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[Editor’s Note: The below piece was originally published on November 20, 2018. It has been expanded from the 50 greatest animated series of all time to the 65 greatest as of March 3, 2022.]
Evaluating animated TV can be tricky. Not only is animation a medium that crosses a wide range of genres, but so many of our earliest memories in front of a screen 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.
Steve Greene, Kristen Lopez, Liz Shannon Miller, Michael Schneider, Jeff Stone, and Christian Zilko contributed to this list.
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65. “Regular Show”
By the time “Regular Show” made its debut on Cartoon Network in 2010, the animated slacker comedy was already well-worn territory. It was no longer enough to place characters in increasingly weird situations while they avoided work at all costs—you had to do something exceptional to stand out. Fortunately, “Regular Show” did just that, constantly finding ways to cram more laughs into its 11-minute episodes than many competitors could fit into 22. Mordecai and Rigby are lazy, to be sure, but rather than the callous cynicism of “Beavis and Butthead” or the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” there was a sincerity to them that lent a degree of sympathy to their bizarre misadventures. Combine that with a superb cast of supporting characters, including the charmingly delusional Pops and the brilliantly inane Hi Five Ghost, and you get an innuendo-packed show that only got funnier as its eight-year run went on. —CZ
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64. “Robot Chicken”
“Robot Chicken,” Seth Greene and Matthew Senreich’s twisted piece of pop culture pastiche, is undeniably the best piece of art ever adapted from a magazine about collecting action figures. The stop-motion sketch show constantly mines the depths of almost-forgotten childhood media to create an absurdist collage that mixes the sacred (at least, sacred to viewers who grew up with these characters) with the utterly profane, providing an endless stream of rewards to the television addicts who stay up late enough to watch it on Adult Swim. Fueled by a unique visual style that uses recognizable toys as puppets for stop-motion antics, “Robot Chicken” has been able to rise above the multitude of other adult cartoons that lampoon pop culture and grow into a unique voice that’s all its own. —CZ
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63. “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist”
One of the greatest things about adult animation is the genre’s ability to constantly find new ways to repurpose preexisting footage to create something new. In the case of “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” that meant turning stand-up comedy bits into therapy sessions. The show follows a laid-back therapist who frequently treats celebrity clients, often just sitting back and listening while each patient vents. Those lengthy, cathartic rants, of course, are often real stand-up routines performed by the celebrity guests, and each episode invites viewers to appreciate the healing power of comedy. The sessions are interspersed between scenes from Dr. Katz’s charmingly mundane life, and the series that was intended as no-budget content for cable still holds up to this day. —CZ
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62. “Tuca & Bertie”
Expectations were understandably high when Lisa Hanawalt — the artist, producer, and production designer you can thank for the world of “BoJack Horseman” — branched out and created her own show. The result, “Tuca & Bertie,” keeps much of the distinct look that made the animal world of “BoJack” so memorable but succeeds by pushing its boundaries into vivid new directions and finding a narrative voice uniquely its own. The show stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong as Tuca and Birdie, a toucan and a songbird who live in the same apartment building while they try to navigate challenges of adulthood together. While not as dark as “BoJack,” Hanawalt’s deft touch allows the Adult Swim series to bounce between zany B-plots (like Steven Yeun’s character, Speckle, sleepwalking his way to 10,000 steps) and moving revelations about each of the two best bird friends. The result is an unforgettable cartoon that has no problem stepping out of the shadows of its predecessor to tell a compelling story about adult friendships. —CZ
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61. “The Legend of Korra”
Making a follow up to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was no easy task, but “The Legend of Korra” has only grown in esteem since its 2012 debut. Continuing to exist in a world where certain people can “bend” the elements, “The Legend of Korra” follows a reincarnation of Aang, the eponymous final Airbender from the original series. The sequel maintains the fantastical elements of the original series that fans love so much, while introducing complex themes and real social commentary. While much of its audience was inevitably going to be adults who grew up watching the original series, the show keeps them interested with added depth without ever straying from its mandate to create a compelling show for children. “The Legend of Korra” remained accessible to everyone throughout its four-year run, and moments like its depiction of a same-sex romance proved that even animation aimed at children still had vital, untapped capacity in the 21st century. —CZ
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60. “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”
