Cartoons are at least nominally the domain of children, disregarding shows like Archer and everything on Adult Swim. But animators and writers are increasingly savvy to their adult audiences, and, are working to ensure grown-ups take genuine enjoyment from shows otherwise still aimed at children. There’s something delightful about enjoying 30 minutes of innocent animation that isn’t patronizingly shouting questions at you from the screen. Contemporary toons are frequently offering, in the spirit of the original 1980’s Saturday morning cartoon, something more than saccharine-sweet plotlines or single-dimension characters. Here is a short, non-conclusive, no-particular-order list of cartoons that you, who are presumably at least something of a grown-up, should be watching.
1. Gravity Falls is a Cartoon Network original show about meddling tween Dipper
and his fiercely whimsical twin sister Mabel.
The move to the pacific northwestern town of Gravity Falls to live with their money-grubbing, tourist-trapping great uncle and proceed to discover that all in their new locale is not as it seems. The show is essentially an animated X-Files/Twin Peaks, but there are two aspects of Gravity Falls that ensure its presence on this list.
The first is the sheer number and quality of jokes extant in each episode. In the tradition of Venture Bro., each episode of Gravity Falls features so many jokes – from gamer references to literary tropes – that viewers can glean something new from each rewatch.
The second winning aspect of this cartoon is its very deep and intentional puzzling. The show’s premise revolves around a mystery book – one of three – that Dipper discovers. The ending credits of each episode feature coded messages that, when unraveled, relate to the show’s plot. There are riddles and clues throughout each scene that whole corners of the internet are dedicated to deciphering.
There’s also a floating Illuminati Dorito in a top hat, and he’s pretty evil, so there’s that selling point, too.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Legend of Korra
Now, I know that AtLA is not exactly a contemporary show – but it’s sequel series, Legend of Korra, recently aired its finale episode, and if you haven’t gotten on the Avatar train yet, you really, really should.
Both Avatar shows are Nikelodeon originals set in a world where some people are born with the ability to manipulate one of the four elements, called “bending” – but one person, the Avatar, is born (and reborn) who can control all four. That person carries a certain political and spiritual authority, and both series follow the journey of the Avatar to master their control of the elements, but the show’s worldbuilding are not what have gained it such a cult following.
It’s the characters.
Both shows feature ensemble casts that would make Joss Whedon proud: diverse, nuanced, and very human – even (perhaps especially) the villains. Legend of Korra has the added profundity of starring a woman of color and ending (spoilers!) on a note that is a triumph for LGBT representation in mainstream cartoons (though The Last Airbender did feature a differently abled heroine, many years earlier). The Avatar cartoons seem very authentic to an adult audience – the jokes, the plots, the dialogue, the exhaustively researched bending techniques – it’s all very inclusive and well-meaning. Also, the action sequences are animated beautifully.
3. Adventure Time
This Cartoon Network broventure follows Finn, human boy adventurer, and his brother Jake, a magically stretchy sentient dog who married a really long Korean unicorn. Everything in that sentence was as accurate a description of the show as I could contrive, and it only gets weirder from there. Finn and Jake serve a bubblegum princess, who rules over the Candy Kingdom and its anthropomorphic denizens, and who is in a vaguely confirmed relationship with an immortal punk-rock vampire, who is herself the surrogate daughter of an amnesiac, princess-obsessed ice king. Their adventures, of varying degrees of strangeness, take place in the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland of what once was our world.
Everything about Adventure Time is like a narrative adaptation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall: super weird, sort of trippy, but adorable and occasionally poignant, too. Amidst the LSD-laced broventures, the show’s 10-minute episodes deal with complex and difficult issues: things like abandonment, phobias, hero worship, the unknown, and family ties. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try, but understand that the viewing experience doesn’t feel especially linear or sensical.
4. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
I know. I know, alright? I know how much the Internet hates Bronies. I understand. To some extent, I even agree.
But do you see
So hella cute. The show, while obviously primarily directed to the “small human female” demographic, is peppered with jokes and references for adult viewers, and regularly features songs so adorable that your brain will melt in rainbow streams from your ears. It’s a show not even the coldest-hearted fedora-hater can despise. And bronies aren’t even all bad.
There are also pony cameos clearly based on references only grown-up viewers would catch. Like:
That’s the Tenth Doctor and Weird Al, respectively, as magic ponies. Their horse names are Doctor Whooves and Grilled Cheese. They are canonically present in the show. You are welcome.