Six Facts About Your Favourite Childhood Shows That Will Ruin Everything
Disturbing things you didn't know about Hey Arnold!, Lift Off, ALF, Captain Planet and more. Sorry.
Have you ever watched your favourite kids’ shows as an adult, only to realise they were rife with inappropriate storylines that flew right over your head? If your parents had known Animaniacs contained jokes like this, for instance, they would’ve locked down the parental controls faster than you could flee the ensuing sex talk.
Behind the scenes, things weren’t much better — but because we didn’t have social media around to break scandals the minute that they happened, family-friendly TV shows managed to maintain their wholesome images far longer than they do today. And we missed some glorious memes in the meantime.
Hey Arnold!: Helga’s Mother Was An Alcoholic
Hey Arnold! was one of Nickelodeon’s best cartoons during its golden age of animation, because it was unapologetically honest about how painful growing up can be. This was especially apparent during episodes that focused on Helga, the school bully who was secretly in love with ol’ football head.
For one thing, her mother Miriam was a raging alcoholic.
As a kid, it was easy to dismiss Miriam’s spacey behavior when she was surrounded by a cast of oddball characters, but in retrospect, the truth isn’t even that subtle. She spends most of her time blending smoothies with questionable ingredients like celery stalks and Tabasco sauce, cradling a drink, slurring her words or passing out in inappropriate places (behind the couch, on the table, in her cereal).
According to the creators, who were planning on making a more adult-friendly Hey Arnold! spin-off about Helga’s family, Miriam’s alcoholism would have been explored when she attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the first episode. Unfortunately, Nickelodeon considered the subject matter too dark for a children’s show and the spin-off never happened, despite the fact that Hey Arnold! regularly referenced things like drug addiction, suicide and school shootings.
Home Improvement: Tim Allen Was A Massive Coke Dealer
Like many TV patriarchs, Tim Allen has a criminal record that Hollywood has managed to sweep under the rug — though unlike the DUI and possession charges that plague his Disney ilk, Allen’s history is a tad more serious. Before he hit it big as Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor on Home Improvement, he was a infamous drug dealer who faced life in prison after he was busted by sniffer dogs at an airport in Michigan. Yes, seriously. Authorities found 650 grams of cocaine stashed in his luggage, which had a street value of about $50,000 at the time.
Unfortunately for him, a month before he was caught the state passed the ‘650-lifer law’, one of the harshest drug laws in America. It meant Allen could go to prison for the rest of his life without parole for his little trafficking caper. Faced with that prospect, Allen did what any self-respecting up and coming comedian would do: he rolled over on 21 other dealers and ended up serving a paltry 28 months in jail. Decades later he was entertaining kids in the most popular Pixar franchise of all time, because that’s just how it goes for some people.
At least he offered Jonathan Taylor Thomas work on his new sitcom, Last Man Standing. He knows as well as we do that JTT was the only worthwhile thing that ever came out of Home Improvement.
Captain Planet: Linka Had A Drug Addiction
There’s no denying Captain Planet and the Planeteers taught us some valuable lessons about environmental responsibility, even if its most memorable quality was probably its theme song. But occasionally it tried tackling meatier subjects – y’know, gang violence, nuclear war, AIDS, Hitler, and race relations in South Africa, because apparently it’s possible to resolve apartheid in twenty minutes.
In ‘Mind Pollution’, which is generally considered the show’s most controversial episode, Linka (the blonde Soviet Union character with the power of Wind) gets hooked on drugs after her cousin slips some pills into her food. It turns out eco-villain Verminous Skumm has been distributing something called ‘Bliss’ all over the city, and it transforms the population, including Linka and her cousin, into ravenous zombies (sadly we don’t get any Daryl-style crossbow action).
The Planeteers struggle to fight off the horde until Linka’s cousin doubles over and ODs in front of everyone (see 7:03), making Linka so hysterical that she agrees to summon Captain Planet. Hilariously, when their hero flies in, the Planeteers forget all about the dead body at their feet, because they’re just that excited. Go Planet!
