The Best Animated Series of All Time

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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 55 greatest as of August 28, 2020.]

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.

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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.

POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR

Courtesy Everett Collection

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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POKEMON

Courtesy Everett Collection

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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DEXTER’S LABORATORY. © Cartoon Network / Courtesy: Everett Collection

©Cartoon Network/Courtesy Everett Collection

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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ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS

Courtesy Everett Collection

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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RUGRATS, (c)Klasky-Csupo/courtesy Everett Collection

Klasky-Csupo/courtesy Everett Collection

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.
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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
Stream on Amazon via Shout Factory; buy on Amazon.

49. “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” (Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, 1969-1970)

“Scooby Doo”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

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
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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
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47. “The Flintstones” (William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, 1960-1966)

“The Flintstones”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

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
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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
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45. “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” (Lauren Faust, 2010-present)

“My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.”

Discovery Media

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
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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
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43. “Rocko’s Modern Life” (Joe Murray, 1993 – 1996)

“Rocko’s Modern Life.”

Nickelodeon

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
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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
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41. “Duck Tales” (Jymn Magon, 1987-1990)

“Duck Tales.”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

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
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40. “Samurai Jack” (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2001-2017)

“Samurai Jack.”

Cartoon Network

Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the modern day masters of animation, and “Samurai Jack” might be his masterpiece. Airing on Cartoon Network from 2001 to 2017, the strikingly beautiful martial arts series taught its fanbase patience — because given the inconsistent release schedule, the fanbase had good reason to wait. The series won eight Emmys over the course of its run, made great use of voice-acting legend Phil LaMarr, and again, changed the way people thought about what might be possible with television animation. Nearly every frame of this series is a work of art worthy of being framed on a wall. – LSM
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39. “Gurren Lagann” (Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima, 2007)

Almost the polar opposite of Studio Gainax’s other giant robot anime – the sterile and repressed “Neon Genesis Evangelion – Hiroyuki Imaishi’s “Gurren Lagann” wears its emotions on its sleeve. Sure, it’s another “boy pilots a giant robot” anime, but where “Evangelion” is terse and quiet, “Gurren Lagann” is loud and brash. What starts out as a typical hero’s journey winds up encompassing not one, but two series-defining twists, defying expectations and keeping viewers on their toes. It’s a series-long cry of defiance against oppression, with a heart as big as the universe. – JS
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38. “Freakazoid” (Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Steven Spielberg, 1995 – 1997)

A spoof of the superhero genre before superheroes took over pop culture, “Freakazoid” somehow pulled off teenage wish fulfillment while still poking fun at itself. Following Dexter Douglas, a 16-year-old kid who obtains enhanced strength, endurance, speed, and agility after being sucked into a computer and absorbing all the information on the internet, the short-lived series tapped into the inner crazy kids can feel needs to be hidden away as they get older. Dexter would appear to be normal until he uttered the words “Freak out!,” when Freakazoid would spring from the secluded corner in Dexter’s brain and lead him on madcap adventures. “Freakazoid” was also a comedy above all else, filled with unexpected messages to the audience and bizarre live-action cutaways, making it unique to the space then and a kid-friendly precursor to “Deadpool” now — except this red-suited crusader was truly nuts. – BT
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37. “The Boondocks” (Aaron McGruber, 2005-2014)

Adapting Aaron McGruder’s syndicated comic strip for animation proved to be a controversial choice for Adult Swim, but the results were fascinating, bringing McGruder’s complex and funny take on race to the screen along with the comic’s inspired anime-influenced style. That, plus some great performance work by Wanda Sykes and Reginald Hudlin, ensured “The Boondocks” became a show worthy of discussion for its limited run, bringing a unique voice to the world of animation. – LSM
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36. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, 2005-2008)

“Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Nickolodeon

One of the enduring parts of the legacy of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is its lightning-quick ability to flesh out a fantasy world that’s also brimming with detail. Boiling a timeless battle for environmental control down to its elemental parts, the series breathed new life into an already crowded field of “emerging hero discovering their abilities” stories. With a lush visual style that fully harnessed the majesty of a world with its very fundamental components in flux, “Avatar” set a standard of storytelling excellence that continued through its follow-up series “The Legend of Korra.” Here’s hoping that same care and attention also translates to Netflix’s planned live-action adaptation. – SG
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35. “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” (Craig McCracken, 2004-2009)

