Who says cartoons are just for kids? Also, who says animated shows for kids can’t also be enjoyed by adults? Animation has been a big part of television for decades. Some shows have been bad; we’re looking at you, “Fish Police.” Others, though, have been quite good, occasionally even transcendent. With that in mind, here is our ranking of the best animated shows of all time.
The world of “Bojack Horseman” can be a little strange for people, what with humans and anthropomorphic animals having relationships and stuff. Also, you might think a show about a former celebrity horse is a trifle. That’s not true at all. “Bojack” is often a searing portrait of depression, failure, addiction and so much more. It just happens to focus on a talking horse.
Some people are down on “Family Guy” and its go-for-broke, anything for a laugh style. Even some other shows on this list have poked fun at it. However, even if you don’t like the Griffin family or the other denizens of Quahog, you have to admit that every now and again, the show stumbles on a great joke. Plus, a show once canceled has now run for 19 seasons and over 350 episodes.
This is mostly a list of comedies, because there aren't as many animated dramas — well, outside of anime, which is not represented on this list more out of ignorance than a lack of interest. For some people, though, the Batman of “Batman: The Animated Series” is their favorite version of the Caped Crusader. If you like a darker bit of animation that looks cool, this is for you.
To think: “South Park” started with some super cheap animation and some videos that got in the hands of people like George Clooney. Now it’s one of the iconic animated shows. That being said, it has a lot of issues. The show relies on gross-out humor too much, and it can hit you over the head with messages that are also usually quite obvious. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but it is a defining satire of our era.
In the 2010s, Disney had a bit of an animation renaissance thanks to a couple of shows on this list. The first one up is “Gravity Falls.” It’s a mystery story about a couple of kids with a supernatural bend. Think of it like sibling “Scooby-Doo” with better animation and less bubblegum pop. Even adults got invested in the mystery.
“Doug” was one of the first animated shows on Nickelodeon, at least before moving to Disney for a couple of not-as-good seasons. Doug Funnie was an everyman, or an everyboy, as it were. We were often in the world of Doug’s imagination, but when we weren’t, he dealt with realistic matters that kids could relate to. It’s creative and down to earth at the same time.
There have been a few different cartoon versions of “Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles.” We’re talking specifically of the one from the late ‘80s. It’s the quintessential version, brightly colored and fun and fluffy. Sometimes it was cheesy, like the pizza they loved, but it was usually a delight and provided a lot of action while still being kid friendly.
In many ways, “The Venture Bros.” is an answer to old-school adventure shows like “Johnny Quest.” The difference is that Dr. Venture is a bit of a failure, and so are his kids — and his villains. It’s basically like what would happen if all the characters from your favorite cartoon from the ‘60s were all failures and fools trying to make it through life. It’s also really funny at times.
“Space Ghost Coast to Coast” basically invented the concept of Adult Swim, which changed the landscape of Cartoon Network and also animation. They took an old character from a forgotten cartoon and turned him into a talk show host. Actual celebrities, in non-animated form, would show up to be “interviewed” by Space Ghost. It was absurdist and sometimes anti-comedy, and not always to everybody’s speed. When it worked, though, it was fantastic.
After the first wave of Nickelodeon’s animated shows, there had to be to a second. Of those, “Hey Arnold!” was the best of the bunch. It’s sort of like the evolved version of “Doug” in terms of animation quality and storytelling. Plus, it put the phrase, “move it, football head” into our lexicon.
Of all of Adult Swim’s reworking of obscure characters from old Hanna-Barbara cartoons, “Harvey Birdman” is the best. It’s a joke-a-minute, no wait five-jokes-a-minute, show with an amazing voice cast. Gary Cole plays Harvey, but there were also a few voices provided by Stephen Colbert, a true comedy legend. If you watched old cartoons, it’s truly a wonderful watch.
There’s actually an episode of “Harvey Birdman” that centers on “The Flintstones.” We had to get one old-school cartoon on here, and “The Flintstones” is both the best and the most important. Yeah, it’s just “The Honeymooners” but set in the Stone Age. Sure, the Great Gazoo was ridiculous. But you can’t talk all-time cartoons without including Fred, Barney, Wilma and Betty.
You can fold both versions of “The Powerpuff Girls,” the original and the recent reboot, into this one. Personally, we prefer the current version, which has a lot more dynamic animation and a killer voice cast. It’s definitely a more self-aware version of a cartoon too, which helps make it funnier and a lot more fun to watch.
Truth be told, the original “Scooby-Doo” cartoons don’t hold up well. They are slow and repetitive. That’s definitely not the case with “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.” This version, which aired from 2010 through 2013, is a lot more detailed. There are recurring storylines and an ongoing mystery. There’s character depth, so it’s not just Velma losing her glasses. Oh, and the backgrounds don’t just repeat themselves over and over.
