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.
30. Fish Police (1992)
Record holder for the least amount of episodes of any cartoon on this list (six episodes were produced, but only three were broadcast), Fish Police was given the axe before anyone even knew it existed. Unless it’s The Chevy Chase Show (which literally NO ONE watched, even accidentally), I can’t imagine any show having ratings so bad, a network pulls the plug before half of the episodes were aired. Based on a comic book series of the same name, Fish Police was a noir themed police procedure that follows Inspector Gil solving various crimes, many of which are related to the Mafia and other criminal organizations, and avoiding seduction by the smoldering sex pot Angel. It was A Shark Tale over a decade before it existed and for my money, has a much better plot and cast. Check out this killer line up of voice talent: Edward Asner, Tim Curry, Hector Elizondo, Robert Guillaume, Buddy Hackett, Megan Mullally, John Ritter, Jonathan Winters and the omnipresent Frank Welker. CBS ran away from this as hard as they could, which is ironic considering that they make nothing but this show now, except without the fish.
29. Captain Simian & the Space Monkeys (1996–97)
One of the many TMNT clones with memorably ridiculous names about a team of crime fighting anthropomorphized animals to come out around that time, Captain Simian & the Space Monkeys is far better than it’s title and copycat origins would have you believe. Using the real world event of monkey-manned spaceflights the United States launched in the 1960s in replace of toxic chemicals, replacing the turtles with monkeys and ditching the crusty back alleys of NY for space, Captain Simian almost takes perverse pleasure in ripping off the Ninja Turtles this blatantly. It easily could’ve been sued for plagiarism by the creators of TMNT as well as the network who owned it at the time. While it gets negative points for its lack of originality, it earns all those points back and then some with it’s storylines and characters. It might be a derivate clone, but it’s a well polished clone.
28. Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985)
Only J. Michael Straczynski could spin gold out of a show called Jayce and The Wheeled Warriors. He was brought in to manufacture a plot out of a toy line and he, in his words, “hijacked a dopey concept to make it into something more”. Unlike most other cartoons that had neatly self-contained story episodes, this one had a continuing story arc that was sadly never finished. The show follows Jayce and his team of wheeled warriors called the Lighting League who are on a quest to fight the Monster Mind and their leader Saw Boss while also trying to find Jayce’s missing father. It’s far from the best concept but their was clearly an attempt by Straczynski to give kids something more than just another lazy tie in.
27. The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police (1997–98)
Based off the offbeat comic book series and point-and-click video game of the same name, Sam & Max: Freelance Police was a dog-and-rabbit-buddy-cop cartoon that perfectly captured the madcap humor and anarchic style of its source material. Like the comic book and video game before it, it takes full advantage of the fact that it’s an absurd reality where anything could happen. The duo travel to the Moon, Mount Olympus, the centre of the Earth and the mutant inhabited waters of Bohunk Lagoon. They go Bigfoot hunting, fight aliens and monsters, and have even cross paths with Santa. Since their job is imaginary and the world they inhabit isn’t bound to real life logic, each episode’s adventure is limited by nothing but the imagination of whoever is writing it. Those are my favorite types of stories and Sam & Max is literally nothing but those types of stories. Rick and Morty needs advanced science to explain away the absurd shit that happens in that show but Sam & Max does away with all that unnecessary set up and dives head first into the crazy and more cartoons need to follow it’s lead. Or don’t since it was prematurely cancelled and hardly anyone remembers it exists.
26. Silver Surfer (1998)
Every cartoon watching kid of the ’90s has a strong nostalgic affinity for Spider-Man: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series but few remember Silver Surfer and it might be the best of the bunch. Due to a rights disagreement between Marvel and Saban, the show wasn’t picked up for a second season but if it had, I truly think we would’ve gotten a Silver Surfer movie by now. He has one of the most unique origin stories of any Marvel superhero and all of his adventures are set in the far away galaxy where anything can happen; a movie is a no-brainer. Outside of budgetary reasons, the only other reason I can think of why it hasn’t gotten one yet, is simply because no one knows who he is. Comic book fans do, obviously but your average movie going audience member has no idea who he is and most likely would find him goofy as fuck but they might have accepted him earlier if the cartoon had a chance to find its audience. The most impressive thing about the show is how it manages to stay true to much of the comics source material while including some key differences that make it a proper adaptation, not just a page-to-screen translation. As in the comics, Norrin Rad sacrifices himself to become Galactus’ (a planet devouring super deity) first herald, a cosmically-empowered scout who flies through the universe in search of energy-rich planets for his new master to consume, in exchange for his homeworld being spared. The major change but found in the comics is that when Rad transforms into the Silver Surfer, his memories are frozen in the time before the deal, essentially giving him amnesia. It creates a new power balance between the two, where you’re forced to watch an unaware puppet dance to the strings of a malevolent puppet master hoping he’ll eventually look up instead of rooting for a powerless slave to revolt. It’s a great change I hope the inevitable movie keeps.
