Children’s television is one of the last safe havens in show business. There’s a happiness about the shows and a freedom from the ugliness of the world that allows us to feel comfortable letting our kids melt their brains in front of the screens for hours on end. Even as adults, children’s television offers us a true escape from our lives and our problems. Most of the time, children’s TV lightly glosses over the lives of adults. They never dwell on real-world problems because kids would find that boring or they just wouldn’t make sense of it.
But just because children’s television is mostly blissful and fantastical doesn’t mean that’s always the case. Almost every single children’s television show has, at one point or another, played a rather dark episode. Sometimes we call these “very special episodes” as they try to impart some special knowledge about the world on the viewers, knowledge that the show feels is an important and useful lesson for kids. Since it’s a kids show, the chances that it is heard by kids is increased greatly. It’s actually a pretty effective strategy. Hell, many of the episodes on this list are from years ago and we still remember them. You probably will too. Over time, the content in these episodes has changed, but we, as adults, have always seen them as “dark” because they smack us in the face with a hard dose of reality when we’re least expecting it. We’re caught off-guard and we’re shocked by what we see. Sure, it’s stuff we all understand, but it’s pretty heavy for a Saturday morning with your cereal. Here are the 15 Darkest Moments in Children’s Television History.
15. Diff’rent Strokes – Very Special Episodes
Diff’rent Strokes was not your typical children’s TV show, but two of the main characters, Arnold and Willis Jackson, were kids, so the audience was largely made up of kids. Over the years, Diff’rent Strokes became well-known for these “darker” episodes called “very special episodes.” For the purposes of this list, we thought of two of these episodes in particular. The one is called “Sam’s Missing,” which has Sam (Danny Cooksey) get kidnapped by a sad man who wants Sam to replace his dead son. It’s super creepy and will scare even the toughest of adults from speaking to strangers. The other is perhaps the scariest episode of television ever made. It’s called “The Bicycle Man,” and it’s about a man who tries to groom Dudley and Arnold by giving them wine and showing them p*rnography. After Arnold leaves, we hear that the old sicko even tried to molest Dudley. The whole time these gross sequences are playing out, the audience is laughing uncomfortably, proving they have no idea what the hell they’re doing. Hearing laughter while watching this will give you the heebie-jeebies.
14. ALF – “Consider Me Gone”
Like a couple of the entries on this list, ALF was not a children’s show by definition, but it had a puppet and children watched it. That means that children were watching ALF’s finale, “Consider Me Gone,” which had some pretty dark implications. In the episode, ALF receives a transmission that his friends have a new planet that they want his help to make into their home. Things are looking up until the Alien Task Force shows up, the mysterious government men that always sat on the periphery of the show. While waiting for his friends, the family says goodbye to ALF in a touching moment, but then the government shows up and takes the poor little alien away for testing and probing to be sure. Though they made a TV movie afterward, Project ALF, to try and tie up loose ends, this unintentional series finale became the finale for many children across North America, and we cried and cried.
13. The Magic School Bus – “Lost in the Solar System”
Arnold from The Magic School Bus has always been a little loco, but in, “Lost in the Solar System,” he takes crazy to a new level. When his annoying cousin Janet refuses to leave Pluto without her stuff, Arnold starts freaking out her, but his screaming does no good. He tells her that she will die if she remains there. That doesn’t convince her to leave. Finally, he decides to show her what will happen if she stays. He takes off his helmet and kills himself in front of the entire class. Without his helmet to protect him, Arnold’s entire head freezes into a solid block of ice. As the children scream, some of them pick Arnold up and carry him onto the bus. Thankfully, death isn’t permanent in this magical world, so Arnold’s frozen head melts and he’s left with only the sniffles.
12. Rugrats – “Mother’s Day”
Rugrats had a few episodes that were in consideration for this list, but the Mother’s Day episode was one we had to give its own entry. In reality, the show actually handled the treatment of Chuckie’s mom’s absence and death quite well, but, at the end of the day, it’s an animated children’s show, so dealing with death at all is going to be considered a bit dark by some. The episode centers around the gang trying to find Chuckie a new mom because he doesn’t have one on Mother’s Day. There’s several sad moments throughout, but, in the end, Chuckie realizes that his dad is a basically his mom already and that his mom is all around him in nature. Chuckie’s dad also reads him a poem that his mother wrote for him before she died of a terminal illness. Niagara Falls, Frankie. Niagara Falls.
