Upside of animation: you can go wherever you want, and have whatever you want happen there, you just have to draw it. Downside of animation: you have to draw it. But that’s the cost of entry, and it’s one worth paying, as we will see, since the best animated shows have been some of the best TV of recent years.
Animation doesn’t have to be child-friendly, but it often is – and in the meme age animations for younger audiences will often see a second wind when particularly notorious frames get repurposed as reaction images. It’s no longer just a fringe thing before the feature presentation, now cartoons can go toe-to-toe with live-action on their own terms, and these ones certainly do.
Here are the best animated shows of all time you should be watching in no particular order.
1. Archer (2009-present)
First air date: September 17th, 2009 Seasons: 11
Archer takes James Bond’s alcoholism and womanising to their obvious conclusions – but is also one of the fastest, wittiest animated shows out there. It’s heavy on references, in-jokes, call-backs, and highlights any double entendres available with real verve.
The core of the show is the profoundly dysfunctional relationship between Archer and his mother Mallory (voiced by the sadly departed Jessica Walters), who’s also his boss. But the supporting cast quickly became comedy beasts of their own, not least the lovably insane Dr. Krieger and the unstoppably vulgar Pam Poover.
The usual petty office politics are kicked into overdrive by taking place in an international espionage agency, and usually come to a head when deep in enemy territory.
2. BoJack Horseman (2014-2020)
First air date: August 22nd, 2014 Seasons: 6
In a way, BoJack Horseman is fairly traditional material for animation, since few other mediums involve human-sized talking animals (and the others are all deeply disturbing). But if I was to describe a story of a washed-up celebrity living in Hollywood who deals with alcoholism and depression in a starkly intimate way, you’d imagine a live-action production, where some A-list actor was angling for an Oscar.
Despite it being through the lens of cartoon animals, BoJack Horseman deals with serious emotional issues better than pretty much any live-action TV you could care to name. This isn’t just a matter of animation letting them use more interesting imagery – though they absolutely do that – the core of it is the writing and performances.
It would be just as impactful if it was BoJack against a blank wall, delivering a monologue to camera, which one later episode, the acclaimed ‘Free Churro’, actually was.
3. The Simpsons (1989-present)
First air date: December 17th, 1989 Seasons: 34
My feelings on what The Simpsons eventually became are well known, but what you must understand is that when it first exploded onto the screen, it broke the mould in every way. The father didn’t know best. The son was an unrepentant brat. The mother had healthy sexual desires. It attacked all traditional sources of authority, and managed to make the chaotic world this presented funny – not merely a mordant laugh at the state of things, but outright hilarious.
Much of the media landscape owes a little something to the runaway success of The Simpsons – not least crossing the Rubicon of making it acceptable for cartoons to be aimed at wider audiences than just children. Without The Simpsons, half of the best animated shows on this list simply would not have come to be, but its influences stretch even further than that. Now everything subverts traditional authorities. Could we have had TV’s boom in villain protagonists if Homer Simpson had never become the Beer Baron?
The Simpsons made this world, we just live in it.
4. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
First air date: February 21st, 2005 Seasons: 3
This is the work of animation for which the phrase ‘it’s a children’s show, but…’ was invented. And, admittedly, it’s a very rare children’s show that takes such an unflinching look at the horrors of both war and toxic family relationships. Eastern mysticism meets the four elements – earth, air, fire, water – as people learn to ‘bend’ the forces of nature to their wills, creating some genuinely fantastical action sequences.
The backstory is that ‘everything changed when the fire nation attacked’, but it’s never so simplistic as to make everyone else the goodies to the fire nation’s baddies. Avatar is far cleverer, and more heartfelt, than that. And, pleasingly, ATLA and its successor, Legend Of Korra, recently received a whole new lease on life when to the delight of many Netflix picked up the streaming rights, introducing a whole new generation to Aang’s journey.
5. Rick And Morty (2013-present)
First air date: December 2nd, 2013 Seasons: 5
Yes, you’ve heard the memes – you need a very high IQ to enjoy it, and if you watch too much you’ll vandalise a McDonald’s while demanding Szechuan sauce. But for goodness’ sake, ignore the fanbase and beneath that rather salty surface you’ll find one of the most inventive animated shows of recent years, as happy to play around with old sci-fi tropes as with the nature of reality itself.
