Saturday, 28 October 2017

October Nightmares III #28: Courage the Cowardly Dog (1999 - 2002) - Old Yeller Belly


Yes, I'm still away. Or dead. Who even knows anymore. Again I attempted to bash this one out as quickly as possible, a reviewing style known as 'Girlfriend's gone to the shops for ten minutes.'

I debated whether I should put Courage the Cowardly Dog on this list. It's like putting a crisp sandwich on the menu for a proper restaurant. But I never professed my lists to be some authoritative source of horror TV. They're my lists based on my own experiences: I'm not interested in erecting gates and sticking neckbeards, dressed in 'no girls allowed' t-shirts, at the gates ready to shout down any controversial opinions with an "ackchyually".

Courage the Cowardly Dog scared the bollocks off me growing up, and remains to this day one of the boldest shows to have ever been targeted at a child audience. Except for maybe Jim'll Fix It. Created by John R. Dilworth, the show served up its macabre monster-of-the-week offerings over four seasons on Cartoon Network. The premise was simple: Courage (Marty Grabstein), a pink dog, lives on a farm with the kindly Muriel (Thea White) and her dickhead husband Eustace (Lionel G. Wilson/ Arthur Anderson). And whilst most dogs only have to worry remembering where they buried that bone or finding a leg to shag, Courage has 99 problems. Unfortunately these don't involve 99 sheep he has to round up, but rather the aliens, angry gods, serial killers, ancient evils, eldritch abominations, mad scientists, monsters, and evil animals he has to confront to save his family.

Tonally the show is like a nihilistic version Scooby-Doo; there are no fake-outs and amusing side characters here, just horrible monsters and mean-spirited characters. In Scooby-Doo the monsters were always racist farmers in masks who were trying to bring down Big Pharma. Courage's villains are very real, and very psychotic.

The antagonists in this show will absolutely try to kill Courage and his family (they're successful in the end if that puppet episode is anything to go by). Whilst every other recurring character is weird, malevolent, or just generally obliviously incompetent, the show's hero is repeatedly forged through the crucible of sheer trauma. It doesn't help matters that he's an absolute coward, who'll overreact to everything he sees and treat it as though it's a massive spider in his bath.


The other prime difference between Courage and Scooby-Doo, two shows destined to be compared, is that while SD takes inspiration from classic horror films where everything's basically alright in the end, Courage steeps itself in modern horror tropes. There's dog barber Freaky Fred, who looks like Gary Busey and thinks entirely in rhyme - he continually describes how 'naughty' everything is and is suggested to be a paedo. One episode basically riffs on Night of the Living Dead and features a zombie analogue to George A. Romero as its primary antagonist. And at one point Courage ventures to the big city and into a dilapidated building (which practically has serial killers growing out of the mildew) and encounters all manner of nightmarish creatures.

Some of what the show's creators got away with is unreal. Especially considering this was aimed at eight-year-olds. Not 2017's 'will knife you for a Twix' eight-year-olds, but Nineties era eight-year-olds. Besides the aforementioned lot, there was also the Spirit of the Harvest Moon (some horrifying actual human face inserted into the animation), a CGI ghost of King Ramses who appeared outside of Courage's house telling him to "return the slab" like a passive-aggressive mate you borrowed a fiver from, and of course the blue-foetus blob who delivers the most existential line of the whole show.

I've no doubt that the still holds up (even if it's since lost its power to scare), but there's not been a show like Courage the Cowardly Dog since. Kid's TV has lost its edge. It's all flashy action and meaningless noise. Easily digestible, unchallenging, and ultimately forgettable. Modern kid's TV certainly isn't going to be threatening anyone's world views or triggering anyone anytime soon. Courage was of the Rocko's Modern Life era, where you could put risqué humour, surreal imagery, and inappropriate material into kid's shows.

For many, this show was a stepping stone into a life-time interest of horror. The tone was spot on: the lonely orchestral soundtrack nailed the feeling of isolation surrounding both the Nowhere farm, and the misunderstood Courage. And it had a morbid visual style which made everything look deliberately tired and shadowy. There are a lot of episodes which feel like a normal Scooby-Doo episode in tone, but show me a monster-of-the-week show which isn't mostly duff filler betwixt really good episodes, and I'll show you a liar. It's not bad for a show about a triple-A coward, who'll scream and run at the first hint of trouble: just like the French Army.


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