I never grew up with Cartoon Network, my family and I didn't get to upgrade our cable until I was actually about halfway through high school. But if you think that stopped me from getting addicted to the first network dedicated to cartoons, you are sadly mistaken.
However, I have to admit that I've stopped watching CN as much as I used to. Why? Because... oh, how do I put this delicately...
THEY'VE STOPPED SHOWING CARTOONS!!
THEY'VE STOPPED SHOWING CARTOONS!!
OK, maybe that was a little harsh. CN still delivers great quality cartoons, but now the schedule is bombarded with reality-based live-action shows, essentially TV shows that one would see on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. Please, TV Executives, get it through your thick skulls: you don't need to sink to the levels that these other channels have gone to keep your audience!
Still, I do have to tip my hat to Cartoon Network for giving us some great original programming from the late 90s to the early 21st century. There are a few new shows coming out on CN that I'm actually a little excited about, but before we see them, let's take a look back at the Top 10 best original shows that ever came out of Cartoon Network.
10) Cow & Chicken
--This show is weird... just weird. You have a cow and a chicken that are brother and sister (... 'kay), have human parents whom you never see past their waists (... yeah, OK, still following), go to school with other humans... oh yeah, and then you have the devil himself coming after them. Wait a minute... what?!? Huh? Yeah, that was about my reaction the first time I watched this show. Interestingly enough, the devil (whom they've dubbed The Big Red Guy to appease upset parents) never made his role in the series that clearly. In the pilot episode, "No Smoking", he acknowledges that he wants to trick Cow and Chicken into coming down to Hell (yeesh!), but in the series, he moves from con artist to villain to just plain-old mischief maker. This is one of those bizarre shows that you hate to admit that you watch religiously. The first episode I saw of this short was called "Orthodontic Police", and showed the Red Guy putting the most painful looking braces on Cow and Chicken (might I also mention that I saw this after coming back from the orthodontist and learning I would have to get braces as well? NOT what I needed to see!).
9) What A Cartoon! Show
--This is actually a really cool idea: let animators create one-shot cartoons, and put them on this half-hour program. You get new ideas for shows, and the animators get some heavily-needed exposure. Originally called World Premiere Toons, this show helped launch some of CN's most famous programs, including Dexter's Laboratory and Johnny Bravo. It also showed early work from now-famous animators like Seth MacFarlane and Butch Hartman. Interestingly enough, CN attempted to re-introduce this type of show recently with a show called Cartoonstitute, but none of the completed shorts made it to air.
8) Time Squad
--Every now and then we got an animated show that tried to educate us; for CN, that show was Time Squad. The idea of the show was that as the future progressed, time & history actually unravelled, and Time Squad units are sent in to make sure that history stays on track. Kind of an updated version of Jay Ward's Mr. Peabody & Sherman shorts, the real appeal of Time Squad was the various ways that history had gone wrong: Abraham Lincoln was pulling pranks, Eli Whitney had invented a flesh-eating robot instead of the cotton gin, Cleopatra had emptied the pyramids to create a shopping mall, etc.
7) Ed, Edd, n' Eddy
--One of the things I always loved about this show was that no matter where you grew up, you knew people like the characters on this show. For example, take a look at the Eds themselves: you've got the sloppy, dimwitted one who tries to be a good boy, even if it means cow-towing to his bratty sister; then you've got the super-genius neat-freak who always had an answer for everything, even if you didn't ask for it; and then you've got the greedy kid who "knew" he was destined for fame and fortune, but didn't want to wait around for it to hit him. Take a look at the other kids in the cul-de-sac, and I guarantee that sooner or later, you'll start having flashbacks and seeing these kids as the ones you grew up with.
6) Codename: Kids Next Door
--This was probably one of the most most popular shows CN ever put out. The Kids Next Door were a group of kids (duh!) who battled against "adult tyranny". Little things like eating your vegetables, buying clothes for school, and going to the dentist were considered acts of war. The show ran for 6 seasons (pretty long for an animated TV show) and spawned two TV movies; at one point, the Cartoon Network online store even offered a life-size treehouse similar to the one the kids used as a headquarters (and if I remember correctly, it was priced at about $1,000,000!). One of the things that made Codename: KND so popular was that as the series progressed, bigger & more complex storylines were created to tie together multiple episodes, including hidden clues and references that wouldn't come into play until the final season; this is something that we see frequently in more adult-oriented shows, but was pretty much unheard of in kids' programming.
