The Gross Mess That Was the ‘Garbage Pail Kids’ Cartoon

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.

It’s not every day that Brilliantly Canceled gets a number of reasonable theories as to why a show failed. Usually, we’re left to complaining about unfulfilled expectations and audience confusion. In the case of the Garbage Pail Kids cartoon series, which CBS canceled several days before its initial 10-episode run was to air, however, the causes of cancellation are pretty clear (a dwindling fad, parent protests, uninterested/scared advertisers). But for a show like Garbage Pail Kids, it’s probably better to ask, “What were they expecting?” anyway.

In CBS’s defense, they took director Bob Hathcock at his word. Promising an “unorthodox, wild, and whacky” version of the controversial trading card series, Hathcock took the reigns of a project that seemed destined to fail. Earlier that year, a Garbage Pail Kids movie, which played like a nightmarish version of The Muppets Take Manhattan, was a box office disaster, with critics calling it, “a stunningly inept and totally reprehensible film.” It’s no surprise that reviews like this and public disinterest would give CBS cold feet.

Without the critics on their side, surely CBS could turn to their audience for support. After all, someone was buying these trading cards, right? Well, maybe without their parents’ permission. Parents groups rallied against all things Garbage Pail, claiming that the franchise’s complete disregard for good taste and woeful insensitivity towards children with acne and chronic bowel afflictions weren’t fit for Saturday morning. While this might not have hindered the standards and practices of CBS, the flood of outraged parents scared advertisers far from the show.

But was The Garbage Pail Kids any worse than the other Mars Bar and Quick Energy Chocobots running around on television?

In many ways: yes. Most of the concerns from parents and advertisers were right on the money.

Both the trading cards, which started as an anti-Cabbage Patch kids, and the cartoon live in a moral vacuum. Few things are too gross and almost nothing is out of bounds. But the cartoon had different goals, downplaying the visceral disgust and sadism of the cards and focusing on a cynical parody of humanity and our planet. The show exaggerates tendencies of Saturday morning cartoons and American culture, criticizing everything from corporate greed and dishonesty to the general paranoia of American citizens to the importance of cleaning up litter.

The Garbage Pail Kids is a merrie melody sketch show that features the classic Pailers engaging in brief adventures or sometimes just single jokes. It keeps a very loose structure, where characters and sketches run through each other, as if they are all taking place in the same world at the same time. At least, that’s how they pose it at first. Hathcock finds a way to introduce his first sketch, as well as separate it from the continuity of the show. Framed as a movie within the Garbage Pail universe, it features space aliens invading earth (the planet is realized as the lid of a gigantic, interstellar garbage can). Don’t worry, though, they’re here to party and don’t care when the United States military attempts to drive the visitors from our beaches by drowning them in garbage. It’s truly an odd way to start the show.

The second sketch takes a more traditional route, revolving around a rag-tag team of classic garbage pailers who uncover a titillating piece of corporate espionage and deception — a diabolical toy company has replaced their dolls’ batteries with duds.

It’s easy to imagine kids loving this stuff — kids do love garbage. But The Garbage Pail Kids is far too removed from social values television hopes to ingrain in their young consumers. Instilling a distrust of toy makers aren’t the best ways to attract support from advertisers. From Mattel’s perspective, how good is advertising on a show that characterizes toy companies as scam artists looking to bleed their consumers dry with cheap products?

The Garbage Pail Kids overruns it’s twenty minutes with people happily living in a world overrun by cynicism and attempts to transform the nihilism and violence of the cards and movie into a bit of lighthearted fun. The real problem is in its efforts to literally show the world as a giant trash can, it forgot to inform this growing generation how to clean it all up.

That’s just my take on it. From advertisers dropping out to special interest groups protesting, the show’s failure to launch is hardly surprising. But maybe it was simpler than all that. Maybe the show just missed the mark. At least, that’s how Mark Newgarden, one of the creators of the original trading cards, sees it: “I’m delighted the TV series was canned. I’ve seen the pilot episode and it’s a lame, castrated version of the Garbage Pail Kids, carefully avoiding everything that made our cards work. It’s just as well that it never made it to television.” It might be immoral and confusing, but ultimately, it probably didn’t air because it’s just not that great.

Matt Schimkowitz is a writer and acclaimed TV watcher. Like you, he enjoys the finer things in life: drinking from coconuts, the latest Italian vogue, and complaining about movies, music, and TV on the Internet. Find more writing about canceled TV shows and other irrelevant nonsense on the twitter and blogosphere, respectively.

The Gross Mess That Was the ‘Garbage Pail Kids’ Cartoon