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.
50. The Wuzzles (1985)
The Wuzzles holds the distinction of the least amount of episodes of any Disney animated show ever and the reasons behind it’s colossal failure remain a mystery. The animation looks as good as anything else they produced at the time, the character designs are cute and original, and the premise is unique. The shows gimmick is that every character is made up of two different animals smushed together. There’s Bumblelion (a half lion, half bumble bee), Butterbear (half bear and half butterfly), Eleroo (half elephant and half kangaroo), Moosel (half moose, half seal), Hoppopotamus (half rabbit, half hippopotamus) and Rhinokey (half rhinoceros and half monkey).
They all live on an island and the show explores their various adventures usually punctuated by a moral at the end. It had all the ingredients to be as big as The Adventures of the Gummi Bears but for some reason it just didn’t click with viewers. If I was to guess why, it goes back to my theory that cartoons, especially at that time, lived and died by their theme song. If it wasn’t instantly catchy, kids just didn’t care. The shows theme song is fine but I guarantee you don’t know what it is off the top of your head. If a theme doesn’t work it’s way into your brain, the cartoon won’t either. Eventually Disney will remake this and if they do, next time spend a little bit more time on that theme. But don’t touch those Wuzzle designs, they’re adorable.
49. Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars (1991)
The adventures of Bucky O’Hare and the crew of The Righteous Indignation didn’t last long but die-hard fans still hold out hope that they will once again sail the intergalactic seas. There have been talks about various reboots over the years but outside of a new toy line that dropped ages ago, nothing has come of it and that baffles me. It spawned two great video game tie ins, a comic book and a toy line that’s highly sought after by collectors. Not to mention a killer theme song multiple bands have covered. There’s clearly a demand for more Bucky but whoever holds the rights is letting the IP go stale. This is far from a TMNT clone in space. If it adapted the Neil Adams comics and kept the tone and action of the show, it has the potential to show those Star Wars Disney+ shows how to do a proper space opera.
48. JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales (2020)
You would think with all the bitching and moaning horror fans do over the fact that there’s never been a good movie that utilizes the iconic masters of horror (the less said about Death House the better), that they’d be all over this cartoon but I guess since there was zero word of mouth about it, it died an unceremonious and undeserved death. Almost every single actor who provides a voice is either a genre legend or a deep cut fan favorite. I’m not going to list them all but take a second and scroll through the cast on IMDB and then pick your jaw off the floor that you’ve never heard of this. Taking Grimm fables like Rapunzel, Snow White and Red Riding Hood, and injecting them with a healthy amount of subliminal messages, gore and total madness, JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales is what happens when the creator of King Star King gets ahold of the Fractured Fairy Tale trope. It’s a show tailor made for Adult Swim, not Hulu, which is probably why it died. Or maybe the creator is just cursed to continuously make insane one season shows till he dies.
47. Road Rovers (1996–97)
There may not be a show with more failed clones than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It created a sub-genre of anthropomorphized animal crime fighters, most of which didn’t make it past two seasons. Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, Biker Mice from Mars, Street Sharks, Extreme Dinosaurs, Avenger Penguins and Punk Frogs (among many others), but the one that had the most potential was Road Rovers. Not because it produced the best toys or had a great video game tie in or because it had the best characters or a had a notable writer attached but because the main characters are dogs and everyone loves dogs. Each character is a different breed of dog, complete with characteristics associated with that breed. The leader is an easy going Golden Retriever, there’s a no-nonsense Rough Collie, a stern Doberman, a hulking but kind Siberian Husky, the cowardly A cowardly Old English Sheepdog and there’s even an ill tempered rottweiler strapped to a hand truck ala Hannibal Lector. It’s not the most original cartoon in the world but it did enough to distance itself from the sea of clones.
46. Mummies Alive! (1997)
No offense to the channel UPN, I’m sure it produces a bunch of quality entertainment but if Mummies Alive! was on literally any other channel, it most likely would’ve succeeded. Or at the very least, gotten a second season. It still would’ve received criticisms for being a Gargoyles knock off (which are valid) but I think with more time and a bigger audience, it could’ve evolved past that. Mummies Alive! had a strong premise that perfectly lent itself to a monster of the week type show, had a fun cast of characters, all with powers and abilities that were tailor made for action figures and, while it was riding the “mummymania” trend that hit the early ’90s in the face, it caught the wave early enough, that it felt unique. Norse and Greek mythology have been done to death. Unless it’s another reboot or remake of The Mummy, pop culture tends to ignore Egyptian mythology and they never have mummies as the heroes. This show dives deep into that mythology, pulling out the heavy hitter deities, as well as some deep cut monsters. If the old gods were a brand, Mummies Alive! did more with it, than all The Mummy movies combined. And there’s a lot of them.
45. God, the Devil and Bob (2000)
Most shows on this list failed because of underwhelming toy lines and/or crowded markets. There can only be so many superhero shows on at one time. God, the Devil and Bob was sunk before a single episode ever aired. Why? Because of religion. The animated series faced protests from Christian groups the second the first advertisement aired. There were protests and not wanting to deal with the controversy, the network dropped it after just four episodes. Without ever watching it, religious groups were so incensed by the content, that they demanded it be removed. If they had seen it (and had a sense of humor), they would’ve realized the most controversial thing about it, is that God likes getting laid. The show follows Bob (French Stewart), a regular family man who finds himself at the center of a bet between God (James Garner) and the Devil (Alan Cummings). God wants to end the world and start over, but he gives humanity one last chance through Bob. If he can prove that humans are worth saving, the Almighty won’t wipe them out. Naturally, the Devil tries to make Bob fail. It’s a classic bet pulled straight out of the Bible but the twist is, God looks and acts like Jerry Garcia (smoking, drinking and panty chasing) and the Devil looks and acts like an early 00s hipster douche.
