Everyone knows the 2010s were a second “golden age” of television (cuz that’s how it works, apparently). But what some may not realize is that this new standard of quality has also carried over into animation.
Funnily enough, I haven’t seen nearly as many recent animated series as I have live-action. Odd for someone who considers himself a TV connoisseur.
Regardless, I love cartoons. Always have, always will. Just because a show is aimed at kids doesn’t mean it can’t be high-quality or thought-provoking. I’ve always loved quality cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series, Animaniacs, Freakazoid!, and The Spectacular Spider-Man, among countless others. And though I haven’t seen many adult-oriented cartoons, I’d still argue that this past decade also raised the bar for what we thought was possible in adult animation.
So with that in mind, I’m going to count down my ten favorite animated shows of the 2010s. If your favorite show isn’t on this list, I probably just haven’t seen it. (I’ve heard Steven Universe, We Bare Bears, and Adventure Time are all great, but I haven’t seen a single episode of those.)
Before the list, though, here are some other shows that deserve a shoutout.
Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2011) – Like another anime series you’ll see on this list, this is a heartfelt series about high school friendships, except this has a far more tragic framing device that cranks the emotion (and the melodrama, which keeps it off the list) up to eleven.
Attack on Titan (2013 – present) – I’m not usually into action anime. I find the vast majority of shows to be all flash, no substance (One-Punch Man and The Promised Neverland to name two recent ones). But I found myself oddly drawn to this series and its premise. Between the balls-to-the-wall action, there’s actually some really solid character development, especially in the stellar third season. If you can get through the horrendously boring second season, the show is one of the stronger anime series out there right now. I can’t wait to see how it all wraps up.
Erased (2016) – A really interesting premise: A boy discovers that he can jump back in time right before the infamous murder of a child. He now has to figure out how to stop it. While that premise sounds tense, there are a lot of emotional elements of the show, giving it almost a quasi-slice-of-life feel to it. A very unique show.
The Looney Tunes Show (2011 – 2014) – Yes, there’s almost none of the slapstick humor that Looney Tunes is known for. Yes, everyone is domesticated. (Like, really domesticated. As in, they’re all roommates in the suburbs.) But I can’t deny the brilliance of the writing. This show is HILARIOUS, and plays off the characters we all know and love. HBO Max just picked up the streaming rights, so give this one a try if you can. I know it’s hard to see these characters in a classic sitcom setup, but go into it with an open mind. You just might be surprised.
Milo Murphy’s Law (2016 – present?) – The team from Phineas and Ferb bring their patented witty, surreal, non-sequitur comedy to this series about one of the namesake descendants of Murphy’s Law. Though you know everything’s gonna go wrong in each episode, you keep tuning back in to see how they up the ante. Oh, and there are also time cops. PLEASE renew this, Disney. Make a decision based on quality for once.
Over the Garden Wall (2014) – Full disclosure: I actually wasn’t a huge fan of this show. The writing just wasn’t my taste, and I felt like the character development was lacking. However, I wanted to give this miniseries a special shoutout strictly for its aesthetic. I can’t really explain it in words, so here’s the first episode. The show’s unique storybook/steampunk/Roaring ‘20s/traveling roadshow look is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Though the humor was a little too surreal for my taste, I found myself watching through to the end just to see more of its unique style. It’s worth a watch, and the whole miniseries can be binged as a two-hour movie.
Sym-Bionic Titan (2010 – 2011) – All you need to say is “Created by Genndy Tartakovsky” and I’m sold. Cartoon Network did poor Genndy wrong with this completely mishandled gem. The story of a princess, a robot, and a young soldier sent to Earth to escape invasion, this series boasts some truly great character development to compliment the stunning visuals and great action. A wonderful follow up to Samurai Jack that was cut far too short only ‘cause Cartoon Network didn’t know how to sell toys based on the show. You suck, CN. (PLEASE give this show some love on Netflix!)
Terror in Resonance (2014) – I’m slowly making my way through Shinichiro Watanabe’s masterful filmography. This short but tense thriller, following two domestic terrorists and the detective chasing them, shows that Watanabe is one of the best storytellers in Japan right now. (More on him later.)