“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” may not be the best show Adult Swim has ever produced, but no series offers a better illustration of the network’s aesthetic. While Adult Swim’s earliest offerings repurposed old cartoon footage to create new stories, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” took the idea of washed-up pop culture figures living in television purgatory to its logical conclusion. Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad are anthropomorphic fast-food mascots who literally and figuratively float through life without a purpose, hovering above the ground as they fill their endless days with meaningless surreal antics. From its grungy animation style to its empty world where nothing ever changes, the nihilistic stoner comedy is an unapologetic love letter to half-assing it through life. The perfect show for a network that made its name by putting in less effort than anyone else. Or, at least, by appearing that way. —CZ
59. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”
After the success of “Samurai Jack” and “Dexter’s Laboratory,” Genndy Tartakovsky had nothing left to prove in animation. But that didn’t stop him from taking on his most daunting challenge yet: creating a “Star Wars” cartoon for Lucasfilm. A show like “Clone Wars” was always going to have high expectations, which were not helped by the fact that its original run coincided with the rollout of the divisive prequel trilogy. But Tartakovsky rose to the occasion, and the result is a visually stunning show that can go toe-to-toe with the most stunning sequences from his past classics. To this day, it remains one of the most respected entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. —CZ
Genndy Tartakovsky consistently pushes the boundaries of what is possible in animation, never content to rest on his laurels, and this dialogue-free chronicle of an unlikely human-dinosaur partnership proves to be a feat of elemental storytelling. Depicting the ruthlessness of nature, “Primal” is bloody, unsparing, and often quite terrifying. Spear and Fang are just trying to survive, but Tartakovsky’s tale makes time to build an authentic relationship between the odd couple, all while adhering to their wordless bond. The 10-episode series marries its story to its craft; just as the people and creatures trying to stay alive in this world must make do with what’s available, Tartakovsky must utilize his vast understanding of animation to tell a clear, compulsive, and moving story through visual language and stirring sound. “Primal” may take place in prehistoric times, but it speaks with an instinctual urgency sure to resonate for years to come. —SG
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57. “The Venture Bros.”
At first glance, “The Venture Bros.” is clearly a parody of “Johnny Quest,” with many characters inspired by the Hanna-Barbera adventure series. But to last as long as “The Venture Bros.” did, you clearly need a lot more than jokes about a 40-year-old cartoon. While many adult animated series revel in the fact that their characters don’t really do anything, “The Venture Bros.” embraces serialized humor and proactive protagonists as it tells the story of an adventurous family who fails at missions far more often than they succeed. The show consistently engages with comic book and adventure movie tropes while still plotting its own course, making it one of the smartest and most compelling animated programs in recent memory. —CZ
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Never bet against “Futurama,” the cartoon that just won’t die. Matt Groening’s other animated series was originally developed as a companion to “The Simpsons” on Fox, but an abrupt cancellation led to its revival as a series of TV movies on Comedy Central, which led to several more seasons on the cable network, which soon proceeded to cancel it again. But now there’s another revival in the works, this time on Hulu. What makes “Futurama” so resilient? A cult fanbase that keeps coming back thanks to some of the most consistently smart comedy writing on television. The show’s science-fiction premise and roots in animation allow writers to unleash their creativity on a canvas limited only by their imaginations. Fry, Leela, and Bender’s trips to strange planets are a sandbox for an endless stream of puns, visual gags, and straight up weirdness, and the attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. But while the show earns plenty of style points for its outside-the-box settings, the heart of “Futurama” has always been the relationships between its leads. The combination of the dim-witted Fry, the crass robot Bender, and the cyclops Leela, as the ever-frustrated straight woman, produces self-sustaining comedy, and the show has never been afraid to lean into sincerity and or let its characters grow. Any show with the range to produce the infamously sad “Jurassic Bark” episode as well as extracting hundreds of laughs from a robot saying “I’m boned” deserves a spot on this list. —CZ
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55. “Popeye the Sailor” (Jack Kinney, 1960-1963)
Odds are you know who Popeye the Sailor is. He’s a sailor man, who lives in a garbage can, and through the supernatural power of spinach he’s able to best any man regardless of size. “Popeye” initially started out as a comic strip in newspapers, but when the theatrical short features started airing on television in the 1950s, King Features Syndicate TV thought there might be something to taking the character and turning him into a television star. A series of made-for-television short features were hastily assembled, bringing Popeye into people’s homes. A whopping 220 cartoons were created in just two years, resulting in a prolific television show, albeit with rather rudimentary animation, particularly when compared to the feature shorts. But it certainly kept the character in the public consciousness long after his initial popularity had waned. Popeye the Sailor remains a character people know, even if they never watched the television show. In 1980 director Robert Altman attempted to adapt the character for a feature film, starring Robin Williams, but it was an unmitigated disaster though it’s been reassessed and has become a cult film.
