Why Courage The Cowardly Dog Might Be The Darkest Kids' Show Ever Made

A demented, horror-themed kid's show about a meek, terrified dog subjected to cruel treatment, nightmarish visions, violence from ghoulish monsters and paranormal entities, all set in a vision of rural Kansas so isolated and alien it might as well be another world. No one believes him, everyone dismisses him, and deaths, body-horror transformations, and the like do not carry over from episode to episode, possibly even scene to scene. Oh yeah, and one of his elderly owners is abusive.

Was this the pitch that creator John R. Dilworth gave the Cartoon Network in 1996 when Courage the Cowardly Dog aired? The world may never know. But even among the retinue of existential nightmare fuel masquerading as children's TV and movies, such as Jim Henson's The Storyteller or Jan Svenkmeyer's Alice, there's no doubting that Courage the Cowardly Dog stands out. Yes, there is ultimately a central theme to Courage, and it revolves around the tiny pink mutt overcoming his fears and demonstrating implacable, truly dog-like loyalty to his owners, particularly the kindly Muriel, no matter what. However, that theme is the hub for a host of horrifying, surreal, and darkly funny circumstances.

Courage aired during the late-nineties golden era of Cartoon Network, with shows like Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, and Samurai JackCourage, as per the show's Wiki, lasted for four seasons, from 1999 to 2002, and spanned 52 episodes. 

Stupid dog, you make me look bad

Each episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog followed roughly the same structure: Courage and his owners would come across some unknown force. There was some mystery that only Courage could solve, and in the meantime, his loved ones Eustace (the jerk) and Muriel (the nice one) were plunged into the role of patsy or victim. Many of Courage's stories and creatures employed classic horror tropes, even veering into cosmic Lovecraftian horror. Take the episode "Mountain Madness," where Courage tries to take Muriel to a magic hot spring in the mountain to cure her aching back, whereupon they are beset by strange mountain creatures and a talking goat who says that humans, in ages past, ruined their mountain paradise. There is a similar lesson in "Giant Space Squid," where Muriel tries to prevent the military from conducting experiments on a benevolent, peaceful space squid responsible for making new stars.

Other episodes move into the realm of physical horror, such as "Dangerous Diner," which involves a pig in a greasy apron grinding up his customers and using them for food. "Say ARGH!," then, starts with Muriel giving a carrot to a tiny rabbit, which is summarily eaten by an underground worm creature, that bites Muriel and transforms her into a monster. 

Courage the Cowardly Dog is terrifying, yes, but if kids witness a shaking, sweating, sympathetic dog overcoming such trials, they might learn to do the same.