When was it decided that animated films and TV shows would be primarily geared towards children? The bright colors and squiggly lines of the medium may make cartoons appealing to easily-distracted young ones, but animation by its very nature can allow for such boundless creativity that animated series needn’t target one specific age range. Luckily, we have animated series like these, which use the medium to speak towards adults (or at least teenagers) rather than young children. There have been plenty like-minded television series, but these, in my opinion (and my opinion is very comedy-centric), are the 10 best adult animated series of all-time.
10. Mission Hill
The 1990s saw a wave of adult-oriented cartoons in the wake of The Simpsons‘ success, many of them short-lived like the one-season wonder Mission Hill. The series, penned by former Simpsons writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, follows a bohemian twenty-something named Andy, whose lifestyle is interrupted when his tightly-wound younger brother moves into his apartment. In only 13 episodes, the writers of Mission Hill built up a colorful supporting case grounded in a heightened version of city-life while expertly mining pathos between all the laughs using the dynamics of the central fraternal relationship.
9. BoJack Horseman
I recently wrote about my affection for the delightfully depressing world of BoJack Horseman. The Netflix original series follows a washed-up sitcom star who happens to be a horse bumming around Hollywood and trying to fight his own depression and feelings of inadequacy. It’s a heartfelt show wherein every character has feelings and issues of their own. Beyond the melancholia, however, BoJack is a hilarious, sharply-written and impeccably-voiced satire of the modern world.
How does one describe Archer? The series is essentially a perverse twist of ’60s spy tropes starring the Bond-esque Archer, a successful super spy whose womanizing hides his mommy issues. He’s surrounded by a supporting cast of characters working at spy agency ISIS (no, not that ISIS), all of whom are roughly as terrible as he is. Though there’s plenty of continuity in Archer to satisfy fans of serialization, the show’s real strength is the density and perversity of its jokes, most of them resulting from characters like nymphomaniac Cheryl and mad scientist Krieger reveling in how horrible they really are.
7. Bob’s Burgers
Bob’s Burgers walks a tightrope of sensibility somewhere between cynical and sweet, wholesome and boundary-pushing. The offbeat series lives and dies on the strength of its core cast of characters — the Belcher family, as loving as they are antagonistic and weird. From the worrisome patriarch Bob to the miniature super-villain Louise, each character is wholly distinct but all of them work best when they’re playing off each other. The monotone heart of the series, however, is the pubescent daughter Tina, whose budding sexual obsessions are matched only by her awkward earnestness — a perfect example of how Bob’s Burgers balances rough edges with a warm heart.
6. South Park
Comedy Central’s first smash hit was an animated series that reveled in crudeness, in both its animation and its humor. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone focused their series on a group of foul-mouthed ten-year-olds living in a quiet mountain town frequently besieged by hysteria and various apocalyptic scenarios. South Park’s longevity — it’s still going strong nearly twenty years in — is partially due to its evolution from character-based crudeness to crudely-rendered satire, but whatever the season, the best episodes manage to challenge political correctness while providing character-based comedy far more intelligent than it might seem at first glance.
5. The Venture Bros.
What began as a relatively straightforward, if brutal, satire on old Saturday morning cartoons (most obviously Johnny Quest) morphed into one of the most densely-plotted and well-written animated series in existence. Creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer pack so many in-jokes and characters into any single episode of their series that it would take at least a dozen re-watches to catch them all. Within its dense serialization and brilliant perversions of pop-culture icons, The Venture Bros. hides a wounded heart — nearly every character has some unfulfilled potential or regret that humanizes even the most ridiculous of these comic book creations.
4. Rick and Morty
Rick and Morty is only a few episodes into its second season, and already it deserves a place beside the all-time greats. The series felt fully-formed from minute one. Like the Venture Bros., Rick and Morty takes lighthearted pop culture into dark, even existential places by pushing them to disturbing but hilarious extremes. The premise itself reads like a dark twist on Back to the Future, as misanthropic, alcoholic genius Rick unwillingly drags his good-hearted grandson Morty along for inter-dimensional adventures. Creators Justin Roiland (who voices both title characters) and Dan Harmon never soften their humor or their characters, humanizing them without ever overlooking their flaws, and they never succumb to audience expectations.
3. King of the Hill
King of the Hill is a decidedly low-key series that often plays more like a live sitcom than an animated one. Creator Mike Judge uses the medium to explore a mundane world rather than a fantastic one, using uber-specific humor to bring the suburban Texas town of Arlen to life. Straight-laced patriarch Hank Hill leads a cast of characters, all of them ridiculous but in recognizably true-to-life ways (from self-righteous conspiracy theorist Dale to egotistical super-mom Peggy), all of them bouncing off each other to create a tapestry of subtle but sharply-observed humor. King of the Hill is as much a satire of American life as it is a love letter to it.
With his second foray into adult animated series, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, along with co-creator David X. Cohen, moved from the suburban modern world of Springfield into the futuristic city life of New New York. Focusing on the exploits of an interstellar delivery company, Futurama takes place in an anything-goes version of the future whose technologies change from episode to episode depending on the needs of the plot and whatever media or political issues the writers wish to satirize. Thankfully, the core cast of characters remain constant amidst all the madness, allowing the writers to mine considerable pathos from the relationships between twentieth-century dunce Fry, orphaned cyclops Leela, and kleptomaniac robot Bender. Pangs of heartfelt emotion anchor this achingly funny series.
1. The Simpsons
Without The Simpsons, every other show on this list would likely not exist. Though the series gradually devolved into a shell of its former self, its first eight-or-so seasons remain unparalleled. The titular family forms the focal point into a funhouse-mirror version of American life populated by enough yellow-skinned kooks to populate an entire state of their own. At its best, The Simpsons effortlessly embodied so many influential forms of humor present in most comedy series that have come since, melding pop-cultural awareness, lovably flawed characters and merciless satire with the occasional gut punch of honest emotion. The writing staff found new ways to subvert expectations and mine humor from every facet of American life, and the result was an animated series that deserves a place alongside the all-time greatest television series.
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