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.
40. Gravedale High (1990)
After years of success hiring professional voice actors to do cartoons, someone had the brilliant idea to not only hire celebrities to start doing some, but to build the entire cartoon around them. John Candy had Camp Candy, Howie Mandel had Bobby’s World, Louis Anderson had Life with Louie and even Bruce Willis threw his hat into the ring with Bruno the Kid. As bizarre as that is, it’s nowhere near as wild as Gravedale High. The show revolves around the misadventures of Max Schneider who has unwittingly taken a job at Gravedale High, a school for monsters. Schneider, the only human in the school, presides over a group of ghoulish teenagers that are latest-generation versions of classic movie monsters.
The premise is a classic fish out of water story; that’s not the bizarre part. The celebrity at the center of it, the reason it was made in the first place, is Rick Moranis. He’s good in the role, don’t get me wrong and I’m not saying he’s not big enough to warrant his own show, but the fact that they really thought he had enough star power to singlehandedly make it a success is just weird to me. They could’ve replaced him with a much cheaper alternative and it would’ve had zero impact on its quality. The only thing his involvement does is turn the show into an odd curio for animation enthusiasts and/or Moranis uber fans. Both of which will be, at the very least, entertained by their discovery.
39. The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
Since he’s the video game equivalent of Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse, you’d think Mario would have more adaptations or crossovers in other mediums. There was the live action movie we don’t talk about, the live action show starring Captain Lou Albano everyone kinda remembers and the new movie with Chris Pratt the world pretends doesn’t exist. There hasn’t been a new comic in decades and as of this write up, there’s no news of a new main line entry. For a property that’s been milked as much as it has, it’s kinda remarkable Nintendo has shown as much restraint on those udders as it has.
They could easily get some more coin out of this franchise, as long as they use this show as their template. The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 does a better job of capturing its game-based world than either the live action show or movie, and I’m willing to bet the new movie as well. The characters all feel like their video game counterparts, with each character pretty much sounding exactly how I want them to. It’s hard to capture the essence of a character who never says more than a couple words at a time but the voice cast nail it. It also has the distinction of being the first thing to name and give personalities to The Koopalings. The games would later abandon those names but at least an attempt was made. Which is more than I can say about those Zelda, Donkey Kong or Kirby cartoons.
38. Inhumanoids (1986)
When compiling shows for this list, I ran into a group of similar-ish cartoons that all had a gimmick of sorts. SilverHawks was supposed to be part of a triptych involving Thundercats and the forgotten TigerSharks. They were going to cover land, sea and air, with space standing in for air. It was a cool idea but neither did enough to stand out from the others. There was The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers that transported cowboys into space but I already have a cartoon on the list with that exact premise and since this one doesn’t have an anthropomorphic horse man wielding a shotgun, it was cut. There were a handful of dinosaur themed shows with Dinosaucers being the coolest and most deserving of a reboot but there’s already a dinosaur show on the list and since this one doesn’t involve cadillacs, it didn’t make the cut.
COPS came ridiculously close to making the cut, with it’s fantastic character designs and killer theme song but ultimately, it didn’t do enough to justify its inclusion.Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light was built around its toy lines holographic stickers, with each character being able to conjure a technological spirit animal out of their personalized hologram. It certainly had potential but I ultimately went with a much cooler toy premise. Inhumanoids was a show and toy line that knew exactly what its audience wanted: giant monsters. Every other cartoon save for one (it’s higher on the list), focuses on the heroes, not the villains. Inhumanoids said forget that noise and put their unique monsters front and center. For it’s awesome toy line alone (seriously, take a second to Google D. Compose and Tendril, they’re amazing), Inhumanoids makes the list.
37. The Bots Master (1993–94)
Boy genius Ziv Zulander leads a revolution against an evil corporation seeking to control the world through his evil robots. His heroic team is called The BOYZZ, split into “The Street Boyzz,” “The Sports Boyzz,” and “The Science Boyzz.” His crew has names like Blitzy, D’Nerd, and Jammerzz and If you feel like you were just assaulted by the ’90s, that’s just the tip of the x-treme gimmick iceberg. Every time Ziv would yell out his catch phrase, the viewer was supposed to put on their 3D glasses. Add in some JNCO jeans and those Cat in the Hat style hats (remember when those were super popular for five minutes?) and The Bots Master would be the king of ’90s ‘tude. Which is most definitely a feature, not a bug. Most cartoons that leaned into the x-treme, had nothing supporting it but this show featured an eye catching art style, a talented voice cast, memorable character designs and a genuinely enthralling storyline that continued episode to episode.
36. The Goode Family (2009)
If there was a Mount Rushmore of animation, Mike Judge would definitely be on it. He’s created two iconic series (Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill), and while he had very little involvement with Daria, it’s still a spin-off of one of his shows, so he gets a modicum of credit for that one, too. The landscape of animation would look a lot different without him and he might’ve been able to change it a third time if anyone on Earth would’ve watched his third cartoon. Far from a failure, The Goode Family is a case of a great show never finding it’s audience. Some of that is due to ABC’s lack of an animated programming block to make sure it had support and some of it is due to it just being way ahead of the curve. It lampooned “woke culture” years before it was a thing. That’s the double edged sword of mining the future for jokes, sometimes you’re too ahead of the audience and by the time they get it, it’s too late.
35. Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates (1990–91)
You would think after twenty odd live action remakes, Disney would look at literally anything for tips on how to properly update a story. Maybe instead of spending hundreds of millions remaking one of your beloved classics shot for shot, you’d take the property and do something new with it. Pete’s Dragon and Cruella were steps in the right direction but if they really want to properly reboot one of their old animated movies, they need to look at one of their old competitors that they now own. Since Disney now owns every studio under the sun, Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates is now technically one of their properties, which makes it doubly confusing that a) they haven’t released it on their streaming service and b) why they haven’t tried to update it. Or at the very least, use it as a blueprint on how to inject new life into an old story. Running a whopping 65 episodes (one of the longest shows on the list), the show is a complete overhaul on the J.M. Barrie story.
It’s not a radical new vision by any stretch, it just takes what was already on the page and expands upon it. All the characters are roughly the same but have certain traits turned up a notch. For example, Captain Hook (voiced by the legendary Tim Curry) in this is now a powerful, temperamental, cultured, intelligent, and charming pirate with an insatiable thirst for vengeance. He’s no longer a note bad guy. His crew all have names and motivations and the Native American characters (no longer called Redskins) are fully fleshed out characters, not offensive stereotypes. It did something new and viewers just couldn’t get over the different character designs, so it was cancelled. I guess they would rather have the same old shit than adjust to change.
34. Spy Groove (2000–02)
If you can get past its dated animation style and rapid back-and-forth patter (which gets old quick), Spy Groove has a lot to offer. While it could be described as “Archer but with douche bros”, the show actually works as a Bond parody much better than Archer ever did. That show’s humor is built out of its characters and the situations they find themselves in. Spy Groove pokes fun at the clichés and tropes of the Bond films. Like Austin Powers before it, the show works because it never makes fun of the dated elements of those old spy films. Instead, it embraces them and affectionately skewers them. It’s a lesson I wish the creators of Archer or literally any other parody show would learn. If you make fun of a specific thing within a specific genre with genuine affection, it doesn’t matter whether or not the audience will get it, they’ll laugh because it’s funny. And if they rewatch it years later with a better understanding of the genre, they’ll love it even more.
33. Spider-Man Unlimited (1999–01)
In 1999, two animation studios had the unenviable task of following up two of their biggest hits — Spider-Man: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series and both decided to do the exact same thing: throw the characters into the future. Batman Beyond was a couple of decades past the original series, whereas Spider-Man Unlimited was almost one hundred. Made in that small window when the industry was obsessed with the date 2099 for some reason, the cartoon was kind of forced into going futuristic route because of the live action movie. Since Sony didn’t want any brand confusion, Saban was not allowed to use the character’s traditional storylines or iconography, which made them get creative. And weird. Taking place on Counter-Earth (an alternate version of our Earth if you couldn’t tell), this Peter Parker is friends with J. Jonah Jameson’s son, fights creatures known as the Beastials and encounters similar but slightly different versions of his rogue’s gallery. It was forced to do something new because of the movie and met its swift and undeserved end because of Pokemon. It was a cartoon that never had a chance but now that it’s on Disney+, it might finally find an audience.
32. Defenders of the Earth (1986–87)
Like all kids, I used to take all of my hero toys and have them team up to fight my villain toys, whether they were from the same property or not. But in order for it to make sense in my adolescent mind, they are least all had to be the same height. The ninja turtles and the masters of the universe could battle an army of decepticons but a six inch G.I. Joe couldn’t team up with a regular sized Spider-Man to take on Godzilla. Team ups are fun and everyone loves them but they have to make sense for the viewer to be invested. Which is kind of the problem with Defenders of Earth. It’s not that the heroes at the center of the team up don’t make sense together (they’re all the same height, don’t worry), it’s that no child at the time knew who the fuck they were. This was released the same year as The Phantom movie (which no child saw), ten years after the Flash Gordon movie (which barely any child saw), and it included Mandrake the Magician who still has no movie and children still have no fucking idea who he is. It’s an odd assortment of characters to make a team out of and while it did last an impressive 65 episodes, children ultimately didn’t care enough for it to get a second season. Too bad because it’s actually a solid show and would most likely do much better now in the wake of superhero mania.
31. Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series (1996–97)
The only reason Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series doesn’t win the title of the most insane TV show based on a movie, is the fact that Friday the 13th exists, and say what you will about the ridiculousness of this cartoons premise, it at least has hockey playing ducks in it. Hockey playing alien ducks that act as a defacto Guardians of the Galaxy-esque team of space adventurers who fight robots and aliens and other sci-fi things but still, it delivers on the title of the show. Friday the 13th had zero connection to the film franchise. No Jason. No Camp Crystal Lake. No machete murders. There’s not even a copycat killer that looks like Jason. It’s a show about a trio who collects haunted artifacts and locks them away for safe keeping. It’s closer to The Conjuring, than anything. It’s an adaptation in name only. Mighty Ducks is almost on that level of disconnect from its source material but it goes in the opposite direction. Friday the 13th was an in name only cash grab, whereas Mighty Ducks took the name and built an insane concept around it and it worked. Watching humanoid ducks fight space monsters is a billion times more fun than watching fat kids play hockey.
What are some of your favorite short-lived animated series? Maybe they will show up later in the list!