While you’ve got to give the writers credit for trying to teach kids about addiction, it’s hard to say who they thought they were talking to. In his final Planeteer alert, Captain Planet has these words of wisdom for his six year old audience: “And if you have a drug problem, get help. You can choose not to take drugs. The power is yours.”
Sabrina The Teenage Witch Partied With Tara Reid
Melissa Joan Hart, who received hundreds of death threats after she tweeted her support for Mitt Romney during the last US election, is pretty much as conservative as they get — so it might be bit of a shock to learn that she wasn’t as straitlaced as she appeared to be back in the day. In her tell-all autobiography, Melissa Explains It All: Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life, Hart spills the tea about her teen years acting in sitcoms like Clarissa Explains it All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
In amongst all her name dropping and self-congratulatory anecdotes, she shares some things nobody really wanted to know, like how she got caught carrying sex toys through airport security one time, partied regularly with Tara Reid (which says all it needs to, really), and experimented with weed, ecstasy, mushrooms and mescaline when she was filming Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
She also took an underage Britney Spears to her first nightclub, so you know, thanks for that, Sabrina.
ALF Was Captured And Dissected
ALF shares so many similarities with modern Doctor Who there’s probably a crossover Tumblr out there somewhere, and at their core both shows are equally depressing. In case you’re too young to remember, the sitcom followed an alien called Gordon Shumway – or ALF – whose home planet was destroyed by nuclear war. While fleeing a military task force, he crash-landed in the Tanner family’s garage, and they agreed (somewhat reluctantly) to let him hang out in their house for the next four years.
The show had a few controversies in its time – for example, ALF’s penchant for eating cats resulted in a kid, err, placing a cat in a microwave, its Christmas special is considered the root of all holiday depression, and the character who played ALF’s dad, Max Wright, ended up here – but nothing quite tops its fourth season finale, ‘Consider Me Gone’.
In the episode, ALF manages to makes contact with some survivors from his home planet, and decides it’s time to rejoin his own kind. The Tanners throw him an emotional goodbye party before driving him out to meet his friends’ spaceship, but to their horror, they realise the task force have tracked them there.
In the clip below, you’ll see ALF’s happiness quickly turns to despair when he realises he’s surrounded by air force officers… and then ‘to be continued’ flashes across the screen, because parents love explaining what a television ratings grab is when their kids are wailing about a dead muppet.
Unfortunately ALF was cancelled during its summer hiatus, and this traumatic cliffhanger became the show’s final swan song. And as you can see in the above clip, we had been told exactly what the task force intended to do with ALF:
“We’ll see how it responds to intense heat, freezing cold, high voltage, toxic substances, pain, sleep deprivation, inoculation – that’s needles – and, of course, dissection.”
It wasn’t until 1996 that the creators were able to explain ALF’s fate in a TV movie called Project ALF — except they didn’t handwave these early references to torture like you would expect. Instead, military officers discuss ALF’s “physical and psychological testing”, which is probably what they call it in Guantanamo Bay, too.
Lift Off Was A National Experiment
Lift Off, which ran for 78 episodes from 1992 to 1995, was a very socially conscious ABC show about a group of children growing up in an apartment building. Each episode featured colourful interludes with a talking magical lift, singing backpacks and a total creep of a lizard.
You might not know that the series was developed as a national developmental experiment based on the work of Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner, to teach children about emotional intelligence and to increase our “cleverness” as a nation. Gardner identified seven types of intelligence that should be developed in young children if they were to grow into well-rounded human beings, which were then explored through situations using animations, puppets, music and comedy. EC, or Every Child, the faceless doll, wasn’t some prop master’s attempt to make us all petrified of dummies – it was designed so that you could transfer your mood onto its character.
While this isn’t exactly nefarious (though it certainly has a cultish therapy feel about it), Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory has been criticised by both teachers and psychologists due to a lack of proof and research. So it’s nice to know it was being tested on most 3 to 8-year-olds in the country at the time.
Emily Tatti is a Melbourne based writer and the editor of Ricochet Magazine. Her work has appeared in places like Killings, Lip Magazine and Offset, and she annoys her friends with obscure pop culture tweets @narrativekind.