5) Dexter's Laboratory
--One of the first original shows made for Cartoon Network, Dexter's Laboratory really helped give the channel the push it needed to grab audiences and pull them in. However, the thing that made this show so popular wasn't just the enormous lab that Dexter managed to keep hidden from his parents (I always loved how nothing in the show was cannon, various entrances and gadgets would appear and disappear whenever needed); what people loved watching was the intense sibling rivalry between Dexter and his older sister, DeeDee, the only other person who could gain access to his lab. Sure, there were the cool gadgets and inventions Dexter would churn out every episode, his clueless parents who never seemed to figure out what their son was doing in his room, and of course, the never-ending battle between Dexter and his arch-enemy Mandark, but what we all wanted to see was how DeeDee would inevitably get back into the lab and mess up Dexter's inventions.
4) Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends
--I honestly have to give Craig McCracken a lot of praise for what is probably the most original and creative show ever produced by CN. In this show, imaginary friends become physical beings once imagined, but when the creator (normally young children) grew tired of them, they would end up at Foster's, where they would eventually be adopted by a new family. The idea may be simple enough, but the characters featured on the show prove that McCracken and his team either have some of the strongest imaginations on the planet... or have a very large storehouse of psychotropic drugs stashed away. Seriously, I have never seen another show where so many original and unique personas were featured. And I'm not just talking about how they looked; these were really developed and strong characters. They didn't just look cool or have funny voices, and we learned a lot about their individual traits as the series progressed, proving that the guys at CN really put a lot of thought and effort into their creations.
3) Powerpuff Girls
--It's really no surprise that the idea of adolescent superheroes would be popular, and Powerpuff Girls wasn't the first show to go with this concept (Fantastic Max, Astroboy, and DC's Teen Titans come to mind). But this show was a huge hit for CN, it even gave the network their first theatrical released movie in 2002. The show was about Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, three kindergarten-aged girls who also happen to be superheroes. The list of villains on this show ranged from every-day burglars, to genetically-enhanced monkeys, to even a red-skinned man who was apparently so evil and malicious that the only way anyone could refer to him was to say, "HIM" (evidently, his personality was based on the Leader of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine). The stories were well-written, and for a kids' show, the action was actually pretty intense, so much that a number of parents complained about the amount of violence in the earlier season (later on, CN would respond by creating an episode where a group of parents, after complaining that the Girls' actions are too imitable, end up begging to be saved from a group of villains).
2) The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
--While a lot of CN's shows were aimed at kids, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy really pulled in more of its fanbase from older audiences, specifically teenagers and young adults. I started watching this show when I was in college, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. The Grim Reaper, sent to collect the soul of a sick hamster, loses a bet to two children (incredibly stupid but loving Billy, and evil merciless Mandy) and finds himself stuck as their best friend for all eternity. One of the reasons this show played less to younger kids was that it was a little on the dark side, with the characters taking numerous trips to the Underworld, battling demonic creatures, and even visiting the afterlife (in one of my favorite episodes, Billy accidentally gets sent to Asgard). This was also one of the few shows that frequently broke the 4th wall: at one point, after Grim's scythe is stolen (a running gag throughout the series, as well as a plot-point for the the show's first TV movie), Grim looks over nonchalantly and says, "I stopped caring like five episodes ago!"
And the #1 Cartoon Network Original is...
1) Samurai Jack
--This was probably CN's most epic series, showing a samurai warrior who is flung from medieval Japan to the distant future, and his journey to vanquish the evil force that sent him there, as well as find a way to return to his own time. OK, bear with me, I'm going to geek-out a little, because to me, you can't get much better than Samurai Jack. The animation was cutting-edge (the black outline was removed to help the various characters and images pop out), the action scenes were brilliantly done (worth mentioning that a number of animators were actual martial arts students and incorporated real moves into Jack's fighting techniques), the story was well developed, and when it comes to villains, you couldn't find anyone more fun to watch than Aku, who was voiced by Academy Award-winning actor Mako. While personifying the ultimate evil, Mako gave an incredibly over-the-top performance, allowing Aku to be presented not only as the story's antagonist, but also as a source of comedy. The storyline also allowed us to put our hero, Jack into a number of different scenarios: in one episode, he'd be helping a small army of soldiers defend a narrow gateway (ala, the Battle of Thermopylae), while in another, he would have to fight off an entire graveyard of zombies.