The core duo, a weird, corrupted version of Doc and Marty from Back To The Future, go off on adventures throughout the multiverse – but the brilliance of it is when this sci-fi nonsense turns out to have real, serious consequences. The show’s best moments come in these sudden, dramatic turns, not in any of the parts that get squawked ad nauseam by the fanbase.
6. Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2013)
First air date: March 28th, 1999 Seasons: 10
Another Matt Groening project goes to show that lightning can strike twice. On New Years’ Eve of the year 2000, hapless delivery boy Fry falls into a cryogenic freezer, and finds himself 1000 years in the future – by which time we’ve invented all the familiar sci-fi tropes, including aliens, robots, and interstellar travel that defies all known laws of physics.
But even in a world full of spaceships and future-tech, some things stay the same. For instance, freed from the yoke of working as a delivery boy, Fry looks up his distant descendant Professor Farnsworth, who employs him as a delivery boy.
There’s heavy Star Trek influences throughout, but not in the way of ‘ho ho, weren’t the automatic doors stupid’ but in a more Mel Brooks-y fashion, where it’s clearly made by people with a deep and abiding love for what they’re parodying.
7. The Trap Door (1984-1986)
First air date: January 1984 Seasons: 2
Amiable blue creature Berk lives in a spooky castle at the beck and call of his unseen but menacing-sounding master. It’s a fairly gentle work of horror, but this doesn’t mean so much when all the ghouls and creepy-crawlies are rendered in gruesomely alive-looking claymation. Can you call something ‘gory’ when it’s some creature unknown on heaven or earth exploding into lumps of glistening plasticine flesh?
There’s often an eerie beauty to the dank environs of Trapdoor, and, mercifully, it’s not the kind of horror that’ll leave you sleepless for the next week, instead the kind when after the episode’s over, the house lights come up and everything’s alright again.
8. Samurai Jack (2001-2004, 2017)
First air date: August 10th, 2001 Seasons: 5
A nameless samurai prince battles the demon Aku, who cheats by sending his foe into the distant future, where the demon has already conquered the world. The samurai – nicknamed ‘Jack’ by the locals – now finds himself in a horrible dystopia, just him, his wits, and his sword, which can cut through anything.
Unapologetically action-heavy, Samurai Jack made full use of that gorgeous animation to bring in aliens, robots, mutants, and whatever else you might hope to battle in the wreck of a future world. While the original run was left open-ended after four seasons, in 2017 it made a triumphant return on Adult Swim in darker, more intense form, finally wrapping up the story and bringing the battle between Jack and Aku to its ultimate conclusion. Sometimes we can have nice things.
9. The Boondocks (2005-2014)
First air date: November 6th, 2005 Seasons: 4
Beginning as a newspaper comic and quickly upgraded to anime-style Western animation, The Boondocks is inflammatory, hard-edged satire about black America – so hard-edged, in fact, that I, a white European, probably need be very careful in how exactly I praise it. Hey look, there’s special guest star Werner Herzog!
Older brother Huey is a hardline anti-government revolutionary. Younger brother Riley wants to live up to every gangsta-rapper dream the media throws his way. And Granddad, who marched with MLK and Malcolm X back in the day, just wants them both to calm down a bit, for God’s sake.
In their household alone there’s more than enough culture clashes and differences of opinion to go around, so you can imagine what it’s like when they’re dealing with the rest of the world.
10. King Of The Hill (1997-2010)
First air date: January 12th, 1997 Seasons: 13
Hank Hill’s a good ol’ boy in the heart of Texas. He sells propane and propane accessories. He’s an ordinary guy, with a family, and they don’t go travelling through time or anything like that – the show finds its humour in the mundanities of everyday life in the suburbs.
King Of The Hill was distinctly ahead of its time, mature and contemplative when the rest of the industry was still in the first full flush of its infatuation with the vulgarity of animated shows like South Park and Family Guy. And it’s not that creator Mike Judge couldn’t do vulgar, he was also the man behind Beavis And Butthead, an animated show with the stench of adolescence permanently wreathed around its shoulders, so this was definitely a conscious choice to do something different.
