Top 10 Animated TV Series

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TOP 10 ANIMATED TV SERIES

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Animation or cartoons are essentially my comics of television – I have a love of animation and will have a look at anything in it, although whether I continue to watch or actively follow an animated TV series is another matter. However, I would argue that most animated series, particularly since the age of animation for adult audiences in the 1990’s, show more creativity and imagination (as well as better writing) than many, if not most of their live action counterparts. Animation also tends to be a natural extension of my love of fantasy and science fiction – even those series that are predominantly animated sitcoms tend to have recurring or routine fantasy or science fiction elements.

 

Anyway, these are my top 10 animated TV series. Readers may notice what appear to be a few conspicuous omissions from my top 10 – series that easily ranked in my top 10 for their literal first decade or so, but now rank in my special mentions instead as my top ten is weighted towards my current ongoing favorites (or fresher and newer series).

 

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(10) SAMURAI JACK (2001-2004 / 2017)

 

“Long ago, in a distant land, I, Aku, the shapeshifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now, the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku…”

 

Series antagonist Aku (voiced by Japanese-American actor Mako Iwomatsu, hamming it up a treat) sums up the plot in the title sequence. The “distant land” was Japan and “long ago” was vaguely in the Imperial period – the titular samurai (whose real name remains unknown) is a young prince who escapes as Aku lays waste to his home. He spends his youth training rigorously – and somewhat anachronistically from different cultures – around the world before returning to his homeland as a samurai to defeat Aku, armed with the only weapon that can hurt the demon, the magic sword passed down by his father. But as the title sequence states, Aku magically opens a portal in time to the far future, where the samurai finds himself in an incredibly eclectic, dystopian retrofuturistic Earth which has been conquered by Aku and opened up to the wider galaxy – hence the alien criminals and wildlife that has overrun much of Earth.

 

Samurai Jack was originally broadcast on Cartoon Network for a younger audience but at the same time had more mature features, not least the atmospheric and stylistic features suited to a samurai (or Western) film – intense action sequences (in which robotic oil typically substituted for blood), minimal dialogue (with stories relying on visual or cinematic elements and pacing), tone ranging from “dark and epic to light-hearted and comical”, mature themes, and shifts of art style. Indeed, much of the series would adapt well to a live-action series for adults.

 

The series ran for four seasons from 2001 to 2004, but ended inconclusively with Jack still wandering Aku’s future world. It has been revived for a fifth season in 2017 (on [adult swim], reflecting its more mature – and darker – features), intended to serve “as the grand finale for Jack’s tale, while also deconstructing some of the darker and edgier aspects of Jack’s never-ending journey”.

 

As the catchy theme tune says – “Gotta get back, back to the past, Sam-u-rai Jack”.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(9) BOB’S BURGERS (2011 – PRESENT)

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My ninth place entry is animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers, an American animated sitcom in a long line of American animated sitcoms (although I would argue that animated sitcoms are typically superior to their live-action counterparts).

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In this case, the humor is character-driven, with the focus on the Belcher family and their titular (floundering) burger restaurant. The father of the family, Bob (manfully voiced by H. Jon Benjamin – a voice I’d love to have) is the proverbial straight man of the family, although even he can get a little screwy – and it’s particularly funny when he DOES lose it (often prompted by his neighboring rival pizzeria owner Jimmy Pesto). As for the rest of the family, arguably in ascending order of hilarity – there’s wife Linda (also manfully voiced – by John Roberts), awkward boy-obsessed teen daughter Tina (manfully voiced as well by Dan Mintz), oddball son Gene and my absolute favorite character (distinctively and manically voiced by Kristen Schaal), perpetually bunny-eared “precocious menace” Louise.

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That’s not to overlook the comedy of the minor characters, with my favorite being the family’s eccentric (and somewhat exploitative) landlord Calvin Fishoeder (pronounced as “fish-odor”), voiced by Kevin Kline.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(8) ROBOT CHICKEN (2005 – PRESENT)

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My eighth place entry is Robot Chicken – a stop-motion animation sketch comedy series.

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Apart from that brief tagline, it’s hard to categorize, as it mocks the gamut of popular culture (notably in special such as its Star Wars or DC Comics specials) – “referencing toys, movies, television, games, popular fads, and more obscure references like anime cartoons and older television programs”.

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To do that, it typically used toys or action figures for the animation, although it will basically animate ANYTHING, “such as tongue depressors, The Game of Life pegs, and popsicle sticks”.

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Even gummy bears – which, in the characteristic humor of the series, get caught in a gummy bear trap and have to chew their leg off to escape. (“Mmm, I taste delicious!”)

