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TV 101: Why Modern Animated Series Are Breaking the Mold

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Apr 15th 2011 2:40PM
The SimpsonsMuch to my father's chagrin, cartoons are an ever emerging and evolving source of entertainment and social commentary for fully developed humans. My dad, like many dads out there, still operates under the assumption that anything animated is for children and to keep cats company when their owners leave.

This outlook on animated television was a lot easier to maintain in the pre-'Simpsons' culture that my father grew up in. Easier, but certainly not justified. The implication that cartoons were initially exclusively "for kids" indicates more ignorance than truth about the nature of the medium. Look at almost any old 'Looney Tunes' short -- as a representative example -- layered with cultural references and parodies that only adults have a shot at understanding.

But now, with the wealth of grown-up animated series available on TV, it's impossible to brush off animation as anything less than a legitimate form of television series. What follows is a broad discussion about animated television, including a list of some of the toons that illustrate best this change in perception.

The fact that animation can span both worlds is kind of the beauty of it. The best shows allow the viewer to grow into them without losing appreciation, but rather developing it. Take 'Spongebob Squarepants,' for example. As a youngster, it's the talking yellow sponge and the sheer surreality of everything that makes for laughs. An older child will start to understand some of the base humor and wordplay -- how dumb Patrick is, how cheap Mr. Krabs is, how lame Squidward is -- and ideally as a teenager and into adulthood you pick up on the cultural sensibilities and subtleties of the show: Krusty Krabs, sponges, Sandy Cheeks, starfish, and squids... all in a Bikini Bottom? Wink.

In recent years, though, animation has lost sight of this all-encompassing approach. The specialization of networks and channels has contributed to this greatly, and fostered a need for "mature" cartoons. Now everyone goes to their specifically and appropriately engineered channel to get their cartoons: kids hit up Nickelodeon and Disney, teens visit adult swim and Comedy Central and adults tune in to FOX and anywhere they can find Hanna-Barbera reruns.

Here's a list of some of the best animated series (of all varieties) on TV right now:

'Bob's Burgers' - This new series has a subtle irreverence that separates it from the 'Family Guys' of the world. 'Family Guy' is irreverent for irreverence's sake, but 'Bob's Burgers' uses irreverence as a complement to the characters and narrative development in a much more organic way. 'Bob's Burgers' also incorporates the voice acting of H. Jon Benjamin of 'Archer' and 'Dr. Katz' fame.

'The Ricky Gervais Show' - It's simple, really. Two hilarious gentlemen mocking one seemingly oblivious and impervious buffoon into submission. Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant (creators of 'The Office') host a podcast that amounts to nothing more than three men sitting in a sound studio. That third man is Karl Pilkington, the unwavering butt of jokes. Watching a podcast generally ranks just below eating hair on the "fun things to do" list, but the animation gives a depth to the humor and the relationships between the three participants that makes it delightfully edifying. This and 'The Life & Times of Tim' mark HBO's most recent forays into the world of animation.

'The Simpsons' - This piece would be mad easy to write if I just wanted to tell you about things you already know. "'South Park' is so cutting edge, and 'Family Guy' is 2 Legit 2 Quit!" But really, I could lose my job if I didn't mention 'The Simpsons.' It's as if 'The Simpsons' had a really promiscuous phase in the '90s, giving birth to the plethora of animated series peppering the televisual landscape. There isn't a shred of cultural ground that 'The Simpsons' has not tread, and it's still a show that transcends.

'The Boondocks' - This might be the most important show on television that nobody knows about, and not just from a racial politics perspective. It's a cartoon that is decidedly "about something," and that "something" changes with every episode and tends to interject many of the conflicted intricacies of American race relations. I would argue that it represents a center out of which all other adult swim programming shoots. Hilarious, socially conscious, and overtly controversial, 'The Boondocks' is a template for the future of good television, animated or not.

'Venture Brothers' - Most of adult swim's programming could be mentioned in this article. That channel, more than anyone else in broadcasting, recognized the shifts in perception of animation and built a small empire by exploiting or embracing, however you choose to look at it, those seismic changes. 'Venture Brothers' seems to embody that phenomenon as much as any, putting a contemporary spin on 'Jonny Quest' and the other Hanna-Barbera produced shows that unknowingly established the youthful stigma in the first place.

'The Mighty B!' - Even though it isn't technically on right now -- there are talks of new episodes appearing on Nicktoons -- 'The Mighty B' is one of those catch-all cartoons that offers something for an all-encompassing demographic. The brainchild of Amy Poehler, 'Mighty B' carries with it a theme of female empowerment not seen since 'Daria' and at a time and within a framework (Disney/Nickelodeon) that send mixed messages about what it means to be a young woman. On more than one occasion I have used it to explain issues of identity and gender to my own daughter. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it says a great deal about the show.

The Mighty B!
Tags: The Mighty B!: Sweet Sixteenth, NICK

I realize this list is incomplete, but I wasn't going for a "top ten" thing or a "greatest of all-time" thing. There are countless other shows that belong in this discussion -- 'South Park,' 'Family Guy,' 'Archer,' 'Titan Maximum,' 'Futurama,' 'Robot Chicken,' 'Squidbillies,' 'Flapjack,' 'Metalocalypse,' to name a few -- but the important thing is that we are having this discussion and extending it beyond the old stalwarts.