11. Adventure Time (2010-2018)
First air date: April 5th, 2010 Seasons: 10
Everything that Adventure Time doesn’t explain in that title, it does in the plinky-plonky theme song. You’ve got self-explanatory leads Jake the dog and Finn the human, they grab their friends, they go to many distant lands – what part of this could you not get? And from there it is, quite simply, time for adventuring in this kooky, disjointed realm. A whole kingdom where everything (and everyone) is made of sweets is only scratching the surface.
The fantastical, wiggly world of Adventure Time belies the simplicity of the art style. Just because your characters have dots for eyes, they don’t have to be minimalistic. And nor does this rainbow-pastel world need to shy away from more serious themes – like the story of how the recurring bad guy Ice King became a villain in the first place, with his decline resembling the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
A light format, but some heavy material.
12. South Park (1997-present)
First air date: May 2nd, 1997 Seasons: 24
More than one show on this list has invoked the wrath of the world’s moral guardians, but South Park is the only one to make such a point of pride of it. And, to be fair, if you’re going to make a show about four boys in elementary school, it only makes sense that they’d be so incredibly foul-mouthed.
South Park’s reinvented itself more than once over the years. Its very early years were taking heavily after Terry Gilliam’s bizarre stop-motion cartoons from Monty Python’ s Flying Circus, but before long it settled into the current-events-parody mode that it still flirts with.
More recently it’s experimented with season-long running plotlines and a greater focus on Randy ‘Stan’s dad’ Marsh – and whatever you may think of these moves, they’ve stopped South Park falling into the same pit of complacency as some of the other long-running best animated shows out there.
13. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
First air date: September 5th, 1992 Seasons: 4
As befits a franchise that started as a comic book, this animated show is probably still the best Batman adaptation out there. Better, even than the Nolan films or the self-consciously absurd Adam West version? Yes. And the animation was first broadcast alongside the Tim Burton adaptations of the early ‘90s, which were pretty stiff competition themselves.
The cast were particular high points of this adaptation, and none more so than Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark ‘Luke Skywalker’ Hamill as The Joker, with both performances becoming so iconic and enduring that Conroy and Hamill would return to the roles in the acclaimed Arkham video games.
The Animated Series’ noirish complexity was received so well that it rippled outward, effecting the rest of the franchise: this show was the first time that villain Mr Freeze was portrayed as a tragic, bereaved figure rather than just a nut-job with a freeze ray, a backstory which has been part of the character ever since.
14. Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)
First air date: January 9th, 2011 Seasons: 13
You’ll remember H. John Benjamin from elsewhere in this list as suave master spy Archer, but here he’s playing basically the opposite role – an everyman husband and father who makes burgers.
While it’s a set of fairly gentle, slice-of-life proceedings, here it’s the characters, rather than what happens to them, that makes it all so larger-than-life. Most of the Belcher family are prone to breaking into song, or histrionics, with very little provocation.
Bob’s Burgers has been heralded as the heir to, or possibly successor of, The Simpsons. You could put these similarities down to the family-sitcom format, but one place it really shines through is the sign gags – each week the special burger is a new pop culture reference, and the store next door has a different punny name.
15. Spongebob Squarepants (1999-present)
First air date: May 1st, 1999 Seasons: 13
It’s a happy-go-lucky sponge who works at a fast-food place at the bottom of the ocean.
As wacky as the concept might seem, sponges are real sea creatures (albeit rarely cuboid and yellow), so Spongebob fits right in with the rest of the show’s menagerie of talking sea life. Why is it that they can talk? Usually cartoons don’t question that, but the fact Bikini Bottom is a subtle reference to nuclear testing site Bikini Atoll may have something to do with it.
There’s just so much about it that’s become enduring. Thanks to elasticated cartoon reality, there’s a picture of Spongebob to represent pretty well any situation, emotion, or reaction you might care to name.
And the rest of the cast may be archetypes, but they’re such wonderful examples you won’t soon forget them. With the avaricious Mr. Krabs, robust and tomboyish Sandy Cheeks, and dunce-for-the-ages Patrick Starr, it’s a gentle throwback to the pre-irony days of animated shows, when everything was sincere and straightforward. Like Looney Tunes, but underwater.
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