A majority of the shows in this collection are powered by a potent sense of momentum. But among a fleet of steam-engine trains, “Foster’s” seemed to be a nuclear implosion of twisted, manic energy fueling the imaginary exploits of a young boy and his group of 2-D mental creations. From the plunky, toy-keyboard strains of the theme song, “Foster’s” operated like a spirited youth on a sugar high, following an open search for adventure often with a shriek and a mischievous giggle. It’s the perfect show for a generation of kids whose attention spans were dwindling, but would sit still long enough to enjoy the hand-drawn craft of wherever Mac, Bloo, and the rest of the gang might have ended up. – SG
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34. “FLCL” (Kazuya Tsurumaki and Yoji Enokido, 2000-2001)

“FLCL.”

FLCL Production Committee

Few coming-of-age stories are as out there as “FLCL,” the tale of a bored, small-town kid who gets run over by a mysterious woman on a Vespa, only to find that his brain has been replaced with a dimensional portal through which robots emerge and do battle. But honestly, the plot barely matters, as “FLCL” is mostly a series of show-stopping virtuosic animated sequences, ranging from manga comic panels to a direct parody of “South Park.” At only six episodes (ignore the atrocious Cartoon Network sequels), “FLCL” blasts along like a rocket, moving from scene to scene with the improvisational energy of a guitar solo. If only all series rocked this hard. – JS
Stream on Hulu; stream on Sling TV; buy on Amazon.

33. “Spongebob Squarepants” (Stephen Hillenburg, 1999-present)

“SpongeBob Squarepants.”

Nickelodeon

SpongeBob is an optimistic and innocent soul who lives in a pineapple under the sea, loves to eat Crabby Patties, and hangs out with his pals Patrick the starfish and Sandy the thrill-seeking squirrel. Somehow marine biology lover Stephen Hillenberg hit upon the absurdist underwater formula that appeals to children and adults alike with its colorful palette, cheerful demeanor, and clean sense of fun. Nickelodeon’s longest-running series and the second-longest-running kids’ animated series ever has even lured in the likes of David Bowie, Amy Poehler, J.K. Simmons, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to guest star. The four-time Emmy-winning SpongeBob’s un-ironic charms have reached worldwide, inspiring comic books, theme park rides, films, and even a figure in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. – HN
Stream on CBS All Access; stream some seasons on Amazon; buy on Amazon.

32. “The Powerpuff Girls” (Craig McCracken, 1998-2005)

“The Powerpuff Girls”

Warner Bros. Television Distribution

It all started when Professor Utonium accidently spilled some “Chemical X” into his mix of “sugar, spice, and everything nice.” What he got were Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, young superheroes who are there to stop evil in the city of Townsville, USA — particularly by the nefarious Mojo Jojo. Created by Craig McCracken, “The Powerpuff Girls” was an early success story for Cartoon Network, just as that channel began to experience success with originals like “Dexter’s Laboratory.” When it premiered in 1998, it was Cartoon Network’s highest-rated premiere ever, and soon the show would become a smash hit — and a merchandising juggernaut. A film, soundtracks, video games, and much more followed. “The Powerpuff Girls” also won two individual achievement Primetime Emmys before ending its initial run in 2005. A reboot was launched in 2016. – MS
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31. “Over the Garden Wall” (Patrick McHale, 2014)

“Over the Garden Wall.”

Cartoon Network

Patrick Hale (“Adventure Time”) is behind the 10-part miniseries, which won the Emmy Award in 2015 for Outstanding Animated Program. And it’s not hard to see why: “Over the Garden Wall” is beautiful — full of whimsy, mystery, melancholy, and delight. The show centers on two half-brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), who wind up lost, deep in the woods, on Halloween. Wirt is a worrywart while Greg is carefree, causing some tension between the two. But the half-brothers must work together as they travel through the Unknown forest and try to find their way back home. Along the way, they encounter various enchanting characters — including the sarcastic bluebird Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), an angry woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), Greg’s singing frog (Jack Jones), and a Beast (Samuel Ramey). When it comes to fairy tales on TV, there’s really been nothing like “Over the Garden Wall.” – MS
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30. “Home Movies” (Brendon Small and Loren Bouchard, 1999 – 2004)