10. Hilda (2018 – present)
Developed by Luke Pearson
Showrunner: Luke Pearson
Charming. Delightful. Adorable.
This adaptation of the popular graphic novel is like a warm blanket. Not everything needs to be wacky, zany, borderline-drug-induced humor, or super dark, serious action with grave stakes. Sometimes a charming, quiet, light-hearted series is just what the doctor ordered. And Hilda is the perfect prescription.
Set in a world where magical creatures and humans are segregated, this British series follows Hidla, a girl who’s lived her whole life in the rural plains surrounded by magical woodland creatures. When her mother abruptly moves her to the city of Trollberg, Hilda pines for the days of adventure with her magical friends.
This series is an interesting blend of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and DuckTales. It has some adventure, but it also stops to breathe, bask in the surroundings, and enjoy the moment. But more than anything, it takes wonder in the world. Hilda loves to just sit in the woods and draw. She loves trees, mountains, clouds, sky. She just loves nature. This isn’t a heavy-handed after school special about the environment, though. This is a genuine love of God’s creation. It’s fascinating to me to see a mainstream series take joy in His creativity. I wish more Christian media did the same.
All in all, this is a delightful series that’s perfect for kids, but can also be enjoyed by adults who are in the mood for something warm and light that puts a smile on your face and brightens your day. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I can’t wait for season two!
9. Usagi Drop (2011)
Showrunner: Kanta Kamei
Network: Fuji TV (Japan)
I love slice of life anime. Heck, I love slice of life television in general. But I feel like this genre works especially well in anime, particularly in television. I think it’s ingrained in the Japanese people and culture to stop and admire the quiet beauty of life. Many of slice of life anime shows are simple, yet thought-provoking. And Usagi Drop is one of the best.
A simple, but heartwarming story, a thirtysomething single man more or less adopts a young girl that turns out to be his recently-deceased grandfather’s lovechild. He, of course, has no clue how to parent, and must learn how on the job. Hilarity and abundant cuteness ensues.
The writing in this show is excellent. Where most shows would lean too much into cuteness and manipulate you into saying “AWWWWWWW” every second, much of the show’s situations feel motivated. The series deals heavily with anxiety, but in a more subtle way than most American shows do. Both Daikichi and Rin are learning from each other in their own ways. They’re both learning each other’s ticks and how to relate to them, which feels very natural. The whole series has an air of authenticity and earnestness that most series don’t, making the payoff at the end feel earned instead of forced.
I also want to highlight the animation, particularly the cold opens. The series is unique in that the animation varies slightly with each cold open. The CO’s showcase a more storybook style of animation, with colors that look more like watercolor, and unfinished backgrounds with white vignettes around the frame. It almost looks like a dream. The rest of each episode features more standard animation, but it looks almost as beautiful as the cold open. Production I.G. did a really great job with this one.
For all the feel-good anime I’ve seen, this is near the top of the list. You can’t watch a single episode without feeling warm inside and smiling from ear to ear. It’s just a friggin’ wholesome show and a wonderful palette cleanser for all the crap life throws at you.
8. Violet Evergarden (2018)
Showrunner: Taichi Ishidate
Network: Netflix (US)
Despite how it may sound after the previous entry, I have a love/hate relationship with anime.
Many of the most popular series right now are action-based. While these series often boast stunning visuals, the vast majority of them are light on story or character development. In fact, melodramatic and expository writing is often my biggest frustration with anime, particularly when it comes to television. Even good shows aren’t immune. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is painfully slow at times. Death Note frustrated me beyond belief with its endless expository inner monologues. And Your Lie in April (not an action show) felt like a spinoff of Degrassi at times. Ok, not quite. But still… It leaned heavily into high school melodrama.
This is what makes Violet Evergarden so incredibly refreshing. The series is not just well-written, it’s a beautiful and oftentimes deep character study. And not just when it comes to Violet herself. Some of the most compelling and sympathetic characters are one-off minor characters that only appear in a single episode.
The trend with anime is big, flashy serials that try to one-up the competition when it comes to visuals. Violet Evergarden takes the opposite approach. It’s a quiet, episodic period piece that takes its time in all the best ways. It’s brilliantly paced, and spends its slower, methodical moments developing the minor characters in a way that not only lets us – the audience – relate to them and their situations, but services Violet’s story.