SpongeBob is the king of Nickelodeon animation. “SpongeBob SquarePants” was a later entry into the pantheon, not debuting until 1999. It’s still going on, even though creator Stephen Hillenburg tragically passed away. “SpongeBob” is absurd and ridiculous, and it captured the imagination of multiple generations. The fact it seems about half of all memes come from the show is proof of that.
“The Critic” is an underrated gem. The adventures of Jay Sherman, movie critic, weren’t appreciated fully at the time. Maybe it was the comparisons to “The Simpsons,” as it was created by a couple of veterans from that show. However, what “The Critic” had is a bunch of movie parodies, many of which were truly brilliant.
Most cartoons are like sugar rushes. They are bright and colorful, and the characters are loud and dynamic. That’s not the case with “King of the Hill.” It’s maybe the most relaxed cartoon ever. The characters talk quietly and slowly. The animation is simplistic and far from neon. None of that matters though. It’s basically just a really good sitcom that happens to be a cartoon. They could have made it live action, but didn’t, and that’s kind of fascinating.
The rise of “Adventure Time” came slowly. First, it was just a weird little cartoon about a boy and his talking dog going on adventures. Then it started to grow. A world was built. It became the No. 1 “hey, adults can like this show too!” cartoon of its era. After all, how many cartoons for kids feature a vampire doing a cover of a Mitski song?
The folks behind “Archer” started off with a couple of Adult Swim outings in “Sealab 2021” and “Frisky Dingo.” Those set the table for “Archer,” which took them into the stratosphere. It began life as a raunchy James Bond parody, but it emerged into so much more by becoming whatever it felt like. The show changed genres. It went to space. Through it all, Sterling Archer has remained an endlessly quotable character, with his voice burnt into our brain thanks to the work of H. Jon Benjamin.
This is the best of all the Nickelodeon cartoons. It pushed the envelope without going as far as, say, “Ren and Stimpy,” which too often became a gross-out show. “Rocko’s Modern Life” wasn’t that, and it also had more real storylines in it. There was satire and cleverness. Rocko was a wallaby, but he was also an everyman. “Rocko’s Modern Life” was a safe stepping stone for kids into more mature comedy. It also has an incredible theme song.
The people behind “Phineas and Ferb” went as far as to say that they didn’t create their show for kids; they just didn’t exclude them from the potential audience. That makes the show a crowdpleaser for almost any audience. The titular characters are half-brothers spending their summer vacation trying to have as many crazy adventures as possible, and they pretty much always manage to do it. Also, their pet platypus is a secret agent with a nemesis who is a mad scientist, who is one of the funniest characters in any family-friendly cartoon. If you missed out on “Phineas and Ferb” because you thought it was just kid stuff, you should amend that.
What if some famous superheroes were dropped into an insane, meta, chaotic comedy show that puts its foot on the gas and redlined it for 11 minutes at a time? Well, then you’d have “Teen Titans Go!” There was a “Teen Titans” cartoon, but it was more serious and “mature.” “Teen Titans Go!” is far from that. It’s cotton candy animation with a mix of sophomoric jokes and some true genius bits. Some people think it disrespects the “Teen Titans” legacy. We’re laughing too much to care.
“Beavis and Butthead,” the show “Daria” spun off from, didn’t make our list. We had to include “Daria,” though, because it’s so much better than the simple show it spawned from. The characters are so much more interesting and funny. Daria was, and is, a role model for so many sardonic, sarcastic quipsters who still care deep down inside. It’s a show laden with funny characters of all flavors. We’re particularly fans of Daria’s dad, Jake. No character makes yelling in vain as funny.
So many shows about the future are utopian or dystopian. “Futurama” dares to imagine a future that’s pretty similar to the present, but with a bunch of crazy technology and space travel. Phillip J. Fry wakes up on the verge of the year 3000, and the story begins from there. He befriends robots and aliens and mutants. “Futurama,” in addition to looking great, is hilarious. The show is filled with classic characters like Bender, Zoidberg and, of course, Scruffy the janitor. In some parallel universe, the kind that Professor Farnsworth keeps in a box, “Futurama” tops this list. In our universe though…
This was the most obvious choice. You start with “The Simpsons” and you go from there. It’s in the running for the best show ever, full stop. The first nine seasons on “The Simpsons” are as good as anything, and since then there have been hundreds of more episodes, many of them really good. Homer Simpson is the best character in the history of television. You could have a conversation entirely in “Simpsons” quotes at this point if you really wanted to. No animated show is funnier. No animated show is better. “The Simpsons” ran away with this list.