Animation gives creators the freedom to experiment with bizarre stories and characters you’d never let your kids watch on Saturday morning. Quite frankly, we can’t believe some of these animated series ever made it to television.
Turbo Teen capitalized on the success of the then-popular 80s show Knight Rider with its take on a talking car that sometimes solves crimes. The twist? The car is also a teenager.
In what is basically a body horror movie in kid-friendly animated form, the show centers on teen Brett Matthews after he crashes his red sports car into (naturally) a government laboratory. There, he and his car are exposed to a beam that fuses the two together.
If Brett gets too hot, he morphs into the car. Too cold? He turns back to a human. Turbo Teen’s nemesis is the monster truck Dark Rider. Yup, this show happened.
With the success of FOX’s The Simpsons sending the Big Three networks looking for their own prime-time animated series success, CBS threw their hat into the ring with Fish Police. This six-episode, one-season wonder proved to be the opposite of a hit — but it earned its place as one of the craziest animated series ever greenlit.
Featuring top voice talent like John Ritter and Tim Curry, Fish Police followed Inspector Gill (Ritter) — a fish detective — with a very old-school, film noir-y sense of justice as he solves Mafia-related crimes in an underwater city. The Hanna-Barbara series was more adult-oriented than their other shows, with episodes featuring lots of innuendos and some profanity.
Rick & Morty
Adult Swim’s hit show is one of their best — and weirdest. It’s an R-rated, Back to the Future-esque sci-fi comedy adventure about a drunk scientist, Rick, and his idiot grandson, Morty, exploring the galaxy, multiple worlds and alternate realities while dealing with everyday dysfunctional family troubles.
Rick’s level-five narcissism is only surpassed by his genius, which frequently results in dragging his family into very disgusting and debaucherous adventures. Despite the show’s graphic content and subversive themes, Rick & Morty also packs a surprising and considerable amount of heart in between its rapid-fire LOLs and exceptional sci-fi ideas.
Warner Bros. animation in the ‘90s had our childhoods on lockdown with this zany, dialed-up-to-11 hit from executive producer Steven Spielberg. A variety show created for kids, Animaniacs seemed largely aimed at adults, thanks to its endless supply of subversive humor and wit.
The Warner Brothers Yakko, Wakko, and their sister, Dot, live in the water tower on the Warner Bros. lot, unleashing their rapid-fire slapstick on audiences fond of pop-culture references and colorful adventures. The series won several Daytime Emmys for skewering everything from Goodfellas to The Lion King. Fans can’t wait for its reboot coming to Hulu in 2020.
The Ren & Stimpy Show
Nickelodeon’s answer to The Simpsons and MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head, Ren & Stimpy was a gross-out, loud AF series with a strong aversion to subtlety. Its titular characters — a surly chihuahua and a dim-witted cat — bumbled and argued through increasingly crazy and messy adventures.
With its slapstick violence and graphic depiction of certain bodily functions, Ren & Stimpy earned much scorn from parental watch groups for its subject matter being significantly more edgy than Nick’s usual kid-friendly fare. Despite the controversy, the crazy plotlines and deep bench of even crazier ensemble characters (like Powdered Toast Man) proved to be a hit with audiences.
This obscure ‘80s series took a page from Transformers’ playbook, only instead of anthropomorphic Autobots and Decepticons duking it out on Earth, we have alien talking dinosaurs from the planet Reptilion.
The heroic Dinosaucers battle their enemies, the villainous Tyrannos, with four humans — known as the Secret Scouts — caught in the middle. The series ran for 65 episodes, but was cancelled after one season when the show failed to hit with viewers. That also killed plans for a toyline, which would have been just as out there as the show.
FLCL, AKA Fooly Cooly
For anime and early Adult Swim fans, FLCL is a deep-cut. This six-episode series, and its accompanying manga, follows 12-year-old boy Naota as his suburban life is turned upside-down when an alien woman, Haruko Haruhara, runs him over with her Vespa.
She revives him with CPR, but then bonks him on the head with a vintage electric bass guitar. The resulting head wound eventually becomes a portal that giant robots can travel through. And that’s the least crazy this show gets.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
“Bizarre” barely covers the storylines of this serialized, eight-part anime. The family Joestar are destined to take down a variety of supernatural foes using their unique powersets, and each of the eight family members gets their own episode to do their thing. And of course, each member’s name can be abbreviated to be “JoJo.”