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Speaking of characteristic humor, the typical premise of a sketch is placing fantasy characters from popular culture in more mundane situations, or mashing together one popular culture reference with another, often based on a similarity of name or theme – “a collision of two pop-cultural items (one innocent, and the other “mature”) degenerating into chaos”.

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Or a mixture of both, such as Real World: Metropolis, with Superman being a jock jerk to Aquaman in a reality TV show (and avoiding his fair share of chores).

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Some sketches are incredibly brief, a second or so of visual gag, while others become recurring or running gags.

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Or again a mixture of both, such as the humping robot – initially a short sound AND visual gag based on a washing machine in cycle resembling a robot humping it (which of course involved a literal “humping robot”), variations of it have become a running gag over the length of the series (with my favorite being the advertisement for the movie version, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the robot and Kate Winslet as the washing machine)

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As a characteristic sketch show, the sketches don’t always work, at least for me – usually as a result of being too crude or weird – but when they do work, they work well, “the comedy in these shorts tends to vary wildly between Black Comedy, pop-culture parody and satire, out-and-out surrealism, or some combination of the three”.

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Oh – and there is an actual robot chicken, primarily in the opening credits. (It’s been proposed that the series is actually from the perspective of the chicken, being forced to watch a bank of televisions by a mad scientist – and mashing them together in its cyborg chicken brain).

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (2005-2008)

 

This series is variously titled – The Legend of Aang and Avatar: The Last Airbender – to avoid confusion with other Avatars (notably the James Cameron film) so I’ll just label it The Last Airbender (although that unfortunately coincides with the title of the even more unfortunate M. Night Shmyalan live-action film adaptation).

 

Simply put, The Last Airbender is an American animated series in an anime style set in a pseudo-Asiatic fantasy world in which some people are able to ‘bend’ the four classical elements (air, earth, water and fire) by psychokinesis in the style of martial arts. The world is divided into corresponding realms based on their elements – the Air nomads (in the style of Shaolin and Tibetan Buddhist monastic orders), the Water Tribes (in the style of Inuit tribes), the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom (each in the style of Asiatic kingdoms, notably Imperial China for the former and Imperial Japan for the latter).

 

Unfortunately, the balance between the realms has been upset by a century-long campaign of conquest by the steampunk Fire Nation – and more so since that coincided with the disappearance of the Avatar, one person reincarnated through each realm in turn and capable of mastering all four elements, the guardian of the balance between all four realms (as well as between the physical and spiritual worlds).

 

The series centers around Aang, the current young incarnation of the Avatar and titular last airbender – and his quest, after he is literally pulled out of an iceberg (in which he has been frozen for the duration of the war with the Fire Nation) by Water Tribe members Katara and Sokka, to defeat the Fire Lord and restore balance.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) REGULAR SHOW (2010 – PRESENT)

 

It’s hard to describe Regular Show – anything but regular as a juxtaposition of absurdist fantasy with slice of life humor, or as TV Tropes quips, its Seinfeld-esque spin on absurdist humor, with the latter on acid.

 

The protagonists, Mordecai and Rigby, are regular enough, as So-Cal accented slackers employed, in the loosest sense of that word, in a city park, spending their time avoiding work and entertaining themselves – except that Mordecai is a human-sized blue jay and Rigby is a raccoon. And they’re arguably the most normal of the park staff – their managers Benson and Pops are perhaps the weirdest as an animate gumball machine (with anger management issues) and child-like lollipop person respectively; but the staff are rounded out by immortal yeti Skips (gravelly voiced by Mark Hamill), green-skinned humanoid Muscle Man (seemingly ironically nicknamed due to his flabby appearance) and Hi-Five Ghost (as a Pacman-style ghost with a hand from the top of his head – for high fives of course).

 

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The park and its staff seemingly exist in a world that is mostly the same as our own world and its human population, interspersed with other similarly anthropomorphized characters, ranging from the relatively normal human-sized animal characters to more surreal characters – animate or anthropomorphized objects as people, cosmic beings and so on. Ironically, the non-human protagonists (and park staff) typically act (and talk) in their everyday jobs and lives in non-fantastic mundane or even low-key ways, just like humans in our world – yet “their attempts to slack off usually lead to surreal, extreme and often supernatural misadventures”, “while nearly causing the end of the world on a daily basis from various forms of impossible or strange evil” (or outright eldritch abomination). Or just inviting Party Pete to your house for the ultimate party. Yep, nothing to see here – just your regular show.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) ADVENTURE TIME (2010 – PRESENT)

 

“Because it’s really frickin’ weird, that’s why” – TV Tropes explaining the appeal of Adventure Time

 

More from TV Tropes – Adventure Time is a fantasy animated series like no other, “sort of a cross between a children’s show and a parody of a children’s show”. The series features the adventures of Jake the Dog (a magical shapeshifting size-shifting talking dog) and Finn the Human (one of the few surviving humans) – “their adventures are nonsensical, crazy and bear more resemblance to a group of kids playing with action figures than a coherent story…which is probably why it’s so dang fun”.

