You’d be forgiven for thinking that Adult Swim didn’t exist before Rick Sanchez emerged from his signature green portal and onto our screens in a squirt of emerald ooze. What was life like for friendless nerds in the days before they could wear t-shirts with pickles on them or spam Reddit with quotes from that one episode from Season 2?
Yet since 2001, Adult Swim has been churning out some of the finest, most original and occasionally ground-breaking shows on television (and Mr. Pickles). To separate the wheat from the chaff, here are 10 of the best Adult Swim shows that serve as a great introduction to what television’s finest adult cartoon programming block can offer, hand-picked not only for their quality but their relative accessibility. So no 12 Oz Mouse just yet.
1. Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Search for a list of the most popular and influential shows that Adult Swim ever committed to the airwaves and ATHF will usually sit somewhere near the top. In fact, any discussions of the channel seem empty and hollow without mention of what was for a time the very face of its programming.
Originally set up as a crime-fighting team of anthropomorphic pieces of fast food, the show mixes slice-of-life urban mundanity with the bizarre and often nonsensical antics of sociopathic man-child Shake, kindly if chaotic genius Frylock and naïve but good-hearted Meatwad. Like most Adult Swim shows, it sounds bad on paper, and like all of the best it very much marches to its own beat, but ATHF is grounded in exceedingly effective character dynamics and genuinely hilarious dialogue performed by a great voice cast. It’s a show where anything can happen without need for set-ups or even an internal logic, which means that each episode hits the ground running and feels tight across a restricted 12-minute runtime.
If you want a sense of what Adult Swim has always been about, ATHF is where you start, and most likely the place to which you will always eagerly return.
2. The Boondocks
The Boondocks centres on the Freemans, a black family finding their place in a majority white suburb in America. The central protagonists are brothers Huey and Riley who offer the shows’ political and emotional contrasts, with Huey in favouring an extreme form of left-wing radicalism and Riley keen to imitate prevailing gangster rap trends and black urban culture. Despite its sometimes gritty tone, it’s a surprisingly beautiful piece of work, its anime influences giving it a distinct depth and texture most cartoons simply can’t match.
The brilliance of The Boondocks is that while it manages to be as funny and engaging as any of the entries on this list, its eye for social and political satire truly makes it shine. Other shows dealing with such issues of race and class often seek for easy solutions to such seemingly intractable problems, but Boondocks’ perspectives remain mature and nuanced while also being devastatingly cutting and inflammatory.
The show has definitely proved controversial during its time, but it is The Boondocks unapologetic, no-holds-barred attitude to its subject matter which has made it one of the most strikingly relevant shows of the decade. Few Adult Swim offerings give an explicitly black view of American life, and this list would feel incomplete without the show’s very necessary perspective.
3. The Eric Andre Show
AS purists might have been hoping for some of the channel’s deeper cuts in this list, but if you want a sense of what defines Adult Swim then you can’t look past arguably the best live-action show they ever put out. It’s become such a massive mainstream and cult hit (can a thing be both?) that it’s hardly necessary going over what the show’s about, but suffice to say The Eric Andre Show is a truly pioneering piece of work that sometimes feels as much like a slice of performance art as it does a parody of a late-night public-access talk show. It’s also one of the funniest things I’ve seen on TV or anywhere else in the past 10 years.
The show’s future has been cast into some doubt following the departure of stalwart sidekick and tormentor Hannibal Buress early into Season 5, but if things have run their course, we’ll always have the memories of a naked Eric screaming with a chicken on his head, plunging his hand into a smoothie blender and drinking his own vomit in front of Lauren Conrad.
4. Frisky Dingo
No Frisky Dingo, no Archer. Yes, it sounds reductive and yes, it’s been said before, but it’s hard to imagine the latter when you see the debt it owes to the former. Following the titanic tussle between Xander Crews (alter-ego Awesome X) and his deadly rival Killface, Frisky Dingo shows more than traces of the comedic beats and dry, cutting humour which would make creator Adam Reed’s subsequent spy farce such a hit.
