Evaluating animation can be trickier than other genres. After all, so many of our earliest TV memories are tied to an animated series, short, or special, and that impermeable nostalgia can be difficult to penetrate with typical critical tools like reason, logic, and other objective criteria. Some shows just click. They hit at the right time and capture a blossoming imagination. When it comes to ranking animated series, you’re not just analyzing TV shows. You’re critiquing childhoods.
Of course, animation is also one of the more expansive TV subsets, with dozens of different tones and styles that make comparisons often feel like apples and oranges. There are cartoons, anime, short films, short series, short films turned into short series, web series, adult-oriented animation, and that’s before digging into all the individual genres, like old school slapstick comedies (a la “The Flintstones”) all the way up to the ever-more-popular dramatic animated series (including “BoJack Horseman”).
With all that in mind, animation needs a little extra celebration. Animated series can be dismissed simply because so many viewers see the medium as less substantial than anything done in live-action, thus eliminating even the best of the bunch from discussions of TV’s elite programs. That’s a damn shame, so to help remind everyone of the genre’s extensive impact and utmost significance, the IndieWire staff has put together a list of the Top 50 animated series of all-time.
Honed from a list of more than 100 programs, the below ranking still only illustrates a sliver of the storytelling diversity animation has captured over the last century. Seek out what you haven’t seen and remember fondly those you have. Animation is a genre for all ages and all stories, no matter when you’re able to start watching.
50. “Reboot” (Gavin Blair and Ian Pearson and Phil Mitchell and John Grace, 1994-2001)
This ’90s series, originally from Canada, was the very first completely computer-animated series, and the medium became a part of the message thanks to the premise. On some level, “Reboot” was basically a cop drama following the adventures of a “Guardian” who lives inside of a computer mainframe keeping things operating safely despite evil viruses trying to destroy the system. The metaphor is relatively bonkers, but the quality of the animation is pretty impressive for the time period, anchored by some really engaging character design and meta jokes about coding and gaming which have kept the franchise active in other forms to this day. – LSM
49. “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” (Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, 1969-1970)
Zoinks! Although this particular Hanna-Barbera title only lasted two seasons, it launched an animated franchise that continues to this day. The cowardly Great Dane with a speech impediment who solved crimes with his, like, totally groovy teen friends captured imaginations with the light horror elements, hilarious catchphrases, bonkers mysteries, elaborate Rube Goldberg-like traps, and goofy characterizations. This series launched many reboots — one that included pop culture greats such as the Harlem Globetrotters and Sonny & Cher, as animated versions of themselves — bizarre spinoffs like “Scooby’s All-Star Laff-a-Lympics,” and multiple imitations. Ranging from comics and films to pop culture references in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and a recent crossover on “Supernatural,” Scooby and his pals have become embedded in the American consciousness. And it would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids! – HN
48. “Teen Titans Go!” (Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath, 2013-present)
Keep your phone silent while watching “Teen Titans Go!” or you’re sure to miss a joke. The fast-paced animated series packs in more laughs per minute than just about any other show on TV, filled to the brim with pop-culture references, sly jabs at the DC universe, and plenty of self-deprecating gags. Born from the ashes of “Teen Titans,” the show kept the original series’ voice actors but changed up virtually everything else. The show features comedically heightened versions of Robin (Scott Menville), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong), Starfire (Hynden Walch), and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who are usually too busy discussing 1980s technology, political philosophies, dancing, and so much more. Perhaps the subtle joys of “Teen Titans Go!” can best be summed up by this logline from a Season 1 episode: “Robin and the Titans become annoyed when Beast Boy and Cyborg will only say the word ‘waffles.'” – MS
47. “The Flintstones” (William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, 1960-1966)
Inspired by “The Honeymooners,” “The Flintstones” became the first animated series released in primetime, and remained the most successful of its kind until “The Simpsons” came along 30 years later. The secret of its charms was its satirical take on modern suburban culture using absurd, anachronistic elements in a Stone Age setting. Fred Flintstone’s bluster and his pal Barney Rubble’s easygoing nature delivered a familiar sitcom magic, whilst dinosaurs and sabertooth tigers added prehistoric exoticism. It also inspired the futuristic counterpart, “The Jetsons,” which also took a ‘60s sitcom flair to the space age. “The Flintstones” is the first primetime animated series to earn an Emmy nomination, and it’s still considered a classic more than half a century later. And that’s something to “Yabba Dabba Doo” about. – HN
