It’s probably no surprise nowadays that children’s shows can have more depth to them than “buy our play sets and toys!” Batman: The Animated Series began the beloved DC Animated Universe. Avatar: The Last Airbender gave Nickelodeon viewers the kind of drama kids’ channels rarely broadcast, and lesser-known gems like Cybersix became cult classics.


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Still, it may surprise some to know that some other kids’ shows are more in-depth than they let on. On the surface, they’re pretty typical, whimsical, child-friendly adventures. But once people dig a little deeper, they’ll find some extra details, nuances, or some dark undertones. Here are some live-action and otherwise non-cartoon examples of TV shows with extensive lore.

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6/6 Round the Twist

Maybe ‘extensive lore’ isn’t quite the right phrase to use with this Australian series. However, it did ground what were originally separate short stories. The series followed the Twist family as they moved into an old lighthouse by the coast in Victoria. Then things would get weird, like the lighthouse being haunted by ghosts that only the daughter, Linda Twist, can see.

Most of the show’s episodes were based on books by author Paul Jennings. They were all separate entities without any connection to each other beyond the same author. The TV show would then take these stories and use the Twists, their friends, and foes, as their central characters. So, the show essentially joined the dots and made a quirky, Aussie-style take on Eerie, Indiana out of it. It’s worth a watch for all ages if viewers can handle the weirdness. It’s enough to drive one round the twist!

5/6 Power Rangers

Power Rangers? Deep? Maybe not to DCAU standards, yet the different tokusatsu adaptations have tried to go beyond teenagers with attitude defending the malt shop from rubber-suited monsters. For example, the “Green with Evil” story in the original series, where new Ranger Tommy fights against the others before regaining his senses, was a dramatic-enough twist for the first season. People would’ve expected it to be a footnote as he went through different costumes season by season until actor Jason David Frank’s departure.

Yet he came back for cameos here and there and then got a regular spot again in the Dino Thunder series. It’s the same character and the same continuity as his grown-up counterpart, but he suffers nightmares based on his time as the Green Ranger. These linking moments, along with its touches of darkness (Power Rangers RPM’s mentor figure Dr. K being responsible for wiping out humanity due to trauma), suggest that a more serious take on Power Rangers could work as well as its lighter, day-glo approach.

4/6 The NeverEnding Story

There was an animated cartoon, but the live-action films are more famous. They had their own hints of grimness as Bastian reads a book about a hero called Atreyu having to save the realm of Fantasia from the Nothingonly to realize he’s also in the story and, as the reader, has to help Atreyu in his adventure. The films got progressively lighter and sillier, with the third film being particularly groan-worthy beyond featuring a pre-fame Jack Black as a school bully. This is a pity, as the original German novel series by Michael Ende would fit in well next to darker tales like The Hunger Games or Lemony Snicket.

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The first part of the story was used (more or less) for the original film. But then the second half is about Bastian entering the fantasy world, becoming corrupted, and ruling over it like a despot while losing his memories of his real life. It’s only after seeing what became of the other readers who got trapped there that he repents, tries to fix the damage he caused, and finds a way to regain his memories and return home. Maybe it’ll get a chance, depending on how the bidding war surrounding the franchise goes.

3/6 Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s “Supermarionation” shows are joyful 1960s kitsch, with Thunderbirds, a show about the Tracy family solving world crises with their personalized vehicles, being the most famous. Still, that show was pretty episodic in nature, with each catastrophe largely being self-contained. The follow-up, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (not to be confused with Borderlands’ Captain Scarlett) went a little further. In it, the secret agency SPECTRUM has color-coded agents fighting back against the Mysterons and their terrorism.

It was fairly forward-thinking for its time, with prominent roles for women and POC in SPECTRUM’s ranks (if a little dusty by modern standards). But it also packed in drama, with Captain Blue being forced to take on a possessed Captain Scarlet in the first episode, to Commander White’s fears being realized akin to the Batman: The Animated Series‘ episode “Over the Edge.” Its writing isn’t as solid as Thunderbirds. However, for a 1960s puppet show for kids, it holds up fairly well as an alternative to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

2/6 Tugs

Here’s an obscure one. Thomas the Tank Engine director David Mitton and producer Robert Cardona decided to take a break from that show to produce their own live-action model vehicle show. Instead of being for little kids, their talking tugboat show would be aimed at a slightly older audience. Tugs would deal with blackmail, gangsters, ghosts, industrial conflicts, suicidal thoughts, and death (or as far as a talking crane can ‘die’).

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They went all in on the show too. Its production quality was impressive, but it was too expensive. Tugs ended after one season, with Mitton returning to Thomas and Cardona going to Canada to make the gentler Theodore Tugboat. It’s a shame, as they were character connections and plot threads teased in scripts and on the show that could’ve been followed up on. Then again, it was probably a big ask for older kids to give a Thomas-esque tugboat show a chance, or for little kids to handle its darker themes. Speaking of Thomas

1/6 Thomas The Tank Engine

Before the cartoon, CGI series, live-action model series, and PC mods were The Railway Series books. While they were about talking trains, they were set in the real world. Its overarching “steam engines vs. diesels” plot was based on British Rail scrapping old locomotives in favor of modern but poorly designed diesel trains in the mid-20th century. But it goes beyond trains. The author, Reverend Wilbert Awdry, wrote The History of Sodor: Its People, History, and Railways, which went in-depth on the fictional island.

Its society was founded by a Viking ruler called King Godred ‘Starstrider’ MacHarold and his conflict against Earl Sigurd. Few of these details made it into the books or TV shows, yet they’re just the tip of the iceberg. For a series aimed at little kids, the lore rivals Lord of the Rings in its intricate detail.

MORE: Darkest Animated Children’s Movies Ever

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