Episode 21: Courage the Cowardly Dog [And the cowardly kid…]
In the introduction of an earlier episode, I made an anti-climactic joke about a lack of an algorithm for podcasters to deal with when I was setting up for a sort of bait and switch joke, which will never be completely possible when you consider the way I title these episodes. Not that I regret the way I laid out my titles, but you know, it has its drawbacks.
The premise of the non-existent joke was that podcasters, lacking an algorithm, don’t really have any outside force to cater to, and so we can operate completely independent of major trends and without being forced to consider any aspect of the cultural zeitgeist. Rather, we live a pretty sheltered existence. There’s us. There’s our audience. And we all have to work it out amongst ourselves.
To the credit of this community, we manage pretty well. We see the opportunities of this boundless horizon and run towards it at a surprising speed. For creators, we all seize the opportunity to make pretty much whatever we want and tell new and innovative stories. As proof, let me just point out that audio dramas break the norms that restrained other forms of media for so long without finding new constraints to get tangled up in. There’s more variety to its characters than any other medium, and each show has its own formatting show lengths, and production schedule. Also, look at all the space stories we can tell. So much sci fi. So few budgetary constraints hindering world building.
As for the listeners, we recommend shows to each other over Twitter or other platforms, organically growing the fan bases of worthwhile projects, inspiring the dreams of other creative souls who find a loving and supportive group of creators waiting to welcome them into the ranks.
Really, in place of an algorithm, we let our own whimsy and feelings direct us to greener pastures. Unless… we don’t like the color green on a personal level. Because, you know, this is our world, and we can do whatever we want with it. So let me put it this way. We’re headed to our own pastures, pastures of our own design.
And then there’s me, running a hastily launched review show with no external sense of direction. Sooo…. I have the freedom to make whatever potentially stupid decisions about subject matter that I want. Which has worked out pretty well for me thus far. I guess. Maybe.
Anyway, today I want to talk about a cartoon show that most of you may not know or remember, but it’s one that pops into my mind with an absurd frequency, sometimes in a way that suggests I found it deeply troubling and a few shades short of traumatizing but it is what it is. Not to be dismissive. But in this case, I know it at least wasn’t that bad. And no one gets through life completely unscathed. I know that all too well.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 21.
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Today I want to talk about one of the televisions shows I loved as a fairly young kid despite it probably being a little inappropriate for my age all things considered. But, I mean, it was greenlit to air on Cartoon Network during the day, so really, it couldn’t have been that bad. That’s just a guess, though. And I have a terrible feeling that statement is not going to age well. Regardless, for all the rumors of a reboot, my pessimistic soul can’t imagine a show like this ever getting greenlit again.
But at the time it was airing, I didn’t care. At all. You know how kids are or can reasonably guess how kids are. In fact, maybe it’s just how people are in general. We don’t think about the larger ramifications of something or what the psychological literature might say when we find something to latch onto. It doesn’t matter if it is wise. And maybe it’s more alluring when it isn’t.
There was just something about this show that I liked and that I felt connected to. Even if I couldn’t give this feeling a name or easily understandable identity at the time. And I think my parents saw this part of it, or they were old school enough that they didn’t think cartoony horror could cause emotional harm to their child. And on this, I agree. Or at least, in this case, I don’t think it did.
What lingered wasn’t the sense of dread or fear of a duck hiding in my closet. And that’s a statement that only makes sense if you’ve seen the show. But that’s somewhat neither here nor there. It certainly is not the point. What lingered was not fear is a feeling but the memory of a much beloved and cherish show.
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Courage the Cowardly Dog is a show that I’ve found hard to define. If you look at Wikipedia, it describes the show as “an American animated horror comedy television series created by John R. Dilworth,” and while that description makes complete sense, the only part I didn’t have some form of a kneejerk reaction to is “created by John R. Dilworth.” But that’s not because the chosen words don’t fit in the sentence the way the Wikipedia contributor thought they did. From a technical stand point, it completely works. But for me, the connotations of those words just don’t line up with what I remember of the show.
