Since the vast majority of cartoons from back in the day were made in conjunction with a related toy line (the toys help advertise the show and the show helps create interest in the toys), if one failed, they both ended up dead. Even though gambling on two different products at the same time sounds like an obvious recipe for failure, the success stories (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Etc.) made so much money, the risk was worth the reward. Why certain toy lines connect with kids and others don’t, will forever be a mystery but knowing that a toy line’s failure will result in the inevitable death of the cartoon attached to it is obvious once you think about it. What’s not as obvious is the cartoons that fail without a toy line. For every Saturday Morning classic and cult hit from MTV or Adult Swim, there are dozens of forgotten failures that never make it past one season. Cartoons that were either the victims of poor marketing, bad timing, an unsuccessful toy line or unpopular video game, no word of mouth, an oversaturated marketplace or something as simple as lack of interest. Not every cartoon can be a hit but some definitely deserved more than a handful of episodes.
These are the 50 Greatest Short-Lived Animated Series.
10. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019)
After literal decades in development hell, Lisa Henson was finally able to push this gigantic boulder over the hill. But much like her father’s original movie, all that effort was in vain. Far too few saw it or were even interested in it. The ones who did, are extremely vocal about their love of it, there’s just not enough of them. To their credit, Netflix did wait a year to cancel it hoping viewers would find it but they never came. This could’ve been their Game of Thrones if more people liked puppets as much as they like tits and incest but I guess the world of Thra is just too weird to connect with people. A prequel set years before the original film, Age of Resistance follows the story of three Gelflings: Rian, Deet, and Brea, as they journey together on a quest to unite the Gelfling clans to rise against the tyrannical Skeksis and save their planet from a destructive blight known as the Darkening. It’s an epic story with an equally epic voice cast. Netflix really did throw every available resource at this to do right by Jim Henson’s vision and I think he would’ve been proud of the end result. It may not be exactly what he wanted but at least it finally exists.
9. Downtown (1999)
Although it was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program for the episode “Before and After”, Downtown is about as obscure a cartoon as MTV as ever produced. Set in the New York City only night owls, junkies, misfits and stoop dwellers see, the show follows a diverse group of social outcasts that just go about their day-to-day. Among the diverse group are Alex, a comic book nerd with a penchant for goth girls, his sister Chaka, a free-spirited night owl with a choker and a slick patois, and their chill-as-hell friends, who spend their days racing to Coney Island and picking up girls on the subway. It’s a chill show where not a lot happens. It’s basically a Ralph Bakshi-esque slice of Americana without the overt racism.
8. Afro Samurai (2007)
Afro Samurai, like most samurai stories, is about revenge. Witnessing his father, Rokutaro (owner of the No. 1 headband) get killed by a male gunslinger named Justice (owner of the No. 2 headband) when he was a child, the now adult Afro Samurai sets off on a bloody quest of vengeance. Since one season anime could be an entirely different list, I decided to exclude them but a special consideration had to be made for this. For one thing, it’s clearly made for a western audience. You don’t cast Samuel L. Jackson (in two roles no less) if you’re not trying to appeal to Americans. And secondly, it’s pretty lite on the typical anime trademarks people who hate anime bitch about. It’s just wall-to-wall action, no big eyes or mechas anywhere to be found. It’s an anime made for people who hate anime.
7. Clerks: The Animated Series (2000–02)
Long before the MCU existed, Kevin Smith had his View Askewniverse and for my money, this is the best thing attached to that connective universe. Even though Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, I’ve long maintained that Smith’s brand of humor works much better in animation than it does in live action. Since there’s only so many adventures Dante and Randal can get up to at the Quick Stop, Smith wisely decided to introduce a foil for every episode — Leonardo Leonardo. Originally planned for Alan Rickman, the role was eventually cast with Alec Baldwin who brought his patented sleeze to the role. He made what could’ve been a one note villain into a memorable foil, one that belongs in the upper echelon of Smith creations. As does this show.
6. Galaxy High School (1986)
Created by Chris Columbus, Galaxy High School is your typical high school story… except set in space. Two Earth teenagers named Doyle and Aimee are accepted into the InterGalactic high school, Galaxy High School. He was a skilled athlete and was popular, while she was shy and, as the theme song states, “the smartest girl in school, not very popular, not very cool.” But once in space their roles are somewhat reversed. The alien teenagers seem to accept the not so popular Aimee, while Doyle tends to rub the aliens the wrong way. It’s a twist so good, the 21 Jump Street movie used it decades later.
