Animation is a storytelling medium unlike any other. It isn’t restricted by budget or bound by logic. The only imitations are that of the imagination. A child didn’t understand that Speed Racer was animated on 3’s, saving time and paper but giving it an unnatural motion that’s been parodied dozens of times. They didn’t give a shit because the car was cool and there was a monkey in it. No kid cares why Bugs Bunny can talk or why the Simpsons are yellow. They’ll accept it because it’s animated. Cartoons have to ability to suck us in but also present a world that we’ll instantly accept. Nothing taps into the imagination like cartoons, Whether it’s old school like The Ruff and Reddy Show (Not on the list) or brand new like The Happy Fun Times of Bojack Horseman (That’s not the title), animation has been here since the beginning and it shows no signs of going anywhere. Here’s my list of The 100 Greatest Animated Shows Of All Time.
10. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Blending the best of western and eastern sensibilities to create it’s own unique fantasy mythology, Avatar: The Last Airbender is the closest we’ve gotten to a Hayao Miyazaki TV show.
Set in world where “benders” use magic to control the elements around them. It’s sort of mixture between martial arts and spell casting and only one person can learn all four elements at a time.
That person is the “avatar” who is bound by an reincarnation cycle. Each new iteration starts off automatically knowing the next element in series and they alternate sexes each time.
The newest avatar is a twelve year old named Aang who knows the wind element and is tasked with learning the three remaining elements to defeat the evil fire nation. Along the way, he’s joined by a brother and sister from the water nation who not only awaken Aang but inform him about the impeding war.
The bulk of the show is the relationship between the main three but multiple characters show up including the fire Prince Zuko and a blind earth bender named Toph. Each character is distinct and well written and the story is as good as any fictional you’re likely to find.
It actually spawned a sequel series called The Legend of Korra and since it’s a direct sequel to this, I’m counting it as a continuation and not a separate entity, so this spot is including both.
9. Samurai Jack
Stuck in a future world where evil holds dominion, the samurai named Jack must defeat his nemesis in order to go back to his timeline and fix the future.
It’s a simple premise. In fact, it’s barely a plot but the magic of Samurai Jack and why it’s a masterpiece, is the framing of the action scenes. Every fight scene (and every episode is 85% action), is brilliantly choreographed.
It’s a cliche saying usually associated with describing Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre but every frame of this show is a painting. Every new location is visually stunning and the character designs are instantly memorable.
It would’ve been high on my list if I made it any time in the last 5 years but the show came back in early 2017 to finally conclude the story of Jack and the the last season is so good, it automatically made it into my top 10.
Any sequel made after ten years, is usually a cash grab built around exploiting nostalgia but the last season of Samurai Jack not only proves the old adage “you can’t go home again” wrong, but shows that you can always improve upon the past.
8. The Venture Bros
Starting as a pastiche of different 60’s homages including Jonny Quest, The Hardy Boys and the comic book cliches of the time, The Venture Bros quickly outgrew it’s references to become it’s own cult of pop culture fandom.
And a cult it is. The fans of this show are as devoted and obsessive as the most hardcore of anime aficionados and for good reason, It’s one of the smartest “parodies” ever written. For lack of a better word, I’m using parody to describe it’s style but it’s more akin to a love letter. It’s never making fun of the things it references but the creators have a great deal of respect for their childhood.
The brothers of the title are the unfortunate sons of a failed super scientist who used to be the child star of a show about his own childhood adventures and since he, too was the son of a super scientist, the whole thing comes full circle. So image if the show Jonny Quest was real and the kid playing Jonny Quest actually did the shit that’s portrayed in the show and then went on to become a drug addicted failure who can’t differentiate between the show and his real life. And then he gives birth to the Hardy Brothers who are stuck in his failure. It’s kind of like that.
Failure is a running motif of the show. It’s obsessed with it. The majority of characters are failures, they’re all obsessed with the past and it also deals with the death of the space age dream. In the 50’s, science was supposed to merge with super fantasy to produce such fantastic inventions such as the jet pack, anti gravity boots, moon shuttles and walking robotic eyes. We were denied the promise of a better future and the show wallows in it.
