I remember my mother occasionally dismissing my television preferences as I matured from child to adolescent, often remarking she wished I would “watch something other than cartoons.” I’m well into adulthood at this point, but I’d still opt to watch a well-made animated series over a live-action one most days of the week, if only for the anarchic humor and creative freedom the format allows. There are plenty (like The Simpsons or South Park) created for adults alone, but to ignore the programming on children’s networks like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network is to miss out on some of the most creative animated series ever made. The series on this list may air on children’s networks, but they’re perhaps. best appreciated by adults who don’t wish to watch “something other than cartoons.” Sorry, Mom.
1. The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack
This short-lived Cartoon Network series is reminiscent of old Ren & Stimpy cartoons for its fluid, often vaguely-gross animation and gleeful sense of demented humor. Creator Thurop Van Orman voices the titular Flapjack, an enthusiastic innocent in the line of Spongebob, who goes on nautical adventures with his pirate-captain mentor K’nuckles (Brian Doyle Murray) and maternal whale Bubbie (Roz Ryan). The animation is wonderfully distinct, and the series is uniquely hilarious for its willingness to go dark — recurring characters include a sadistic barber-surgeon and a panicky candy bartender married to a big hunk of sweets — without (arguably) ever going too dark.
2. Adventure Time
Adventure Time has gained such a devoted adult following it’s strange to think that it’s on Cartoon Network’s regular block of programming rather than its more mature Adult Swim programming block. The series is perfect for almost any age, following Jake the Dog and Finn the Human through a series of loosely connected adventures through the fantastical land called Ooo. It plays like an endlessly imaginative show about imagination with inventive, colorful animation, set in a world of colorful characters, all of whom are treated like real people (even if they’re just sentient candy or lumpy space princesses) with depth and humor.
3. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Forget the lousy film adaptation, this anime-esque Nickelodeon series is a work of art, following a group of friends led by the powerful-yet-unexperienced avatar Aang who travel through a world inspired by Asian folk lore and martial arts. Along with its spin-off series The Legend of Korra (darker in tone, but a little messier in its storytelling), Avatar: The Last Airbender created a fully-fleshed out fantasy world while still finding time to craft clever action sequences, grow its characters — the development of exiled evil prince and “anti-villain” Zuko is particularly affecting — and tell a few inspired jokes to keep the kids laughing along the way. Though the first season feels a bit more child-oriented that the latter two, this is a complete story with room to breathe, which benefits from being watched start-to-finish.
4. Spongebob Squarepants
Series creator and marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg centered his first animated series around a childish talking sponge, and in doing so created a cultural icon. Spongebob is a lovably annoying presence whose enthusiasm and sense of wonder anchors the chaotic goings-on of the undersea town of Bikini Bottom. The show has many strengths to speak of, most notably its supporting cast, which includes dim-witted starfish Patrick, greedy fast food-purveyor Mr. Krabs, and grumpy next-door neighbor Squidward — one of the greatest straight men in comedy history, for my money. The series’ greatest strength will always be its winking sense of humor. Spongebob is so joyfully silly, it’s always funny, no matter your age.
5. Over the Garden Wall
Cartoon Network’s first animated miniseries is a triumph of contained storytelling, featuring ten eleven-minute episodes encapsulating a specific world and the characters who inhabit it. Step-brothers Greg (Collin Dean) and Wurt (Elijah Wood) find themselves lost in a mysterious woods called The Unknown, inhabited by striking scenery, variously cursed characters, and more than a few mysteries that need solving before the two brothers can ever return home. Over the Garden Wall draws heavily upon folklore and Grimm fairy tales to immerse viewers into a world at once fun and unspeakably creepy, including just enough continuity and fascinating subtext to make each rewatch of the short series (it’s essentially a two-hour movie) a rewarding experience.
6. Gravity Falls
It isn’t difficult to see how Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch based his series on his own summer-time experiences, as the show is founded upon recognizable relationships. Fraternal twins Dipper and Mabel (the series’ funniest character) are spending their summer at an Oregon tourist trap owned by their miserly great uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan. Less recognizable are the endless parade of mythological monsters lurking throughout the tiny town, whose appearances always serve to underscore something personal happening with the characters. There’s plenty of child-friendly, spooky fun to be had in Gravity Falls, but the series remains touchingly grounded in personal experience. Plus, the series is meticulously crafted for die-hard fans, as Hirsch includes tiny background details and coded messages to hint at continuity threads.
7. Batman: The Animated Series
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy might have resurrected the big-screen ambitions of Batman, but this small-screen adaptation of the iconic comic book hero’s adventures may outdo even Nolan’s gritty spin. The series uses animation to render the city of Gotham and the demented villains who inhabit it in stark detail, giving Batman the outsider-edge he deserves without denying viewers the occasional laugh. The series is consistently lauded as one of the best animated series and comic book adaptation of all-time, and justifiably so, as its writers, voice actors and animator all give the content a weight that endears viewers to its complex characters and forces them to question real-life perceptions of good and evil.
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