 

Set in the fantasyland of Ooo and beyond, it careens between fantasy and science fiction as Jake and Finn encounter beings and people wilder than in any conventional fantasy – the Candy Kingdom ruled by Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen and so on. Indeed, it resembles a game of Dungeons and Dragons on acid – the game itself was a major inspiration for the series and it’s always fun to spot the references to the game through the series (such as when Finn protests he can’t do something because “it’s against my alignment!”).

 

Of course, the series is primarily for children, although that hasn’t stopped it appealing to an older audience, helped by the more mature themes or tropes hidden in the series. It also helps that it is surprisingly dark for a children’s series. I mean, it gets darker (the Lich is terrifying) but it starts with a dark undercurrent – Ooo is literally a post-apocalyptic Earth after a nuclear war (the Great Mushroom War). Indeed, it’s there in the very first scene in the title sequence, as it pans over the post-apocalyptic debris (including a nuclear bomb).

 

Not to mention the chaotic evil hell of the Nightosphere straight from a Brueghel painting – and it’s demon overlord Hunson Abadeer, even when he’s being an affably evil host to Finn and Jake at the behest of his daughter Marceline (“see how I’m not killing them?”). Or to anyone really – “Well, I’m sure not the guy who’s going to suck out your soul”.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(4) THE VENTURE BROTHERS (2003 – PRESENT)

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“Go team Venture!”

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My third place entry is The Venture Brothers, an animated series that has been ongoing, with some breaks between seasons, since its first season in 2003.

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In short, it’s blackly comic parody and satire, initially of its primary reference, “the 1964 science fiction adventure television series Johnny Quest”, but ultimately of virtually every comics or superhero reference as well as other classic television series.

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Its focus is the Venture family – “well-meaning but incompetent teenagers Hank and Dean Venture” (the eponymous Venture brothers, although the title could also refer to their father and his brother), “their emotionally insecure, unethical and under-achieving super-scientist father Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture” (living in the shadow of HIS father, super-scientist Jonas Venture), their bodyguard “the ultra-violent and psychopathic secret agent Brock Samson” (labelled by one of their adversaries as the “Swedish murder machine”, manfully voiced by Patrick Warburton, and who refuses to use a gun, because he prefers killing with his bare hands, knife or virtually anything else) and their “self-proclaimed arch-nemesis, The Monarch, a butterfly-themed super villain”.

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That’s just for starters – there’s a plethora of other characters, typically invoking one comics and superhero reference or another, with my favorite being overly dramatic Doctor Orpheus, a parody of Marvel Comic’s Doctor Strange (who typically announces some danger to YOUR VERY SOUL once an episode or so).

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The creators of the series have stated that the primary theme of the series is failure – “beautiful, sublime failure” – which is not hard to find, given the incompetence of most of the characters as heroes or villains.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(3) BOJACK HORSEMAN (2014 – PRESENT)

 

Starring the titular, ah, horse-man (literally an anthropomorphized horse) as the ex-star of 90’s sitcom Horsing Around, Bojack Horseman is an animated black comedy series on Netflix. I say horse-man because the series is set in an alternative world in which humans co-exist with petting zoo people (humanoid animals). Bojack is now a washed-up actor (having only really achieved stardom – or anything really – in that one sitcom) in his mansion in Hollywoo (Bojack stole the D from the Hollywood sign so everyone simply renamed rather than replace the D) – “drowning his empty former D-List celebrity life and other problems in a cocktail of drugs and booze”.

 

It very much is adult animation, deftly mixing comedy with more dramatic themes – an “auteur sitcom, where an situation comedy format is used to tell more dramatic, existentialist stories while still being ostensibly a comedy”.

 

It received mixed reviews on its debut, but won critics over as the first season continued (catching up to its audience – such as myself, as I loved it from the first episode), culminating in it being acclaimed (in its third season) “as one of the funniest and most heartbreaking shows on television”.