Oh and it’s super fucking funny.
7. Scooby-Doo: Where Are You!
I bring up influence a lot on this list but the importance of some cartoons can’t be understated. Scooby-Doo introduced an entire generation of youngsters to the wonderful world of procedural horror. There was shows about arresting bad guys and there was shows about defeating monsters but this was the first one to merge the two like the most delicious Reece’s peanut butter cup.
There was an honest to god spike in cops 10 years after this show aired and many believe it was because an entire generation wanted to become detectives from watching this show.
Which is admirable but ultimately a waste of time because anyone who’s seen an episode of Scooby-Doo: Where are You! knows, that all you need to catch a crook is a net, a pulley system and maybe a skateboard or bucket. And it was always old man withers.
Oh and check out the new series, it’s exceptional.
6. Cowboy Bebop
This is the gold standard in which all other anime are judged. The créme de la créme as it were, this show is a jazz infused noir set in the future that’s the culmination of everything that was ever cool. Cop shows of the 70’s, spaghetti westerns, space operas, chop socky kung-fu flicks, this show throws all of those ingredients into a wok and creates the craziest stir fry that’s ever existed.
But it’s not typical anime craziness. There’s no stylized animation or over the top expressions, it’s not that kind of crazy. It’s the kind of crazy you get when Tarantino decides to score his WW2 film with David Bowie music and ends it with Hitler getting bullet fucked to death. It’s a reinterpretation of influence. Breaking down what’s worked before and improving every one of those elements.
It’s about four bounty hunters, all with different but equally shady pasts all coming together in search of a common goal: to make money. Story is told piecemeal over flashbacks, slowly expanding the world and the characters within it.
It’s a perfect combination of action, story and character development. Cowboy Bebop has it all, including a perfect ending one of the hippest fucking scores around. Seriously, if you don’t want to instantly want to watch this after hearing this jazzy ass bombast, you’re deaf.
See you space cowboy.
5. Adventure Time
An amalgamation (I’m running out of synonyms for a word that means “two or more things smooshed together”) of Dungeons and Dragons, The Legend of Zelda and candy, Adventure Time not only has every fantasy trope in the book but fully embraces them.
The two main characters Finn the human and Jake the dog are constantly in the search for a quest. Just like every RPG in existence, they dungeon crawl for fun and loot. The world they live in Oooo, is a post apocalyptic earth where monsters run rampant and candy is sentient. The ruler of the candy people is Princess Bubblegum who is strongly implied to have been in a relationship with Marceline the vampire queen.
The show has no problem empowering the disenfranchised by normalizing controversial topics such as homosexuality and gender identity. Nobody judges anyone’s lifestyle choices in this show. Nobody is ostracized because of a belief. Besides creating the best animated world since The Simpsons and writing the best gags since Looney Tunes, Adventure Time is this high on the list because it teaches kids that being different is ok. It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to not understand your place in the world.
In a time of chaos and uncertainty, Adventure Time might more important than ever.
4. South Park
Since South Park has been on the air for 20 years, It’s actually evolved into three different shows. The first was the chef years, which were the first 9 seasons. Then after Isaac Hayes left due to issues concerning the Scientology episode, the shows writing got exponentially better.
They were creating multi episode storylines, their targets were better defined and they even explained how Kenny kept coming back from the dead. The last version of South Park is the era we’re in now, the season long arc. I believe the creators knew that binge watching was slowly destroying week to week watching and they refigured the show to cater to that specific habit.
Whichever version of South Park is your favorite, there’s no repudiating the fact that it’s a undeniably culturally significant. For those of you that were born in the mid 90’s, this was your simpsons. Cartman was your Bart. South Park was your Springfield. It may have lost its way as of late but it’s taken 20 years for its edge to dull and that’s pretty goddamn impressive.
3. Batman: The Animated Series
Batman has been repeatedly referred to as the greatest superhero among comic book fans and if you agree, odds are you think this show is still his greatest achievement. I love the dark and semi realistic world Nolan fabricated and the gothic aesthetic Burton brought to the table was a refreshing change of pace from the Adam West series but I don’t think either hold a candle to the world Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski created together.
