You know how it is when you’re a kid. You see an episode of your favorite cartoon start up and instantly you know it’s that episode. The one you’ve seen done a million times before in other shows. Sometimes they’re innocuous enough- it’s the class trip episode or the episode where everyone goes on vacation…but sometimes, the stock episodes premise are very…weird and specific. We’re talking mind control, body horror and dire warnings about mortality. (Note that episodes that use often reused premises aren't always bad- some of them are really good!)
Let’s take a look at some of the strangest constantly reused episode premises in kids cartoons! Are there any other ones that you recall seeing over and over? Say so in the comments!
The TV Channel Hopping Episode
From The Fairly Oddparents
This episode had the premise of the characters getting stuck inside a TV somehow, and they’re forced to jump from channel to channel and become a part of several TV shows in their effort to get out. This premise allows the creators to parody various TV shows. Examples of episodes with this premise are The Fairly Oddparents' “Channel Chasers”, Teen Titans’ “Don’t Touch that Dial” and Kim Possible’s “Dimension Twist”.
The Freaky Friday Episode
From Justice League Unlimited
There will inevitably be an episode in a kids' cartoon where a character swaps bodies with another character. This is often either the antagonist and hero switching bodies, or the main male character and main female character. If it is indeed a (always cis) girl and boy switching bodies, the fact the characters now have to deal with different…body parts…is always quietly overlooked. Inevitably valuable lessons will be learned.
Examples of this premise include Justice League Unlimited’s “The Great Brain Robbery”, Kim Possible’s “Mind Games”” and Sabrina: The Animated Series’ "Witch Switch".
The Horror-tastic Time Travel Episode
From Steven Universe
This is an episode where a character somehow gets ahold of some sort of time travel device and decides to go back in time to solve some sort of minor problem. Inevitably, the character ends up causing a worse problem and the more they try to fix things, the more things spiral out of control until the character has to accept that Changing The Past Is Wrong.
The consequences of time traveling can sometimes be downright horrific- probably the most horror-movie-esque example would be in the Steven Universe episode “Steven and the Stevens”, where Steven’s time-traveling resulted in him literally watching multiple versions of himself die. In The Fairly Oddparents' episode “Father Time”, Timmy’s time travel resulted in a horrific future where he was never born.
Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb are other shows that use this premise.
The Episode Where Power Corrupts
From Kim Possible
There is an episode in every kids' show where a previously unpopular character becomes extremely famous or even rich, whether on a small or large scale. Regardless of how nice this character was before, they will immediately become an asshole who ditches all their old friends and treats them like dirt. However, they will inevitably discover their new friends are “fake” and either willingly give up their money and power or have it taken from them. At which point their old friends will forgive them for their jerkassery and everything will return to normal.
These episodes occur so often it almost sends the message it’s bad to succeed in life, and everyone who does so is destined to be a horrible person, and thus you should always throw success away. You can see examples of this premise in Kim Possible’s “Ron Millionaire”, The Proud Family’s “A Star is Scorned” and The Fairly Oddparents “A Wish Too Far!”
The Cupid Episode
From Gravity Falls
Often there’s a “Valentines Day Episode” in kids cartoons, but sometimes rather than dealing with romantic entanglements, Cupid will literally appear and force couples to love each other. The whole “forcing people to love each other” is a sketchy concept to begin with, but it will become even sketchier when the main character inevitably gets in on the matchmaking-often forcing people who hate each other or are broken up to be brainwashed into making out. Sometimes this backfires horribly, but sometimes it doesn’t, giving the impression that overriding someone’s feeling and choice with mind control is super okay.
Examples of this premise include Gravity Falls’ “The Love God”, The Fairly Oddparents' “Love Struck!” (which upped the bizarreness by having Timmy wish women and men were separated and therefore no one was in a relationship. Aside from implying only straight people exist, the “women’s world” was represented as some flawless utopia and the men’s world was some sort of garbage heap. No stereotypes here!) and The Looney Tunes' “Stupid Cupid” (this one showed a bad cupid match causing a cat to commit suicide).
The Episode Where People are Chained Together
From Sailor Moon
There’s always inevitably the episode where two characters get chained together, usually characters who are antagonistic to each other. After being forced to spend time together, they will learn a valuable lesson, but that lesson will usually be forgotten by the next episode.
