What makes a kid’s TV show subversive? It’s a complicated question because the most risque stuff gets yanked off the air at speed and the most political stuff tends to fly right over kids’ heads. To be truly subversive, a show needs to have a devoted audience and the members of that audience need to be exposed to ideas they might otherwise not encounter. Truly subversive children’s shows change the status quo without triggering a public outcry. In a sense, these are the shows that make adults ask themselves a question about the writers: “How are they getting away with this?”
Generally speaking, the answer to that question is that they’re getting away with it by making a kid’s show so unimpeachably good that critics are loathe to attack its more adult elements for fear of looking ridiculous, puritanical, or — more likely — cartoonish. And right there is the major advantage that the people behind kid’s TV shows often have. They do something inherently absurd so they’re hard to criticize even when they’re actually up to something. And they often are.
Here are eight subversive shows that illustrate what the people behind children’s television can get away with when they’re determined to say something controversial.
While duck repeatedly shooting itself in the face while trying to outsmart a rabbit might seem violent today, the most famous of all cartoon programs debuted in a media environment in which that seemed pretty normal. However, the show was not just another cartoon. It has aged so well because it was made artfully and thoughtfully. Before Looney Tunes, very few shows were made for kids and those that were generally didn’t feature complicated plots or beautiful drawings. Looney Tunes changed all of that by being — in its own way — the smartest thing on television. The most famous episode of Looney Tunes remains “What’s Opera, Doc?” which is essentially an in-joke about the work of Wagner. Does that matter to kids? They probably would say it doesn’t, but they would be wrong. The introduction of big ideas, real themes, and referential dialogue pushed kid’s programming into a more mainstream media space.
The Flintstones (1960-1966)
The beloved Hanna-Barbera cartoon, now considered one of the most iconic kid’s shows ever made, generated quite a bit of controversy when it first aired. The first prime-time animated series was also the first cartoon to show a couple sleeping in the same bed, which was still considered to be taboo at the time of its airing. It is also believed to be the first television show, for kids or adults, to ever discuss the topic of infertility, as Betty and Barney Rubble chose to adopt their son Bam-Bam after Betty learned that she could not have children. The show does a surprisingly great job showing Betty’s pain without being heavy-handed or insensitive. It is, in short, not a show for cavemen.
Sesame Street (1969-Present)
Before Sesame Street, kid’s programming almost never addressed the subject of death. Sure, Tom and Jerry could get sent to hell and Wile E. Coyote could blow himself up for eternity, but onscreen violence was played entirely for humor. Then, in 1983, Mr. Hooper died. One of the original humans on the program, Mr. Hooper was properly mourned. The show’s muppets addressed the subject of mortality head-on. Big Bird was, naturally, shattered. The episode is equal parts heartbreaking and brilliant, perfectly explaining a complex topic to young viewers without ever talking down to them in a way that only Sesame Street could.
The Rugrats was, on its surface, a silly show about a group of babies having innocent adventures in their backyard. So why did so many parents object to it? The reason, it turns out, is that Tommy Pickles and his adorably mischievous gang were always getting into trouble. Some parents felt the show was actually encouraging that behavior and teaching kids to misbehave. Others felt the character of Angelica, Tommy’s older and grumpier cousin, was a bad role model for kids, which would have been a fair point if her bratty behavior wasn’t clearly being portrayed in a negative light. Long story short, the show was about kids being imperfect and kind of crappy to each other at times. That’s what kids are like, but it bothered some people nonetheless.
The Animaniacs (1993-1998)
From Spongebob to Adventure Time, there is no shortage of bizarre, brilliant, and hilarious cartoons currently on the air that entertain adults every bit as much as they are loved by kids. That absurdist tone, now almost a genre unto itself, had to start somewhere and it started with The Animaniacs. The cartoon, which crammed in as many sight gags, puns, and pop cultures references as possible into each and every episode, was adult funny and kid frenetic. It also boasted a joke-per-minute ratio that rivaled The Simpsons and felt, at times, genuinely mean. It was glorious.
Hey Arnold! (1996-2004)
Most kid’s shows feature middle-class or wealthy characters. This helps showrunners avoid difficult discussions about poverty and want. Hey Arnold! didn’t. Arnold, Gerald, and the rest of the students of P.S. 118 are clearly growing up in a poor neighborhood. They are all, including Arnold and his grandparents, who lived in a small apartment, clearly struggling to get by. The show explicitly tackled a number of issues over the course of its run — community activism, conservation, protesting — but it stands out for its raw honesty about privilege.
As Told By Ginger (2000-2006)
This mostly-forgotten Nickelodeon show gave an honest perspective on what life is like for a girl trying to survive middle school while worrying about her grades, social status, and awkward attempts to talk to boys. The show did not belittle or mock the titular Ginger for fretting over her arguably low stakes problems, instead, it went deep on the emotionally profound pettiness of adolescence.
Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide (2004-2007)
This goofy, light-hearted show about three middle school friends was not as dark or shocking as most of the other shows on this list. But it was groundbreaking in one particular way: It took childhood friendships seriously. Sure, there were plenty of jokes about puberty and zany schemes, but the foundational bond between Ned, the lovable everyman, Mose, the tough as nails tomboy, and Cookie, the mad scientist in the making, were never a joke. And the way that their friendship felt real set the bar higher for the rest of kid’s television, leading to the nuanced and heartwarming friendships found in Good Luck Charlie, Wizards of Waverly Place, and many others.