On top of great writing, the animation is beautiful. I often found myself actively putting my phone away when I would put on an episode because it’s such a treat to look at.
But by far my favorite non-writing aspect of the series is its score.
HOLY COW, the score is incredible. Far and away the best television soundtrack I’ve ever heard. This series forgoes modern-sounding score featuring guitars, drums, and synth for a full orchestra. It harkens back to sweeping scores of cinema ole. It’s absolutely worth a listen. While not available on Spotify, it can be purchased on iTunes (highly recommended) or streamed here.
My one complaint about the score is that composer Evan Call (fun fact: he’s American) composed it before animation began – apparently a common practice in Japan – so the music doesn’t always mesh with the pacing and visuals. But that’s a very minor complaint.
All in all, this is one of my favorite anime series I’ve seen in a while. It’s available on Netflix and it’s a light commitment. It’s absolutely worth checking out.
7. Kids on the Slope (2013)
Showrunner: Shinichiro Watanabe
Network: Fuji TV (Japan)
Shinichiro Watanabe is the television Hayao Miyazaki.
As established, so many anime series are melodramatic, meandering, and/or action porn. If you look below the surface, a surprisingly small amount of shows have truly compelling stories with strong character development. And even the ones that do can be needlessly meandering.
That’s why I so appreciate Shinichiro Watanabe. He knows how to tell a good, concise story. He doesn’t spend five straight episodes on the same fight or conversation. His shows move and breathe. Too many anime series seem to do one or the other. And that brings me to this excellent series.
Kids on the Slope is a charming story about friendship and how music brings people together. Set in 1960s Japan, the series follows Kaoru, an exchange student in a new town. A loner, he’s resigned himself to the fact that he won’t have any friends at his new school. He keeps his head down and focuses on his studies instead of socializing. That is, until he discovers that the school bully, Sentaro, is a drummer. Himself a pianist, Kaoru finally sees someone he has common interests with, really for the first time in his life.
As the series progresses, he and Sentaro strike up a friendship, and Sentaro teaches him about jazz. Ristuko, the clerk at the local record store they practice at (and the object of Kaoru’s affection), helps him find good jazz records to listen to so he can not only hone his piano skills, but can also have an ear for jazz. They add a couple members to their friend group along the way, and the series becomes all about the lives, loves, and music of their high school friendship. (And on a personal note, it was really refreshing to see a respectful portrayal of Christianity in anime – perhaps the only one I’ve ever seen on a series not made by CBN.)
Watanabe somehow takes teen melodrama and makes it earnest, genuine, realistic, and even beautiful – no small feat in an art form renowned for its hyper melodrama. This is maybe the quietest anime series I’ve ever seen. Watanabe keeps the exaggerated humor common in the art form to a minimum. This is a realistic coming-of-age drama; there’s no need for any gimmicks. It’s a series that has no reason to be animated, but I’m so glad it was, and that Shinichiro Watanabe’s creative genius was able to be put on full display. This is such a refreshing series in general, but especially in a medium that is very loud. It’s so nice to see a quiet series that takes a moment to observe the beauty in everyday life. I can’t recommend this show enough.
6. Rick and Morty (2013 – present)
Created by Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon
Showrunners: Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon
Network: Adult Swim
It was an interesting decade for television comedy.
Where in decades past, sitcoms served as a reprieve from the struggles and worries of everyday life, comedies of the 2010s shed the “sit” of sitcom and instead leaned into those struggles and anxieties, creating richly flawed characters that drove the comedy, as opposed to wacky, zany situations.
One of the most prominent examples is Rick and Morty.
On the surface, it looks like a classic situationally-driven premise: A riff of Back to the Future where mad scientist Rick takes his awkward grandson Morty on crazy adventures all throughout the galaxy.
But the show is so, so, so much more than crazy space travels, weird alien planets, and fart jokes.