46. “Superman: The Animated Series” (Alan Burnett and Paul Dini, 1996 – 2000)
Superman always sprung to life on the page, but repeatedly proved to be a challenge onscreen. How do you provoke an indestructible, goodie-two-shoes hero? Villains have to be specially engineered to pose any threat whatsoever (they can’t all have kryptonite), and Clark Kent can’t be the only identity offering the audience a human connection. Alan Burnett and Paul Dini’s WB adaptation, the first of Warner Bros. Animation’s follow-ups to “Batman: The Animated Series,” made wise choices from the get-go. First, they introduced a Superman who was extremely durable rather than totally impervious. He felt pain when he was crushed by a toppling building, even if it wouldn’t kill him, and watching him strain to save the day made his efforts that much more engaging, week after week. Making Lois Lane an active hero herself helped as well, and the realistic animation fit these updates, along with the bright tone and driving score. – BT
45. “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” (Lauren Faust, 2010-present)
The plastic equine toys from the ’80s have had a remarkable endurance among collectors, but the Hasbro franchise really hit the big time when Faust’s cartoon deepened the mythology of the ponies and created a media and merchandising phenomenon. In Ponyville, the unicorn pony Twilight Sparkle and her dragon pal Spike befriend five other ponies as part of a task given to her by mentor Princess Celestia. The show’s themes about friendship and kindness balanced with clever pop culture references appealed to a wide audience, including a rabid adult fanbase — most notoriously young and middle-aged men who style themselves as “bronies.” It’s now embedded in remix culture and has inspired countless memes, imaginative cosplay, and, of course, imitators. – HN
44. “Sealab 2021” (Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, 2000-2005)
One of Adult Swim’s initial launch of cartoons, “Sealab 2021” took a forgotten ’70s adventure cartoon and, well, crapped all over it, turning the environmentally-friendly adventure ‘toon into a profane hotbed of workplace resentments and absurd humor, which creators Adam Reed and Matt Thompson would hone in their future series. Still, “Sealab” had plenty to offer, like a bottle episode where the insane Captain Murphy gets trapped under a fallen vending machine and befriends a scorpion. Or the one where the crew was visited by their Bizarro counterparts. Or all the ones where Sealab blew up at the end, only to be perfectly fine in the next episode. It’s okay, though. Pod 6 was jerks. – JS
43. “Rocko’s Modern Life” (Joe Murray, 1993 – 1996)
A wallaby, a cow, and a turtle walk into a television set, and the jokes just kept rolling from there. Joe Murray’s satirical adventures of an Australian immigrant, Rocko, his friends Heffer and Philbert, and the various deranged characters populating the fictional American “O-Town” made for wildly creative kids’ tales. Whether warning against the dangers of megacorporation Conglom-O, visiting Heck for some existential lessons from satanic overlord Pinky, or taking a poke at celebrity culture in Holl-o-Wood, the cult favorite was self-aware, sharp, and introduced the world to impeccable talents like Tom Kenny and Carlos Alazraqui. Plus, even for ‘90s Nickelodeon, “Rocko’s Modern Life” was never afraid to get super weird — a respite for children whose imaginations should, and usually do, surprise you. – BT
42. “Gargoyles” (Frank Paur and Greg Weisman and Dennis Woodyard, 1994-1997)
Magic, science fiction, and Shakespeare came together in the mid-1990s for one of the most bonkers animated series ever. The premise might have seemed relatively complicated: Mythical creatures known as gargoyles spend their days hanging out on the corners of buildings, frozen in stone, and at night, they come alive. But really it was a tale of family and romance set against a fantastical backdrop, which delivered no shortage of crazy plot elements (especially in its second season). “Gargoyes” never became as iconic as some of the other shows on this list, but the imagination it put on screen each week was hard to top. – LSM
41. “Duck Tales” (Jymn Magon, 1987-1990)
Much is made of the theme song with its signature “Woo-oo!” chorus — and for good reason. Not only is Mark Mueller’s ditty catchy as hell, but it also encapsulates the fun and adventure present from the series’ early days as a comic book to its onscreen adaptation that continued the vibrant and dynamic visual style. The wealthy Scrooge McDuck is a curmudgeonly yet charming foil for his rapscallion grand nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and along with the pilot Launchpad, they enjoy all manner of global and historical escapades worthy of Indiana Jones himself. This is zippy escapism shared between two seemingly disparate generations, something not seen in children’s cartoons that usually keep authority figures in the background. The series was so popular that it lives again in a 2017 reboot on Disney XD. – HN