Though I rarely remember having nightmares as a kid, “Courage the Cowardly Dog” alone is responsible for a sizable majority of those I did have. In fact, mention the show to anybody who grew up watching cartoons during the early 2000s, and I’m sure they’ll feel an uncomfortable, nostalgia-induced shiver down their spine. I always thought that the show amassed far too much air time for how popular—or unpopular—it was. Nobody I knew would actually admit to liking it.
What’s more, “Courage” always seemed to sneak up on me. One moment I would be enjoying the mindless buffoonery of “Ed, Edd n Eddy,” and the next I would hear the familiar refrain: “We interrupt this program to bring you... Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, starring Courage, the Cowardly Dog!” While even the intro sequence stirred feelings of dread, I could never bring myself to change the channel. Looking back on it, maybe this was how the show managed so much screen time—good ratings fueled by the morbid curiosity of elementary schoolers.
It is difficult to understate how weird this show actually was. In one episode, a tribe of bullfrogs invades Courage’s home and forces his adopted family to dig ponds and croak. Others feature a psychopathic snowman, a robotic doppelganger, and a duck masquerading as a doctor that tries to swindle people out of their life savings. A particularly dark story is about a friendly pig running a restaurant, who Courage learns secretly kills humans and serves their flesh. The theme of humans being used as food is recurrent throughout the series. Another episode involves a Cajun fox that captures Courage’s caretaker Muriel and attempts to cook her in a stew. (Yes, this show was supposedly for kids.)
The showrunners probably had a good laugh when they came up with the idea of calling their protagonist Courage, a name meant to be ironic, because the anthropomorphic dog’s defining trait was cowardice. Imagine Courage kind of like Scooby-Doo, only he isn’t surrounded by a bunch of college kids who fawn over him and he never gets any credit for his hard work. For the record, I have no beef with Scooby. But let’s just establish that Courage never gorged himself on self-branded dog treats. As far as talking animals go, he was pretty relatable. And he got the job done.
If you look deeper, though, Courage’s backstory is actually pretty tragic. He was orphaned as a pup, only to be adopted by Muriel, a warm old Scottish woman that lives with her husband Eustace in a small house somewhere so remote that roads don’t even stretch there. Eustace is a total jerk, whose sole purpose in life is to remind Courage he is a “stupid dog.” Oh, and of course there are monsters, aliens, and ghosts abound. All Courage wants is a loving family, or at least some peace and quiet. Instead, he endures Eustace’s constant verbal abuse, as well as an onslaught of supernatural creatures that won’t leave him alone.
What made the horror of “Courage the Cowardly Dog” so terrifying was the sense of open-ended possibility which accompanied each misadventure. The show’s villains concocted elaborate plots, backed with abundant resources and driven by compelling motives. Courage was just a scared dog, the exact opposite personality-wise of most typical children’s TV protagonists, who inspire confidence and remain composed while facing danger. In most entertainment meant for kids, you know that the hero will overcome all obstacles, evil will be vanquished and things will go back to how they should be. When watching Courage, on the other hand, I would get an overwhelming premonition that the worst might actually happen. And sometimes it did. In an especially jarring episode, a villain turns Eustace and Muriel into inanimate puppets, and Courage is forced to cope by moving the strings and ventriloquizing what he remembers of their personalities.
On rainy afternoons during my childhood, I found my eyes glued to the TV watching disturbing scenes like this, rooting for Courage. He had it rough. That said, I could never pinpoint what exactly drew me to the character. One thing that always confused me about his adventures was the lack of catharsis at the end. While Scooby and the gang always finished an episode by unmasking the culprit, who scornfully exclaimed that he or she “would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids,” Courage just went back home and had to deal with Eustace’s cruelty. Both shows shared a formulaic return to normalcy at the end of each installment, but, for Courage, normal wasn’t anything good.
Still, this dreary tone also allowed for the show’s most pragmatic life lessons. Foremost among them was the idea that sometimes you really can’t run away from the things you are scared of. Facing impending doom against a nightmarish foe, Courage had no choice but to find a way to solve his own problems. He thwarted his enemies, all while anxious and trembling. In retrospect, that’s what made Courage so relatable. He understood that it’s normal to be afraid, and that just because you stand up against something you’re scared of, doesn’t mean it will suddenly become less scary. Children’s media often promotes this romantic notion that facing fears allows people to instantaneously overcome them. “Courage the Cowardly Dog” asserted that fear is okay, and that it is how we respond to inescapable circumstances that defines us. Although it terrified me, I kept returning to the show because it refused to sugarcoat one of the hardest things to accept about growing up—the fact that real life is unpredictable.
No matter what horror he went through, Courage would come back, plop himself down on the couch, and wait for the next one.
—Walter N. Paiva ’20, a Crimson Magazine Editor, is a History concentrator in Dunster House.
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