Animation provides the perfect platform for ideological change because, while on television, they are all encompassing metaphors, reflecting our culture back at us without the consequences of being real people. The animation provides a buffer between the ideas and the people behind them, promoting a sense of freedom of expression that is more difficult to achieve with live action. It allows cartoons to be the brash and irreverent arbiters of social commentary, taking liberties many people wish they could take themselves. After all, it's hard to stay mad at a cartoon.

What cartoons would you put into this framework?

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/Media/Humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and he's so fresh and so clean. You can also check out his blog or find him on Facebook.

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Ed Tarrant

Hey! what about American Dad? Ralph is a riot, twice over>

June 06 2011 at 10:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's been out of production for like 15 years, but the high point in American television animation was Batman, the Animated Series.

Also worth noting as a unique datapoint was the Filmation Star Trek series from the 70's. I don't think anybody has tried to do anything else like that. Of course, the production was uneven... story and voice acting good, animation limited, and, like the original live-action, starkly limited in music cues. (Futurama did a great job parodying this, making the "personal combat theme" into the national anthem on Zoidberg's planet.

June 02 2011 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Someday Japan....We will catch up to you. The best American animated series ever is not listed up there. D: Avatar: the Last Airbender. That total beats any of the shows listed above or below.....sans the Japanese shows.

June 01 2011 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The vast majority of good animation comes from Japan. The Japanese take animation seriously as an art form and use it to make everything from serious drama to silly comedy, slice-of-life to fantasy/sci-fi.

May 29 2011 at 3:20 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wraith0713's comment

Sure. Like Rape-Man, a popular Japanese character who hangs out in bathroom stalls to have illegal sex with underage girls. What a great model to point to.

June 01 2011 at 2:12 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to valeriemein's comment

And there is live action stuff that can be dirty too. Heck there are even BOOKS like that. I agree with Wraith0713. All the good animation is from Japan. Because they consider it legit art....and they make it range for all ages. You can find kids shows like Pokemon...To teen shows like Bleach and Naruto (due to American censorship...Naruto has been lowered to a kids show)....And yes they also have very mature shows that adults watch. From Death Note...to Hentai. Japan does a better job at making animation available for all. Here in America you get....too childish aka Spongebob....to too mature like South Park. The only people in America that succeed at Animation for all ages is Disney. And I am not talking about TV Disney....But the movies. ....Though Disney is starting to lose it's hidden adult jokes.
But over all...if you want good Animation....well drawn and a good story line...Turn to Japan. Most of those watch like any good live action TV drama.

June 01 2011 at 2:28 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down
mary enyeart

I'm glad people do realize that moving pencil drawings and computer designed figures are not only for children. It would have made a lot more sense in my opinion if -before they had so advanced computer capabilities etc.- they had animated fantasy like Star Wars and such, because then the films would come come off not nearly as corny as they do with great slug-like muppets. There are plenty of cartoons I know of that fly ten feet over my younger sibling's heads. Many are actual stories, with actual dialogue, and have some intelligence *gasp*.
And too numerous are those sanguinary, smutty works in which practically every other scene makes a point of being vulgar.
The biggest issue with cartoons is the negligence of artistry. The animators can create art, and we know it. But apparently they have too much of a deadline.

May 27 2011 at 1:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mary enyeart's comment
Bob Dionysus

Can you put that in everyday English?

May 30 2011 at 6:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bob Dionysus's comment

She agrees that animated shows are not only for kids and that only adults will be able to understand certain aspects of cartoons. She despises animated shows that are completely distasteful so I'm going to say she's not a South Park nor a Family Guy fan. Finally she thinks that quality of the art/drawing is sacrificed in favor of producing more animated shows so that studios make more money.

June 06 2011 at 2:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

There isn't a single toon mentioned that I'd select. Some are okay as far as art work goes, but the stories themselves don't make the grade. Most of today's toons are so badly drawn, I wonder what kindergarten they get the artists from. Oh wait,. it's about money. More into the company coffers by paying for the cheapest, most poorly done artwork possible.

May 26 2011 at 5:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Animaniacs

May 25 2011 at 11:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lavern Merriweather

OH PULEEEEZE!! The Simpsons is CRAP now and should have been cancelled 6 years ago and all their other animated 'family with attitude' comedies are trite and annoying especially that horrid s**t Bob's Burgers. Bleech the only animated show worth a damn these days is Archer.

May 23 2011 at 10:43 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I used to like Family Guy but I do agree with cpck98 that it did get more offensive. I feel bad not watching it much at all. Too many "bad jewish jokes" Highly offensive. The Simpsons are great stil. I hope it continues for another 20 years. The Simpsons is the cartoon of the year I believe.. Bob's Burgers is rediculously stupid.. The kid with the "bunny ears hat" What the hell is wrong with that kid? She is weird. I watched like 3 episodes.

May 23 2011 at 5:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Simpsons haven't been funny in years, and what's with FOX putting out more and more of the same adult cartoons that are practically just a re-hashed Family Guy? This could be money being put into effort on a show that WON'T get cancelled.

May 23 2011 at 2:50 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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