There were plenty of great horror shows designed for kids, but none had a sense of humor on the same level as Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog. Like several great shows on that network, Courage got its start as a one-off cartoon on the show What A Cartoon. The pilot established a storyline that was consistently revisited throughout the show’s four-season run—the Chicken from Outer Space and how Courage would defeat it.
As the show went on, several episodes dealt with unique issues that could only be presented through this horror/comedy lens. One, for instance, comes from the first half-hour episode of the series, “The Tower of Dr. Zalost”. Considering most episodes of Courage were two 11-minute segments, this was quite a special episode as it would primarily deal with people dealing with depression and long-term sadness.
The episode begins with the eponymous tower being shown roaming throughout Courage’s hometown of Nowhere, Kansas. It launches cannonballs that don’t hurt people, but rather cause them to lose all of their happiness and energy. When hit, a person becomes emotionless, too tired to function, and their skin becomes a grayish-green color, similar to Dr. Zalost. We then meet the antagonist in all of this, Dr. Zalost, who has perfected his “unhappy cannonball project” and is now demanding he be paid $33 ⅓ billion not to continue unleashing them on the citizens. After the Mayor and the city manager refuse, Dr. Zalost manages to make the rest of the town depressed with his cannonballs, but soon the town agrees to his demands.
He assumed that having all that money would allow him to be happy but as the old saying goes, “money can’t buy happiness.” Meanwhile, Courage and his owner Muriel are making ‘happy plums’, which got their name because Muriel insists they can make anything happy. Meanwhile, Eustace, Muriel’s husband, is wondering where his newspaper is because it’s late and has not been delivered yet. When he enquires about it, he learns that the newspaper wasn’t made for that day because the staff is too tired, a result of Dr. Zalost’s cannonballs.
Eustace goes to the newspaper office to do what he does best, complain about anything, and is spotted by Dr. Zalost and his henchman, Rat, a rat that is mostly interested in just helping Dr. Zalost be happy. Dr. Zalost decides that if he is unhappy, then everyone must be unhappy, so they decide to go after Eustace to see if there are any other happy people. Dr. Zalost soon finds them and manages to shoot Muriel with an unhappy cannonball. However, when he shoots Eustace with a cannonball, nothing happens since Eustace is already an unhappy person. Courage manages to dodge all of the cannonballs, leading Dr. Zalost to believe he has gotten them all. Courage, knowing well from previous experiences, realizes the cure to whatever is ailing Muriel must be located inside the tower. And for the first and possibly only time in this series, Courage and Eustace work together on a plan. Eustace poses as a pizza delivery guy and gets Rat to bring Courage into the tower.
The story takes an interesting turn from here as Rat attempts to stop Courage just as Courage accidentally knocks over mountains of cannonballs. As the two struggle to maintain their balance, Courage accidentally throws a cannonball at Rat, who becomes a giant buff evil version of his former self. Courage attempts to escape the new Rat’s wrath, by using the happy plums which turn Rat into a baby. Despite this plan working, it only brings him into the clutches of Dr. Zalost. Since this a cartoon and heroes deserve a chance to spare their lives, Zalost forces Courage to play Hangman or risk being shot with a cannonball.
Willing to go along with this, Courage plays for dear life. At one point he manages to free himself from the ropes just to give Dr. Zalost $15 for three vowels. He manages to guess two letters when he screams “O”. He finally manages to guess the word which was aptly enough, “BOOM”. Despite saving his life, Zalost still attempts to shoot Courage with a cannon, though the dog quickly jumps out of the way. He finds himself on a ledge with only Dr. Zalost to save him. However, he quickly remembers what happened with Rat and the happy plums earlier.
Courage dumps the rest of the cup of happy plums into the serum used for the unhappy cannonballs and manages to change them. The serum turns bright pink and spews cannonballs out of the tower, destroying it in the process. As the new happy cannonballs hit the townspeople of Nowhere, they are restored to their former selves. Meanwhile, the tower of Dr. Zalost explodes as Courage, slightly charred from the explosion, runs into the house carrying a happy cannonball and Baby Rat. The once infamous tower lays in ruins.
Just as he is about to save Muriel, Dr. Zalost walks in with one last unhappy cannonball. Courage throws his cannonball at Muriel and restores her. Meanwhile, Dr. Zalost misses her and hits Eustace who turns into stone after finding his mallet. Courage and Muriel take refuge under the table and hide from Dr. Zalost. However, he finds a cup of happy plums on the table and eats some. He remembers they are his favorite and turn him into a happy version of himself. He no longer has green skin and is not depressed. Rather, he is smiling and embraces Baby Rat with glee.
The episode contains numerous allusions to the idea of being depressed and trying to get help for dealing with mental illness. It’s a triumph of an episode as it also shows that sometimes the cure for an unending depression can be something as simple as eating your favorite food. The tone of the episode is very lighthearted but if you look past the comedy, you can see the struggle of dealing with mental illness. At some points, this episode really taps into those moments when things just seem lost and there isn’t much hope left.
When looking at the character of Dr. Zalost, he can be seen as an anti-hero in the end, rather than an antagonist. Since he has been depressed for so long, it can be hard to figure out what makes a person happy. The cannonball can be seen as how a person who’s been depressed for so long can affect others. Sure, there are those who can snap them out of those horrible thoughts and emotions, but it’s a lot harder when they aren’t willing to try reasonable ways to make themselves happy. Much like Dr. Zalost, some people try to buy happiness or attempt to eat their feelings.
A bulk of the episode really focuses on the idea of Courage finding a magic cure-all for Muriel’s depressed state. However, depression is something that cannot be cured overnight. It takes plenty of time. For Dr. Zalost, his story concludes with him finding some happiness in his favorite food, though he is not necessarily over the hill yet. Rather, he probably had to take some happy plums for the road. Also, the idea of him remaining in that tower stands to symbolize how he wants to isolate himself from the rest of the world because of his mental/emotional state. But, in order to get over something like that, it takes someone like Courage to come along and help you take that rocky road of confrontation to deal with your problem.