Courage the Cowardly Dog is about a small purple dog that was named Courage in what feels like an ironic way at first, sort of like namely a zebra Spot. You get an explanation for it later in the show’s run, but still, it never fully loses its sense of irony.
Courage the dog is afraid of pretty much everything, which makes living in the middle of [capital N[ Nowhere which is a place in the middle of [lowercase n] nowhere somewhat convenient. He’s on a farm that is so barren, I don’t think there’s an easy way to see where the property ends and where the barren wasteland of the outside world begins. He lives with an elderly married couple, Muriel and Eustace, and while she is the sweetest person even to grace American televisions, Eustace is pretty much a jerk, especially to Courage, constantly scaring him with this oversized green mask, just because he thinks it’s funny.
That’s not the scariest part of the show. Every episode, Courage, despite his lack of courage, has to face the actual threats that attack his family, usually and especially Muriel. And these are pretty tangible threats not the abstract ones that no one being can stand against. There are absurd villains coming in the form of—for example—giant, highly detailed cockroaches and less detailed spiders and a fortune telling Chihuahua, that genuinely are unsettling to a child or anyone with a vaguely related phobia, but I don’t know if this is prevalent enough to use the word “horror” because the art style gives it enough of a break from reality that it doesn’t feel real and the plot moves quick enough—from problem to Courage acting, especially—that you aren’t left dwelling in the sense of risk or foreboding. Supposed threat is addressed rather quickly. And sure, unsettled can develop into fear, but they certainly aren’t the same thing nor can it happen in a show like this one.
And the entire thing is ripe for an absurdist humor that not everyone finds funny but those who do happen to find it funny find it hilarious. In fact, the humor doesn’t seem intended but just a thing that happened as a result of the situation. And I would think that anything that invokes the word “comedy” shouldn’t be completely dependent on circumstance for such a key aspect of their existence.
As for the phrases “American” and “television series.” Yeah, my reaction to these parts is a little more irrational. I just never thought about it as a distinctly “American” series, even if it is. Because Courage was simply—as all good dogs must do—trying to defend his home and family, things that exist to everyone everywhere.
And the phrase “television series,” is opening a whole new can of worms.
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When I was in college, I saw this show again after what had been a decade long absence from my life. You see, there was a time when Courage the Cowardly Dog was on Netflix. It was short lived before that entire package of programming was pulled, but such is the life of a streaming service at least. When it dropped, I immediately went to binge it, only to be shocked by how few episodes there were. I could have sworn there were more. Not that 52 episodes isn’t anything to shake a stick at, and I couldn’t think of an episode that wasn’t accounted for.
Logic disagreed, but I was set in my convictions, and there was no way to push me out of them. So I was at an impasse. And as a college kid facing a nonconsequential plight, I did what anyone else in my position would do and turned to Wikipedia. Which confirmed what I was seeing on Netflix.
The show ran for four seasons from 1999 to 2002, and honestly, even though I generally trust Wikipedia for things like this, I had a very prolific moment of doubt right then. This show made up a respectable chunk of my childhood; how could its run be so short? It didn’t even feel like a television series but a nonstop stream of Courage’s fictional life. Which doesn’t entirely make sense on a rational level, but this review show isn’t meant to be entirely rational, operating under the premise that human beings are irrational and that this is reflected in their relationship with the media that they love. And I genuinely loved that show.
Likely because of Courage. The dog might not be brave, but he is loving and determined. He’ll fight for his family while screaming at the top of his lungs, but he will still fight. It’s another aspect of the supposed “horror” that makes me uncomfortable with the designation. Horror is supposed to refer to a looming threat or risk, but if—from your perspective—everything is looming, does something like this designation get lost in the relativity? If this new challenge slides into the realm of what you think is normal, don’t you need a new term for your own sake? Because if the entirety of your life could be classified as horror, then you’re going to get disheartened pretty quick.
