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.
20. The Pirates of Dark Water (1991–93)
This episodic seafaring adventure may have aired full seasons on ABC, but the original mini-series got its start on Fox Kids. The Pirates of Dark Water followed Ren and his ragtag crew (it’s always a ragtag crew, isn’t it?) as they collect the 13 Treasures of Rule in order to stop his world from being consumed by the ominous Dark Water. The show had great character models and an imaginative story; the network really went all out on this one. They put a lot of money into this, hiring the best available voice cast and animators, so they can’t be blamed for cancelling it when the numbers weren’t enough. They did everything they could, there just wasn’t any interest. They had Roddy fucking McDowall as the voice of a monkey bird and people still didn’t watch it. This show could’ve been amazing and its failure is on all of you.
19. Skeleton Warriors (1994)
I know I’ve said this about a number of cartoons on this list already but this is the ultimate example of a failure that literally doesn’t make sense to me. The show is called Skeleton Warriors. There may not be an easier lay up in the history of animation. There is no child alive who watched cartoons at that time that wasn’t the target audience for this. Everyone loves cool looking skeletons. So much so, that the toy line even focused on the skeletons, not the heroes. And the toys were great because the character designs were great. The show had awesome looking skeletons and a storyline that continued episode to episode and yet, neither the toys or comics or video game or the show did well enough to get more than 13 episodes. Were kids back in the day allergic to awesome or what?
18. The Oblongs (2001–02)
If only this show debuted two years later or lasted just one more season, it most definitely would’ve become a hit. If the network knew how big a star Will Ferrell was about to be, they would’ve ordered five seasons before the first episode even aired. That’s how big he was in the ’00s but that stardom didn’t start until one year after this show was already off the air. It’s not the networks fault for cancelling this, it was far too quirky for general audiences, I’m just saying I guarantee they were kicking themselves for pulling the plug prematurely. The Oblongs is a comedy about a family who all suffer from different radiation abnormalities that are the result of the community’s more affluent members. Behind this dark premise, there’s a lot of love, and the Oblong family makes the best out of their unfair lots in life. It was weird in a time when cartoons desperately needed a little weird but it was also too weird to stay on the air. The perfect recipe for a cult hit.
17. What a Cartoon! (1995–97)
Just like Liquid Television and to a lesser extent Kablam! and Cartoon Sushi, What a Cartoon Show! served as a launch pad for numerous other shows and the results were staggering. Because of this show, we got: The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Sheep in the Big City, Codename: Kids next Door, Cow and Chicken, Mike, Lu and Og, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones?, Grim and Evil, Megas XLR and the precursor to what will eventually become Family Guy. No other show has contributed this much comedy outside of Saturday Night Live.
16. WildC.A.T.S. (1994–95)
In 1992, Jim Lee and several other artists left DC and Marvel to form their own publishing company, Image Comics, to publish their creator-owned titles. They had Spawn, Youngblood, Savage Dragon and Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. With the exception of Youngblood, the titles all proved so popular, that just a couple years after their debut, they already received animated series. Savage Dragon and Spawn would get a couple of seasons a piece but WildC.A.T.S. wouldn’t be as lucky. Featuring excellent artistic direction, talented voice actors, and a catchy opening theme, the show perfectly translated the coolness of the comic book page to the screen. Although it had a toy line and a video game based on it, the show just couldn’t compete with the much more popular superhero cartoons at the time. If you were one of the few that watched this instead of X-Men or Spider-Man, consider yourself an honorary member of the cool kids club.
15. C Bear and Jamal (1996–97)
The only criteria for this list was the amount of seasons, not episodes. I only picked shows that had one season, so while some shows on this list have as many as 65 episodes, others have as few as 3. C-Bear and Jamal technically isn’t eligible since it has two seasons but since its first season only had three episodes and its second had ten, I decided to bend the rules a bit to include it. Unless my half assed internet research is incorrect, this is the first cartoon since Fat Albert to have an all black cast and the first one period not to be based on a celebrity. Hammerman, The Jackson 5ive and Mister T all predate it but those were all cheap cash grabs made solely to pump a couple more dollars out of their stars’ heat. C-Bear and Jamal, while having a celebrity (at the time) voice one of the leads, wasn’t marketed as the “Tone Lōc show” nor is he playing himself. He’s just voicing a talking bear that helps his buddy get into and out of trouble. The show was a bit like Bebe’s Kids if the kids in it were normal and not the absolute worst monsters on Earth. Jamal (along with C-Bear) and his friends cause a bit of mischief here and there but always with a life lesson at the end. The show was and in some ways, still is ahead of its time.
14. Sym-Bionic Titan (2010–11)
Now that everyone has finally caught up to the genius that is Genndy Tartakovsky because of Primal and his unreleased Popeye movie who’s storyboards just hit the internet to universal acclaim, maybe now his lesser known work will finally get some love. Everyone has seen Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory and his Clone Wars but far less have seen Korgoth of Barbarian (which wasn’t eligible for the list since it’s only one episode) or Sym-Bionic Titan. Billed as “an exciting hybrid of high school drama and giant robot battles”, the show features the adventures of three beings from the planet Galaluna who crash-land on Earth while attempting to escape their war-torn world. Trying to balance life as high schoolers with their duties as Earth’s newest secret defenders, the show is a perfect blend of Tartakovsky’s trademarked stylized action and humor but with arguably his best written characters to date.
13. Mission Hill (1999–2002)
The shows that resonate the longest with specific age groups are the ones that target them in a way no other show does. The more specific the target, the more niche it becomes. Which explains why Mission Hill was always destined to fall. It targeted early twentysomethings, which no one did. Not targeted in the way Adult Swim targets them but by actually being about them. Coming from former Simpsons executive producers, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, Mission Hill perfectly portrays the malaise of that period of your life. Filled with a witty and acerbic sense of humor, and an art style that mixes the modern with the traditional, Mission Hill is a one of a kind gem that still feels fresh and original over twenty years later.
12. Spiral Zone (1987)
Stupid name and terrible character/vehicle designs could be enough to sink a show. I mean, what kid wants to play with ugly looking toys? On top of that, even if they were interested in the toys, they’d most likely hate the show because while it was definitely made for them, it sure as hell wasn’t written for them. In the dystopian future of 2007, half of the Earth is now under the complete control of a mad scientist who drop his deadly Zone Generators all over creating Spiral Zones named after their shape. Any human exposed to “The Zone” become “Zoners”, yellow eyed zombies the mad doctor can control. A team of five heroes wearing protective suits are tasked with going into the Zone to rescue anyone they find (once out of the Zone, the Zoners revert back to normal) and to destroy any generator to stop the spread of the Zone. Spiral Zone is Annihilation meets The Walking Dead and since it has more action than the former and is better written than the latter, I’d say it’s better than both.
11. Invasion America (1998)
The X-Files was such a smash hit, that not only did every network immediately greenlight a clone to cash in on its success, animation studios were also trying to get in on that fat money cake. Since its premise can easily be modified to be a monster of the week type show, it perfectly lends itself to animation. Of the two big ones that were released, only one of them was produced by Steven Spielberg, so as Roswell Conspiracies: Aliens, Myths & Legends is, there was no way it was going to make the cut over something with Spielberg’s name on it. Not only did he produce it, he actually created it, which makes this one of his most obscure failures. David Carter’s teenage life is thrown into a devastating adventure when he finds out that not only is he’s half alien but his uncle plans on overthrowing the Earth for its resources. It’s an interesting twist on the Superman mythos, one that definitely deserves to be more well known than it is.
What are some of your favorite short-lived animated series? Maybe they will show up later in the list!