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The 20 Best Animated TV Shows of the 21st Century, Ranked

From "Rick & Morty" to "Avatar," IndieWire ranks the best animated television series produced so far this century — for kids and adults alike.

Netflix/Cartoon Network/Comedy Central

<<Page 1: Shows 20-16

15. “Spongebob Squarepants”

SpongeBob Squarepants
Amidst a sea (heh) of ironic and satirical animated series, “SpongeBob SquarePants” stands out as squeaky clean and square as, well, a sponge. Its protagonist’s ruthlessly optimistic outlook walks that fine line between childishly goofy and hopelessly nerdy, but in the end, he’s a hero whose integrity is his charm. While the series is clearly geared more towards juvenile tastes, its daffy plots and imaginative environs are just strange and joyful enough to appeal to adults as well. It’s no accident that the series has built a franchise empire and has lasted for nearly 20 years. “SpongeBob” is a seminal series when it comes to building a world of innocence and positivity and wonder. — Hanh Nguyen

14. “Gravity Falls”

Gravity Falls

Ostensibly a training ground for kids to learn to appreciate the quirky, the eerie and the unexplained, “Gravity Falls” shares obvious DNA with “The X-Files,” “Lost” and “Twin Peaks” (and even features a lovely Black Lodge reference, as pictured above). It’s a clever premise that involves a long-lost journal, creepy monsters, ongoing mysteries and even ciphers at the end of every episode. The show centers on 12-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines on their summer vacation visiting their Great Uncle Stan Pines, aka Grunkle Stan, in the woodsy and remote town of Gravity Falls, Roadkill County, Oregon, where oddballs have the run of the place and somewhat twisted events take place. While the series’ animation and energy makes fresh and exciting, its kids sleuthing storylines give it an air of nostalgia and poignancy. Although the series only lasted two remarkable seasons, its adventurous legacy lives on. — HN

READ MORE: Why Neil deGrasse Tyson Loves Spreading Science With Pop Culture

13. “Samurai Jack”

"Samurai Jack"

Nothing on television has ever looked like “Samurai Jack.” Nothing ever will again. Perhaps Genndy Tartakovsky’s most iconic work, the rich imagination of the time-bending action series about a warrior flung through time after attempting to defeat a evil wizard has had us captivated for over a decade — even during those 14 years between the unsatisfying Season 4 and the finally conclusive Season 5, which just wrapped up this month. Cinematic and haunting, the series came to a satisfying, if tragic, conclusion at long last, one that future generations will surely relish. — LSM

READ MORE: ‘Samurai Jack’ Review: Adult Swim Resurrects the Best Samurai of the 21st Century, and It’s Already an Action-Packed Masterpiece

12. “Phineas and Ferb”

"Phineas and Ferb"

Few things in the animation world are as delightful as watching “Phineas and Ferb” toy with its well-established formula from episode to episode. With the dueling twin storylines of budding genius stepbrothers and the crime-fighting exploits of their pet platypus, the show is basically a bounce castle in TV show form. One of the ways that it remains an enjoyable watch for kids and parents alike is that it’s also a crash course in visual joke-telling. The show did themed episodes around various Disney-owned properties, but at its heart, it’s the best way for a younger audience to understand the basic tenets of comedy. Everything from the shifting Doofenshmirtz’s businesses to Perry’s bemused reaction shots are straight out of the same comedy playbook that Chaplin and Keaton were using almost 100 years ago. “Phineas and Ferb” reinvented the wheel by not reinventing the wheel. — Steve Greene

11. “The Boondocks”

The animated adaptation of Aaron McGruder’s groundbreaking and controversial comic strip attracted its fair share of controversy as well, especially over its use of the N-word and portrayal of black cultural icons like Martin Luther King Jr. (It also notably ended without McGruder’s involvement, leading to a lackluster fourth and final season.) But there’s so much to appreciate about the series, from its anime-inspired character design to Regina King’s stellar voice work as both of the Freeman brothers, who do their best to fight the power as the new residents of a mostly white suburban town. “The Boondocks” took a lot of big swings worth admiring, and in the realm of animation represented a very, very underheard point-of-view. — LSM

Continue for Shows 10-5

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