This animated series is one of the most character-driven shows I’ve seen in quite some time. Beneath all the silly humor and antics is a whole airplane’s worth of baggage. You quickly realize that there’s deep, deep motivation for every wacky decision Rick makes. He’s a deeply broken person, trying to find meaning in what he believes is a meaningless world. And he uses alcohol and adrenaline to self-medicate his extreme nihilism.
But Rick is far from the only deeply broken character. Literally EVERY SINGLE lead character is broken. Beth has some insane daddy issues (fitting, as Rick is her father), Jerry is deeply insecure – something he passed on to Morty – and Summer struggles with trust issues and cynicism. Each is desperately trying to hold their lives together, and they’re a gust of wind away from watching it all crumble.
And wrapped around all this is some of the most hilarious comedy you’ll ever see. Simply brilliant.
Dan Harmon is known for being an excellent writer, and he perfectly translates his patented balance of three-dimensional characters and ridiculous comedic situations to animation. Throw in Justin Roiland’s one-upmanship and brilliant voice work, and you have one of the best shows to ever come out of Adult Swim.
And you don’t even need acid to understand it!
5. TRON: Uprising (2012 – 2013)
Devloped by Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz
Showrunner: Charlie Bean
Network: Disney XD
Many will disagree, but I absolutely LOVED the world building in TRON: Legacy. So when I heard Disney commissioned a prequel series set between the two films, I was sold. Though, being Disney, I had my misgivings. Thankfully, Disney took a very un-Disney, hands-off approach to the series. And, as we’ll see in the next couple entries, when Disney does that, something magical always happens.
Set between the two TRON films, the series tells the story of Beck, a young program whose section of the Grid is overtaken and occupied by CLU’s soldiers. In an effort to fight back, Beck disguises himself as the legendary – and presumed derezzed – security program TRON, and becomes a folk hero among the people. After an eventual encounter with the real TRON, who confides in Beck that he’s significantly damaged, Beck decides to take up the mantle of TRON in an effort to restore freedom to the Grid.
Obviously, the series draws heavily on the themes of TRON: Legacy. It continues – or, technically, establishes – the story of CLU’s tyrannical rule, and the programs’ fight for freedom. While the premise isn’t the strongest, the writers do an excellent job running with it and creating a compelling world and compelling conflict with compelling characters. The villains aren’t just power-hungry maniacs. Well… some of them are. But some of them are well-rounded characters – with many of their backstories slowly being revealed as the series progresses. The writers made the excellent decision of showing us WHY some of the villains chose to devote themselves to CLU, as opposed to just portraying them as evil for the sake of being evil.
Another strong element is the music. Though the score obviously isn’t composed by Daft Punk, composer Joseph Trapanese – who arranged Daft Punk’s original film score – takes many of the same cues and rearranges them, along with some originals, to make an excellent Legacy soundalike. “Borrowing” from a previous entry in a franchise is always a risky move. But when you’re trying to imitate one of the best scores in recent memory, even your imitation will sound great. And that’s exactly what happens here. The score not only perfectly captures the tone of the series, it, much like the film it draws from, is inherently glued to the world it portrays. This music IS the Grid. It wouldn’t work in any other series, and the series wouldn’t work with any other score.
Other than the writing, the strongest aspect of the series is its cast. But unlike other series that boast a strong cast of well-established voice actors, this show is unique in that it features an incredible cast of well-known screen actors. Elijah Wood voices Beck, Mandy Moore plays his co-worker and crush, and Entourage actress Emmanuelle Chriqui voices Beck’s main antagonist. And though he’s not necessarily well known, as a lifelong Family Matters fan, I always got a kick out of hearing Reginald VelJohnson’s play Beck’s boss. But if that wasn’t enough, among the recurring actors are Donald Faison, Paul Scheer, John Glover, Kate Mara, Aaron Paul, Lance Reddick, and Olivia Wilde, reprising her character from Legacy. This series truly has one of the best casts in recent memory.
Though Disney allowed for creative freedom, they just couldn’t butt out completely. The show was never a ratings juggernaut, so Disney XD messed with its timeslot throughout its run. By the end, new episodes premiered Monday nights at midnight eastern. That’s the kids’ equivalent of the Friday night death slot. So we were unfortunately treated to just nineteen episodes of this stellar series. And, naturally, a cliffhanger never to be resolved.