Occasionally it’s a little overindulgent and some of the worst aspects of Archer’s DNA are already in play here (I hope you like long pauses!), but for the most part Frisky Dingo sets up its universe and comedic style with joyous conviction. Season 1 is great, but Season 2 is where things really come into their own – although that said, an early episode which has the hero and villain nakedly walking the sewers whilst both wearing goggle-eyed glasses will never not be inherently funny to me.
5. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law
It was a toss-up between this and madcap D&D fantasy parody Tigtone, but firstly this is an arbitrary list designed to fill a 10-minute gap in your life whilst you take a break from hardcore internet pornography, and secondly Harvey Birdman just seems truly to encapsulate what Adult Swim is all about, in that it’s a ludicrous premise that would have been rejected by most mainstream networks which somehow works thanks to a stellar voice cast and even better writers.
Set in the Sebben & Sebben law offices, the show revolves around the eponymous retired superhero (voiced by Gary Cole) as he works alongside, and often represents, various characters from Hanna Barbera’s heaving catalogue of iconic cartoons. A decent level of familiarity with the classic HB roster is advantageous but by no means essential, and you’ll find most of the jokes still land in spite of your familiarity (or lack of) with the famed animation studio’s output over the last 60 years.
Yes, it’s another slightly idiosyncratic old duck, but get on board with it and you’ll be quoting lines of dialogue at every party and social gathering you’re invited to for the next 10 years, which, if you do so, won’t be very many.
6. Joe Pera Talks with You
Joe Pera Talks with You does exactly what it says in the title, in that it consists of a fictionalised, anachronistically aged Joe Pera ambling around his hometown in Michigan talking about his life, his interests and his hobbies, most of which are spectacularly banal but always spoken of with gentle warmth and intimacy.
As Joe shuffles around his neighbourhood trying to make sense of the minutiae of his suburban world, there’s always a sense of a man trying to fit in but never quite succeeding, of being on the perpetual fringes of society despite seemingly hitting all of the right social notes of etiquette. Despite the show’s cosy, uncynical nature, there’s a tragic undertone cutting through proceedings which lends Joe Pera a three-dimensional weight.
There’s a particular episode in which Joe discovers The Who’s Baba O’Riley which is as joyously uplifting as it is heartbreakingly melancholic. If you’re fatigued by Adult Swim’s more frenetic or outlandish offerings, Joe Pera Talks With You will act as a soothing antidote like a bowl of soup in front of a nice warm fire. Or you could watch Robot Chicken do endless Star Wars parodies, it’s your life.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where a death metal band is the seventh-largest economy on Earth?
Metalocalpyse revolves around Dethklok, the aforementioned gods of death metal and colossal financial powerhouse, a group of idiotic rocksters who spend most of their time struggling to comprehend how to function as normal humans, aggravating each other, playing the sort of music designed to give the dead an aneurism and of course leaving untold havoc in their wake.
The show is one of Adult Swim’s densest (in most senses of the word), full of ridiculous, hyperbolic visuals and a soundtrack that could warp metal, at it’s best when it’s fully indulging in the ridiculous pomp and theatre of the metal world.
One of the best things about Metalocalypse is that there is some legitimately good music in amongst the carnage and stupidity the show’s protagonists often leave in their wake. Creator Brendon Small’s background as a musician is keenly felt throughout Metalocalypse, and the show works because Dethklok are genuinely believable as a heavy metal band, albeit an incredibly dumb and deranged one. In fact, there’s a real-life version of Dethlok who perform the fictional group’s music, and even a series of albums available everywhere from Spotify to Amazon. Brutal.