A simple concept with distinct, childlike animation (Squigglevision, just like “Dr. Katz”), “Home Movies” followed an eight-year-old boy, Brendon (voiced by co-creator Brendon Small) who roped his friends into making movies. His films are fun and funny disasters, more often than not, but the real joy comes in the odd diversions each episode takes as the dialogue steers characters in unexpected directions. Kids call out adults, adults call out kids, Coach McGuirk is his absolute McGuirkiest, and the whole thing feels like a batch of talented comedians were put in a room together to churn out awkward, surprising scenarios. It’s no surprise so many “Home Movies” alumni went on to make more iconic series. – BT
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29. “Frisky Dingo” (Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, 2006-2008)

“Frisky Dingo.”

Adult Swim

“Frisky Dingo” is probably Adam Reed and Matt Thompson’s least well-known series (behind “Archer” and “Sealab 2021”), which is a shame, because it just might be their funniest. Depicting the conflict between Killface — a put-upon alien seeking world domination – and his nemesis, the arrogant superhero Awesome X, “Frisky Dingo” took the tropes of superhero adventure and turned it into a raucous war of words. “Archer” fans, in particular, would do well to seek out “Frisky Dingo”‘s all-too-brief two-season run, because this is where the acerbic wordplay and high-quality running gags that would come to define “Archer” were born. (In fact, “Archer” has had a number of “Frisky Dingo” references sprinkled in over the years). Plus, it’s probably the only animated series to ever make a series of jokes about Mike Leigh’s abortion drama “Vera Drake.” – JS
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28. “Sailor Moon” (Naoko Takeuchi, 1992-1997)

“Sailor Moon”

Dic Enterprises/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Based on the popular manga of the same name, this anime series was a revelation to young girls who finally found a relatable female lead. The 14-year-old Usagi is a charming mess of middle-school mediocrity: She is a lousy student, klutzy, prone to emotional outbursts, and doesn’t know what moderation means when it comes to yummy food. But an act of compassion leads to her becoming Sailor Moon, who joins other galactic soldiers to defend Earth from evil villains who could and did cause real harm. Underlying the fantastical and warlike elements was a strong message of loyalty, kindness, and friendship, a device that has influenced numerous cartoons such as “Steven Universe.” Not since “She-Ra” in the ‘80s did a cartoon deliver such an aspirational cartoon role model. The series is still a phenomenon to this day and inspired a revival, “Sailor Moon Crystal.” – HN
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27. “Aeon Flux” (Peter Chung, 1991-1995)

MTV may not get enough credit for its support of animated series for older audiences. Created by Peter Chung, “Aeon Flux” only produced 16 episodes, but they had untold impact on other shows, blending American and Japanese styles for a politically dense tale of the future, focusing on the titular secret agent trying to bring down a dystopian regime. Perhaps the best known series to come from the Liquid Television experiment of the early ’90s, the series made minimal use of dialogue to instead bring to life a visually dazzling sci-fi tale that managed to be thrilling, sexy, and engrossing. – LSM
Stream on CBS All Access; stream on Amazon via CBS All Access.

26. “Rocky and Bullwinkle” (Jay Ward and Alex Anderson and Bill Scott, 1959-1964)

“Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

YouTube

And now for something completely different. Audiences watched Bullwinkle pull a rabbit outta his hat from 1961 to 1964, as the Jay Ward Prods. characters soon became a phenomenon. Although “Rocky and Bullwinkle” isn’t in the pop culture zeitgeist like it once was, the show’s wry sensibility, self-referential nature and wordplay have inspired plenty of series since then — including, of course, “The Simpsons.” Unusual in structure, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” featured the title characters on serialized adventures, frequently being chased by Russian spies Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov, who had been charged to go after “moose and squirrel.” But the show also offered up other segments, featuring characters such as Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Dudley Do-Right, and more. Jumpin’ gee horsefat! – MS
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25. “Ren & Stimpy” (John Kricfalusi, 1991-1995)

“The Ren and Stimpy Show.”