11. SpongeBob Squarepants – “Natsy Patty”
Fans of SpongeBob Squarepants have long known that the show deals with plenty of adult themes, even if it masquerades as a children’s show. The episode “Natsy Patty” is one of the darkest in the episode list, as it retells Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart” in a SpongeBob style. When Patrick SpongeBob thinks they killed a visiting health inspector, they try to hide the body in various ways, all the while fighting through intense paranoia of being found out. Turns out the guy’s alive the entire time, so it’s all good other than being buried alive. Some other dark episodes include “Are You Happy Now,” which focuses around Squidward’s inability to find a happy memory. In one scene, it looks like he’s about to hang himself, but, as he stands on a stool and throws a rope around a beam, he draws up a birdcage with a singing bird in it instead. Then there’s the Bubble Buddy episode in which SpongeBob covers a fish in sand at the beach and tells Bubble Buddy to get him out. As the tide rolls in, Bubble Buddy just stands there and watches this poor guy drown. It’s pretty morbid.
10. Thomas & Friends – “The Sad Story of Henry”
In the episode, “The Sad Story of Henry” (also called “Come Out, Henry!”) in Thomas & Friends, we learn the tragic tale of how Henry refused to work on the railroad. Instead, he just cowers in a tunnel, blocking all train traffic. After several people try to encourage him to move, Henry refuses to move, blocking the tunnel indefinitely. When all hope is lost, the Fat Controller comes by and threatens Henry, saying they’re going to remove the tracks around him and he will be landlocked in the tunnel forever. Henry doesn’t fall for it, but, true to his word, the Fat Controller removes the tracks. He also goes one step further. He builds a frickin’ wall around Henry, entombing him in tunnel for eternity (or at least an episode or two). It’s pretty scary considering toddlers and babies watch this show.
9. Dinosaurs Finale
Dinosaurs was really more of a family show, but many kids watched it. Because of that, the whole world was shocked by the finale, an episode that punched viewers in the mouth with some hard lessons on environmentalism. It seems that, since the show was about dinosaurs and the dinosaurs went extinct, the show creators felt that they could just kill off the main characters in the finale and we would all be ok with it. In the finale, after a crazy domino effect, the world in Dinosaurs is hit with a new ice age. Basically, some beetles are killed inadvertently, which makes vines grow out of control, which inspires the dinosaurs to spray pesticides, which kills all plant life. The dinosaurs then try to make rainclouds by dropping bombs into volcanoes which then starts the new ice age. At the end, as the family huddles around their home trying to stay warm, Earl apologizes for ruining the world and killing everyone. As the camera pans out, snow piles in front of the door and the lights dim. The End. WTF?
8. Rugrats – “Angelica’s Worst Nightmare”
It was impossible to combine the two Rugrats episodes into one because both deserved their own space. The episode, “Angelica’s Worst Nightmare,” lightly glossed over the topic of miscarriage, but it’s so subtle that many people probably never even noticed it. It starts with Angelica’s pride of being an only child. Then, after taking a pregnancy test, Angelica’s mother tells her dad that she’s pregnant. This ruins Angelica’s whole day. Later, while sleeping, Angelica has terrible nightmares about this new baby, but all her fear is for nought in the end. The next day, Angelica’s parents go to the doctor. When they return home, Angelica hears that she will not be getting a baby brother anymore. We assumed that the test was wrong, but there’s a very good chance that this was a miscarriage or a chemical pregnancy. This is a pretty hardcore topic for children.
7. Static Shock – “Jimmy”
Static Shock never shied away from difficult issues in its time. The one episode that stands out most for people is “Jimmy,” an episode about bullying and the terrible repercussions that can come of it. Jimmy is a boy who is constantly bothered by some jackasses in school. He’s jammed into a locker and he doesn’t come to school for a week because of his tormentors. Later, Jimmy shows up to the community center with a gun ready to confront his bullies. As Jimmy cries and points the gun at these kids, they apologize and try to get him to calm down. As he does, a couple of them rush the kid. This startles him and he pulls the trigger, shooting Ritchie, one of the few kids that Jimmy was friends with. Static Shock also deals with racism in a couple of episodes, like “Sons of Fathers,” which deserves at least a mention for the heavy themes within it.