I know I sound like a TRON: Legacy apologist, but even if you didn’t care for the movie, there’s still so much to like in this series. Though the, um… *unique* animation style takes some time to get used to, it’s more than worth it at the end of the day. It’s not a large commitment. In fact, it’s one of the shows where you’ve watched four episodes in a row before you’ve realized it. If you have Disney+, it’s absolutely worth your time.
4. Gravity Falls (2011 – 2012)
Created by Alex Hirsch
Showrunner: Alex Hirsch
Network: Disney XD
How this got on Disney, I’ll never know.
There’ve been a lot of adult cartoons masquerading as kids shows – Batman: The Animated Series, Regular Show, and Ren and Stimpy, to name a few. But no show – that I’ve seen, at least – has skirted the line more than Gravity Falls. (Granted, I haven’t seen Ren and Stimpy.) The humor is full of crass double entendres. Any attempt at a lesson is often tongue-in-cheek. This show is like Seinfeld: “No hugging; no learning.”
That’s not to say there’s no character development. In fact, aside from the humor, that may be the strongest aspect of the show. While the series seems rather standard at first, it doesn’t take long before the ruse of wacky, supernatural situations gives way to character-driven storylines. Everyone will obviously – and rightfully – point to Gruncle Stan’s arc, but Dipper’s arc is just as sophisticated. Through the series’ relatively short run, he learns to be more like Mabel with each scary situation, and she learns to be more like him. As the summer goes on, the two become closer, and the standard sibling bickering that litters every cartoon begins to fade away (to a degree) as they grow to understand each other and how they interact with the world around them. Even a side-ish character like Soos has his moments to shine.
The show balances serialized and episodic storytelling really well. Like certain seasons of Cheers or X-Men: The Animated Series, the show has an overarching narrative that has little crumbs sprinkled throughout each episode, but isn’t strictly a serial, like 24 or House of Cards. But, almost as impressive, no episode feels like a filler. Sure, some are better than others, but you never feel like Hirsch and his team phone it in. Though there are “monster of the week” elements to it, you could never fully figure out the show’s formula. It always threw you off just enough to keep you guessing.
And, of course, everyone talks about the masterful foreshadowing. More than that, the show in itself is a mystery. Every credits sequence features a clue at the end. The final frame before the Disney logo after the credits features a picture to decipher. And Hirsch weaves subtle clues throughout the backgrounds of each episode that one never would’ve picked up on upon their first viewing. Hirsch is right up there with Mitch Hurwitz as one of the masters of foreshadowing. But unlike Arrested Development, Hirsch uses this foreshadowing to encourage the viewer to become a participant. And in that, the show becomes more than just a TV series. This is one of the few texts I’ve seen that transcends its medium to become something new. It becomes a shared experience between creator and viewer. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
In my mind, this show rates right up there with Sherlock when it comes to TV mysteries. The way Hirsch weaves clues into the most unexpected places is a stroke of genius, particularly when you see how it all comes together in the explosive three-part finale. The show is hilarious, poignant, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. A truly brilliant series.
3. Phineas and Ferb (2007 – 2015)
Created by Dan Povenmire, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh
Showrunners: Dan Povenmire, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh
Network: Disney Channel
Matt, did you just put Phineas and Ferb on here because you love non-sequiturs?
Yes. Yes, I did.
So yeah, I’m a sucker for non-sequitur humor. It’s why I love Airplane! and the Police Squad! franchise. There’s something about a joke, transition, or reference coming out of nowhere that always gets me. That said, it can be incredibly hard to pull off. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, an undoubtedly great series, felt as if it was written through madlibs its final two seasons. So when it’s well done, it can be uproariously funny. And two masters of this brand of humor are Family Guy veterans Dan and Swampy.
Nearly every episode follows the same formula: Phineas and Ferb decide to invent or build something to pass the time during summer, their sister, Candace, tries (and inevitably fails) to bust them, and their pet platypus (naturally), Perry, an undercover agent (of course), thwarts his sworn enemy, inept evil scientist (sure) Doffenschmirtz from using his own invention to take over the tri-state area.