Mtv/Nickelodeon/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Series creator John Kricfalusi has been accused of sexual abuse by two women, and this reprehensible behavior — along with Nickelodeon firing him from “Ren & Stumpy” — has tainted the legacy of what at the time was a creatively innovative series, both in its unique voice and visuals. Emotionally unstable chihuahua Ren and the happy-go-lucky cat Stumpy are pals who filled various roles, from outer-space explorers to nature-show hosts, with a few retro-inspired fake sponsors thrown in for good measure. (“Log” is a classic.) No matter what the circumstances, the series delivered its signature absurdist, slapstick and off-color humor that didn’t just border on subversive but sparked controversy from parenting groups. It’s visual language was a complex combo that found inspiration from Bob Clampett’s elastic 1940s cartoons, used extreme and grotesque close-ups, and a richer color palette. “Ren & Stimpy” ushered in a new era of American cartoons made specifically for adults and has influenced series ranging from MTV’s “Beavis & Butthead” to “SpongeBob SquarePants.” – HN
Stream on CBS All Access; stream on Amazon via CBS All Access.

24. “Beavis & Butthead” (Mike Judge, 1993 – 1997)

“Beavis and Butthead.”

MTV

The high school slackers you love to watch and hate to meet, Beavis and Butt-Head were absolutely savage rebels of society. They didn’t work (or worked without doing any work), they didn’t learn (or learned only what they wanted), and they didn’t give a hoot about anyone or anything, including each other. Instead, they set their limited to minds to immediate pleasures, be it food or TV or whatever happened to spark that iconic laughter. What made Mike Judge’s breakthrough comedy work so well was its innate ability to find the funny in our most obnoxious base instincts. From calling out the obvious to ruthlessly mocking polite society to simply rhyming clean words with dirty ones, the short episodes were an ideal delivery system for a show meant to disrupt the status quo. – BT
Stream on CBS All Access; stream on Amazon via MTV Hits.

23. “South Park” (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 1997 – present)

“South Park” doesn’t stop. Despite the purely promotional pleas of the Season 22 hashtag, Comedy Central isn’t looking to cancel their long-running, groundbreaking, and Emmy-winning animated comedy any more than those who’ve stuck with it are calling for an end already. Why should it wrap-up when episodes are still doggedly policing everything from America’s gun problems to “South Park’s” past faux pas? Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s unrelenting satire, which follows four young boys in a not-so-quiet Colorado town, skewers everything without fear of reproach. If there’s an onslaught of Kanye-isms too preposterous to ignore or an outbreak of politically correct culture that threatens to over-scrutinize everything, “South Park” is ready to poke a hole in predominant societal discourse. With a unique creative process that leads to quick turnarounds from concept to airing, “South Park” is well-positioned to reframe discussions for years to come, and it’s already proven there’s plenty left in the tank. – BT
Buy on Amazon.

22. “Mobile Suit Gundam” (Yoshiyuki Tomino, 1979-1980)

“Mobile Suit Gundam.”

YouTube

The granddaddy of the serious robot genre of anime, “Mobile Suit Gundam” may be nearly 40 years old, but it’s still depressingly relevant. Sure, it’s got giant robots, but “Mobile Suit Gundam” portrayed its mech suits not as wish fulfillment fantasies, but as weapons of mass destruction in an extremely bloody war. Considered a flop during its initial run, “Mobile Suit Gundam” saw its popularity surge after Bandai released models based on the show’s mech suits, cementing the show’s place in the canon and leading to the brand’s roughly 700,000 spin-off shows and movies. Not bad for a show about the toll war takes, especially on the young people we ask to fight it. – JS
Buy on Amazon.

21. “Phineas and Ferb” (Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, 2007-2015)

“Phineas and Ferb”

Disney

More than any other TV series of the last few decades, “Phineas and Ferb” took full advantage of a formula. Retooling a familiar rhythm with each successive episode, the show brought an electric spirit to its musical numbers, summer vacation plans, and showdowns with dastardly mustache-twirling evil geniuses that few other series could parallel. The Saturday morning feel, with its sharp color and unrepentant goofiness, formed the outer layer for a cartoon that had a genuine heart beating underneath. It’s the kind of show accessible and equally enjoyable to audiences of any age, without having to sacrifice anything to get to that point. – SG
Stream on Disney+; buy on Amazon.

