Animated TV shows really have come a long way. Today, some of the best shows on television are animated. Animation has been used to tell complex stories and craft well rounded characters for child and adult audiences that belie the simplistic and juvenile roots of the medium. There was once a time when animated content was merely cheaply produced fodder for juvenile audiences to consume on Saturday mornings with their sugary cereal. The plots were predictable and repetitive, the characters hollow and two dimensional. Even fondly remembered greats of the '50s, '60s and '70s are best viewed through the lens of childhood nostalgia. Indeed, the fact that so many franchises of this bygone era from Scooby Doo to Top Cat have been rebooted over and over with relatively little fanfare speaks to this.
Then the '80s came and with them came Reaganomics. Thus, a huge deregulation of children's TV standards saw most mainstream animated content become little more than 20-minute toy commercials. In the '90s however, came a renaissance in animated content that elevated the Reagan-era cash cows into that rare thing... commercially viable art. Animation got smarter, more self aware and began to hold itself to a higher standard. Quality children's content could be enjoyed by their parents and adults began to get more animated content designed just for them. Some of the shows from this veritable golden age have stood the test of time and are still beloved by many today. Others have not weathered the test of time quite so well...
20 STILL HOLDS UP: SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
There had been Spider-man cartoons before and there have been many since but for an entire generation, 1994-1998's Spider-Man: The Animated Series is the definitive representation of the wall-crawler outside of comics. Its combination of traditional 2D animation with computer generated 3D environments lent the show a (for the time) futuristic and cutting edge look and some truly memorable web-slinging sequences.
But the show had far more in its repertoire than great visuals. It had great voice acting, mature storytelling and a healthy dose of interpersonal drama to go with the superheroic shenanigans. It also brought a huge range of iconic comic book stories to life and features cameos from a range of other Marvel superheroes.
19 DOESN'T HOLD UP: TINY TOON ADVENTURES
Tiny Toon Adventures was fun, cute and often witty... but there's something about its entire premise that feels like it was willed into existence by a focus group. Its eponymous main characters were younger, more colorful reincarnations of such Looney Toons characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig clearly designed to appeal to kids with whom the iconic characters of yesteryear just didn't seem to resonate.
The show lacked the self aware charm of Animaniacs or Freakazoid and was far less consistently funny than either of its successors. While one could argue that Tiny Toon Adventures broke new ground which the other shows capitalized upon, that doesn't change the fact that the later shows hold up much better.
18 STILL HOLDS UP: SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
It's impossible to have a conversation about Superman in animation without first mentioning the Fleischer and Famous Studios Superman cartoons of the '40s. These visually sumptuous shows had an art deco aesthetic combined with beautiful rotoscoped animation that set a high bar for the medium. That said, those cartoons were big on action but extremely light on plot.
Superman: The Animated Series aimed to bring the same visual sensibilities to '90s audiences, combined with a sophistication of storytelling and voice acting that even now few animated shows can match. Tim Daly and Dana Delaney were perfect as Clark and Lois and the show's loving treatment of Metropolis' supporting cast and rogues gallery make it one of the best iterations of Superman in any medium.
17 DOESN'T HOLD UP: DOUG
Doug was a fairly charming coming of age story about a pre-teenage boy grappling with the various trials of adolescence. In this respect it was pretty unremarkable and checked all of the requisite boxes. Unrequited crush? Check. Zany best friend? Check. Reviled yet fairly tame school bully? Check.
Doug himself was a quiet, shy and sensitive boy who loved comics, beets (for some reason), daydreaming and his dog Porkchop. Yet, aside from showing young male audiences that it was perfectly fine to be quiet, shy and sensitive (which is certainly important), it offered little to differentiate itself from the legions of other kids' shows telling the exact same kinds of stories.
16 STILL HOLDS UP: DEXTER'S LABORATORY
Today, self-aware kids show that sprinkle pop culture references into their visual gags like chocolate sprinkles on a donut are a dime a dozen. Dexter's Laboratory, however, which aired from 1995 to 2003 was consistently one of the wittiest animated shows of its time. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky who would go on to help create The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack and the Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts, the show cast a wry glance at the science fiction genre.
It also took the time to lampoon previous eras of children's animation, comic books, action figures and movies through the prism of a precocious young boy's fandom. It even managed to reference both The Empire Strikes Back and Enter The Dragon in the same episode!
15 DOESN'T HOLD UP: SOUTH PARK
South Park has been such a ubiquitous presence on the pop culture map that it feels as though it's been with us forever. Yet the show made its debut in 1997 and in the years since it has oscillated wildly from crass to brilliant, from intelligent and insightful to trite and self congratulatory.