Every single episode follows this formula to a T. And yet, you never know what’s going to happen.
This show is impossible to predict. It’s not if Candace will fail to bust her brothers, or if Doofenshmirtz will be thwarted. You already know both will happen. It’s how they’re going to happen that keeps you tuning in. Having Doof’s girlfriend dump him for a whale is completely normal. Seeing one of Phineas and Ferb’s inventions get up and dance away, or doing a backyard musical number from Clay Aiken and Chakka Khan are just regular days. Lines like “I’m calling Mom… and I am not using the banana this time,” make complete sense in context. The show is so bonkers, it never feels formulaic.
Now, that’s not to say the show only employs non-sequiturs. The show is rife with puns, movie references – including a beat-for-beat retelling of the first Star Wars movie – and enough running gags to make Mitch Hurwitz proud. To say the series is clever would be an enormous understatement. From the jokes, to the plots, to the musical numbers, everything about this show is brilliant.
This is a kids show in the truest sense. It’s nowhere NEAR serialized. It features little character development, and when it does, it’s a billion percent comedic. The show is focused on one thing and one thing only: getting laughs. While this goal can often make a show’s humor feel forced, it works tremendously well here. This is one of the best-written cartoons I’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely hysterical, and its humor brings generations together. And I’m speaking from experience. This is the rare show that my younger brother, dad, and I can all watch, laugh, and enjoy together. It’s hands down the best Disney show they’ve ever made.
2. Young Justice (2012-2013, 2019-present)
Developed by Brandon Vietti, Greg Weisman
Showrunner: Sam Register
Networks: Cartoon Network (2012-2013),
DC Universe (2019)
Like Genndy Tartakovsky or Shinichiro Watanabe, all you need is to mention Greg Weisman and I’m sold. I’m going through Gargoyles right now, and I’m loving it. And The Spectacular Spider-Man is one of my favorite animated series of all-time. So when I heard he was developing another superhero cartoon – for DC, no less – I was HYPED. And Greg once again didn’t disappoint.
Though children’s television has quickly become as sophisticated as primetime and streaming programming, it’s still somewhat uncommon to see a full-season story arc. Weisman, however, is no stranger to this (see his magnum opus, The Spectacular Spider-Man). Each season builds on the last, both in terms of the overarching narrative and each character’s respective arc, resulting in each season being better than its predecessor. I’m not even halfway through the third season and I can confidently say that it’s topped the stellar second year, a feat I didn’t think possible.
The writing – in typical Weisman fashion – is fantastic. Unlike most superhero cartoons, which usually follow a standard villain-of-the-week format, Young Justice is HEAVILY character-driven. It takes only a couple episodes to understand the dynamic of each character and what makes them tick. That’s no small feat. But with Greg Weisman at the helm, it’s not surprising. And there are very few filler episodes, so while there’s often a different villain in each episode, they almost always ultimately tie into the overarching arc, giving each episode a purpose.
On that note, the action is great. Weisman knows how to use compelling action; that is, action with a purpose. As just described, the (mostly) serialized nature of the series means every battle has a greater stake than the immediate 22-minute conflict. The ramifications of each encounter are often in the back of the viewer’s mind with every punch. Weisman rarely has characters beat someone up just because it’s an action show. There’s always weight and intention behind every battle. And with compelling characters like these, you’re invested in every fight.
I want to pause and say a quick thank you to DC and Warner Bros. Though DC Universe is a pretty trash streaming service, I’m incredibly grateful this series was given a second wind. Cartoon Network did a horrible job handling the series, and it didn’t deserve its initial fate. Though it’s weird to see it revived after so many years, I’m so glad to see Weisman and his crew haven’t missed a beat.
This is a truly special series. It’s more than just cool superheroes saying witty things and beating up bad guys. This series is right next to some of the masterpieces in the storied pantheon of DC animated television. It harkens back to the fantastic Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series of the 2000s. It’s violent, mature, and incredibly well-written. Though technically a “kids’ show,” this is really for the adults (especially its third season, which takes advantage of its new streaming home by ratcheting the violence and sexual references ALL THE WAY UP). You’re doing yourself a disservice by skipping this one.