20. “Justice League” (Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, 2001-2004)

“Justice League.”

Cartoon Network

This surprisingly mature take on superhero tales was impressive in how it loved reinvention, completely shifting the show’s format after Season 2 to incorporate even more of the great wide weirdness of the DC Comics universe. Currently, adaptations of the great superheroes of DC range wildly in tone, from the gritty cinematic adaptations to the more lighthearted Berlanti/CW series. But “Justice League” found a way to straddle a number of different lines, telling amazing tales while still also highlighting the humanity of the characters — even the ones from Krypton or Mars. – LSM
Buy on Amazon.

19. “Clone High” (Phil Lord and Chris Miller and Bill Lawrence, 2002-2003)

“Clone High.”

Nelvana

The premise is ingenious: a high school populated solely by the clones of historical figures, who must navigate the usual teen drama while also dealing with the pressure of their historical antecedents. So that’s how you get a dorky Abe Lincoln pining for popular girl Cleopatra while his platonic best friend Joan of Arc secretly pines for him. And also how you get a teen party animal version of Gandhi screaming, “If there’s one thing Mahatma Gandhi stands for, it’s revenge!” It’s a recipe for comedic success, in other words.

It’s probably for the best that “Clone High” only lasted one season, as it freed up creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to launch their wildly successful movie careers (including “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie”), and a show this dense in jokes was bound to burn out sometime. Still, we’ll always have this one season to treasure. – JS
Stream on Amazon via MTV Hits.

18. “King of the Hill” (Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, 1997-2010)

“King of the Hill.”

Fox

Yep. Yep. Yup. Mmmhmm. While the networks have suddenly rediscovered middle America thanks to the success of last season’s “Roseanne” reboot and the return of “Last Man Standing,” there’s perhaps no show that chronicled small-town life better than “King of the Hill.” Mike Judge and Greg Daniels came up with an unconventional way to celebrate the conventional. The slice-of-life comedy, set in fictional Arlen, Texas, centered on conservative Texan Hank Hill (voice of Judge), the “propane and propane accessories” salesman who loves his family — even when his wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy) falls into another too-good-to-be-true scheme or he feels out of touch with his enthusiastic but often misunderstood son Bobby (Pamela Adlon). Through 259 episodes and 13 seasons, “King of the Hill’s” slice-of-life stories featured an expanded universe that included Hank’s niece Luann (and eventually her husband Lucky, voiced by Tom Petty); his pals Dale, Bill and Boomhauer; Bobby’s best friend Joseph; and the next-door immigrant family led by Kahn (Toby Huss) and Minh (Lauren Tom). “King of the Hill’s” stories were always funny, but had real heart. – MS
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

17. “Cowboy Bebop” (Shinichiro Watanabe, 1998-2000)

“I’m only watching a dream I never awakened from.” So says Spike Spiegel, the criminal turned bounty hunter who wanders outer space in order to escape his broken past of betrayal and heartache. All of the characters in “Cowboy Bebop” are running – grizzled ex-cop Jet, grifter knockout Faye Valentine, and oddball teen hacker Ed. Over 26 episodes, they come together and spin apart, taking out bad guys while looking effortlessly cool doing it. But viewers never forget that the freewheeling swagger of Shinichiro Wantanabe’s space epic hides a melancholy heart. Not to mention the greatest opening titles in the history of television. 3, 2, 1, let’s jam. – JS
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

16. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” (Hideaki Anno, 1995-1996)

Hidekai Anno’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is on the shortlist for “greatest anime of all time” for a reason. A meditation on grief, loneliness, and whether people can truly know one another, “Neon Genesis Evangelion” took the hoary sci-fi cliché of exploring what it means to be human and infused it with raw emotion alongside its harrowing giant robot fights. It’s the apocalypse through the prism of a broken family – protagonist Shinji Ikari and his terrible, terrible dad – plus there’s religion, sex, teen angst, and a penguin. There’s so much going on that the plotting can get a little vague, and the final episodes are more heavily metaphorical than you’d probably like (the show ran out of money), but “Evangelion” is an experience, not a bullet list. What good’s a masterpiece without a few flaws? – JS
Buy on Amazon.