5. The Midnight Gospel (2020)
Born out of Duncan Trussell’s introspective podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, The Midnight Gospel is basically that but with an unrelated narrative attached to every episode. Trussell plays Clancy, a space traveling, alternate world hopping spacecaster (a fancy name for a podcaster) who interviews interesting characters who are all voiced by equally interesting people. In one episode, he interviews Damien Echols, best known as one of the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers controversially accused and convicted of a triple murder. The interview is clearly about his life in prison and how it helped shape his life for the better but within the show, the interview takes on a completely different context. The Midnight Gospel accomplishes an incredible amount across only eight episodes, yet in some ways it feels like only the surface of the series’ creative world has only been scratched. More of The Midnight Gospel would have been a delight and would’ve helped deepen its existing content, but the single season that exists also gloriously stands on its own and Clancy reaches a sense of closure by the finale.
4. The Maxx (1995)
There was a time, a long, long time ago, when MTV was cool. I mean the coolest place in the fucking world. Not only did they play, you know, music but they had some of the most surreal, interesting content out there. There was Æon Flux and The Head and obviously Beavis and Butt-head but the most thought provoking of the bunch was The Maxx. Based on a fairly obscure comic by Sam Keith, the miniseries was about a homeless man who may or may not be traveling back and forth to an intergalactic planet where he and his queen rule. Is any of it real? Is he really the key to peace on “the jungle” or is he just another paranoid schizophrenic? The miniseries dealt with heavy themes like homelessness in America and mental illness along with substance abuse and prostitution, while also subverting the superhero genre in new and interesting ways.
3. Æon Flux (1991–95)
Starting as a series of shorts airing originally on Liquid Television, Æon Flux proved so popular with viewers that MTV decided to turn it into a series. And what a weird fucking series it was. MTV was years before and leagues ahead of the edgy programming Adult Swim would be known for. I’ve mentioned it many times throughout this list but it bares repeating, old MTV was at the forefront of the avant garde and Æon Flux was the most interesting of the bunch. Set in a dystopian world where the line between science fiction and fantasy are blurred, The title character is a assassin/mercenary that continuously butts heads with her lover/enemy Trevor Goodchild. If you’re looking for a coherent story or even satisfactory answers to the many questions the show presents the viewer, you will no doubt be let down but if you give yourself over to the unique world Peter Chung has created, you’ll find a cartoon like none other.
2. Over the Garden Wall (2014)
Since it’s so incredibly short (the miniseries only lasted ten episodes) but densely packed, Over the Garden Wall feels simultaneously not long enough but also the perfect experience. There’s a reason fans still bemoan the loss of Firefly or Terriers or any number of Bryan Fuller shows but not this and it’s due to the fact that it left you satisfied. Those other shows were nothing but promises of excellence to come that went unfulfilled but this show didn’t promise you anything, it delivered the goods immediately. Few shows accomplish what they set out to do as beautifully and succinctly with as many episodes as this show had.
Hell, there are some shows that have 100x the episodes and even they can’t pull off what this one did. Created by Adventure Time alum Pat McHale, Over the Garden Wall is an absolutely joyous mix of old-timey animation, old fashioned dialogue, catchy songs and a refreshing style of humor that most likely won’t put you in stitches but will definitely keep a smile on your face. While I do wish we got more episodes, I wouldn’t risk trading anything for that perfect ending. Over the Garden Wall is the definition of short and sweet, and any show tempted to hang around past its welcome would do well to learn from it.
1. Clone High (2002–03)
From the brilliant wunderkinds that brought you 21 and 22 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, Clone High was a one season comedy that instantly became a cult hit among fans. The show is about a high school that consists of nothing but the clones of famous historical figures like Cleopatra (now a cheerleader), Joan of Arc (now a goth), Gandhi (now a party animal), JFK (another party monster), and Abraham Lincoln (the main character who is in love with Joan). The show was unfortunately cancelled over complaints of the depiction of Gandhi; MTV needed those India numbers apparently. If you’re a fan of Lord and Miller’s distinct brand of comedy or 80’s high school comedies (not only does Teen Wolf cameo in every episode, Michael J. Fox himself voices Gandhi’s liver), Clone High might be your new favorite show.
What are some of your favorite short-lived animated series? Maybe they will show up later in the list!