Here’s a fact: cartoons are dope. When you make something animated, it brings out a primal sense of storytelling that can hit at emotions both general and nuanced. Yet these programs aren’t just for kids. As a matter of fact, many of the greatest animated TV shows are made expressly for adults — and I’m not just talking about stoned twentysomethings who mainline SpongeBob and Adventure Time (I wouldn’t know anything about that, *cough cough*). I’m talking about the following mature, sophisticated, and adult cartoons.
How is it possible for a show about a talking horse who’s a former sitcom star to be this dark, mature, nuanced, and real? Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, which just started its third season, deftly mixes silliness and sorrow, with a refreshingly honest examination of depression, lack of self-worth, and the value of human (er, horse) connection. Thankfully, it’s also incredibly funny, with a joke-to-second ratio that will keep you giggling as it keeps you self-reflecting. There’s simply nothing else like this show.
Iconic. Classic. A vaunted part of American television culture. What else is there to say about The Simpsons that hasn’t already been said? Rather than attempt to discuss it at a societal level, I will instead approach it hyper-personally. Growing up, I planned my days around watching Simpsons reruns. I absorbed their quotes, their absurd sight gags, their intent to cram jokes in every corner of the frame, their attention paid to character truths. It served as an educational program as much as entertainment; I learned so much about comedy, writing, and culture at large from this simple show about a nuclear (it’s pronounced “nu-cue-lar”) family.
King Of The Hill
The defining image of King Of The Hill is four good ol’ boys, standing by a fence, sipping beers, and saying “Yep”. This encapsulates the gentle, real, and grounded charms of the series as a whole. Where other cartoons hyperventilate with kinetic energy, Mike Judge’s masterpiece trusts that the viewers will vibe with a mellower wavelength, allowing its beautifully subtle stories to be fully appreciated. Also, the Hill family is wonderfully rendered, with each character having flaws and quirks both well-defined and relatable. I’m definitely the Bobby of my family; who are you?
Space Ghost Coast To Coast
If you like contemporary Adult Swim, from Tim and Eric to Rick and Morty, you owe thanks to this show. If you like postmodern takes on the talk show genre, from Comedy Bang Bang to The Eric Andre Show, you owe thanks to this show. Space Ghost Coast To Coast set impressive benchmarks and precedents for the pace, tone, and style of modern comedy and animation. Nearly everything since has just been swimming in its hilariously alienating wake. A personal favorite episode is “Fire Ant”, where our title character spends the entire runtime literally crawling on his knees following an ant. At one point, he delivers an aggressively simple anti-punchline that paralyzed me with laughter: “Ants are so stupid.” This show, however, is so smart.
While most of the entries on this list are American comedies, I owe it to the potential viewers to highlight a Japanese drama, Cowboy Bebop. Really, I could’ve populated this list with exquisitely adult anime, but this show rises above the pack for blending a cornucopia of genre influences, stylish action visuals, and character-driven emotions into an intoxicating package. From the jazz soundtrack to the dope fashion, this show oozes cool, even when it’s breaking your heart by the finale of its perfect 26-episode run. Plus, it’s often quite funny, too. Take a weekend to plow through this thing; you’ll be glad you did. See you, space cowboy.
The theme song to the long-running Comedy Central institution South Park feels both traditionally American and frighteningly alien, with its mumbled lyrics and plucked guitars colliding with a bouncy country vibe. In a sense, that’s the appeal of this show — Trey Parker and Matt Stone take issues and situations we all know, and skew them through an unusually blunt and pointed prism, making them come out in brand new shapes. Like a good wine, the show has only improved and gotten stronger in age, with its fast production time providing ample opportunity for vicious satire. Plus, no matter what thinkpiece you may have read, it is Eric Cartman, not Tony Soprano, who paved the way for our golden age of television antihero.
It can be difficult for a cartoon to feel “real”, but Home Movies, with its improvised group-cast recordings and lived-in “Squiggle-vision” comes damn close. This show is for the outcasts, the creatives, the folks who feel like they have something to say despite life getting in the way. It’s for people who have wonderfully weird friendships they couldn’t explain to anyone else. It’s complicated yet simple, hilarious yet poignant, containing a single voice yet allowing each cast member to shine. It’s just an out-and-out beautiful show.
That Matt Groening knows what he’s doing, huh? Combining the family dynamics of The Simpsons with a refreshing reverence for hard science fiction, Futurama is endlessly imaginative, bonkers, brilliant, and downright touching at times (just thinking about that dog waiting forever gets my eyes watering). Fry, perhaps even more than Homer, is beautifully, understandably dumb — who among us wouldn’t feel a bit out of sorts in a time and place we don’t understand? The episodes that messed with form and concept were doing Community when Community was just a glint in Dan Harmon’s eye. And the (admittedly first) series finale, an operatic episode, served as a beautiful bow to the beautiful love story of Fry and Leela. Simply put, an exquisite series.
Which show do you love? Which do you hate? Also, I know I’ve left so many good shows off the list, so sound off! What did I miss? Feel free to give me a follow on Twitter, but be warned — it’s TV-PG at its lightest, TV-MA at its worse.