Unbounded by limitations of the physical world, animated characters can convey emotions and messages that are easy to perceive making them enjoyable for both adults and children. With hundreds, if not thousands, of animated series being released over the years, we’re ranking the 25 animated series that managed to influence audiences above all others.
25. Adventure Time
Adventure Time is one of those rarities existing as a show both parents and children to enjoy. Originally intended to be a kids cartoon, it found an audience of teens and young adults dazzled by the show’s brightly colorful, surreal aesthetic. But visuals weren’t the only appeal. To quote creator Pendleton Ward: “It’s Candyland on the surface and dark underneath, and that’s why it’s compelling, I think.”
Though the series ended in 2018, homages can be found everywhere. Many of Adventure Time’s biggest fans show their love through graffiti art or wearing clothing similar to what the characters wear. In Taiwan, a new high-speed rail was even painted to look like the characters as a display to this eight-time Emmy Award-winning show.
24. Dexter’s Laboratory
Once upon a time, a small network called Cartoon Network was struggling to stay relevant, largely playing reruns of older popular animated series. That all changed with the 1996 release of Dexter’s Laboratory. The zany, brainy show became the first in a series of Cartoon Network original content, which went on to include Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo, The Powerpuff Girls, and many more.
Not only was the show itself revolutionary in introducing some of the first new iconic cartoon characters of the ’90s, but Dexter’s Lab‘s style also helped to mold the minds of others who would go on to create their own animated series. Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane began on Dexter’s Lab as a writer, as did Fairly OddParents’ Butch Hartman.
23. The Jetsons
Nearly six decades after a single season of The Jetsons aired in 1962, and we’re still using this iconic animated series as one of the most referred to benchmarks when talking about the future. The show follows a small nuclear family living in the year 2062 with all sorts of gizmos and gadgets, like flying cars, jet packs, and robot maids.
So what is it about The Jetsons that kept this short-lived show so relevant to Americans today? Writer Matt Novak argues that, for example, The Jetsons’ use of flying cars vs. public transport may have affected young viewers, painting in their mind a picture of a future of personal cars. Novak argues that after those kids became adults, that vision was turned in to public policy.
Think about cartoons before the 1990s, you’ll probably think about shows like Transformers, Scooby-Doo, and Justice League; shows that portrayed a fantasy world mostly unlike our own. Then, in 1991, along came Rugrats. Suddenly, popular Saturday morning cartoons were showing a world that kids could relate to, reflecting things they experienced on a daily basis.
Now, instead of shows about superheroes or anthropomorphic animals, kids were seeing very familiar situations and characters: the loud uncle who might let you grab the wheel of the car every now and again, a bullying babysitter, and routine tasks suddenly becoming fantastic adventures. For this reason, Rugrats remains vivid in our memories and is consistently ranked by fans as one of the best animated series ever.
21. Gravity Falls
Considered by Wired magazine to be one of the most intelligent animated series ever, Gravity Falls combines the warm family feel that its production company, Disney, loves (exemplified in shows like Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb) with the absurdity and humor of shows like Adventure Time. All of this is driven by the series’ increasingly complex conspiracies.
Gravity Falls follows the adventurous journey of twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines. After arriving in a remote village to spend some time with their quirky uncle, the two supportive twins discover that the town has far deeper mysteries than what anyone had assumed.
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20. Teen Titans
Premiering in 2003, Teen Titans quickly rose to the top of Cartoon Network’s ratings charts and received a primetime spot, where it sat until its cancellation in 2006. While not strictly following any comic books that had been released by DC, it was embraced by fans nevertheless, and subsequent series have shown characters from Teen Titans in crossovers with the Justice League.
In fact, the show was so popular that DC Comics even based a new line of comic books on characters and stories from the series. Fans of Teen Titans might have been upset that it ended after five seasons. However, the good news is that Teen Titans is back in a live action series, season three of which is set to premier in 2020.
Japanese anime has been around for over one hundred years, with the earliest work having been released in 1917. Pokémon followed a similar style to previous Japanese animated series, and somehow exploded into a worldwide phenomenon that has generated $45 billion in revenue. What is it about the show that set it apart?
According to Venturebeat, Pokémon and its hundreds of species of fanciful creatures resonated with kids for several reasons. The first was that Pokémon followed a “rock, paper, scissors” style of battle mechanics, which made it at once a complex system that was also comprehensible to children. This allowed kids to successfully recreate battles, trade cards, and debate strategy. Even today Pokémon remains a global craze and is almost universally ranked as one of the best animated series in history.
18. Dragon Ball Z
While only making a fraction of what the Pokémon franchise managed to pull in (although, is anyone really complaining about $5 billion?), Dragon Ball Z has had a massive cultural impact extending back to its original release in 1989. Many who grew up watching this animated series have paid homage to it in their now grown-up work.
This includes artists like J. Cole, Rich Homie Quan, and even Childish Gambino, who made an entire mixtape about the series. As a result, fans are constantly voting the series as one of the best animated classics, keeping Goku and his super Saiyan friends relevant in American culture long after the original run ended.
17. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!
The groovy original version of the wildly popular show Scooby-Doo Where Are You! premiered in 1969 and has become the quintessential mould that audiences have come to recognize and enjoy. Even subsequent reboots of the series, like What’s New, Scooby-Doo? which premiered in 2002, have the characters dressed in that same iconic ’60s attire.
So how did a show about four hapless teenagers and a talking Great Dane, following a simplistic plot of chasing monsters and ghosts who are almost never real, become so popular? Crime Reads offers an explanation, saying that the show focuses on realism and rationality. That proves that even the most mysterious phenomenon has an earthly answer.
16. Duck Tales
Arguably the most popular of all the Donald Duck series, Duck Tales takes a step away from Donald (who joins the Navy) and focuses instead on his triplet nephews: Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The boys are sent to live with their wealthy uncle, Scrooge McDuck, and the four work together to stop villains from stealing Scrooge’s enormous wealth.
Duck Tales marked a turning point not only for Disney but for animated television series in general. Up until then, syndicated series consisted of low-budget animation typified by violence, generally aimed at appealing to boys. Duck Tales was the first time a high-budget animated series had ever been attempted. Through its success, it became the first in a long line of animated Disney shows.
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15. The Bugs Bunny Show
One of the most popular and recognizable cartoon characters for over three-quarters of a century, Bugs Bunny got his start in 1940 where he first confronted his nemesis, Elmer Fudd, and uttered the sassy line which would become his famous catchphrase: “What’s up, Doc?” Finally, in 1960, Bugs was given his own program, The Bugs Bunny Show, which ran in syndication for 40 years.
It’s not hard to see why Bugs Bunny has been so beloved for so long. He’s funny, cheeky, and quick-witted, all with a calm and carefree personality and an adorable face that explodes with emotion. He doesn’t use muscles or fear to win a fight; he uses cleverness and natural capability. He’s an underdog, and it seems as though fans of animated series love watching this underdog take the cake.
14. Pinky and the Brain
Sometimes complicated isn’t always better. At least for Pinky and the Brain, that adage rings true. If one were to try and describe the plot of this animated series, it could easily be boiled down into the following phrases, “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world.”
While the show got its fair share of flak for following the same simplistic formula every night, Pinky and the Brain knew that was the source of their humor. The show took shots at pop culture, and for the duo world domination could take the form of creating a hit country song or writing a romance novel, all with the goal of reducing humanity to a bunch of braindead, malleable organisms.
In the early 1990s, television studios began to observe an interesting trend among their viewers. Nearly half of all fans of animated series geared towards children were actually adults. Warner Brothers decided to create a series that combined the slapstick humor children loved with more sophisticated satirical and cultural references. Add Steven Spielberg on board, and Animaniacs was born.
Unlike many shows at the time, Animaniacs appealed to viewers not only through humor, but with its underlying messaging. Animaniacs carried a message that intelligence and learning was cool, and egotistical behavior was not rewarded while individualism was. The message stuck: during its time on TV, it was the second most-watched children’s show.
12. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Having first appeared in print in 1984, the four anthropomorphic, crime-fighting turtles were given their own animated series as early as 1987. Even if you never saw the show, kids from the ’90s will likely remember growing up with Ninja Turtles lunchboxes, bedding, and even underwear. So how did the series become so popular?
The show focuses on a team of outsiders, mutants forced to live on the outskirts of society. In spite of being relegated to the fringes, the turtles fight crime to gain acceptance, gobbling down pizza as a reward. Journalist Wesley Morris theorized that the turtles symbolize adolescence and puberty, kids trying to find themselves and fit in with the world, which can resonate with almost any audience. Also they’re ninjas, and that’s just fun, right?
11. Justice League
Based on the DC comic book squad known as the Justice League of America, Justice League did something that no other animated series had attempted to do up until that point. It created a show that brought together some of America’s favorite superheroes. For the first time, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others were all working together to stop villains and criminals.
Not only was the series met with critical acclaim, Justice League spawned a chain of spin-offs on screens both big and small that have continued until today. Even beyond that, the show was nominated for a number of prestigious awards, including two Primetime Emmy nominations.
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10. Rick and Morty
On the surface, Rick and Morty is an animated series about a mad scientist and his hapless grandson who travel the cosmos in search of “wacky and zany” adventures. Yet, this seemingly light and surreal call-back to classic sci-fi movies like Back to the Future has become an international sensation. Beyond the intergalactic themes, toilet humor, and scientific jargon, the series actually tackles some rather darkly philosophical and existential themes.
For example, does life have meaning in a cold and mysterious universe? Or, when the multiverse theory asks if every possible thing exists at once, across infinite timelines in infinite universes, how important are we? Rick and Morty seems to answer this question as simply as they can. Life can be complicated and scary, so try to focus on the fun stuff and have an adventure.
9. Family Guy
On air for 18 seasons and boasting more than three hundred episodes, Family Guy has produced some of the most popular and widely-reproduced and quoted characters in animated television history. The show follows a nonlinear story of a simpleminded New England father and his equally bizarre and dysfunctional family (including a hyper-intelligent baby and an anthropomorphic dog).
