The 1990s were a weird time for TV viewers. That was especially true for kids. The classic Saturday morning cartoons were fading a bit although companies were still pushing linking shows with toy lines. A major development was when Mighty Morphin Power Rangers became a smash success. That paved the way for other live-action shows that tried to emulate that super-hero formula. There was also the rise of experimental animated shows like Ren & Stimpy and others that would change the game a lot. Plus, Saved By the Bell inspired an entire cottage industry of teen sitcoms. It’s rather clear how tastes changed as the ‘90s went on with the classic animated style shifting to more live-action.
It’s notable how some shows in this decade were just…weird. They had strange set-ups and the execution was even crazier. The attempts to mingle CGI (which was in a very rough stage in the mid-1990s) could make things look even worse. Some shows had good concepts but fell apart in execution while others were so strange, it’s amazing they were even green-lit. Even some shows that ended up being good hits still had pretty weird premises and presentation. It showcases how this decade was filled with ideas so nuts you have to wonder what sort of creative process was being enjoyed at the time. From some famous ones to others long forgotten, here are 20 kids’ shows from the 1990s we can’t believe actually existed to show how unique that decade was.
20 WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO
One of the early smash hit PC video games was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Kids loved chasing this master thief and her accomplices across the globe and it inspired numerous spin-offs. They were not only entertaining but educational. Fox had an animated show with Carmen the villainess always getting away. However, PBS had a unique version with this offbeat game show. The opening theme by an acapella singing group set the tone as the kid contestants were “gumshoes” recruited to find Carmen.
Each episode had the Chief (Lynne Thigpen) explaining the crime in a wonderfully overdramatic voice laced with alliteration and word play. The “senior agent” host, Greg Lee, would lead the “gumshoes” with geography and history questions to narrow down where the suspect was hiding. Smaller games included “phone taps” and huge maps. The prizes were okay but the real fun was the kids learning as they played around. The offbeat nature is something you just don’t see anymore with the show winning a Peabody award. Thigpen was so popular, she played the Chief in new Carmen games to showcase a standout of a unique educational game show.
19 BIG BAD BEETLEBORGS
Like Power Rangers, this Saban series utilized old Japanese super-hero TV footage with new American actors. A trio of kids investigating a haunted house accidentally free Flabber, a ghost who looks like a cross between Elvis and the Genie from Aladdin. He gives them super-powers and the ability to become their comic book heroes, the Beetleborgs. But he also brings the comic’s villains to life who begin to attack the town. The show had some crazy touches such as when one of the kids was replaced by a new actress and a magic spell covering the change.
The second season had brand new villains and new “Metallix” armor. It also amped up the comedy antics of the mansion’s band of nutty monsters getting into their own whacky adventures. The slapstick won fans over and the show is remembered as one of the better Power Ranger copies of the time. After all, you just can’t hate a show where a character sees a headless ghost, makes a crack about Marie Antoinette then tells the audience “don’t worry, you’ll get that one in a few years.”
18 WMAC MASTERS
This entire show was basically Mortal Kombat for kids. Real life martial artists took on pro-wrestling inspired characters in a competition hosted by Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon. You had them going at it in preliminary matches with power bars like a video game. The winners faced off in a huge “electrified” dome with guys dressed as ninjas attacking. The goal was to get enough “ki symbols” to challenge the Dragon Star champion in a bout atop a rotating platform. Oh and in between the action and occasional martial arts demonstrations, you had personal stories of the fighters.
It was bizarre with the attempt at “message” episodes of friendship and never giving up despite the odds. The second season got even crazier by turning into a complex storyline of a sinister group trying to destroy the WMAC amid the fighting. There could be light humor but the fact the whole thing was played straight made it even nuttier. It was canceled on a cliffhanger but has a cult audience who enjoy its strange attempt at a live-action video game.
17 A.J.’s TIME TRAVELERS
Trying to mix education with sci-fi, this syndicated show was just very, very weird. Teen AJ gets a disc that allows him to board a time machine whisking across space. The crew includes a super-hyper aide who speaks in sound effects, a half dog, a fly with a human face, the living computer and the female captain who’s the only sane person. Villain Warp wants the ship for his own purposes but for some reason can only get it if the crew can’t answer three historical questions. They use the ship to bring people in from that time period to provide the answers.