8. Sealab 2021
Sealab 2021 was one of the earliest offerings on the Cartoon Network programming block which would become Adult Swim. Based on the 1970s Hannah Barbera children’s cartoon Sealab 2020, 2021 reimagined the cartoon on which it was based by redubbing the original animation and occasionally adding in new frames, sequences and embellishments when necessary.
What’s impressive about Sealab 2021 is that it’s entirely believable in its construction, and although it would be incredibly easy to simply have formerly respectable, clean-cut aquanauts spouting deliberately incongruous nonsense, the show is written and performed in such a way as to make its characters feel genuinely believable, if completely demented. There are times when you have to remind yourself that what you’re watching is essentially a redubbing of a kids’ cartoon from the ‘70s, usually when the sealab itself blows up or members of the crew are killed in strange and improbable ways.
The stand-out character is Captain Murphy, the reckless and eccentric leader of the station, who spends most of his time endangering the lab, offending the crew or just struggling with his grip on reality. There’s a particular episode I love from the first season which revolves around Murphy stuck under a vending machine and developing a twisted friendship with a scorpion called Ben, all whilst being taunted by a tooth-collecting robot. It is very, very funny.
Look out for the two-part finale of Archer’s fourth season if you want creator Matt Reed’s tribute to his own former show which involves Archer and co. delving into an underwater sea lab to confront its deranged skipper. His name? Captain Murphy, of course.
9. Tim and Eric
Ok, this is a bit of a cheat, but it seemed necessary to amalgamate the infamous sketch duo’s work into one easy-to-swallow entry. Tim and Eric in many ways epitomise what Adult Swim is all about: surreal, uncomfortable sketches with a dark undertone, parodies of public access television and 80s TV conventions, domestic conformity with a strange post-modern twist, pure unfiltered lunacy, these are the trademarks of a very unique double act in synch with a very unique channel.
Awesome Show, Great Job! and Bedtime Stories are your two tentpole choices, the former a more ‘traditional’ sketch show and the latter a darkly comedic horror anthology, but there’s also a few web shows and even a movie to check out if you’re feeling keen. Awesome Show is probably your best place to start, and I recommend ‘Cinco Shower’, ‘Celery Man’ and ‘Prices’ as great entry-level skits.
I’ll also cheat again and place Tim and Eric spin-off Check it Out with Steve Brule here, because as spin-offs go, it’s up there with the very best of them. It’s like the anti-Joey. If you’re unfamiliar, it follows Dr. Steve Brule, played by John C. Reilly, an eccentric ‘professor’ from a 1980s public-access show with a fascination for the mundane and a complete lack of social awareness. It’s a bit like Joe Pera Talks With You, but far more warped and strange. Seek it out, ya dingus.
10. The Venture Bros.
Like so many of Adult Swim’s offerings, The Venture Bros. seemed to go somewhat under the popular radar. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a devoted fanbase, but in terms of viewership the show could never compete with more conventional cartoon offerings like South Park or Family Guy. The Atlantic’s favourable comparisons with Arrested Development ring true: Venture Bros is a show for aficionados, something which would ultimately doom it never to gain the widespread recognition of more mainstream programming.
What started off as a genre pastiche-cum-homage to all-American adventure shows such as Johnny Quest soon developed into a show with a voice all of its own, so that the characters in Venture Bros. truly become fully rounded as the writers find their footing. The clever writing and satirical tone still provide wry commentary and a sharp outsider eye to the conventions of the genre, but the more the show progresses the more it’s clear that the writers are committing to developing their characters rather than simply parodying them.
It’s impossible to encapsulate the many layers and facets of one of Adult Swim’s longest-running originals, but what’s great about Venture Bros is that it has narrative ambition, pushing the boundaries of storytelling to find new and interesting things to say about its characters. There are people out there who have written truly in-depth things about the show, but suffice to say that it covers everything from the expectations of manhood to our relationship with our past selves and our perceptions of morality. The more it goes on, the deeper it gets, so that it now stands as one of the finest animated shows this century, possibly of all time.
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