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If you put it that way, Courage’s struggles start to look more like the ones so many of us have to deal with. Sometimes, life piles all the trials it can on your shoulders, altering the very nature of your reality over time and in a way can be undetectable at first. If it happened all at once, you would notice, but instead, it works slowly, gradually building to what could be your inevitable collapse.
But, in this metaphor, the anthropomorphized entity that is life sometimes gets a little overzealous in its work and gives you something so large that you can’t help but notice. And it’s your way out; it’s removed enough from the larger mess that you have a chance to start pulling everything apart. You can start to free yourself from the mess that has been put upon you, or at least make your mess bearable, but it won’t be easy. And it would be helpful if you weren’t being indirectly deterred at every possible turn.
And that’s kind of where I was.
Yeah, I was a kid. But bad things still happen to kids, even if we don’t like thinking about that. And for me, those bad things didn’t directly happen to me, but to my dad, so I was in that first circle of the ripple effect, I guess you could say. I wasn’t the one suffering from intense illness and weakness, facing an imminent death. That was my dad, but his looming death meant that the entire foundation of my life was going to come apart, so there’s that. That’s a pretty sizable thing. But he was also fairly sickly, having never fully recovered from something that happened when I was an infant. So my present, not just my future, was being shaped as well.
My parents did their best to hide this from me, believing that doing so would keep the nature of my reality the safe and happy place that all children deserve to have. Certainly those are truly noble intentions. Problem is, children aren’t static objects. And so shielding their eyes will never be easy. They are living things that move around, observe things, and do their best to make sense of it despite their limited understanding of their world. Put a child to bed, and they may get up in the middle of the night to see you and your spouse talking about end of life directives and other horribly serious medical issues without you noticing their presence. All without context or guidance.
So yeah, I knew what was going on. I can’t blame my parents for the deceit by omission because—really—I don’t know if I would do any differently to my kid. Because, if you can keep the charade going, they get to keep their formative years happy and carefree. Also, it’s a way of exerting control against otherwise uncontrollable circumstances. That’s logic I understand all too well.
But if you can’t succeed in this, if your kid puts together the pieces without telling you how much they know, now your kid is alone, trying to make sense of what horrible thing is happening in their life. Of this new horror or villain, some may say.
It’s not a one to one comparison, but when you feel that adrift, you don’t need the latest state of the art raft, you need one that can do the basic job of keeping you afloat. And ultimately, I think Courage was my raft for that portion of my life, which explains why the show has stuck with me so much and why I’ve assumed that the show ran far longer than it actually did. The line between it and me got so blurred that as long as I’ve existed, I’ve just assume that it did too.
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See, I wasn’t a brave kid by any stretch of the imagination. Though I wondered if I should have been. The expectation that I be one was probably all in my head, but regardless, I remained acutely aware of this so called deficit in my character. My parents likely knew and had accepted that I wasn’t that brave of a kid. I mean, it was pretty obvious. We took one trip to Disney World, and I was too scared to go on maybe a solid third of the rides. Also, I was prolifically afraid of heights, like “don’t ask me to get on a small ladder” afraid. Not sure why. It’s not like I’ve ever fallen off of them. But I understood that such a thing was a possibility, and that was enough to make me overly cautious.
Then came the major downturns of my dad’s health. And suddenly, I need to get over my tendencies to be so cowardly, if only for my own sake. My mom could have braced me the best she could, but a rumble like that is always going to be felt.
Courage the cowardly dog, for me, wasn’t quite a role model. That wouldn’t have made sense. But with everyone pretending that my life wasn’t constantly on the brink of complete and total disaster, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. Or—at least—I wasn’t inclined to seek someone out. It doesn’t matter how sure you are that there’s a monster under your bed, if you know no one else will be able to see it or, as an extension of that, believe you, maybe it’s not worth the effort of telling someone. Maybe you just need to shiver and cower in the darkness. For me, the monster was the realization that world could be cruel, unfair, and frankly pretty scary. And I was left wondering why no one else saw it.