I. BoJack Horseman (2015 – 2020)
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Showrunner: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
“Oh look, an anthropomorphic horse wearing human clothes and doing people stuff. How original.” That was my attitude toward BoJack Horseman its first two years. I refused to watch such a derivative show, despite my friends telling me how great it was.
I don’t know what it was, but I finally caved in 2017 and gave the show a try. And I’m so glad I did.
It’s been so hard to succinctly articulate why this show is brilliant; not because its brilliance is difficult to describe, but because there are just so many aspects that make it so. Its hysterical comedy, its biting satire, its subtle background jokes, its rich character development, its deep, philosophical moments. All these work together to create one of the most incredible viewing experiences of the decade.
I guess now that I say it, it’s the writing. Everything great about this show lies in its brilliant writing.
As I mentioned with Rick and Morty, the 2010s was the decade where comedy and drama merged. Tragicomedy has quickly become chic. Fun, light-hearted comedies like I Love Lucy and, more recently, Parks and Recreation are seemingly relics of the past. While the idea of tragedy and comedy becoming intertwined seems counterproductive to the very nature of comedy, there’s something so profoundly genuine about laughing one moment and crying the next. It makes tough topics far more palatable.
And tackling difficult themes with humor and shocking honesty is this show’s bread and butter. Depression, addiction, loneliness, narcissism. These aren’t one-time themes touched on in “very special episodes;” these are main themes that permeate throughout the entire series’ run.
One of my favorite aspects of the show is its biting satire of Hollywood. It’s no real secret that the film industry is rampant with power hungry execs and greedy agents who take advantage of their clients for personal gain, and turn them into egomaniacs who act like they’re God’s gift to film. And Hollywood (the geographical area) is a breeding ground for this kind of mindset. (Though it should be mentioned that this isn’t unique to Hollywood. It happens everywhere. Heck, I’ve dealt with my fair share of domineering producers here in Texas. But Hollywood does exacerbate the problem.)
Enter BoJack, which takes full aim at the industry. Everyone – EVERYONE – is an a-hole. More than that, the agents, the execs, the directors, and sometimes BoJack himself abuse their power for personal gain. And the writers weren’t taking advantage of the culture zeitgeist when they made this decision. The show debuted a few years before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, so it was ahead of the curve. This was a conscious decision to expose the sad realities of the industry to those who are still blissfully unaware of how unglamarous this business is.
And it’s with this backdrop that the series employs some of the best character development I’ve ever seen. BoJack knows he’s a douche. He knows he makes everyone around him miserable. He knows he needs to change. But he doesn’t know how. And he’s afraid that if he does change, he won’t know how to cope with his crippling depression and self-hatred. So he drinks, he takes drugs, he acts out – because he doesn’t know anything else. And that’s not unique to BoJack. Almost every character deals with that same mindset in some form. Some more than the others (Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter are wonderfully ignorant most of the time), but everyone does face it at some point in the series.
And I think that’s the real beauty of the series. Yes, it’s hilarious. (I know I’ve made it sound like a never-ending sadfest, but trust me, it’s absolutely hysterical.) Yes, it can be wacky and zany. But at the heart of it, it’s an exploration of how intrinsically human we all are. The show makes no attempt to hide the fact that we’re all broken in some way(s). And while it doesn’t celebrate that brokenness, it does remind us that we’re not alone in that brokenness. That there are those who understand exactly how we feel because they’ve gone through the same thing. In a kind of roundabout way, the series is actually a great allegory for Christ. Because we have a sympathetic High Priest, He can help us in our every need because He understands us. (Side note: Watch the season 4 episode “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” for the best portrayal of spiritual warfare I’ve ever seen on screen.)
This series is truly astounding. It transcends animation, and pushes the boundaries of what the artform can achieve. It forgoes big, visual spectacles common in the medium for rich, deeply authentic writing and storytelling that is sadly not as common in animation, especially when it comes to portraying mental health. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another series quite like this one.
So there ya go. Like I said, I haven’t seen every acclaimed cartoon from the 2010s. But these were my ten favorites. I’d love to hear what your ten favorites were! Feel free to drop a (respectful) comment, and let’s talk about it!