Creator Seth MacFarlane considers himself an “equal opportunity offender,” meaning that he isn’t ashamed of some of Family Guy’s more off-colored jokes. Having been around for so long we can assume that more than a few of them are funny, but better kick the kids out of the room before turning on this animated series.
8. SpongeBob SquarePants
Debuting in 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants was considered by some, including online magazine Complex, to be the “most adorable creature in the seven seas.” But SpongeBob isn’t just relegated to his on-screen life in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea. This creature has a special place in our collective hearts which can be seen in many ways.
This sunny, silly television show with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments of more sophisticated references has scored four Emmy Awards. What’s more, SpongeBob SquarePants was also made into a successful Broadway musical, which garnered a whopping 12 Tony Award nominations. Scientists even named a new species of discovered sea sponge Spongiforma squarepantsii after the beloved cartoon character.
7. The Flintstones
The Flintstones might be a show taking place in prehistoric times, but it also goes down in history as being the first animated show to air on primetime television. One surprising fact about this cartoon classic is that it was initially intended for adults. Thus, its plot lines would juxtapose many modern problems with the limitations and technologies of a fun, prehistoric setting.
During the 1960s the show aired for six seasons. But The Flintstones’ appeal and charm have continued for far longer than its original 1960 – 1966 programming. The series has stayed relevant in American culture through various spin-off shows, television movies and specials, even live action films. It continues to be one of the highest-ranking animated series online.
6. Batman: The Animated Series
Following the smash success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman came the 1992 animated series which would forever change the face of the caped crusader. Whereas many of the Batman movies and specials seen up until that point had a light and goofy appeal to them, Batman: The Animated Series added a film noir look to the classic which has persisted through today.
In addition to its look and feel, Batman: The Animated Series took the change in direction a step further. Many of the villains were reintroduced with origin stories, and some of them were given a deep moral complexity that had not been explored previously. Fans and critics were thrilled with this series’ progression, and the show earned several Primetime and Daytime Emmy Awards.
Not content to just rest on his laurels after his success on The Simpsons, creator Matt Groening decided to take animated television series a step further and create a science fiction show that defied the conventions of the genre. That series, Futurama, was an arguably huge success, running for 7 seasons and 140 episodes.
The show subverted traditional science fiction tropes by poking fun at modern political issues, referencing them in a show taking place in the thirty-first century. The humor, based on real life elements, earned Futurama the title of one of the best political satirization animated series on television according to The Boston Phoenix.
4. South Park
Back in 1992, Matt Stone and Trey Parker teamed up while studying together at the University of Colorado with the intent to create something goofy and subversive. After releasing a short video entitled The Spirit of Christmas, the two entered into negotiations with Comedy Central. In 1997, South Park was born. Known for its profane humor and its fearlessness from attracting controversy, always pushing boundaries and flipping triggers, it’s still going strong.
Though it started out using construction paper, today one of South Park’s most unique qualities is its ability to produce an episode in a matter of days through its use of computer animation. As a result, the show is able to tackle current events as they are happening, rather than reflect on them after the fact.
3. Tom and Jerry
It’s the ultimate cat and mouse struggle. Based around a rivalry between the brooding cat Tom and his cunning mouse foil Jerry, the original version of this show was released in 1940 as a series of short comedy films. During its run, between 1940-1958, Tom and Jerry received seven Academy Awards for Animated Short Film, tying with Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies.
Unlike Silly Symphonies though, the name Tom and Jerry has remained popular in film and television culture. The Simpsons’ cartoon within a cartoon Itchy & Scratchy was based on the series, and Johnny Knoxville from the Jackass franchise has credited the duels between the animated animal duo for inspiring numerous stunts in his films.
2. The Simpsons
Since debuting in 1989, The Simpsons has set a standard which seems to have become the benchmark for other animated series to reach. According to the YouTube channel “The Take,” The Simpsons reflected most accurately how the American family in the 1990s saw themselves, leading to the show’s unprecedented popularity.
Blending everything from political and cultural satire to frighteningly intelligent cross-generational references, The Simpsons’ success as the longest-running animated series with a primetime spot helped to push the creation of many shows like it, including Family Guy, South Park, and Futurama. Additionally, The Simpsons’ cast and crew have become familiar faces at awards shows, winning an impressive 34 Primetime Emmy Awards.
1. Looney Tunes
Inspired by Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Looney Tunes helped to usher in what was considered to be the golden age of American animation. Airing from 1930-1969, Looney Tunes was praised by critics for doing what they considered to be “holding up a mirror to ourselves,” showing both our very human virtues alongside our foibles.
With its screwball jumble of human and animal characters, the series was responsible for producing some of the most recognizable cartoon faces, including Bugs Bunny (considered the most famous), Tweety, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the cat, and dozens of others. Many episodes of this world-famous animated series were recipients of prestigious awards, while others have gone on to be immortalized as treasures in the National Film Registry.
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