But then there’s Courage who has to take on all of these foes while Muriel and Eustace seem completely clueless or clueless enough until the moment of reckoning. In his own way, he was going through much the same thing I did. And even if it wasn’t a real conversation, it worked. Once again, it’s not the most state of the art raft, but that piece of wood was going to stay afloat, and that was enough for me.
It also helped that in most episodes, Courage doesn’t brute force his way through his problems. There’s an element of creativity to what he does. The little dog taking on this big foe, using the resources at his disposal to get through it. Like David and Goliath or a little kid trying to do pretty much anything. I mean it was that way for me. As I was using drawing and later creative writing to hash out some of my issues from a more objective and safer perspective.
Sure, it didn’t change anything, but then again, Courage never really solved the problem, either. The very next episode, Muriel would be in trouble again, and Courage would have to duel with another creature of some sort, or one of the couple of recurring villains. Up until the show ended, there would be crisis after crisis. Not sure how he could have changed the situation, being a dog. Yes, while he definitely had the ability to communicate and other cognitive skills beyond what you would expect from dogs, he’s still a dog. So maybe moving out of [capital N] Nowhere or [lowercase n] nowhere would have helped had he been able to do it. But then there’s that episode where they have to go into the city for Muriel’s music, and things still happen. Who knows, television series don’t need to have full expansive hypothetical scenarios underlying mapped out as long as the world the creators built is set. Which it is here, in all the ways that matter.
This world of [capital N] Nowhere is one in which bad things can and often do happen, but with a little bit of careful thought and finesse, all things can be overcome or at least worked through. Especially if you’re doing it for your family. Ultimately, that’s Courage’s biggest motivation: love, specifically Muriel’s love. Something that completely transformed his life and is absolutely worth fighting for.
Looking back, that was another lesson of the show. That families aren’t perfect, and they will get under your skin from time to time. But if they love you—genuinely and truly love you like Muriel loves Courage—you’ll get through it, or you will find your way through it. Ultimately, a life with them is better than one without them. So whatever struggles you may have to endure are worth it.
And that’s what I felt like too. Like no matter how sick my dad got, I didn’t want him to pass. I didn’t want this state of anxiety to be over. Because there was only one way this was going end.
Courage’s stories were pretty much just validation, a way to see a truth I knew to be true affirmed. Or almost like it was permission to embrace the reality I knew far too well already.
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Honestly, Courage’s struggles were the sort of thing that I think kids should have the opportunity to see, assuming they can handle the subject matter and animation style. Some kids can’t. Not going to deny that. Every person is going to develop at their own pace, with their own capabilities, and with their own needs. That needs to be taken into consideration by each kid’s guardian on a case by case basis.
But every so often, I’ll hear about a book being banned from schools and school libraries just because the subject matter is supposedly too “heavy” for young audiences. I say “every so often” because I do try to avoid such news for the sake of my mental wellbeing because nothing makes me lose faith in humanity more than knowing that there’s some kid out there who could probably use a story like the one they are going to ban that won’t get it because some grown up refuses to admit that the nature of reality, even for kids, is a cold and unforgiving one.
Denial doesn’t change things. It just makes life harder for those us who are knee deep in the muck. It makes us feel even more alone. That being said, I know you can’t ask anyone to dive deep into something just because someone else is already there. If you don’t want to or can’t be emotionally available to someone in a specific plight, then forcing yourself to try isn’t going to help much.
But with that in mind, don’t deny anyone other avenues of comfort, safe avenues I might be obligated to add. That’s where media can come in as stories about the human experience made by other humans who [by virtue of their distant and unavailable nature] will never require reciprocity of any kind. They can give you what you need in certain situations, like affirmation.
And I think Courage the Cowardly Dog is a good illustration of this. Because even I—a staunch lover of the show—can easily admit that there are kids who really shouldn’t watch it, but at the same time, there are kids who really need to watch it who—for the thirty minutes each episode is running—can find validation about seeing the world as an unsettling and absurd place but one that can be managed or overcome. And if you can’t directly help them, at least give them something to find comfort in.
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