Cartoons excel as a storytelling medium because the limits of the physical world don’t apply — there’s no special effect too ridiculous or location too extreme that it can’t be dreamed up and animated.
It’s a shame then, that they were for so many years often dismissed as “children’s shows.” Today, we seem to be in a new golden age of animation. Pixar pumps out a movie pretty much every year, adult cartoons like Archer and Rick and Morty bring TV comedy to a new creative level and modern kids’ programming like “Gravity Falls,” “Steven Universe” and “Legend of Korra” is so brilliant and engaging that it can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike.
It’s likely that the spread of streaming video and social media is to thank for the new standard in TV animation, as many of the smartest shows of today come from the brains of webcomic artists and internet animators.
Anyone on the web who lived in the Nicktoon and Cartoon Cartoon era will rave for paragraphs about how great animated TV was back then, and they’re not at all wrong. We’re talking about a time period, however, in which animation was primarily regarded as kids’ entertainment, and great adult shows outside of the South Park and The Simpsons mainstream were pushed to the outskirts of programming blocks.
So if you’re going home for winter break, grab a bowl of cereal and a blanket, park yourself in the family living room, and enjoy these cartoons that may have flown beyond your radar as a kid.
1. Venture Bros
It’s hard to believe, but this bizarre franchise is already over a decade old. What originally started as a pretty straightforward parody of “Jonny Quest” quickly mutated into its own backward superhero universe.
The protagonists of the series are washed-up boy adventurer and failed scientist Rusty Venture and his accident-prone sons, Hank and Dean. The oblivious teens are constantly put in peril either at the hands of their dad’s own unethical money-making schemes, or those of an array of pathetic, B-rate villains, including the Monarch, Doctor Girlfriend and The Phantom Limb.
What really makes “The Venture Bros” stand out from Adult Swim’s other goofy (and usually unsubstantial) early programming is the actual depth and scale of the show as a whole. In a complete uprooting of its Hanna-Barbara influence, the characters actually develop through the seasons, and recurring secondary characters affect the story arcs in totally unforeseen ways.
Constant call-backs put shows like “Arrested Development” and “Archer” to shame, while cliffhangers and mysteries put the (hilarious) melodrama on a level above soap operas. “The Venture Bros.” is clearly an effort of love from creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, who have managed to turn a gag premise into a full-blown universe that rivals Marvel and DC in terms of complexity.
Luckily, unlike in the case of the comic giants, every bit of information you need to understand what’s going on takes place in the show itself, and there’s never been a better time to catch up. The final season, which has been in production for almost two and a half years, is due to air on February 16.
“Daria” might be a centered around an upper-class high school, but the focus of the show, the familiar sensation of being surrounded by idiots, rings true long beyond graduation.
Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane plod through their classes at Lawndale High, taking every opportunity to duck out of school-sponsored events and stand on the sidelines to relentlessly mock their peers, teachers, and parents. The pace of the show can be painfully slow, but every agonizing second is usually a setup for a super-dry and satisfying punchline.
The deadpan attacks on sensationalist TV, consumerism, self-absorbedness and the U.S. education system are just as relevant today as they were during the show’s original run, but having it all wrapped in grungy, resentful, turn-of-the-century cartoon America makes it nostalgically comforting.
And recently, “Daria” has seen a recent resurgence in popularity. This is probably thanks to infinitely relatable (and re-bloggable) quotes: “Anxiety? What could be giving you anxiety, sweetie?” “Um, let’s see. Every aspect of my life?” and its relatively newfound availability on Hulu. Or maybe it’s just because cynical comedy drawn from the never-quite-forgettable pain of high school is timeless.
3. Cowboy Bebop
Someone’ll probably want to rip me apart for including an anime in a list of North American cartoons, but the appeal of “Cowboy Bebop” reaches far beyond niche culture.
Anyone who enjoyed Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” will instantly understand from where he drew inspiration. The show centers around a team of four outcasts (and one Welsh corgi) on a ship pursuing bounties in the deep reaches of space.
Old rivalries and romances are scattered through the episodes, but the fascinating main story arc is often overshadowed by the memorable smaller-scale criminals that the crew of the Bebop apprehends, including a deceptively young-looking demon-man and a grinning, invincible clown.
The characters are super complex, and every one has a fascinating backstory, criminal method, or unique ability that flaunts the creative talents of the creators. Beyond that, the show is achingly beautiful, drawing on inspiration from space-age aesthetics, 1980’s technology and completely original concepts for life and travel in space.
As the name implies, the soundtrack is comprised mostly of orchestrated jazz that meshes surprisingly well with both fast-paced shoot-outs and moody drizzles on alien planets. Every aspect of “Cowboy Bebop” is so breathtakingly innovative, it’s no wonder live-action sci-fi has been trying to copy it for years.
4. The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police
Sam & Max were actually dreamed up by show creator Steve Purcell’s brother, who invented the characters as a kid, and would leave half-completed comic strips lying around the house, open to cruel vandalization at the hands of his older sibling.
This explains why the trigger-happy dog and rabbit duo are mentally unhinged, authorized by no one to solve ludicrous crimes that are totally out of their element.
The award-winning show only ran for one season, but it pulls out all the stops in embracing its own cartoonishness, with the titular characters traveling to exotic locales to unravel a series of asinine mysteries, resorting to violence whenever possible.
The pair work as roach exterminators on the moon, get involved in the love lives of greek gods, and selfishly neglect a giant robot and babysitting duties throughout the show’s 13 episodes.
Even the titles prey on normal TV tropes, with cryptic names like “The Thing That Wouldn’t Stop It” and “They Came From Down There.”
The entire animated series is available on DVD or Youtube for those needing a quick fix of frenzied buddy cop action. It’s definitely the most kid-friendly entry on this list, but Sam & Max’s significantly more adult-oriented video game outings are also easily accessible for download on the cheap.
5. Aeon Flux
“Aeon Flux,” sadly, is mostly remembered for the 2005 movie spin-off that Peter Chung, the creator of the series, called “a travesty.” But where the movie failed to create an engaging story, action, and environment in almost every regard, the TV show succeeded.
Honestly, it almost defies explanation. The titular character, the seductive and infinitely flexible Aeon, is a secret agent attempting to take down the leadership of Bregna, a manipulative dystopian state. The government’s brain-bending scientific experiments and technological nightmares make this exceptionally difficult.
Where the show excels most is the visuals: Impossible structures lay on the brink of ruin, long-bodied humans contort acrobatically in spectacular fight scenes and the lavishly decorated estate of dictator Trevor Goodchild contrasts sharply with the grim concrete hell that makes up the rest of Bregna.
You might recognize the dizzying animation style from the intro of Rugrats, one of Chung’s other brainchildren- the swooping, extreme camera angles are a creative spectacle in themselves.
Since it originally aired on MTV’s liquid television, “Aeon Flux”’s episode structure is as fractured and unorthodox as its plotlines. The series’ run is composed of five silent shorts, five longer episodes about futuristic political espionage and five that focus on completely original mythological creatures.
Bizarrely, the episodes don’t take place in any cohesive order, no matter how you view them, and no character death is permanent, which is equally disorienting and fascinating. If you tend to shy away from the experimental, give it a shot anyway; it’s worth watching just to see an actual god shot into space.