?Generally, nerds are people who like cartoons long beyond the age at which we’re supposed to. Whether you grew up in the ’70s with Super Friends and Star Blazers, in the heyday of the ’80s and G.I. Joe, Transformers and Masters of the Universe, or the ’90s and Freakazoid and Batman: TAS, chances are if you’re reading Topless Robot, you have more than a few kids’ cartoons still near and dear to your heart. This was thanks to a plethora of awesome cartoons while we were growing up, that kept us watching years after most normal folk gave it up to date and have pre-marital sex.
So what about the ’00s? Certainly there have been a lot of great cartoons for kids (and nerdy adults too, thanks to Adult Swim), but also a surprising lot of crap. It’s hard to say that there’s definitely more horrible cartoons now than when we were growing up, but it kind of seems like it. For every Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants, there are countless more which are almost certainly killing off brain cells in their young viewers with every hackneyed, stupid plot and over-telegraphed, unfunny joke. Here are the 10 most egregious offenders that no child should have to watch.
10) The Super Hero Squad Show
The Super Hero Squad Show shouldn’t suck. It should be a post-modern inheritor to the glorious kitsch of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, but with a top-flight voice cast (including Stan Lee) and much slicker animation. The Super Hero Squad Show does look pretty good, but the rest of it is absolute shit that relentlessly insults a kid’s developing intelligence.
In theory this is a silly show where all of the good guy superhero toys are the Avengers and patrol Super Hero City, protecting it from the amalgamated bad guy forces lead by Dr. Doom. In practice, it’s a clearinghouse of action cartoon plots that were stale twenty years ago. The jokes are all depressingly obvious, like the Silver Surfer sounding like a k-rad surfer dude, and repeated ad nauseam.
Watching The Super Hero Squad Show is in some ways a lot like watching the ’87 incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That was a show with a certain amount of heart and imagination behind the goofiness, though. The Super Hero Squad Show is a black-hearted mockery of fun, promising smiles but delivering only the saddest and most pitiful of fart jokes.
9) Winx Club
Italy is one of those countries, much like Brazil, that likes anime as much as Japan does. Producing girls’ cartoons inspired by Sailor Moon is practically a cottage industry over there, which makes it all the more confusing that Winx Club is probably the most famous of the Italian pseudo-anime shows over here in the U.S. Where other properties like W.I.T.C.H. are interesting and well-drawn, Winx Club is an ugly, insulting pile of horseshit.
Like most Sailor Moon knockoffs, Winx Club is the story of five girls who are special in story-specific ways that must go about transforming into superheroes to protect something-or-other. The protagonist is the most powerful but also insecure, so she always gets her power-ups last (frequently just before steamrolling the season’s villains). Where Winx Club becomes extra shitty is in the way 4Kids Entertainment opted to localize it for the U.S. market. The characters were all boiled down to Saturday-morning one-note personalities and dubbed to be ditzy, shallow, and obsessed with shopping and the rather sad excuses for boys that attend the school for knights that’s conveniently across the way from the school for magic fairy princesses.
Between the dumbed-down dubbing and weird editing, the show gives the impression that the Winx Club are really terrible at crime-fighting. The only three magical criminals in the universe appear to be witches attending a rival witch school. If the Winx Club ever fought a villain who was remotely determined or competent, even on par with Sailor Moon’s basically idiotic villains, then all of magic fairyland would be steamrolled in a few horrible minutes of carnage reminiscent of what happened when Kid
Miracleman Marvelman got loose in London.
8) Yu-Gi-Oh 5Ds
Yu-Gi-Oh debuted in the U.S. going on… what, 10 years ago? (There’s a way to make yourself feel old.) It was a shamelessly trashy cartoon but its sheer brazenness could make it compelling. But eventually the creator of Yu-Gi-Oh decided to end the manga so he could spend more time lounging about on his enormous piles of money. The merchadising companies, desperate to keep all that sweet cash coming in, came up with the solution of having random Toei staffers, perhaps making as much as $12.50 per day, cook up their own original Yu-Gi-Oh material to keep the toy engine pumping.
Their first attempt was Yu-Gi-Oh GX, a calculated and crapful blend of the basic YGO formula and the then-raging popularity of the Harry Potter novels. It kept the money-train rolling but it was somehow a lot more dull and forgettable than the original’s gleeful insanity. YGO GX’s successor is the currently airing Yu-Gi-Oh 5Ds, where they decided to freshen up the formula by having the characters play CCGs with each other during futuristic high-speed motorcycle races that took place in a hellish dystopian urban sprawl right out of Blade Runner.
Watching YGO 5Ds for more than a few minutes at a time is a good way to send your brain oozing, liquefied, out your own ears. The motorcycle addition makes everything stupid about the original series more stupid, but with worse characters and more incomprehensible storylines. The show goes from selectively ignoring the rules of the game it’s hawking to simply making the rules unintelligible. Just try to follow what goes on in one of the show’s many racing duels. You’ll be gibbering on the floor in minutes.