15. “Rick and Morty” (Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, 2013-present)

“Rick and Morty”

Adult Swim

There’s not much to say about this series that hasn’t already been dissected and merchandised into oblivion, pored over by diehard fans and detractors alike. But there’s still a winsome unpredictability to this juggernaut Adult Swim series that makes it worth tuning in whenever new episodes spring up. What may have started as a nightmare reworking of “Back to the Future” has now Cronenberg-ed itself into an inescapable part of a specific pop culture subset. Whether the title characters are traversing alternate dimensions or solving a series-best living room mystery surrounded by fanciful creations like Reverse Giraffe (you know, he has a short neck and legs), no show takes advantage of its boundless possibilities quite like this one. – SG
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

14. “The Tick” (Ben Edlund, 1994-1996)

“The Tick.”

Fox

Spoon! Ben Edlund’s indie comic creation has been adapted twice as a live-action series, but most viewers were first introduced to the unconventional, blue superhero via the Fox Kids cartoon. The show initially aired from 1994 to 1996 but later developed an older following when it aired in repeats on Comedy Central. Fans were drawn to the absurd stories of the rather pompous Tick (Townsend Coleman), who would ultimately take credit as moth-like sidekick Arthur (Micky Dolenz, and later Rob Paulsen) — a former accountant who becomes the superhero’s right-hand man — ultimately saves the day. Joining with fellow heroes American Maid, Sewer Urchin, and Die Fledermaus, the Tick helped make The City safe — and teach a few off-beat morals along the way. – MS
Buy on Amazon.

13. “Adventure Time” (Pendleton Ward, 2010-2018)

“Adventure Time”

Cartoon Network

It’s a pretty simple premise: human boy Finn and his adoptive brother Jake the dog wander the countryside, defending the fantastic Land of Ooo from ice wizards and other various ne’er-do-wells. But what began as an animated riff on Dungeons and Dragons eventually grew deeper and richer, as Ooo was revealed to be a post-apocalyptic Earth and enemies such as the Ice King were found to have hidden, tragic depths. The show’s 10-season run came to an end this year, with a fittingly sweeping and bittersweet finale (including a new song by “Steven Universe” creator Rebecca Sugar). But while the show may be gone, it will continue to live on. Because with “Adventure Time,” the fun never ends. – JS
Stream on Hulu; stream some seasons on Sling TV; buy on Amazon.

12. “Gravity Falls” (Alex Hirsch, 2012-2016)

“Gravity Falls.”

Disney

Why you ackin’ so cray cray? Put “Twin Peaks,” “The X-Files,” “Northern Exposure,” “Scooby Doo,” and “Diff’rent Strokes” in a blender and you get “Gravity Falls,” a kids’ show so dense with mythology, pop culture jokes, Easter eggs, and mystery that grown-ups were often more invested. This is because, thanks to creator Alex Hirsch, the heart of “Gravity Falls” was also a heartbreaking tale of what it’s like to grow up, and how tough it is to hold on to your childhood sibling bonds. As twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) spend the summer in the mysterious town of Gravity Falls, they help their huckster great-uncle Stan (Hirsch) run his “Mystery Shack.” Soon they uncover the mystery of what happened to Stan’s brother, and battle a supernatural creature that threatens to destroy Gravity Falls — and the world. “Gravity Falls” only ran for 39 episodes — leaving fans wanting much more. – MS
Stream on Hulu; stream on Disney+; buy on Amazon.

11. “The Critic” (Al Jean and Mike Reiss, 1994-1995)

“The Critic” was emphatically not a show made for the masses, if only based on the Bergman jokes used liberally by the film-obsessed comedy. But for movie lovers, it was an instantly accessible cult favorite (and those who work in the industry might relate especially to critic Jay Sherman’s constant donning of swag). In a different era (oh, imagine “The Critic” being revived for Netflix!) this series might not have bounced from network to network to eventually the internet. But there are still 33 episodes of deeply nerdy comedy anchored by a great animation cast, especially Jon Lovitz as a man who just wanted to watch great movies, but more often than not had to declare, “It stinks!” – LSM
Buy on Amazon.

