From Saturday morning classics to Japanese anime, cartoons have had a long and strange journey to what they are today. Originally airing on prime time TV, cartoons eventually moved to early Saturday mornings and in doing so, gained the reputation of being for children. Much like comic books, they went from being enjoyed by everyone, to being solely consumed by kids. For about thirty odd years, every animated show was made for and aimed at younger audiences. They were either educational, humorous and/or action packed. But then, little by little, shows started becoming more mature.
MTV had an entire block of edgy content, which inspired kid friendly alternatives. There was Batman: The Animated Series, which was lauded by critics and audiences alike and of course The Simpsons, which was the first to get the ball rolling. It was the dawning of a new age and for the first time, the public perception started to change. Soon, it was not only ok to admit you liked cartoons but it became socially acceptable. Fandoms of fancy pony shows could be formed by grown men and actual celebrities could come out as otaku.
Cartoons had become mainstream and not only that, they became amazing. Some of the best written shows within the last fifteen years have been cartoons. The evolution from crudely made shows of the past involving claymation or still images with human mouths super imposed on top of them to current shows that include everything from suicide to abortions, has been insane and I for one can’t wait to see where they go from here. This list honors cartoons humble origins as well as the shows that have and continue to move the medium into newer and better directions.
This is The 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.
50. Robot Chicken (2005 – )
Back when print media was still a thing, there was an entire magazine dedicated to nothing but toys. ToyFare was that magazine and they loved themselves some toys. They covered how much they’re worth and when the new ones were coming out. It was glorious and the crown jewel was definitely their “Twisted ToyFare Theater”, a five page comic in the middle of the magazine that was made using old 70’s superhero toys posed in hilarious situations. It was a real knee slapper.
It must have made quite the impression on Seth Green and Matthew Senreich because they decided to take that comic strip and turn it into what would eventually become Robot Chicken.
A rapid fire sketch show made up of stop motion animation, Robot Chicken is the television equivalent of ADHD somehow getting addicted to crack. Segments can last from five minutes to five seconds and can be about literally anything. I’m pretty sure the writers get high on old bottles of Surge and write down every idea they have and the show uses all of them. It’s most definitely hit or miss but the ratio skews in favor of hit more often than not.
49. Archer (2009 – )
Archer is a spy parody created by Adam Reed, the genius that brought you Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo and is about a drunken man child named Sterling Archer who is the biggest douche on the planet but who also happens to be the greatest spy alive. Is it some innate “spy sense” he’s developed over the many years on the field or is it just drunken luck? It’s probably definitely the latter considering Archer bungles as many missions as he successfully completes but god damn can the man pull off a turtleneck sweater.
It’s kind of two different shows in one. The first is the typical spy set up: Archer and his fellow agents work for a spy agency run by his overbearing mother named Mallory. Every episode followed the agent on a mission set up. They get some details on a thing and Mallory sends Archer and maybe some other agents to go do that thing. It was a solid set up.
But then everything changed after season 4. Without going into spoiler territory for those of you who haven’t watched it yet, the format is completely different. The seasons are all serialized now and they’re usually a theme– Miami Vice, film noir, detective agency, Etc. It’s a radical departure from the beginning of the show but one thing stayed constant: The humor. No matter the storylines, Archer is still side splittingly hilarious.
48. Thundercats (1985-1989)
There’s two kinds of people in this world, people that love He-Man and people that love Thundercats and the latter is the only correct option. This would be much higher if it wasn’t for whatever the fuck snarf is but even with that annoying, floating sack of shit, it’s still clearly the better show. Lion-O would kick the shit out of He-Man and Mumm-ra is way cooler than Skeletor. These are facts. What’s also a fact is that Cheetara was hot and this never felt like a glorified toy commercial, unlike some cartoons *cough* He-Man *cough* but it also never got as a cool a toy line as He-Man, so I guess they’re even.
47. The Smurfs (1981-1989)
Measuring three apples high and living in the mushroom infected forest of our childhoods, The Smurfs are one of those properties that feel like they’ve always been there. Whether it’s in comics or cartoons or terrible live action movies, The Smurfs are a constant anchor in all our lives. Admittedly, the constant use of the word ‘Smurf’ to describe everything is annoying and Donnie Darko kinda ruined Smurfette forever but you can’t deny you loved these little blue assholes when you where younger. They’re still a million times better than the Snorks, that’s for damn sure.
46. Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-1995)
How could a show about a wallaby, a gluttonous cow and a timid turtle be one of the most controversial kid’s shows of all time? Well, the fact that every episode has more double entendres, innuendo and visual jokes that were laden with adult humor than Beavis and Butt-head and Ren and Stimpy combined doesn’t hurt.
Rocko was one of those shows that felt like the creators were purposely hiding as many naughty things in every episode just to see what they could get away with. They named a chicken restaurant after a masturbation joke and Rocko even works as a phone sex operator one time. They sure don’t make cartoons like this anymore.
45. Gargoyles (1994-1996)
The Disney cartoon department was a money printing machine in the late 80’s-early 90’s. They were cranking out hit after hit but they were always based on a pre-existing property the company owned. They usually didn’t roll the dice on any new IP but thankfully someone decided to take a chance on Gargoyles.
Gargoyles was more akin to Batman: The Animated Series than to anything in the Disney stable at the time. It was far darker in tone and was one of the only cartoons at the time that was serialized. It told a continuous story that involved mature characters and a rich mythology. It was far ahead of it’s time and I wish Disney took more chances like this.
44. Æon Flux (1991-1995)
Starting as a series of shorts airing originally on Liquid Television, Æon Flux proved so popular with viewers that MTV decided to turn it into a series. And what a weird fucking series it was. MTV was years before and leagues ahead of the edgy programming Adult Swim would be known for. I already talked about some of the diverse content when I covered The Maxx but it bares repeating, old MTV was at the forefront of the avant garde and Æon Flux was the most interesting of the bunch.
Set in a dystopian world where the line between science fiction and fantasy are blurred, The title character is a assassin/mercenary that continuously butts heads with her lover/enemy Trevor Goodchild. If you’re looking for a coherent story or even satisfactory answers to the many questions the show presents the viewer, you will no doubt be let down but if you give yourself over to the unique world Peter Chung has created, you’ll find a cartoon like none other.
43. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)
Speaking of a glorified toy commercial, this cartoon was specifically made to sell toys. They actually came up with the toys before the show but no one thought they would sell without name recognition, so they greenlit a show. But again, the toy line was so badass, that’s not really a complaint against the show.
Based on an extremely graphic underground comic, the cartoon is a complete 180′ from its source material. Instead of brutal gang violence and explicit sex scenes, the show was all about catch phrases like “Cowabunga” and “Shell Shocked” and eating pizza. The only controversial thing about the show was the title. Apparently, ninjas are so controversial in Britain, that they ordered the show to be renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and I hate it. It doesn’t roll off the tongue properly. Ninjas don’t even exist anymore. Get it together Britain.
42. The Critic (1994-2001)
Everyone points to the decline of The Simpsons happening right around when Al Jean and Mike Reiss leave. They were the show-runners on the 3rd and 4th seasons and then they left to create The Critic. Was it worth it? Did they gamble pay off? It did if you love The Critic and if you don’t love The Critic, you can get right the fuck out.
Lasting two seasons, the show dealt with professional film critic Jay Sherman (magnificently voiced by Jon Lovitz) as he reviews terrible film parodies while dealing with family drama. Some notable examples include: Scent of a Jackass, Apocalypse Now! The Musical, Honey I Ate the Kids, and Abe Lincoln: Pet Detective. Imagine an animated TV show made by Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and you’d be wildly off. But it’s in the same ball park.
41. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2012)
The best anime, or at least the ones that appeal to me, are the ones that have substance, that deal with things beyond robots punching other robots or sexy teenagers with huge Astro Boy eyes. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood starts off with two brothers trying to resurrect their dead mother and immediately things go catastrophically bad for them. One loses an arm and the other dies but the elder brother manages to contain his younger brothers soul in a suit of armor.
Not exactly light stuff. The rest of the series follows the two brothers on their quest to retrieve the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. Most anime last forever, like animated soap operas but there’s some that get in and out and tell an incredibly engaging story without the fluff. Fullmetal Alchemist is one of them.
What are some of your favorite cartoons? Maybe they will show up later in the list!