental health or outlook of life. Depression is just a barren feeling that can be healed by by different factors. Not all remedies or ruminations will work on someone depending on their depression and their personal problems. Forcing the idea of happiness doesn’t change anything else either. The scientist thought that money and power and make him happy and it didn’t.
Another part to point out about my depression analysis is the part when Courage gets to the tower and the rat henchman of the scientist is hit with one of the sadness bombs. It makes the rat manifest into something worse and if you notice in the episode, the rat didn’t have a happy mindset, so when the hit with the unhappy bombs, it made him worse which does showcase for some people that there can be a further infestation of negative feelings.
I’d even commentate that within the episode as it progresses, that it does showcase what it’s like to be so blinded by your own sadness, and how it can just continually curse the mind. Even as the rat who has reverted back to a smaller version tries to hug Zalost and he refuses the comfort. Zalost is so set in stone that happiness is not possible he was blind to see that there was an opportunity of kindness right there.
As I was watching the episode I thought that the villain was named Zalost on purpose for a play on words. I broke town the name and thought there was supposed to be an emphasis on "lost" in Zalost, or “All is lost”. I thought there were pretty good hypothesis, and I learned what it was, it is actually a Croatian word for sadness.
Even though depression can have many factors of misery, there is always that one unconventional and remarkable way to get through it. The ending scene when Zalost ate the happy plums, it instantly changed his outcome. Change is instant, and it happens from something that you can do for yourself. This episode is a great example to how you can do an emotionally charged story creatively and seriously. This was all done in a perfect balance and again, without the horror element.
The rest of the show
I’ll be honest, as I was rewatching the series, I did start to remember the rest of the show when I went on IMDb to see the other episodes. I didn’t desire to see the rest because of what direction the show took. In the third and fourth season it is a little extreme as to what happens to this poor dog.
The fourth season did have some pivotal moments, but it was apparent that the show is losing steam and it was just becoming unbalanced. There were very intense episodes and then they were excruciatingly sad episodes but as the show progresses to the final episodes it did and on a bit of a note that can stay with young viewers.
I do remember the episode where there was a robot version of courage that was going to replace him and courage was trying everything he could to not be replaced. It was unusually cruel what was happening to him throughout that season.
Of those intense episodes was "The Mask", which fans cite as the most controversial episodes. I vaguely remember watching this episode, and it didn’t really stay with me, it never really affected me. But, looking at it with an adult perspective I can see where people are coming from about why this episode could have canceled the whole show, it went the farthest that the show would ever gone to show violence in every way. On the latter for some shred of a positive note, it did utilize it to commentate domestic violence. However, it's too much abuse going in different directions, it's truly makes it uncomfortable to watch.
The last episode had two stories that were the saddest and disconcerting ways to go out on, which was not the ideal way to end on a show. It's even mentioned on multiple sites that the show ends on a sad note. Personally I don't think it did despite the bleak stories, the intro to the show narrates how Courage was abandoned as pup, that question was finally answered. Sometimes in cartoons, it’s not too vital to have major construction for character development in a cartoon because it just needs to do silly little antics to entertain children. I do feel show did sort of come full circle, it was nice to know how or why he was abandoned as a pup. In "Remembrance of Courage Past" that backstory is revealed and it is heartbreaking. Now it is known why Courage tries everything to save his family after he couldn't save his parents. This show was all about freaky fears and monsters, but this does tie into an all too real fear about losing family. I remember when I watched that episode a few years ago and I just had tears streaming down my face. That awful feeling of having your family gone or knowing others like Courage that lost their family at a young age.
Then comes the final story, which was "Perfect". That was a bit of a gamble to end the show with such a cruel way to show about how people are ridiculed for any little thing that they do. True- that's life, but it was unnecessarily stretched too far for a story to use, and it shouldn't have been done as the last story for the series, but maybe it was out of the creator's control and didn't know that this story would be the last. The story is that Courage is trying the best he can to do the certain tasks that he is taught to be a perfect person. Just as I mentioned earlier about the commentary I found about depression in The Tower of Doctor Zalost, that was a good example about what depression is like. This had an example about people who are too critical of others and that they can’t change. How awful it feels to be ridiculed for being imperfect to society's ways, someone's expectations, and being deprived of being unique. It was heartbreaking to see this poor little purple dog having nightmares about not being perfect.
It hits close to home, I remember having nightmares myself where I would wake up in hyperventilating crying state that what I did wasn’t good enough. That is something that a lot of kids can relate to. There are kids at a young age that are put through certain scenarios where they have to be molded to perfection and it scars the psyche.
Throughout watching that last story of the episode, I remember wiping the tears from my eyes to see this misery. As much as it's never a good idea to watch something that makes your mindset miserable, it does (somewhat) end on a high note. It ended with Courage maintaining his unique, imperfect identity, despite what others tried to do to him. He didn’t change anything about him and it was the most subtle way of making a life lesson without having to address it.
Even though this isn’t a show that was trying to make a lesson and only was a show about a dog trying to save his family from creepy forces and figures. it unintentionally did have the lessons embedded in there to be interpreted as lessons or perceived as a piece of comfort .
After rewatching the first two seasons and sporadically watching the rest of the show, there is a higher level of respect I have for the show. Knowing that the creator just did what he wanted to present a different type of show for children. It just goes to show that a story for children doesn't have to follow a usual route to put on television.
But the one thing I love most of all is how creator of the show has reacted to fans. For years he's been presented with a different theories about the show. He will stop what he's doing and listen to the entire theories and he will say that they are right because art does not have to have a definitive answer.
That is the most humbling thing I have ever heard from a creator, It makes me love the show that much more. There was so much hard work that was put into the show to do four seasons. All that work paid off that fans still talk about it and the newcomers from the next generation continue to make this show about a little purple dog stand the test of time. If you have the availability to access this show, watch it again and see for yourself what you can interpret out of this classic horror comedy show.