10. “Animaniacs” (Tom Ruegger, 1993-1998)

“Animaniacs”

Warner Bros./Amblin

While “Tiny Toon Adventures” was the first beloved animated series coming from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in association with Warner Bros. Animation, that series still played off of the legacy of the classic Loony Tunes shorts. “Animaniacs” became a wholly new beast: a sly animated variety show with short skits featuring completely original and imaginative characters. Strange siblings Yakko, Wakko, and Dot led the way with their manic hijinks and catchy songs and catchphrases, but enhanced lab rats Pinky & the Brain became the breakouts with their constant foiled attempts to take over the world. From a giant chicken masquerading as a man to a curmudgeonly squirrel whose cartoon stardom has long since dimmed, these bizarre and addictive creations captured the imaginations of an adult audience. The series was so popular that Hulu has given a reboot a two-season, straight-to-series order that will land in 2020. – HN
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

9. “Big Mouth” (Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett, 2017-present)

“Big Mouth.”

courtesy of Netflix

Matching the vague uneasiness and unpredictability of puberty made animation the perfect venue to tackle all the swirling ideas within this Netflix gem. Shocking as much in its honesty as its willingness to show preteens in their most vulnerable time of “chayyyyyyyyyyynges,” there’s always a wink and a nod to the idea that those who lived through that transition are more than maturing adults — they’re survivors. However crazy the monstrous hormones (and Hormone Monsters) driving these kids get, “Big Mouth” always returns to common ground: the embarrassing urges that show we all have precious little control over where our romantic whims take us. Toss in some sharp observations about family and the benefits of a more progressive worldview, and there’s some real substance underneath a monster-fueled exterior. – SG
Stream on Netflix.

8. “Bob’s Burgers” (Loren Bouchard, 2011-present)

“Bob’s Burgers.”

Fox

The Belchers are just trying to figure things out, but at least they have each other — aside from the food- and pest removal-based puns, that’s the foundation of what’s made this a long-running delight. Even when events beyond their control threaten the restaurant or place any number of unforeseen obstacles in their way, there’s a spirit of family togetherness that might be more laid-back than TV shows usually have, but heartwarming all the same. With such clearly defined characters — timid, blunt, and eccentric all — it’s no wonder the show’s managed to sustain its appeal for the better part of a decade. – SG
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

7. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” (Mike Lazzo, 1994-2008)

There are very few shows on this list as influential as “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” the fount from which all of Adult Swim’s “random” stoner humor springs. Premiering all the way back in 1994, the series set the tone that would define Adult Swim at its launch in 2000 and continues to resonate in the animation block’s programming today. Repurposing animation from the little-remembered 60’s Hanna-Barbera space opera, “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” saw the titular superhero retired from adventuring and hosting a talk show alongside his conquered foes Zorak and Moltar. Improvised interviews with real-life celebrities were integrated into the show, turning episodes into a hilarious mish-mash of awkward pauses and cringe comedy, and creating a show that was ground-breaking and completely ahead of its time. – JS
Buy on Amazon.

6. “Steven Universe” (Rebecca Sugar, 2013 – Present)

“Steven Universe”

Cartoon Network

In this coming-of-age story, Steven Universe (based on Rebecca Sugar’s own brother and an animator on the series) is a young boy who lives with the magical humanoid aliens known as Crystal Gems. As a half-Gem himself, he’s learning to tap into his own powers as he and his friends go on adventures. This heartwarming series has received acclaim for its design, music, and voice acting, while its LGBTQ-friendly and body-positive themes and narratives are what really set it apart. Cartoon Network’s groundbreaking series is its first solely created by a woman, who later revealed herself to be non-binary. With that creative pedigree, it’s no wonder that Emmy-nominated “Steven Universe” is one of the most inclusive shows ever. – HN
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

5. “Batman: The Animated Series” (Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, 1992 – 1995)

“Batman: The Animated Series.”