Feeling more cinematic than most animated shows at that time, Batman was combining darker tones, more mature storylines and an eye catchingly beautiful art deco look to create a world that felt so real, it was palpable.
The casting was so perfect, that when I read a Batman comic book, I still hear the menacing, authoritative voice of a Kevin Conroy or the gleeful insanity of a Mark Hamill. They’ve left that strong of an indelible impression on me that no other interpretation lives up to it.
Besides nailing the casting and obviously the acting, they also elevated obscure characters and created tragic backstories for them, like Mr. Freeze and Clayface or created some of the most popular new characters in the Batman pantheon such as Harley Quinn.
The show was pitch perfect and a masterpiece in every way.
2. The Simpsons
The undeniable heavyweight of the animation world. No other cartoon– or otherwise– casts quite the shadow that this behemoth has made. Boasting such records as the longest running American animated program, longest running American sitcom and the longest running American primetime series (what country is beating us??), it’s impossible to remember a time without The Simpsons.
Those first 12 seasons, are among the best writing of any medium in existence. It’s nigh impossible to crown which one is the best because almost all of them are legitimate contenders. The jokes are some of the best constructed, endlessly quotable and instantly iconic in existence.
The cast of characters are so well known, that I don’t need to list them or the basic premise of the show. The Simpsons is part of your DNA. You’re so intimately familiar with this show, that Duff beer and Itchy and Scratchy cartoons make up your atoms. The numerous couch gags make up your molecules. This show is a part of you.
Those first 12 seasons are absolute perfection but as the bard said, “therein lies the rub.”
The show didn’t end after season 12. Unfortunately, it also didn’t end after season 15. No, The Simspons not only didn’t end when the show was at its absolute peak, it’s still on. Currently on season 28, the show is, regrettably terrible.
Terrible isn’t the right word for it, it’s an abomination. The characters are completely different (jerk ass Homer and annoying ass Lisa are the biggest examples), the writing is abysmal, and every year it’s on, gets it further and further away from the amazing. The ratio is no longer 50/50, it’s no longer half a great show. The show has sunken so far down in quality, that even if they end it at season 30, it’ll be too late.
I wish I could only judge it based on the golden years because if i could, not only would it easily be number 1, it would be the greatest show in history but I can’t. I have to judge the show as a whole and It’s influence and impact make it a strong number 2 but because half the show is unwatchable, it can’t be number 1.
1. Looney Tunes
For a cartoon to dethrone the unquestionable god of animation, it would have to be equally as influential, made as big of an impact culturally and have characters as famous than that of The Simpsons. Not only does Looney Tunes fit that bill but it also has a much better ratio of quality.
It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint where Merry Melodies ends and when Looney Tunes begins but if you lump them all together as the company has, the amount of content Bugs and his crew produced is staggering.
Although technically not a show in the conventional sense, the series of theatrical shorts has always been shown on television, either as stand alone shorts or as a part of The Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner Show or one of its sister shows.
I unfortunately didn’t qualify the Mickey Mouse cartoons in Silly Symphonies because it’s a weird gray area between shorts and legitimate TV show but Warner Bros immediately started showing Looney Tunes on television as soon as they could and have never stopped. So I felt it definitely counted as a show. And if it counts, there’s no way, It’s not automatically number 1.
From the Chuck Jones era, the Tex Avery era, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, each new animator wanted to prove to the other that they were the best and that healthy competition lead to such indelible classics such as:
One froggy evening
Red hot riding hood
Rabbit of Seville
Porky in Wackyland
The great piggy bank robbery
The Scarlet Pumpernickel
You ought to be in pictures
Ali Baba Bunny
Feed the Kitty
What’s Opera, Doc?
All of whom were selected by a group of 1000 animators as the top 50 greatest animated shorts of all time with What’s Opera, Doc? coming in at first place.
Not only do I strongly believe that this is the greatest show of all time, I consider these shorts among the most important works of art ever created.
This is The Number 1 Cartoon Of All Time.