6. Powerpuff Girls – “Twisted Sister”
You could make the argument that each of the Powerpuff Girls have a physical disability of their own because their heads are larger than their entire bodies. In fact, each of their eyes is larger than their entire body, so there’s something not quite right about them. Still, when they created Bunny, a fourth sister, things went a bit sideways. Bunny had a severe mental illness and had some physical deformities as well. Since Bunny couldn’t tell the difference between cops and bad guys, like many people in the United States, she threw the cops in jail and released the criminals. This peed the Powerpuff Girls off and they banished her. She does come back to save the day, but, right after she does, Bunny explodes in a grisly death. All that’s left of her is a piece of fabric from her huge dress. Easily the craziest episode of Powerpuff Girls.
5. Punky Brewster – “Cherie Lifesaver”
Punky Brewster had a few crazy episodes in the show’s run, but perhaps the most memorable is the one where Punky and her pals play hide and seek. One of Punky’s friends, Cherie, is clearly a master at the game and she hides in an old refrigerator. None of the kids can find her, so Cherie wins, but she also dies in the process. When they do finally open up the fridge, Cherie is unconscious and visiting her maker. Luckily a bunch of small children listened to their CPR instructor earlier in the day and were able to bring this little kid back to life. What are the chances that the very day they learned CPR they had to use it to bring back a friend from the cold grip of death?
4. Smart Guy – “Strangers on the Net”
Like many of the shows on this list, Smart Guy had a few “very special episodes” in its run dealing with challenging themes. In “Strangers on the Net,” T.J. and his friend buy some video games from some adult creep. After buying the games, the creep lures the kids to his house to try out a new “game” he’s designed. The game is just a surfboard in front of a blue screen, but the kids are pumped up about it. The guy eventually tries to get them to take off their clothes and surf, showing them pictures of other kids who did the same. It’s disgusting.
3. Hey Arnold – “Chocolate Boy”
In the Hey Arnold episode, “Chocolate Boy,” we meet Chocolate Boy, a boy with a crippling addiction to chocolate. This kid’s addiction is so intense that he suffers through severe withdrawals when trying to kick the habit. He starts to lose his sanity without the drug, licking bugs thinking they taste like chocolate and rummaging through the dumpster looking for remnants of the tasty treat. It’s a scary glimpse into the life of a hardcore drug addict. When he does manage to go two weeks without chocolate, a gang of fifth graders, basically chocolate dealers, give him 10 lbs of chocolate. When Chocolate Boy finishes that, the dealers start getting him to do tricks for more chocolate. Eventually he beats his addiction to chocolate, which they discover is a coping mechanism, but he simply replaces chocolate with radishes. It’s a sad story.
2. Tom and Jerry – “Heavenly Puss”
Many people like to point to the episode of Tom and Jerry in which the two foes commit suicide, but that episode has taken on a life of its own on the internet. It’s often cited as the show’s final episode, which isn’t true, and we don’t actually see the suicide, though it is pretty dark as they sit on the tracks and await a train—all this stems from the crushing weight of adult responsibility. The episode we feel is darkest is “Heavenly Puss,” an episode in which Tom is killed by a piano and sent to heaven. When there, Tom goes to board the Heavenly Express Train. Here, we see a number of cats who died from some silly happenings, but there in the crowd is a wet sac. Out of the bag comes three kittens, Fluff, Muff and Puff, who were all apparently drowned by a terrible human.
1. Tiny Toon Adventures – “One Beer”
All of the episodes on this list were aired regularly, but not the entry from Tiny Toon Adventures. In this banned episode, the tiny toons get a beer and take a sip each. Obviously, this one sip annihilates them and turns them into raving criminals. The drunken fools then steal a cop car and get involved in an intense police chase. The climax of the episode has the drunk drivers lead the chase up a massive cliff. Near the top, the toons’ car veers off the road and off the cliff. The car falls about 600 feet right into a graveyard and we’re left with the image of the ghosts of the toons rising out of the car. You might think that this is a joke, but it’s a real episode and you can watch it online.