Starting in 1880s England and spanning across alternate timelines and fictional Japanese towns, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure offers an eclectic take on garden-variety supernatural threats — like vampires and evil spirits — and weaves them through the twisty, convoluted adventure plots anime fans love. You’ve never seen a show like this before, and probably never will again.
To ‘80s kids, InHumanoids was a slightly scarier version of the usual animated series fare designed to sell toys. The super dark series centered on a team of human subterranean scientists, known as Earth Corps, who discover there are monsters invading our world. The humans must join forces with other entities to fight off these creatures.
This simple premise is complicated by some truly horrific character designs, especially the trio of evil Inhumanoids. The Earth Corps’ allies, the Mutores, are also at least three types of terrifying. The episodes are your standard “good guys must foil the bad guys” stories, but they’re delivered in some truly odd and visually disturbing ways.
If He-Man and Skeletor formed a band with every airbrushed van mural ever made, that band would be Skeleton Warriors. A Meatloaf album cover come to life, this short-lived series pits the forces of good — and their demonic, flying motorcycles — against evil metal band rejects that wear their bones on the outside.
Skeleton Warriors must be seen to be believed, especially the series’ opening credits and accompanying theme song. Scored to angry electric guitar riffs, a truly frightening early ‘90s CG skull introduces you to the show before its title song pummels you into submission by repeatedly shouting “Skeleton Warriors” at you.
Based in part on the Bandai toyline, Spiral Zone is one of the more convoluted animated series ever made. Renegade scientist Dr. James Bent hijacks a space shuttle to infect and twist parts of the the world into spiral-shaped areas with the help of his Zone Generators. Yeah, we don’t understand either.
A group of international soldiers sets out to stop Bent and restore the globe’s proper shape, but they have to cut through yellow-eyed zombie things called zoners that Overlord Bent controls from his lair inside the Chrysler Building in New York. Crazy barely covers whatever is happening here.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Adult Swim’s popular series, spun off from Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, stars a sentient wad of meat, a talking milkshake, and a magical carton of french fries. This trio — Meatwad, Master Shake, and Frylock — anchored Adult Swim’s then-burgeoning late night programming block and quickly found cult success.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s adventures were unlike any fans had seen before, as our heroes quickly found themselves involved in surreal encounters while interacting with their human next-door neighbor, Carl. Despite its niche (and crazy) premise, the series ran for 139 episodes and even spawned a movie.
Frisky Dingo’s acerbic wit and satirical take on superhero movies was way ahead of its time. Co-created by Archer’s Adam Reed, the series centers on supervillain Killface and his nemesis Awesome X — AKA a Bruce Wayne-type billionaire named Xander Crews. Killface isn’t your average Big Bad, however — he’s a naked, red-eyed, all-white, hairless humanoid creature.
When Killface isn’t trying to unleash his super weapon on the world or Awesome X, he sometimes finds himself forging a brief alliances with his nemesis. The show’s hilarious skewering of action movie tropes is balanced with its signature character designs and their personalities, especially that of Killface’s son — a sexually-confused, overweight teenager and Hannah Montana fan.
Comics scribe Warren Ellis’ adaptation of the video game series is one of Netflix’s most popular animated series. It is also one of the genre’s most visually intense entries ever, proving to be more violent and scarier than its source material ever was.
When his bride is burned at the stake, Dracula curses the land of Wallachia with an army of demons, forcing its citizens to live what’s left of their days in fear. Fallen vampire/monster hunter Simon Belmont takes on these dark forces, which manifest themselves in truly unsettling ways as Castlevania carves a bloody and disturbing swath on par with the best animes.
Lastman is a series that actively defies efforts to be categorized into easily-referenced boxes. It’s both a throwback and trailblazer retro action series that is equal parts anime, French New Wave, and Tarantino/Scorsese film.
Wearing its French cinema influences firmly on its bloody sleeves, Lastman revolves around a scrappy boxer who calls the gym home. Soon, this bruiser is in deep with shady mafiosos, young girls capable of creating the future, and — most surprisingly — electricity-wielding super villains.
The Venture Bros.