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54. “Pokémon” (Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori, 1997-Present)
Do we remember a time before we had to “catch ’em all?” Pokémon initially burst onto the scene as a series of games for the Nintendo Gameboy and from there it became nothing short of a juggernaut. Children learned to eat, breathe, and consume nearly everything associated with the Japanese pocket monsters, particularly the cute Pikachu. After becoming the top selling toy brand worldwide the company turned to media and premiered the animated television series of the same name. The anime saw game hero Ash Ketchum and his companion Pikachu go on a quest to become a Pokémon master. Along the way he’d butt heads with other Pokémon teams and the various creatures themselves. The Pokémon franchise wasn’t just limited to the television show, which is still ongoing. A series of films would be released over the years with Ash continuing his quest. The series revitalized the Fox network back in the 1990s and now remains one of the most beloved franchises in animation history.
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53. “Dexter’s Laboratory” (Genndy Tartakovsky, 1996-2003)
In 1996 Cartoon Network audiences were introduced to Dexter (voiced by “Rugrats” alumni Christine Cavanaugh), a boy genius with a massive hidden laboratory under his house. Every episode would see Dexter plan a wonderful experiment, only to see it foiled by his annoying sister Dee Dee (voiced by Allison Moore and Kat Cressida). The series would become one of the highest rating series on the Cartoon Network with it garnering a Primetime Emmy Award in 1996. The series would make Tartakovsky one of the premiere voices of animation and he would end up leaving the in 1999 to begin work on his next project, “Samurai Jack.” “Dexter’s Laboratory” would see a revival in 2001 before concluding for good in 2003. Though it’s been off the air for over 15 years audiences are still drawn to its enigmatic animation style and quotable lead character. There weren’t many shows that could pull out an entire episode from its lead character only being able to say “cheese omelet” in French.
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52. “Alvin and the Chipmunks” (Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman, 1983-1990)
The loveable threesome known as Alvin and the Chipmunks have been around since the 1960s, when their song “Witch Doctor” raced up the charts. In fact, the Chipmunks were so ubiquitous that in right after the success of “Witch Doctor” creator Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. created a television show, entitled “The Alvin Show.” It wasn’t a success, lasting little more than a year. But in the early-1980s the attempt to revive the series concept finally found an audience. “Alvin and the Chipmunks” on NBC in 1983, starring the rascally Alvin, the bookish Simon, and the loveable Theodore (the first two voiced by Bagdasarian, Jr. and the latter by Karman) as they got into all manner of hijinks. The series would garner a large following, especially once the Chip-ettes, girl versions of the Chipmunks, were introduced as rivals. In 1987, off the success of the show, the Chipmunks would get their first feature film, “The Chipmunk Adventure.” And they haven’t gone away, even though the series was canceled in 1990. Another series would premiere on Nickelodeon in 2015 and is still going strong, even though Alvin has transitioned from 2D animation to CGI.
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51. “Rugrats” (Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, 1991-2004)
One of Nickelodeon’s first major successes, “Rugrats” combined humor for both children and adults in a bright ’90s animated package. Brave baby Tommy Pickles (voiced by E.G. Daily) went on all manner of exploits with his best friends, showing that “a baby’s gotta do what a baby’s gotta do.” The series was a massive success upon debut in 1991, becoming a franchise behemoth for Nickelodeon. A series of feature films and merchandising opportunities would abound, with the Rugrats themselves slapped on everything aimed at children. But outside of that the series has aged surprisingly well. You might hear stray references to the likes of Clarence Thomas and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” on top of the babies realizing the horrors of clown dolls and what dwells in the basement. The series saw a short-lived spin-off, with the characters growing into teenagers, 2003 to 2008 and there are plans for a reboot arriving in 2021.
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