The educational touches were okay and some stories could be surprisingly frank. In one, A.J. is torn helping a friend on bigotry and gets a lesson meeting one of the Tuskegee Airmen. However, the antics of the crew were just annoying to the extreme and distracted too much from the attempted messages. The show became infamous for being part of a complex lawsuit and is one of the most bizarre “edutainment” series ever put on TV.
16 ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND
The classic fairy tale got a wild makeover by the Disney Channel in the early 1990s. The concept was Alice (Elisabeth Harnois, better known today for CSI) would use a magical mirror to enter a much more modern Wonderland. The Red Queen was imperious but not the “cut off your head” type. The White Rabbit got around on rollerblades while Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were hip-hop dancers. They would do comedy bits and break into songs to teach some life lessons that Alice would use.
It makes sense that Wonderland made little sense. The rapping could be wild but the show had touches with teaching lessons on tolerance and even addiction. There were some big guest stars like Marlee Matalin as the March Hare’s deaf cousin and a pre-scandal O.J. Simpson. Taking the classic characters into a hip-hop world could have been messy but the show’s heart made it an actual Emmy-winning success for the time.
You have to credit PBS with a fun way to get kids into classic literature. The title character is the pet dog of a young boy who follows him and his friends on their antics around a small town. At various points, Wishbone will imagine himself the protagonist of a classic novel. From Robin Hood to Edmund Dantes to D’Artangan, Wishbone plays the central role in numerous literary masterpieces. Thus we have the sight of a dog dressed in human clothing with others treating him like a real person amid these adventures.
Unlike other shows on this list, this was a major hit with critics. It won a few Emmys and even a Peabody Award. More than a few kids of the ‘90s admitted being hooked onto some major novels thanks to this show. The sheer offbeat nature of a dog starring in scores of major novels and using them as life lessons made this show a weird sight. But it worked into a big success for lovers of books and dogs alike.
14 MYSTIC KNIGHTS OF TIR NA NOG
Imagine Power Rangers crossed with Irish Mythology. In the ancient kingdom of Kells, the evil Maeve uses her dark magic to create monsters in her attempts to conquer the land. A young cleric, the royal princess, a thief and the prince of a distant land band together to find special weapons to fight her off. The weapons allow them to take on special armored outfits to combat the monsters and other creatures Maeve creates. Aiding them is a quirky fairy and the king of a leprechaun-like race.
The show had an offbeat humor that could draw you in. The battle scenes were rough yet there was a charm matching the land. Maeve herself was a compelling villainess and the show had wild turns with her connection to hero Rohan and the addition of a new Knight. It’s strange but it actually works to provide one of the more unique Fox shows of that decade.
13 MIGHTY DUCKS
In 1992, Disney scored a huge hit with The Mighty Ducks, a movie about a kid hockey team. That inspired the company to form an actual NHL team of the same name. As part of the cross-promotion, Disney also created this rather strange cartoon show. On the planet Puckworld, hockey is literally a way of life. The planet is invaded by an alien race that can hide under cloaks. A special mask allows them to be revealed. During a battle, six of these duck-like aliens crash their ship in Anaheim. They end up posing as a costumed hockey team while fighting the alien invaders.
The show actually plays this nutty set-up totally straight. It uses the hockey motif totally from the team’s suits to their weapons and the “Pond” arena their headquarters. The voice cast included a then-unknown Brad Garrett and Dennis Franz as their policeman ally. Hockey fans may wince at the liberties taken with the game but some fans have to appreciate how far they went to promote to let the Ducks fly.
12 SKELETON WARRIORS
Part of a push by CBS in 1994 to get back into exciting Saturday morning cartoons, this series focused on the world of Luminaire. A battle causes the Lightstar Crystal to be split in half. The evil Baron Dark gets the dark half which allows him to transform himself and others into living skeletons. The other half belongs to Prince Lightstar who forms the Legion of Light to fight off Dark’s forces. An interesting touch was Lightstar’s younger brother, who had briefly worked for Dark, turned into a semi-skeleton.
The show could be as dark as the villain. After all, the bad guys were literally evil skeletons who relished in how they could be broken apart and put themselves back together again. Some of those bad guys could be freaky (one was a cyborg skeleton) and the animation enhanced their disturbing qualities. Maybe that’s why it only lasted one season as making skeletons in animated form is a bit too scary for Saturday mornings.