25. Extreme Ghostbusters (1997)
Now that every movie released nowadays not starring a group of Abercrombie & Fitch looking models is accused of being “woke”, I truly can’t imagine the type of vitriol Extreme Ghostbusters would elicit from the internet. The show pushed for both diversity in its cast and a darker tone the series wasn’t known for. Working as both a sequel to The Real Ghostbusters and reboot to the series on the whole, the show is set years after that show ended, with the business ending due to lack of paranormal activity and the group going their separate ways. The only one who still lives in the firehouse to monitor the containment unit and to take care of Slimer, is Dr. Egon Spengler who has to recruit a new team when ghosts start to reappear. Made up of the four lone students of his paranormal studies class he teaches at the local college, this new team consists of Kylie Griffin, a goth genius and expert on occultism; Eduardo Rivera, a cynical Latino slacker; Garrett Miller, a young white paraplegic athlete who uses a wheelchair; and Roland Jackson, a studious African-American machinery whiz. They’re about as far away from the original dynamic as you can get and, while a case could be made that it’s a blatant attempt to cater to the x-treme demographic at the time (11-16 year old boys), I think it works. They have wildly different personalities from each other that results in a much more interesting dynamic than the original team. Not better, but less archetype-y. They’re far more entertaining than the kids from Afterlife and, while it goes without saying, the ladies from the 2016 one. In addition to its fantastic cast of characters, it also features ghost designs that are nightmare fuel for children and a tone more akin to a horror movie (admittedly one aimed at kids) than an adventure comedy. It tried something different with the property and because it failed, we’re doomed to get nothing but nostalgia bait for years to come.
24. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (1993–94)
Of all of the shows on this list (not named Skeleton Warriors), this is the most baffling failure. Ignoring the obvious reason it should’ve been a gigantic success, this was created by Steven E. de Souza, the screenwriter behind Die Hard, Commando, 48 Hrs. and many other action classics. That’s about as strong a pedigree as you can get and not to state the obvious but it’s right there, the title of the fucking show is Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. How have we not gotten a Michael Bay trilogy of this yet, let alone a second and third season? It’s a title and concept so good, it sells itself. It tells you everything you need to know about it. It has cadillacs and dinosaurs in it. I can’t think of a premise that should hit all four demographics harder. Everyone loves a cool looking car almost as much as they love a dinosaur and as long as the show isn’t about math, it should’ve been the most successful thing of all time. But for some reason, no one was interested. Hell, even the arcade game seems to be a tad obscure nowadays. Even though the heat is beginning to die off, the Jurassic World series should be popular enough to warrant a mini resurgence in dinosaur movies because this deserves the big screen treatment.
23. BraveStarr (1987–88)
There was a number of sci-fi/western themed one season shows to pick from for this list and as good as The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers is, it doesn’t have a blunderbuss wielding anthropomorphic cybernetic horse (the proper term according to the show is Equestroid) named Thirty/Thirty in it, so it didn’t make the cut. Set in the 23rd century on a multi-cultural desert planet called New Texas, Bravestarr follows Marshal BraveStarr and his trusty Chief Deputy Thirty/Thirty as they try and bring law and order to this backwater planet ruled by a skeletal Broncosaur named Stampede and his gang of outlaws. In addition to his badass looking blaster (which kids could buy, leading to some serious legal issues), BraveStarr can call upon the power of “spirit animals”, enabling him briefly to perform superhuman feats. The hawk enhances his vision, the wolf gives him superhero hearing, the bear gives him incredible strength and the puma makes him the fastest man alive. Taken all together and it’s clear the showrunners really tried to make the most entertaining cartoon ever and goddamn it, do they get close.
22. Stroker & Hoop (2004–05)
A parody of various different cop shows, namely Starsky and Hutch and Knight Rider, Stroker & Hoop follows two Private Detectives, John “Stroker” Strockmeyer, his partner Hoop Schwartz, and their self-aware robotic car, C.A.R.R. as they try and solve the very few cases that are thrown their way. Stroker is greedy, self involved and brutally lazy. Hoop is a pacifist to the point of uselessness. Together, they almost make one competent detective. Watching them bungle their way through every situation, causing more death and destruction than whatever case they were working on, never gets old. Adult Swim has a number of one season wonders (the less said about Minoriteam and Titan Maximum the better) and this is one of the best.
21. 3-South (2002)
3-South has a character in it that’s an albino hermaphrodite named Todd Wolfschmidtmansternowitz. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the show’s brand of humor and whether or not you’ll like it, nothing will. Released years after MTV’s Oddities but right before the network fully embraced reality TV, 3-South was a victim of poor promotion, no word of mouth and most importantly, no animation block to draw viewers to the show. It was just out there all alone, floating in a sea of The Osbournes reruns and whatever else they decided to play besides actual videos. Sanford and Dell, two idiotic friends who room together at the fictional Barder College, find themselves at the center of a series of collegiate misadventures. Examples include stealing the wrong mascot (they steal Barder’s instead of a rival school’s) or when they spend an entire day cleaning some dudes house because they mistakenly confuse the home of a deadbeat for a frat house and end up doing chores for him as “initiation”. While the show does at times cater to the lowest common denominator (buckle up for some fart jokes), it’s not an offensively stupid show. If you’re a fan of Napoleon Dynamite‘s brand of humor, you’ll most likely dig this.
What are some of your favorite short-lived animated series? Maybe they will show up later in the list!