A smart and LOL-worthy satire of shows like Johnny Quest, The Venture Bros. skewers action-adventure series with young kids as the lead characters, regularly pointing out how reckless it is to put kids in dangers just to go on globe-trotting adventures. It also isn’t afraid to take on action movies and superheroes.
The Venture Bros. sporadic six-season run made it hard for more than its core fanbase to find it. Even so, their loyalty to the adventures of Venture twins Hank and Dean is fierce, building up a solid cult following eager to watch Hank and Dean die repeatedly under the watch of their father, Rusty, who now suffers PTSD thanks to a childhood spent Johnny Quest-ing around the globe.
Arguably the crown jewel of MTV’s Oddities animation showcase in 1995, The Maxx was both a surreal and existential exercise in envelope-pushing storytelling and animation. Based on the Image comic, the show is about a purple-clad being trapped between two worlds — ours and a fantasy land known as the Outback.
In our reality, The Maxx is a hobo living in a cardboard box. But in the Outback, he’s a mythic hero with one purpose: Protect the Jungle Queen, who — in the real world — is a social worker who cares for Maxx’s homeless alter ego. The less said about Mr. Gone — the serial killer that stalks Maxx and JQ — the better.
Attack on Titan
With a big-screen adaptation of this popular anime coming from the director of IT, Attack on Titan is poised to enter the mainstream soon in a big way. But that doesn’t make its complicated and insane premise any easier to distill or adapt into a multiplex-friendly two hour narrative.
After living 100 years behind a wall protecting humanity’s only city, the human race is confronted by a Colossus Titan that knocks down a portion of that wall and lets in a horde of smaller Titans. Their objective: Devour all human life. A young boy and his foster sister are charged with defeating all the flesh-eating giants. It’s wild.
Cartoon Network’s fan-favorite series is a clever send-up of children’s animated programming centered on a “cute” cast of animal critters. It revolves around two working-class pals — Rigby the Raccoon and Mordecai the blue jay — and their jobs as park groundskeepers.
Their days are filled with small problems that need solving, and often those solutions take our two heroes on adventures that devolve into the surreal or the supernatural. The only thing more interesting than our two main characters are their pals, colorful characters with names like Hi-Five Ghost, Benson, and Muscle Man.
MTV’s flagship series of their late-night Liquid Television programming block, Aeon Flux carved its pop-culture footprint with its scantily-clad heroine waging a covert battle against a utopian society in a very dystopian sci-fi world. Clad in leather and armed to the teeth, secret agent Aeon must assassinate her enemy/lover, Trevor Goodchild.
Aeon’s missions often showcase her acrobatic prowess and deft handling of firearms, while the show’s obtuse and avant-garde narrative structure thread the action through popular sci-fi themes of identity and how utopian ideals crumble under the weight of scrutiny. The show’s most iconic image — Aeon trapping a fly in her eyelashes — still holds up.
Anime never shies away from stories with strong and surreal supernatural ties, and Another counts as one of the genre’s more terrifying shows. This unsettling thriller follows transfer student Kouichi and his struggles adjusting to the somber atmosphere of his new school.
He soon befriends an outcast and quickly uncovers the school’s murder-laced history. This discovery sends him and his friend on a tragic spiral that yields some of the most haunting and vivid imagery out there, as well as some of the genre’s more heart-wrenching moments.
Another ‘80s animated series designed to sell action figures, Sky Commanders was an action-packed — but oddly-plotted — concept that premiered in 1987 as part of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. The animated series and its Kenner toyline may have had more success and crossover appeal if it were not for its convoluted storyline.
The Sky Commanders fighting to stop the evil Raiders from seizing control of the planet is straightforward enough. But this conflict starts getting out of control and hard to follow when it introduces a new continent in the South Pacific, home to both a lethal energy source and random, dangerous weather fluctuations.
Blood-C is a blood-soaked anime answer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is also a show that goes out of its way to complicate and crazy-up what could have been a straightforward good vs. evil premise with a young teenage heroine at its core.
When awkward teen Saya isn’t struggling to navigate high school life, she wields a divine sword in an effort to slay a horde of monsters threatening her village. Things take a turn for the strange when a dog approaches Saya and asks her a question that helps her piece together gaps in her memory, and they only get stranger from there.