7) The Garfield Show
Garfield & Friends, like the Garfield animated specials before it, became a mainstay of CBS animated programming because it could combine a marketable name with some entirely decent writing. Where creator Jim Davis rendered Garfield an existential void bereft of comedy, the writers on the various Garfield cartoons gave the fat kitty a distinct personality and some great one-liners, all improved by the deadpan delivery of the late Lorenzo Music.
The Garfield Show uses some of the talent who helped make Garfield & Friends so much fun, but do not be fooled. The Garfield Show is not fun. It’s terrible in a surreal and utterly insulting way that I can only chalk up to its terrible French origins. It seems the live-action Garfield movie was a huge hit over there, prompting some local animation houses to decide it was time to cash in. Unfortunately, these local animation studios suck, giving everything a molded-from-plastic look, and covering the animals with half-assed fur textures that make them look like slowly rotting fruits.
Probably the worst thing about this show is that since it was originally produced to air in France, the show is essentially dubbed when it airs in the U.S. The lipflap is really excruciatingly bad, thanks to the French studios trying too hard to coordinate with the French version. Garfield also opens his mouth when he “talks,” which makes for a truly unpleasant visual — his mouth was clearly not designed to work this way, let alone in 3D.
6) The Proud Family
There are worse cartoons on this list than The Proud Family, but I’ve never seen a show so aggressively enshrine the concept that all of its characters are self-righteous assholes, wallowing in their contempt for all other human life. The members of the Proud Family spend most of their time hurting each other, whether it’s Penny’s youthful ignorance or her grandmother’s sour-faced resentment of the young. Probably the worst of the many hateful, loathesome characters that populate The Proud Family’s cast is Oscar, Penny’s dipshit father, who’s obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes and prone to inventing all kinds of nonsense gadgets right out of Dexter’s Lab, but who’s also controlling in a way that’s skeevy and faintly abusive.
It’s not just the overarching plots in The Proud Family that convey the impression that the characters are all hateful morons. Just about every episode I’ve seen is loaded with casual examples of people being assholes to each other not even because it’s funny, but because that’s apparently what people do in this universe. Oscar slams the door in the face of Penny’s friends in the title sequence. Penny steals his chicken and waffles right off his plate, right in front of his face. Let’s assume this show’s fundamental message, that people are shit, doesn’t absolutely dull the minds of all who watch. The show still overflows with all manner of other insults to the viewer’s intelligence. Most of the show’s run is animated in Flash at an absolutely astonishing level of cheapness, characters flagrantly gliding across poorly-drawn backgrounds. Ugh.
5) American Dragon Jake Long
American Dragon: Jake Long debuted at around the same time as a competing cartoon called The Life and Times of Juniper Lee. I point this out mainly because they were extremely similar shows, both about Chinese-American kids who gained mysterious superpowers as part of their heritage and had to basically go around policing a hidden world full of spirits and monsters. The difference between the two is that Juniper Lee was good while Jake Long totally sucked. Juniper Lee boasted better designs, better animation, and substantially better writing. The characters were more likable and the stories more grounded in authentic Chinese mythology. Jake Long was stiff, reliant on shitty flash animation, and featured stupendously awful designs that made the titular heroic dragon look kind of like a bloated dog.
Another difference between the two is that Juniper Lee was swiftly canceled where Jake Long is still airing on the Disney Channel to this day. You can still hear its mewling Jonas Brothers theme song and still see every ugly episode. Perhaps Jake Long stood out a bit more in Disney’s more lackluster cartoon line-up, or maybe the fucking Jonas Brothers song kept kids watching. It’s hard to tell. This is such an astonishingly terrible show if you sit down to watch much of it. Jake Long’s duties as a dragon-boy-thing are entirely unclear — sometimes he fights monsters and other times he just listens to them whine. The villains are mildly offensive Klan analogues who like to kill all non-whites- – er, I mean, all magical beings. Whee.
4) Hot Wheels Battle Force 5
I’ve spent a lot longer trying to figure out what the hell is going on in Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5 than I think I did figuring out calculus in college. I haven’t completely succeeded yet. There is a profound incoherency at the heart of this show that is far greater than my ability to understand it. I mean, I’ve even asked eight-year-olds to explain it to me, and they’ve just rambled on a bit before admitting that they don’t know what the hell is going on in it, either.
At the surface of it, Battle Force 5 appears to be one of those super-vehicle shows designed to sell fanciful car playsets to little boys. But selling toys would seem to necessity some kind of semi-coherent narrative, of which BF5 has none. The main character drives a car that pops out giant knives all over and spins around like a top. There is a girl who drives a green off-road thing whose tires become claws and then it climbs around like a monkey. The flying motorcycle and the purple thing that fights by turning its sound system up way loud are downright mundane in comparison, but putting them all on the screen together in stiff TV-caliber 3D animation is kind of like smoking a joint only to find out it’s been stuffed with PCP.
