It’s probably no surprise these days that kids’ shows can have more depth than “buy our playsets and toys!” Batman: The Animated Series began the beloved DC animated universe. Avatar: The Last Airbender gave Nickelodeon viewers the genre of seldom-aired kids’ drama channels, and lesser-known gems like Cybersix become cult classics.
Still, it may surprise some to know that other children’s shows are more in depth than they let on. On the surface, these are pretty typical, whimsical, kid-friendly adventures. But once people dig a little deeper, they will find additional details, shades or dark undertones. Here are some examples of live and otherwise undrawn television shows with an extensive lore.
6/6 around the twist
Perhaps “extensive knowledge” isn’t quite the right phrase to use with this Australian series. However, this grounded what was originally the separate news. The series followed the Twist family as they moved into an old lighthouse near the coast in Victoria. Then things would get weird, like the ghost-haunted lighthouse that only the girl, Linda Twist, can see.
Most of the show’s episodes were based on books by author Paul Jennings. They were all separate entities with no connection to each other beyond the same author. The TV show would then take these stories and use the Twists, their friends and foes, as central characters. So the show basically joined the dots and did an original Australian-style rendition Strange, Indiana outside of that. It’s worth watching for all ages if viewers can handle the weirdness. Just drive one around the twist!
5/6 Power Rangers
Power Rangers? Deep? Maybe not to DCAU standards, but the various tokusatsu adaptations have tried to go beyond teenagers with an attitude defending malting from rubber monsters. For example, the “Green with Evil” story from the original series, where new Ranger Tommy fights the others before coming to his senses, was a pretty dramatic twist for the first season. People would have expected that to be a footnote as he went through different costumes season by season until actor Jason David Frank left.
Still, he returned for cameos here and there, then again earned a regular spot in the Dino Thunder series. He’s the same character and continuity as his adult counterpart, but he suffers from nightmares based on his time as the Green Ranger. These bonding moments, with its touches of darkness (Power Rangers RPMmentor figure of Dr. K being responsible for the annihilation of humanity due to trauma), suggest that a more serious take on Power Rangers might work just as well as her lighter, daytime approach.
4/6 The never-ending story
There was a cartoon, but live-action movies are more famous. They had their own suspicions of sadness as Bastian read a book about a hero called Atreyu having to save the kingdom of Fantasia from Nothing only to realize that he was also in the story and as a reader had to help Atreyu in his adventure. The films got progressively lighter and sillier, with the third film being particularly moan-worthy beyond featuring a pre-fame Jack Black as a school bully. It’s a shame, because Michael Ende’s original series of German novels would fit in well alongside darker tales like The hunger Games Where Lemon Snicket.
The first part of the story was used (more or less) for the original movie. But then the second half is about Bastian entering the fantasy world, becoming corrupted and ruling it as a despot while losing his memories of his real life. It’s only after seeing what happened to the other readers who got trapped there that he repents, tries to undo the damage he’s done, and finds a way to regain his memories. and go home. Maybe it will have a chance, depending on how the bidding war around the franchise plays out.
3/6 Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s “Supermarionation” shows are cheerfully kitschy 1960s, with Thunderbirds, a show about the Tracy family solving global crises with their custom vehicles, being the most famous. Still, this show was fairly episodic in nature, with each disaster largely self-contained. The follow-up, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (not to be confused with Borderlands’ Captain Scarlett) went one step further. In it, the secret agency SPECTRUM has color-coded agents fighting against the Mysterons and their terrorism.
It was pretty cutting-edge for its time, with prominent roles for women and POC in the SPECTRUM ranks (though a bit dusty by modern standards). But it also wrapped in drama, with Captain Blue being forced to confront a possessed Captain Scarlet in the first episode, Commander White’s fears coming true as the Batman: The Animated Series‘ episode “Beyond the Edge”. His writing is not as solid as Thunderbirds. However, for a 1960s children’s puppet show, it holds up quite well as an alternative to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
Here is an obscure one. Thomas the Chariot Engine director David Mitton and producer Robert Cardona decided to take a break from that show to produce their own live action model vehicle show. Instead of being for small children, their talking tug show would be aimed at a bit older audience. Tugs would deal with blackmail, gangsters, ghosts, industrial disputes, suicidal thoughts, and death (or as far as a talking crane can “die”).
They also participated in the show. Its build quality was impressive, but it was overpriced. Tugs ended after one season, with Mitton’s return to Thomas and Cardona going to Canada to make the sweetest Tug Theodore. It’s a shame, because these were character connections and plot threads teased in the scripts and on the show that could have been followed. Again, it was probably a big ask for the older kids to give a Thomas-esque tug show a chance, or for small children to manage its darker themes. Speaking of Thomas…
1/6 Thomas the Tank Engine
Before cartoon, CGI series, live model series and PC mods were The railway series books. While they were talking about talking trains, they were taking place in the real world. Its overarching “steam engines versus diesels” plot was based on the scrapping of old locomotives by British Rail in favor of modern but poorly designed diesel trains in the mid-20th century. But it goes beyond trains. The author, Reverend Wilbert Awdry, wrote The history of Sodor: its people, its history and its railwayswho went deep on the fictional island.
His company was founded by a Viking ruler called King Godred ‘Starstrider’ MacHarold and his conflict with Earl Sigurd. Few of these details have made it into books or TV shows, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. For a series aimed at small children, the lore rivals the Lord of the Rings down to the smallest detail.
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