Warner Bros. Animation

The makers of this landmark WB series didn’t set out to make a cool kids show. They tried to tell the best damn Batman stories to date, and damn if they didn’t do just that. With an uncanny mix of menacing sharp edges and mysterious moving images, the animation captured the beauty of Bob Kane’s original creation and put the Dark Knight in a world that felt as dangerously real as the power-less superhero bravely faced. The soundtrack struck all the right notes, the voice acting outpaced any live-action interpretations, and the consistent depth in each new episode built grand, meaningful half-hour arcs that still resonate, whether you watched as a child or tuned in as an adult. “Batman: The Animated Series” spawned a generation of similar stories, from “Superman” to “Justice League” and beyond, but its influences are still being felt today. After all, no one would hold up “Batman vs. Superman” to “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.” No matter the intended audience, “BTAS” holds its own. – BT
Buy on Amazon.

4. “Daria” (Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, 1997-2002)

“Daria”

Mtv/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It’s hard to think of a portrait of teenage ennui more sensitively drawn than the MTV animated series, even when compared to the live-action world. From the perspective of Daria Morgendorffer, the world is a garbage fire, and she’s screwed because she’s the only one smart enough to know it. Life isn’t made easier by her eclectic friends, clueless but well-meaning teachers, and a family that loves her but doesn’t understand her — but fortunately, firm principles and a razor-sharp wit make her an unforgettable protagonist who was life-altering for an entire generation. Daria’s dry droll was unique, but her angst made her universally relatable. – LSM
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

3. “Archer” (Adam Reed, 2009-present)

“Archer”

FXX

Spy spoofs are nothing new, but Adam Reed’s particular brand of referential boundary-pushing has made this far more than a workplace comedy about intelligence agency misfits. Even as the team behind the series has dreamed up ways to pull Archer, Lana, Mallory, Pam, Krieger, Ray, and Cyril through disparate realities — 1940s LA noir, tropical biplane adventure, “Smokey and the Bandit”-themed coke ring operation, just to name a few — the show’s steady stream of callbacks keeps it tied to a whip-smart comedic DNA that never fails to surprise. Plus, it’s anchored by one of the most dependable voice casts of any show on this list. (Give them all the awards they, for some reason, have never won yet.) – SG
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.

2. “The Simpsons” (Matt Groening, 1989-present)

“The Simpsons.”

Fox

When you’ve been on the air as long as “The Simpsons,” every year brings another milestone. The show has already surpassed “Gunsmoke” by producing the most episodes of a primetime scripted series in history, has hit its landmark 30th season, and next year has even managed to match up its 30th “Treehouse of Horror” installment to run as the show’s 666th episode. Everything’s coming up Milhouse for “The Simpsons,” which continues to rake in the D’oh for all involved. The citizens of Springfield will soon fall under Disney ownership, which could mean a whole new chapter for what is easily one of the most influential TV series of all time. Purists may argue when the show “peaked,” and what season remains the best. But “The Simpsons” still delivers reliable laughs, sharp satire, and self-deprecating parody. Without “The Simpsons,” the majority of the shows on this list wouldn’t even exist — and comedy wouldn’t look the same. After all, no TV and no beer make Homer something something. – MS
Stream on Disney+; buy on Amazon.

1. “BoJack Horseman” (Raphael Bob-Waksberg, 2014 – present)

“BoJack Horseman”

Netflix

Perhaps it’s too soon to call “BoJack Horseman” the best animated TV series of all time. Perhaps five stellar seasons of 12 episodes each, arguably improving with each subsequent entry, aren’t enough of a sample to hold against series that either ran for decades or withheld scrutiny for just as long. Perhaps a serialized existential drama about a washed-up Hollywood horse looking to salvage his career along with his life shouldn’t be compared to kids’ shows and episodic satires. No matter. “BoJack Horseman” has accomplished more in five seasons than most TV series, animated or otherwise, do in twice that span, and it does so with the most economical storytelling every put to screen. From the five-second spans of dialogue that bridge heartbreak and hilarity, to the hidden jokes populating every square inch of the frame, to the inventive, eye-catching animation that builds worlds without a drop of exposition, “BoJack Horseman” is an incredible story to behold. That it makes us laugh and cry in unprecedented amounts is almost secondary to how much is being offered. We may never catch up with every astounding facet of this young series, which means it’s not too soon to list it at No. 1. If anything, we’re already late. – BT
Stream on Netflix; buy on Amazon.