“We interrupt this program to bring you…”
Courage the Cowardly Dog.
It’s the show that helped teach me empathy. To live, and to let love as well. To forgive people for their transgressions and mistakes, and that life is not about being perfect. That all who are flawed are not monsters, but people like you and I. To rely on your own instincts, brains, and ideas instead of others’. That the real monsters in the world may not be monsters at all, they could be other people, or either personal demons. This was a show that could whip from funny to frightening in the drop of a hat, and it helped me conquer fear. What was I to be afraid of if Courage could survive these terrors and complete these insurmountable tasks? This show helped me deal with people, to try further to understand the human condition.
Eustace in particular helped me explore backstory: by the end of the series, there was clear proof and backing as to why he was so cruel and callous: insecurity. In the show’s reality, he was good enough: he had a home he himself built (and rebuilt multiple times), a wife that loved him (no matter his hostilities), and a loyal dog that defended him at every turn (“Queen of the Black Puddle”), but in his reality, in his mind, he wasn’t. Yes, he felt that he needed to prove something to his mother and dead brother, but who he really needed to prove something to was himself (“Mother’s Day”, “Forbidden Hat of Gold”, “Farmer Hunter, Farmer Hunted”). While Muriel sometimes mentioned her Scottish roots and had but a scant few detailing them (“Shirley the Medium”, “Rumpledkiltskin”), Eustace held onto his past with an iron grip, getting several episodes to focus on his backstory (“Mother’s Day”, “Forbidden Hat of Gold”, “The Sand Whale Strikes”, “Farmer Hunter, Farmer Hunted”).
Personally, I’ve known many a ‘Eustace’ in my life, and I’ll probably know plenty more, and knowing about their past and trying to help them through the pain and anger can lead to a better life. Courage always tried to see the best in people, and eventually found the best in himself, defeating his own demons and becoming his own version of ‘perfect’ (“Perfect”). Muriel was blissfully unaware of danger for most episodes unless directly confronted with it or if there was a cause she could help rise up against (“Katz Under the Sea”, “Muriel Meets Her Match”, “The Uncommon Cold”), and while this is sometimes not a great stance to take, I recognize how it rounds out the trio: Positive, Negative, and Neutral. Positive and Neutral sometimes switching between Courage and Muriel, but rarely, with Eustace being positive in but one memorable instance, “Aqua Farmer”.
As the show went on, deeper themes were tackled, such as global warming (Snowman’s Revenge”), environmental degradation (“Scuba Scuba Doo”, “A Beaver’s Tale”), pollution (“Conway the Contaminationist”, “Goat Pain”), the millennium’s reliance on technology (“Mega Muriel the Magnificent”, “Courage vs. Mecha-Courage”), the influence of television and social media (“Angry Nasty People”, “King of Flan” (this one also doubles as a commentary on addiction)), and other effects of man on nature and society. Several episodes also touched on government interference and scientific experimentation as antagonistic concepts (“Bad Hair Day”, “Human Habitrail”, “Dome of Doom”, “Last of the Starmakers”). Abusive and toxic relationships in several episodes also (“McPhearson Phantom”, “Muted Muriel”, “Profiles in Courage”), between the main trio with Eustace as the aggressor (most notably in “Ball of Revenge”), and with secondary characters in the episode “The Mask”, implying physical, mental, and sexual abuse between those characters. Courage was deep for its time, almost two decades ahead, and it helped people of all ages understand how we affect the world through our thoughts, actions, and words by not only showing what to do, but also what not to do.
Not to say the show was all dark. The humor stuck with me as well. So many bizarre moments from Courage’s over-the-top screams to the character designs always got a chuckle out of me. Many characters had lanky proportions or a weird smile on their faces, or even were just anthropomorphic animals (“Cajun Granny Stew”, “Little Muriel”, “Courage in the Big Stinkin’ City”). Shots would linger on moments that were strange just to squeeze a little more odd-ness from them, usually to pause and reflect with a laugh (or in some cases, fear). The show was intentionally designed to be so over the top with its scares to be funny, triggering the relief of laughter after the shock of a scare.
The music was light in several parts as well. Each song is unique to the show, with some classical themes used here and there. Muriel’s slow, relaxing piano theme (“Demon in the Mattress”), Eustace’s energetic fiddle theme (“Courage Meets Bigfoot”), and Courage’s ‘chill’ ukelele and blow-jug theme that also serves as the end credits song (“A Night at the Katz Motel”) are all calming themes that signify happiness or light antics in the show. Courage’s ‘Panic / Crisis Theme’, with two variations, one on bongo drums (“Dr. Le Quack, Amnesia Specialist”) and the other on metallic pipes with chimes (“Freaky Fred”), is a particular fan favorite, usually played when Courage gains the upper hand against the villain of the episode, or is planning to.
Several other themes are less… Fun though… In particular, the main theme of “The Tower of Dr. Zalost” is simultaneously somber and bombastic, the light choir and heavy horns coming to a head and clashing, similar to the forces of good and evil in the show’s first half-hour story. One of my personal favorite themes is one involving a slow organ that builds to church bells and a choir as the action on screen gets more intense (“The House of Discontent”, “The Quilt Club”). Episodes featuring this theme are among my favorites, and all of these memorable sounds would not be possible without composer Jody Gray and Andy Ezrin at the helm, creating such memorable music.
To mention, the show did not cut to artistic depictions of gross humor or true gore (aptly named the ‘Gross-Up Close-Up’ by avid tv-watchers), which I personally appreciate. Instead the show stuck to a consistent style without deviating except for a few characters and moments (“King Ramses’ Curse”, “The Magic Tree of Nowhere”, “Hard Drive Courage”) Backgrounds also used snippets of reality such as photorealistic skies, moons, and other cut-and pasted affectations (“Everyone Wants to Direct” being a standout). The style was very UPA and Salvador Dali, with a dash of Looney Tunes: minimalistic, stylistic, and ‘cartoonistic’.
Courage the Cowardly Dog was an amazing show. I don’t really see that any other can top it in heart or strange-ness, especially not in the current social climate. It was a show that was a time capsule, lightning in a bottle, and pure, unfiltered imagination and enjoyment.
Thank you, John R. Dilworth, for the best animated series on television.
“And now, back to your regularly scheduled program.”