From ‘Animaniacs’ to ‘BoJack Horseman,’ it’s a good time to be an animation fan.
Saturday-morning cartoons were the highlight of the week for many of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, especially before there were entire channels dedicated to animation.
And as we’ve grown up, so has our love of all things animated. Some of our favorite modern cartoon shows are made for adults or families, but there are also plenty of excellent kid-focused shows that are just as fun for adults as the kiddos in the audience.
While there are dozens of shows we could mention as favorites from the last 20 years, we’ve tried to highlight those with staying power and the ability to surprise, move, and entertain us. Here they are, in no particular order.
1) The Simpsons
The Simpsons isn’t the first animated sitcom to chronicle the ups and downs of a dysfunctional family since its debut in 1989, but it has endured longer than nearly every show on TV. Following the hijinks of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and everyone in Springfield, it’s a familiar and often humorous presence—even if some fans claim that The Simpsons’ best years are far behind it. Still, it’s the golden standard of animated comedy (and one that can dominate ratings with a mega-marathon), it has “predicted” more of our present-day shenanigans than many of us find comfortable, and after nearly three decades it’s showing no signs of slowing down. —Michelle Jaworski
2) Bob’s Burgers
Patriarch Bob might be the namesake of Loren Bouchard’s 20th Century Fox project about the titular burger joint, but it’s his zany family who really shine here. Eldest daughter Tina has a love of butts, an imaginary horse, and a reasonably level head on her shoulders, but Gene provides excellent comedic relief (even when it’s not needed), and Louise takes the cake as the resident schemer to mom Linda’s dreamer. If (somehow) none of those characters are relatable to you, you can always get on board for the punny burger specials, occasional musical numbers, or confusing reality that all but one of the family members are voiced by men. —Monica Riese
3) King of the Hill
While The Simpsons can get pretty surreal at times, King of the Hill (a companion of The Simpsons from 1997 to 2010) is firmly grounded in reality. Taking place in a fictional Texas town, it embodied the quiet, mundane, and subtle day-to-day musings and problems of Hank, Peggy, and Bobby Hill. They’re confronted with a fair share of trouble, but at the end of the day you could always count on Hank and his pals to pop open a can of beer out of a cooler. —Michelle Jaworski
Futurama may have the same creator (Matt Groening) and substantially the same look as The Simpsons, but fans know there are significant differences. Debuting in 1999, Futurama follows the story of Phillip J. Fry, a bumbling New York pizza delivery guy who is accidentally cryogenically frozen for a thousand years. At first the show has a lot of fish-out-of-water gags about Fry discovering the 31st century, but after awhile it settles into a quirky workplace comedy with an endearing cast of characters. Futurama was always more of a cult hit than a show with mainstream appeal—and that was just fine for fans who loved it so dearly they bought it back from cancellation more than once. —Sarah Weber
5) Adventure Time
This Cartoon Network megahit follows the story of Jake the dog and Finn the human in the magical land of Ooo. While the characters and setting stay largely the same, creator Pendleton Ward exercises an extraordinary level of creative freedom when it comes to the story. There are times when the characters float from one odd job to the next, loosely on an adventure. Other times we follow deep, multi-episode arcs that tackle serious issues around family, love, friendship, religion, and death. That’s what makes the show such an incredible treat for both kids and adults: Adventure Time isn’t just a series of fun, animated non sequiturs. It’s a show with both a heart and a soul. —Sarah Weber
6) Steven Universe
Primarily aimed at younger audiences, Steven Universe has attracted fans of all ages as they follow Steven and the Crystal Gems (an alien-like race with magical powers) in their ongoing adventures and quests to protect Earth from other Gems. It’s easily digestible with episodes clocking in at around 11 minutes, but the show is full of depth, heart, instantly charming musical numbers, and packed to the brim with feelings. It’s one of the more progressive shows on TV, features mostly female-identifying characters, depictions of a loving relationship called a fusion between two female Gems, and it covers topics such as consent, love, and loss with care. —Michelle Jaworski
7) Gravity Falls
Gravity Falls is a classic summer story woven into a smart and addictive show tackling the paranormal, the supernatural, the pains of growing up, and the various conspiracies hidden within the confines of a small and weird Oregon town that takes its inspiration from Twin Peaks and The Simpsons. During its two-season run (airing over four years), it gained a cult following of fans who scoured nearly every frame of the show for clues that might help them figure out some of the show’s biggest mysteries—and of course solve the cyphers at the end of every episode. And while that eventually resulted in a global scavenger hunt, the characters and their love for each other were always the heart of the show. —Michelle Jaworski
8) Space Ghost Coast to Coast
Space Ghost Coast to Coast is what happens when you chop and screw 1960s animations into a new product three decades later. Long before The Colbert Report modernized mockery of the late-night talk show platform, Space Ghost Coast to Coast ruled the ’90s airwaves with surrealism and parody. Zorak, Moltar, and Brak made regular appearances with the host, and various celebrities streamed in on a TV to (ostensibly) talk to Space Ghost about their latest news, but the resulting interviews were sometimes changed after the answers had been recorded, leaving confusing, awkward, and infuriating exchanges in their wake. —Monica Riese
9) BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman is a satire of Hollywood and celebrity culture explored though a former TV star as he tries to become relevant again. About halfway through the first season, however, the show reveals an unexpected darkness, and critics have been onboard since. It’s decidedly more adult than many of the other shows on this list, and decidedly different. With a cynical yet heartfelt nature, it’s still completely changing the game on how to tell a story. —Michelle Jaworski
10) South Park
Crude, raunchy, and constantly pushing the boundaries of what can even be aired on television, South Park (now in its 20th season) has evolved from one-off episodes full of fart jokes and over-the-top laughs—for seasons, Kenny died nearly every episode—to a keen piece of political and social satire that sometimes still barely makes its scheduled time slot. It’s not afraid to piss off the world’s biggest celebrities or their religions, and no major event will go unturned without its proper South Park take. —Michelle Jaworski
Archer satirizes the spy genre (particularly James Bond) as it follows the employees of a secret spy agency (who later become a drug cartel and contractors for the CIA) as they’re tasked with apprehending and completing dangerous missions, often while trying to screw or piss off each other. With an all-star cast (including Bob’s Burgers’ H. Jon Benjamin as the titular character and Arrested Development’s Jessica Walters as essentially Lucille Bluth with a spy agency) the hijinks often reach ridiculous and hilarious levels. In this show, the slew of gags and jokes are just as appealing as the action itself. —Michelle Jaworski
12) Rick & Morty
What started as an animated spoof of Back to the Future has since become a much-beloved staple of the Adult Swim lineup. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon have lighted on a formula that blends the best of sci-fi with the deepest existential and moral crises imaginable. Drunk genius Rick Sanchez has enlisted his grandson, Morty Smith, to help/hinder him on his intergalactic misadventures, but they’ve still gotta get home for dinner with Morty’s abundantly Earthbound parents and his sister, Summer. They’re joined by a cast of memorable guest stars like Mr. Meeseeks, Mr. Poopybutthole, Squanchy, and Birdperson, and while the season-long arcs are fun to follow, each episode also stands alone as its own traumatic adventure. (For extra brain twisting, bear this in mind: Roiland does the voices of both of the eponymous characters.) —Monica Riese
Adults with their own surly teenagers at home might not appreciate this MTV classic quite as much, but the rest of us can enjoy a good chuckle as we reacquaint ourselves with our cynical high school counterpart Daria Morgendorffer and her best friend, Jane Lane. (Full disclosure: My AIM screen name was morgendorffer7 for longer than that reference made any sense, so I’m a bit biased here.) Daria was a recurring guest on Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head show, but she took center stage to skewer suburban culture, high school stereotypes, and nuclear family bonding in five seasons and two movies that ran from 1997 to 2002. —Monica Riese
14) Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Aqua Teen Hunger Force aired its last episode in August 2015 after 15 years and 11 seasons, but the show is still in regular rotation on Adult Swim and streaming on Hulu. What gives it staying power? This is going to sound strange given that the main characters are anthropomorphic fast food items, but the lovable and naive Meatwad, smart and cynical Frylock, and bombastic and scheming Master Shake are what glue the show together. Creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro have put these characters into every scenario imaginable (and unimaginable for that matter), keeping it fresh through years of television. — Sarah Weber
Part animated comedy, part variety show, Animaniacs, often balanced its young and older audiences with multi-layered humor that fans can appreciate even more as they age. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot lead the pack with their antics in (and out) of the Warner Bros. studio lot, but its ensemble, which introduced us to Pinky and the Brain and a slew of other strong supporting characters, could carry a show on their own. And chances are, some of us totally used one of Yakko or Wakko’s educational songs to get us through school. —Michelle Jaworski
16) Avatar: The Last Airbender; Legend of Korra
Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra—which ran on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008 and 2012-2014, respectively—are set in a world heavily influenced by Asian and Native American cultures where some people can bend certain elements and an Avatar can bend all four. The shows told nuanced, layered stories filled with flawed and compelling characters (many of them female), believable journeys, and redemption arcs. While whimsical in its portrayal of the known world, its characters grounded it in reality. ATLA told a year-long journey of the latest Avatar, Aang, as he learned all of the elements and tried to stop the Firelord from wiping out an entire culture. Legend of Korra spends less time on the Avatar journey, but it tackles more mature elements such as revolution, civil war, fascism, and PTSD. Korra is also prized for having one of the most progressive endings we’ve seen in animation in some time. —Michelle Jaworski
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