This premise can be seen in Danny Phantom’s "Life Lessons", Ben 10’s "Grudge Match" and Sailor Moon’s “To Save Our Friends: Moon and Uranus Join Forces”.
The Episode Where People in Wheelchairs are Here to Teach Valuable Lessons
From The Proud Family
This is an episode where a character in a wheelchair is introduced solely so the main character can learn a lesson about how people in wheelchairs shouldn’t be treated differently. Ironically, this tends to send the opposite message, especially since the kid in the wheelchair is rarely relevant in episodes that don’t revolve around his or her disability. Often the main character will be incredibly nervous and/or condescending around the disabled kid and it up to the wheelchair user to Prove Them Wrong.
This episode premise can be seen in Kim Possible’s “Motor Ed”, The Proud Family’s “I Love You Penny Proud” and Defenders of Earth’s “One of the Guys”.
This is also sometimes nicely subverted in kid’s shows- Avatar: The Last Airbender introduced a disabled character and none of the other characters assumed he wasn’t capable or treated him differently.
The Shrinky Dinky Episode
From Teen Titans
This is the episode where all the characters shrink. Often, they do this to go inside another character’s body and cure them of an illness. Other times, the only goal is to get big again, and you can always expect the characters to be threatened by some now-giant animal or insect along the way.
Examples of the “inside the body” premise includes Batman: The Brave and Bold’s “Journey to the Center of the Bat”, The Magic Schoolbus’s “Lunch!” and Teen Titans’ "Crash". The more general examples can be seen in Cardcaptor Sakura’s “Sakura’s Little Adventure”, Smile Precure’s “The Precure’s turn tiny” and Inspector Gadget’s “The Incredible Shrinking Gadget”.
The Magical Personality Change Episode
From Jimmy Neutron
The magical personality change episode has two variations. The first one is a mean character being turned nice through head trauma or magic. Inevitably, them being nice somehow turns out to be bad for everyone and they are changed back, sending a weird message that it’s better for some people to stay assholes. This premise can be seen in Kim Possible’s “Bad Boy” and Johnny Test’s “The Good, The Bad the Johnny”.
Another common one is where a typically stupid character is made smarter through magical means, but usually becomes a huge jerk and they need to be changed back. This premise seems to assume that intelligence inherently creates assholes. This can be seen in Jimmy Neutron’s “Sheen’s Brain” and Spongebob Squarepants' “Patrick Smartpants”.
The Virtual Reality Episode
From Ben 10
Much like the channel hopping episode, there will typically be an episode where characters get trapped in a video game, leading to many parodies. Examples include Kim Possible’s “Virtu-Ron”, Ben 10’s “Game Over” and an entire arc at the beginning of Yu-Gi-Oh’s season 3. There are also several series that revolve entirely around this premise (Dot Hack Sign, Sword Art Online)
The Episode Where All the Parents Disappear
From Young Justice
A common reoccurring kids cartoon episode is one where all the adults suddenly disappear, either through a wish or a accident. Sometimes this will teach the kids a valuable lesson about how they need adults, or sometimes that’s a foregone conclusion. Either way, you can expect chaos to ensue. Episodes with this premise include Young Justice’s "Misplaced", Miraculous Ladybug’s "The Bubbler" and the Jimmy Neutron movie.
The Girl Power Episode
From Sofia the First
Another common episode is the episode where some male characters, regardless of whether they ever had this attitude before, will make the claim girls can’t do something or girls aren’t as good as boys. Either that or girls are excluded from some sort of competition. The female character will then have to prove herself, either by stomping boys in an official girls vs boys competition or by infiltrating a competition and winning.
While well-intentioned and sometimes well-done, these episodes often seem to carry an underlying message that girls have to not just be as good as boys, but work much harder and do much better to be treated as equals. This sort of attitude seeps over to real life too, with many women finding they have to work harder at their jobs or are expected to do more.
The “win the competition” premise can be seen with Sofia the First’s “Just One of the Princes” and several episodes of Phineas and Ferb, including “Got Game?”
Sometime the “girl has to win” element can be nicely subverted. For example, in Taishou Baseball Girls, the girls didn’t need to win because as soon as the boys saw they had been practicing just as hard as they had, they realized they were wrong.
A straight up “who’s better, boys or girls” variation can be seen in Teen Titans Go’s “Boys vs Girls” .