In addition to their redesigns, they actually have an interesting dynamic/relationship. God gets humans from birth to age eleven and the Devil gets them from twelve to twenty. After that, mankind is on its own. They’re painted as competitive salesmen with a friendly rivalry more than warriors for good and evil. Bob is also not exactly what you’d think he’d be. You would assume the man at the center of the bet would be a low life that needs redemption but Bob is actually a caring family man that’s inconvenienced more than anything. He doesn’t need to learn any great epiphanies or grow as a person. He just needs to navigate two assholes in the middle of a ridiculous bet. The show was never meant to be a critique on religion, it’s just a silly comedy with a moral: nobody’s perfect. It used the framework of the Bible in a humorous way and actually tried to teach people something. No wonder Christians hated it.
44. Cybersix (1999)
A Canadian show animated in Japan based on an Argentinean comic that had a small window in America, Cybersix is a Frankenstein creation that few have seen but is deeply loved by those who have. The premise is almost as convoluted as it’s production history: a leather-clad female gynoid who works as a male teacher named Adrian during the day, and fights against the scientist who created her at night. It takes the secret identity trope and adds another level of manufactured drama by also adding in a secret gender. There are characters in love with Adrian that she must keep at arms length, lest they find out her secret and there are characters Cybersix is in love with but can’t pursue because they have a relationship with Adrian. And that’s just her romantic entanglements. She also has to keep her crime fighting and synthetic body a secret. It’s a lot of plates to spin but it’s not all character drama, it’s a superhero show first and foremost. Along with Data7 (her brother who’s mind has been transplanted into the body of a black panther), she roams the rooftops Meridiana looking for crime to stop while pursuing an evil scientist. It’s a cyberpunk action packed love triangle with a badass chick dressed as a sexier Solomon Kane and a panther. This should’ve been a giant hit but without a toy line to drum up interest and a costly animation production, it died before it could find an audience.
43. Toxic Crusaders (1991)
I don’t know when the trend ended or why it ended but there was a time when animation studios thought it was a great idea to adapt R rated movies for children. Rambo, Robocop, Conan and Police Academy all received one but the best (and arguably the most bizarre head scratcher) of these is the Toxic Avenger. The other ones make sense. They all had video games and toys and outside of some violent bits in Robocop, none of them are that inappropriate for a child to watch. Toxic Avenger is, in no way, suitable for children. Like a typical Troma film, it’s filled with the most extreme subject matter imaginable. Which makes the decision to turn the character into a Captain Planet-esque cartoon about as wild as it gets. It shouldn’t exist but somehow, it works. Occupying the same gross out space as Madballs, Garbage Pail Kids and the like, Toxic Crusaders appeals to that demographic (young kids who like gross things) much more than he did the R rated one. Along with new characters created specifically for the show, Toxie battles aliens who are attempting to pollute the world in order to take it over and inhabit it. The animation isn’t the best and the writing is about as good as you’d suspect but as an example of how to adapt a property that has no business being a cartoon, it’s about as good as it gets.
42. Moonbeam City (2015)
Featuring an all-star cast — Rob Lowe, Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte and Kate Mara — a synth heavy soundtrack and an art pop style reminiscent of Patrick Nagel, Moonbeam City was Archer if Archer leaned way more into Miami Vice than James Bond. A neon drenched ’80s cop comedy following the misadventures of Dazzle Novak (Rob Lowe), an egotistical and easily-distracted detective of the eponymous city’s Police Department. Unfortunately for Moonbeam City’s, he is also the city’s top cop; which partially explains why his beloved metropolis is plagued with rampant crime and corruption. Working alongside (or more often against) Dazzle in his cases are his assistant, junior cop/tech genius Chrysalis Tate (Kate Mara), his police chief (and part-time lover), Pizzaz Miller (Elizabeth Banks), and his envious fellow officer/rival, the childish and clumsy Rad Cunningham (Will Forte). Each episode feels like checklist of cliches and tropes of buddy cop comedies but never tips over into winking self aware parody. You don’t have to be familiar with the films or shows they’re referencing, the humor is broad enough that anyone can get it but it’s also a specific type of comedy that made it an immediate cult hit that few too little saw.
41. Capitol Critters (1992)
Political satires work exceptionally well on Television. Whether they are talk shows recapping the insanity that happened the previous week or fictionalized dramas that use a specific target as a framework, politics mixed with comedy is always a recipe for success. Except when they aim it at children. It could be argued that Capital Critters was never meant for kids but since it was in the same block of animation as Fish Police and Family Dog and had Happy Meal toys, I’m going to say it definitely was. And was definitely a bad idea. The show starts with the main character (a country mouse named Max) witnessing his entire family getting killed, who then moves in with his cousin Berkeley, underneath Washington D.C.’s most famous residence. Do you get it? It’s a take on the old country mouse and city mouse story, except this one involves politics, segregation, guns, drugs and oh yeah, murder. It definitely gets points for beating Sorkin to the punch and while it maybe could’ve potentially worked if the culture was ready for more mature cartoons, it was ultimately doomed from the start. It’s biggest problem? Being twenty years ahead of the curve. A satirical cartoon about the insanity that takes place in the white house would absolutely work now.
What are some of your favorite short-lived animated series? Maybe they will show up later in the list!