 

And it’s not just Bojack Horseman (although now I can’t imagine voice actor Will Arnett as anything else) – it’s the plethora of major and minor character, with their various mixed animal and human traits. It’s a close call with Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s literally catty agent (and on-and-off girlfriend), but my favorite major character (other than Bojack of course) would have to be Todd (voiced by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), Bojack’s perpetual slacker houseguest and seemingly perpetually happy (“Hooray!”). As for minor characters, it’s hard go past the conspicuously named Vincent Adultman, as everyone but Bojack appears maddeningly oblivious to the fact that ‘he’ is actually three children standing atop one another in a trench coat (or as Bojack observes, doing the bit from The Little Rascals).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) RICK & MORTY  (2013 – PRESENT)

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“SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO ME!! It’s fine! Everything is fine! There’s an infinite number of realities, Morty! And a few dozen of those, I got lucky and turned everything back to normal! I just had to find one of those realities in which we also happen to both die around this time. Now we can just slip into the place of our dead selves in this reality, and everything’ll be fine. We’re not skipping a beat, Morty. Now help me with these bodies”.

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As its second place entry indicates, Rick & Morty is the best animated series bar one, ever since its premiere in 2013 – “If you haven’t watched Rick and Morty, a cartoon about the adventures of a mad scientist and his hapless grandson, teleport to the nearest screen and shove every episode into your eyes as soon as possible.”

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Rick and Morty was inspired by Back to the Future, if Doc Brown was a caustic alcoholic sociopath and Marty his ever more progressively traumatized grandson – and instead of travelling through time, they hop dimensions throughout the multiverse. It plays with, parodies, satirizes, subverts and deconstructs tropes across the range of popular science fiction and fantasy.

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The focus is of course on the titular characters (both of whom are voice by co-creator Justin Roiland) and their bizarre misadventures – as mad scientist (and maternal grandfather) Rick Sanchez constantly pulls Morty Smith, a hapless high school student (whom Roiland voices with the perfect distressed wail), and increasingly, Morty’s older sister Summer, out of their normal lives to go on abstract trips across the multiverse for purposes that are never usually expressed. However, the rest of the Smith family is also comedy gold – particularly Morty’s harried and insecure father Jerry (perfectly voiced by Chris Parnell), who is also increasingly (and often unwillingly) dragged into the duo’s adventures. As such, the general formula consists of the juxtaposition of two conflicting scenarios – the intergalactic or interdimensional adventures of the eponymous duo, intercut with family duo. (Co-creator Mark Harmon has referred to it as a cross between The Simpsons and Futurama, balancing family life with heavy science fiction). At the center of it all is Rick, who drinks and behaves like a jerk most of the time – although he has saved the Earth at least once by getting schwifty.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) ARCHER (2009 – PRESENT)

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“Every single noun and verb in that sentence totally arouses me!”

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Indeed, as does every episode of my favorite animated TV series Archer, still running strong from its debut in 2010. Although perhaps a more descriptive tagline might be that used by TV Tropes from this exchange between the titular character, Sterling Mallory Archer (codenamed Duchess) and his mother:

“Most secret agents don’t tell every harlot from here to Hanoi that they are a secret agent!”

“Then why be one?”

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Aptly described as James Bond meets Arrested Development, the series is about the title protagonist, a dysfunctional spy, working for a dysfunctional spy agency headed by his mother, in which virtually everyone and everything is dysfunctional. Even the time setting of the series is dysfunctional – it is “comically anachronistic, deliberately mixing technology, clothing styles and historical backdrops of different decades”, not to mention the Soviet Union. (“How are you a superpower?”):

“What year is this?”

“I know, right!”

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Archer has a reputation, certainly in his own mind, as the world’s most dangerous spy – and he might well be, but for his gross negligence, general incompetence fueled by one of his many vices and his tendency to remain oblivious to everything but himself. “His primary interest in the job is the opportunity to enjoy a jet-setting lifestyle full of sex, alcohol, thrills, lacrosse, fast cars, designer clothing, and spy gadgets” – hence, my desire to style myself after him.

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After all, who hasn't been on a cobra whiskey bender in Thailand?

After all, who hasn’t been on a cobra whiskey bender in Thailand?

 

However, he is proficient in field work or stereotypical spy skills – weapons (including an uncanny ability to keep track of every shot fired), combat and driving – although in large part this is driven by the complete lack of any sense of his own mortality or ability to take situations seriously (accompanied by a childlike or adolescent delight in them).

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Archer is one of the few (or perhaps only) animated series I recommend to people who are not otherwise a fan of animated series, because in style (including its realistic art style) resembles a live action series – indeed, with a few cosmetic changes, it could be a live-action series. (Well, if only H. Jon Benjamin resembled the appearance of Archer as well as providing his voice – man, I love his voice!). It certainly is a series that improves with watching it (in sequence) over time – as TV Tropes notes, the series’ humor “relies heavily on call backs and running gags alongside a large ensemble cast”, many of whom are recurring and as much a source of character humor as Archer himself.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****