11 BUCKY O’HARE
Originally a comic created by Larry Hama and Michael Golden, Bucky O’Hare attained a cult following by the 1990s. So much so that it was decided to make it an animated series. In an alternate future, sapient mammals from different worlds defend their galaxy against the evil Toad Empire who want to dominate the universe. Bucky O’Hare is the courageous leader of a band of heroes who take on the most dangerous missions. Aiding them is a young boy from Earth who got sucked into this weird galaxy.
The show could be wild but funny and some good action in space. Some fun bits included first mate Jenny keeping her mental powers a secret from the others and teen Willy handling this weird crew. It only lasted 13 episodes but the character has lived on by being linked to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and still remembered for one of the more fun space shows of the time.
10 WILD WEST C.O.W.-BOYS OF MOO MESA
This is an interesting turn on the usual TMNT take-offs. A meteor crashes into an Old West territory, transforming all the animals inhabitants into bovine-like humanoids. They took on the trappings of the time with gunslingers and some steampunk elements. A trio of these “Cow-Boys” kept law and order in the town against a band of ruffians led by the town’s corrupt mayor and sheriff. The show could be fun in some ways with its nutty motif and strangely mixing up cowboys and cows actually worked out.
There were odd elements like the sight of cows riding horses and some of the villains could be downright weird. Yet the show had a fun humor to it with how the cows will try to emulate humans while not totally understanding their ways. It even inspired a successful arcade game. Frankly, it’s one of those ideas you’re amazed someone didn’t hit on before to make this an odd gem of the early ‘90s cartoon landscape.
9 TATTOOED TEENAGE ALIEN FIGHTERS FROM BEVERLY HILLS
Sometimes, a show is so utterly and incredibly bad that you can’t stop watching it. This is a fine case. It’s hard to say if this USA series was meant as a parody of the Power Rangers franchise or a serious take. The title basically sums it up as an evil warlord sends his agents to attack Earth. A wise creature (who looks like a pile of goo) recruits four Beverly Hills teens, giving them tattoos to transform into giant-sized warriors and face the warlord’s monsters. On the one hand, you had some comedy potential of the rich kids saving the world. But the production…
This show made the cheapest Power Rangers episode look like an MCU movie. It was laughable seeing the fights on huge miniature sets that would be reused with bad martial arts moves. The cheapness was all over the place and it showed. The actors did their best but it was impossible to salvage this series. Even as a parody, it fell flat yet its sheer awfulness makes it strangely compelling viewing.
8 YO YOGI
A weird bit throughout the 1990s was how studios would take classic cartoons and try to give them a “modern youth makeover.” No character suffered from that more than Yogi Bear. The original cartoon was simple but fun as Yogi and Boo-Boo get into antics in their forest while hunting for picnic baskets. This 1991 cartoon had them with some other Hanna-Barbara characters dressed in loud outfits, going around on skateboards and solving mysteries while doing bad rap songs.
It’s even worse than it sounds, turning this classic character into a goofball. The series has not aged well with its “hip hop attitude” and the mysteries were a far cry from Scooby and his gang. You just can’t accept some folks like Secret Squirrel as kids. Trying to make these characters “hip” for the ‘90s made for a laughable cartoon and a shame these characters had to be thrown in what amounted to a bad extended ‘90s music video.
7 SPACE CASES
Acclaimed sci-fi/comic book writer Peter David co-created this Nick series. A group of young cadets are put together as they’re basically a band of screw-ups. They’re checking out a spaceship when its robot guide sends it halfway across the galaxy. The group (with two reluctant teachers) have to make their way back home while running into various threats (this actually predated Star Trek Voyager). The cast is fun with the original Black Power Ranger Walter Jones as the leader and a young Jewel Statie as the alien engineer whose “imaginary friend” turns out to be real.
The show could be fun packed with the usual David humor and sharp plotting. You had slews of sci-fi stars as guests such as George Takei as a space pirate and Mark Hamil as a whacky alien aide. The show got a bit darker in its second season with hints the robot was less a bumbling fool than a manipulator who had set this whole journey up. Still, it’s notable for letting David cut loose with an original space story.
6 GHOST WRITER
You can’ t blame PBS for wanting to put some education into entertainment. Yet this is a pretty weird way of doing it. A group of young kids in New York are brought together as they make a friend in a strange ghost. Known only as “Ghostwriter,” the spirit communicates via rearranging signs and books into letters only the kids can see. He aids them investigating various mysteries which usually involve word puzzles.