Happy Tree Friends
Darkly comedic and very, very adult, Happy Tree Friends earned quite a cult following thanks to its fan-favorite combo of cute forest creatures engaging in very bloody, very graphic on-screen violence. It’s essentially an R-rated Looney Tunes.
Each violent episode of Happy Tree Friends is dedicated to forcing its fuzzy cast of forest critters to endure significant violence. Sometimes it is deliberate maiming, other times its accidental mutilation, but it’s always over-the-top. The series’ warning label says it all: “Not recommended for small children or big babies.”
“Bizarre” is an understatement when it comes to Mr. Pickles, the Adult Swim swim series created by Will Carsola and Dave Stewart. The series subverts the popular “boy and his dog” trope by giving six-year-old Tommy a cute, dependable, and maniacally satanic border collie.
Mr. Pickles is less man’s best friend and more man’s number one cause of death, as the dog often slips away from Tommy and the rest of the Goodman family so he can mutilate, kill, and/or resurrect his human victims, which he keeps in an underground lair.
Uncle Grandpa’s most enduring legacy may be its titular character’s signature catchphrase, “Good mornin’!.” That’s the most normal element of this very quirky, off-beat Cartoon Network show about a magical uncle-slash-grandpa who travels the world in his RV on a mission to help folks. And yes, of course, he wears a fanny pack named Belly Bag.
Belly Bag serves as Grandpa’s trusted confidant as the two play good Samaritan by way of complicating the bejeesus out of everyday situations that weren’t all that complicated to begin with. Along the way, Grandpa introduces us to an odd roster of supporting characters, including a dinosaur named Mr. Gus and Pizza Steve, the talking pizza slice.
Another crazy premise only Adult Swim could get away with, Superjail! centers on the inmates and workers at the world’s largest and scariest super prison. Built underneath a volcano (obvi), its megalomaniacal prison warden employs a former inmate and accountant as his assistant and a doctor who relishes experimenting on the prisoners.
Superjail! has moments of sharp, 30 Rock-level wit mixed with dark character beats. Meanwhile, the prison may or may not be sentient, which allows for very twisted plotlines to unfold under the guise of “just another cartoon series.” Did we mention the show also takes place in an alternate dimension?
King Star King
King Star King is what would happen if Thor ended up on the wrong side of a sad country ballad and spent his life working as a fry cook at a waffle joint. It’s The Wrestler, but instead of a has-been WWE veteran, it’s a buff, mulleted deity.
King Star King’s life takes a turn for the sad and very surreal when he falls to Earth with a mean case of amnesia. He soon finds employment at the aforementioned waffle joint before trying to reclaim his spot among the gods by rescuing the love of his life and defeating the evil Spring Bunny. We swear, it all makes sense when you watch it. Sort of.
Corpse Party: Tortured Souls
An anime adaptation of the popular video game Corpse Party, this series is the animated equivalent of the hairs sticking up on the back of your neck as friends tell ghost stories by campfire light. It’s an R-rated cartoon version of Are You Afraid of the Dark, infused with very adult scares that would be at home in a Stephen King story.
The show features a group of high schoolers gathering after hours to scare each other with ghostly tales. They level-up their stories by performing a ritual that sends into a new dimension, home to a haunted elementary school whose halls are full of the things nightmares come from.
This series takes the legacy of Dracula’s nemesis, the renown vampire hunter Van Helsing, and gives it an epic, bloody anime twist. Also known as Hellsing OVA, Hellsing Ultimate follows the Hellsing Organization — a secret branch of the British government dedicated to protecting our world from vampiric and supernatural forces.
Alucard, its most popular and proficient slayer of vampires, is himself a vampire. This element of his character adds an extra edge to his missions, which pit him and his impressive arsenal of hand cannons against werewolves, monsters, and other ghouls. The violence is always at 11, and never shies away from the grisly business of monster-slaying.
Deadman Wonderland is built upon a gruesome, complicated premise that is grounded with impressive visuals and strong emotional stakes. After 29 students die in a middle school massacre, their classmate Ganta is convicted for their murders and sentenced to the titular prison that’s also, um, an amusement park.
Ganta’s sentence and her survival go hand-in-hand at this super-max, murder-fueled Six Flags, where she is forced to participate in Hunger Games-esque events if she wants to stay alive. Ganta’s redemption is at the heart of this action-packed horror series that’s unlike any you’ve seen before.