I couldn’t tell you the plot of the show at all, nor can any child I’ve seen an episode with. It has something to do with traveling to parallel dimensions that are basically Super Mario levels and then racing super-vehicles against evil super-vehicles driven by talking crocodiles and other rejected Ninja Turtles bad guys. Events do not flow in any linear fashion in Battle Force 5; it’s like a kids’ toy-selling show run through a dadaist filter.
3) Casper’s Scare School
The longevity of the Casper the Friendly Ghost property is a mystery of the ages. It is boring as shit and has been for longer than I’ve been alive. The original theatrical cartoons were boring, the comics were boring, the old tV cartoons were boring, yet the Casper property is one that will not fucking die off despite, in theory, being already dead.
Casper’s Scare School is how Casper plans to bore kids in the 21st century. Casper is relegated to bland straight man and surrounded by kooky classmates in a Hogwarts-like school for monsters. The plots are all pretty standard for mediocre kids-in-school cartoons, as are the supporting characters. Casper’s friends are lovable losers, he’s tormented by a snotty vampire kid, the principle is a two-headed asshole, etc. Like a lot of the cartoons on this list, Casper is animated in 3D. It’s far from the worst-looking show here, since the monster kids are clearly all designed around the limits of 3D on a TV budget. Casper was not, though, so he basically looks like a blobby white piece of shit. The show also insists on doing well-lit segments set in an Anytown, USA sort of suburb that look completely hideous compared to the scenes set at the monster school.
What’s frustrating about Casper’s Scare School is the sense that its creators actually had access to the resources necessary to make a decent cartoon. Some of the monster kids have imaginative designs and the story is almost interesting when it doesn’t involve Casper. Somebody paid good money for the fucking Casper license, though, so it’s rare that the camera isn’t pointing at him and his goddman boring antics.
Many people think the entire Yu-Gi-Oh franchise is shamefully, unimaginably bad, but it’s hard to rag too hard on Yu-Gi-Oh in a world where somebody’s greenlit not one but two seasons of Chaotic. Where Yu-Gi-Oh just presents a demented world where everyone’s obsessed with a bad CCG, Chaotic presents a world where the only thing that can possibly matter is playing a incomprehensibly horrible digital CCG/videogame thing.
Storywise, Chaotic is about a bunch of boring whitebread assholes who are, for unknown reasons, chosen to go to a magic bullshit realm called Chaotic where they get to play the Chaotic game all day. The show’s explanation for this involves astral projection — players as so special they split into two selves, a mundane one that does boring shit like going to school, and a super-speshul Chaotic one that exists in Chaotic and plays games all day. The actual Chaotic game makes Yu-Gi-Oh seem like an exercise in sublime strategy. Playing it involves having a deck of cards, but there’s also a digital play mat so the cards can battle for territories, and the battles are conducted by transporting the player’s whiny suburban mind into a “real” monster that fights in the “real” version of a territory. Exactly how you win or lose is incredibly unclear, as the rules seem to change depending on how many monsters they want to show per battle.
Special mention must be made of Chaotic’s completely insane production style. The show’s first season was animated using bafflingly cheap Flash animation that made it look like a long-form eSurance ad. The second season switched over to something meant to look like anime but clearly produced by some European studio that just barely knows how to make things move. The change in designs is so abrupt and radical that the protagonist entirely changes ethnicities, because I guess the first season wasn’t boring-ass or whitebread enough.
1) Johnny Test
Canadian animation, for the most part, completely fucking sucks. Canadians will be the first people to tell you this. Like most other Canadian-made media, Canadian cartoons get financed largely because Canadian networks are legally obligated to make sure a certain percentage of their content is actually produced in Canada. This makes the sudden U.S. fad for cheap Canadian cartoons like Johnny Test completely fucking confusing, although currently it is being produced so cheaply that it is no longer even
animated in Canada, but is instead being slapped together in what I
imagine to be Filipino cartoon sweatshops.
It is poorly animated in Flash, such that most episodes contain less actual movement than ’60s Hanna-Barbera shorts. The entire premise, most of the characters, and roughly 75% of the show’s episode plots are recycled wholesale from the ’90s Hanna-Barbera hit Dexter’s Lab. Johnny Test is nothing more but a loud, ugly, and inferior Dexter’s Lab. When I have personally seen modern children presented with the choice between Johnny Test on Cartoon Network and Dexter’s Lab on Boomerang, Dexter’s Lab wins every time. Unfortunately, kids often don’t have a choice. Because Canadian programming like Johnny Test is so incredibly cheap to produce and air, Cartoon Network makes a point of running — and this is just a rough estimate — approximately 20 hours of Johnny Test per day. Kids watch it because they want cartoons and it happens to be on, and thus, this processed, calorie-lite, cartoon-like product has apparently gotten enough eyeballs that Johnny Test has run four seasons.