The show was smart using comprehension skills yet still revolved around a bunch of kids talking to a ghost who only spoke through lettering. It was pretty weird and that’s without plots that even involve time traveling. Some stories could be dark with kidnappings and a prankster threatening fires as well as a scary thief in a mask. The series was successful yet still has a weird vibe you can’t see PBS today using.
5 THE PIRATES OF DARK WATER
Here’s an actually pretty good series although still pretty wild. The aquatic world of Mer is being slowly devoured by a mysterious “dark water” that’s threatening the planet. A young man named Ren discovers he’s a prince and is on a quest to find the Thirteen Treasures that can stop the dark water. He joins with a pirate and a sorceress to combat an evil pirate who wants the Treasures for himself. The world was populated by strange characters and a truly alien setting.
While it could seem light-hearted, the series could push some dangerous storylines. The dark water was made out to be a huge threat and the idea of a world under siege added a layer of darkness to the tale. The thrills were great with some good animated sequences and engaging characters. Maybe that’s why it only lasted one season as it was just too fantastic and far-reaching for kids at the time to get into. That’s a shame as this fun series deserved a longer journey.
4 ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES
Yep, someone decided to make a cartoon show out of the infamous cult B-movie. For those who don’t remember, the insane 1978 sci-fi musical (you read that right) has tomatoes gaining intelligence to attack the world. Its sheer badness made it a popular success that inspired a sequel starring a then-unknown George Clooney. This series is based on that sequel as Dr. Putrid T. Gangreen is using his various mad scientist plots to rule the world. That involves turning a potato into the beautiful Tara who joins a rebellion against him.
The show lovingly leaned in to the insane storyline and had fun with it. Characters would address the audience during the action and a “Censor Lady” would step in if things were getting too violent. The animation made the monster vegetables look even better. The second season was fun as Gangreen does indeed conquer the world only to realize it’s not as fun as he thought it would be and welcomes a rebellion overthrowing him. Like the movie that inspired it, this series was one of a kind in terms of working a crazy concept.
3 STREET SHARKS
It’s hard to find a more blatant TMNT rip-off than this. The evil Dr. Luther Paradigm creates a machine that can “splice” humans and animals together. He uses it to turn his partner, John Bolton, into a monster. When Bolton’s four sons investigate, Paradigm uses the machine to splice them with sharks. Now, the quartet can turn into super-muscled half-shark beings to take on Paradigm and his bevy of villains while looking for their dad.
The “attitude” of the teens made the Turtles look subtle. Their allies include a rock star turned into a bull shark and a teen genius. The animation was rough and amazing the show lasted three seasons. The last episodes included the Dino Vengers, a unit of soldiers turned into dinosaurs who actually had their own spin-off. You saw a lot of TMNT copies in the ‘90s yet this stands tall as one of the more obvious take-offs.
2 TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: THE NEXT MUTATION
The Heroes in a Halfshell have gone through a lot of shows in their history. But the lowest point is easily this 1997 live-action Fox series. The idea of the Turtles in live-action is already a bit off as they work much better in animation than people in suits. But it was still astounding how bad this was. There’s no April or Casey and Shredder takes a back seat to new villain the Dragonlord. The fight scenes are a mess of slapstick, not the cool battles fan expect from the Turtles and the writing is pretty bad.
Then there’s the addition of Venus, a female Turtle. On paper, adding her might have sounded good but she throws off the dynamic of the team and pushed a bit too hard. The team even had a crossover with Power Rangers in Space. TMNT creator Peter Laird hates the show so much that he won’t even allow it to be mentioned in his presence. It showcases the Turtles are much better suited for animation than a live-action mess.
Hang on to your hats because this one is a doozy. Shown on USA in 1997, this series had four teens who work at a junkyard to make ends meet. One night, a falling meteor hits the junkyard and causes some cars and trucks to turn into automotive vampires who suck the fuel out of everything they can find. The kids are also affected by the meteor to transform into robotic cars. Aided by their mentor Van Hell’Sing, a bizarre hippie, they fight to defend the world from the Van Pires.
The fact that the opening credits list Hell’Sing as “playing himself” lets you know you’re in for a trip. The CGI is outrageous while the live-action sequences feature some odd acting. Hell’Sing is just strange with his hippie ways and the attempt at “environmental” messages amid the fights is laughable. The whole thing is just a wild ride from start to finish making this one of the single strangest kids’ shows of that decade and perhaps of all time.
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