Over the years South Park has given us some of the most scathing social commentary since Richard Pryor or George Carlin and given us some of the most exquisite silliness since Monty Python's Flying Circus. But the show has become a victim of its own success in recent years to the point where it feels increasingly fatigued and often verges on desperation.
14 STILL HOLDS UP: X-MEN
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Viewing a show through the prism of childhood memory can cast a rose tinted glow on its content that amplifies its successes and blurs out its failures. 1992-1997's X-Men, however, is every bit as great as you remember, which is particularly impressive given the budgetary constraints that plagued the show.
The X-Men animated series was clever and socially aware yet never preached or condescended to its juvenile audience. It had all the social responsibility you'd expect from an X-Men show and yet didn't short change viewers when it came to action or spectacle either. Plus, it gave us the best version of the "Dark Phoenix Saga" we're ever likely to see on-screen.
13 DOESN'T HOLD UP: JOHNNY BRAVO
Okay, okay, put your knives away. We're not saying that Johnny Bravo wasn't funny. We're not saying that it wasn't clever. We're not saying that its Adam West cameo was arguably better than that of Family Guy. We're not even saying that it doesn't still draw giggles from us.
But this self absorbed, body proud perfectly be-coiffed narcissist has ceased to be seen as a comedic character. He seems to have become a role model to many. Look around and you'll probably see a handful of Johnny Bravos the next time you visit the gym. Plus, his unabashedly misogynistic attitudes really don't play well in the 'woke' age.
12 STILL HOLDS UP: DARKWING DUCK
On paper, the success of Darkwing Duck makes absolutely no sense. A narcissistic superhero parody who dresses like The Shadow and operates like Batman... and lives in the same pocket of the Disney universe as DuckTales?!? Despite the cognitive dissonance implied by its premise, however, Darkwing Duck was a witty and charming Saturday morning cartoon that riffed on the superhero genre but was actually a pretty great superhero show in its own right.
The 'Terror That Flaps In The Night' had a civillian identity, a bumbling sidekick (DuckTales' Launchpad McQuack), an arsenal of Batman-like gadgets and theatrics, and a rogues gallery that included a Reverse Flash-esque palette swapped villain Negaduck. Altogether now... "Let's get dangerous!".
11 DOESN'T HOLD UP: FAMILY GUY
Let's be honest, everyone loved Family Guy when it was first released in 1999. It was essentially The Simpsons with the gloves taken off and replaced with knuckle dusters. It did more than lampoon the nuclear family dynamics of yesteryear's sitcoms, it came out with knives drawn for everything from pop culture to politics.
Yet, a half dozen seasons in the show started to believe a little too much in its own hype. It stopped being clever and insightful and became crass and profane for the sake of crassness and profanity. Sixteen seasons, three painfully un-funny Star Wars specials and a slapstick gag with a chicken that refuses to go away later, and we're all kinds of over Family Guy.
10 STILL HOLDS UP: ANIMANIACS
Animaniacs represents a balancing act that can only pulled off with intelligence, talent and a whole lot of wit. Its titular characters know that they're cartoon characters, giving them a Deadpool-esque sensibility with a fourth wall breaking meta-narrative sensibility that could be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. Yet, the show never winked at adult audiences too overtly.
The zany Warners were charming and memorable but the real selling point of the show was supporting characters, most notably Pinky and the Brain. In an era where studios' entire back catalogs of characters seem to get a glossy CGI remake, it's baffling that the Animaniacs have yet to be resurrected. Still, as the theme song says, at least they have pay or play contracts.
9 DOESN'T HOLD UP: REN & STIMPY
Time has not been kind to Ren & Stimpy. While many consider it the progenitor of the 'Calarts style' which has become fashionable to revile, the show's surreally avant garde visual sensibilities are the least of its worries. And no, we're not going to go into the controversy surrounding the show's creator.
The show simply isn't funny. Its over reliance on toilet humor, obsession with bodily functions and consequence-free violence are so crude that its a miracle that the show was aired on Nickelodeon in the relatively censorious '90s. While it still retains a loyal fan base, like the kid in school who would sit at the back of the class making fart noises... it's neither clever nor funny.
8 STILL HOLDS UP: RUGRATS
Readers who have or routinely look after kids will know that there's something genuinely wonderful about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. What made Rugrats so brilliant was how authentically it captured the titular infants' perspectives... and how equally wonderful and preposterous that perspective made the world around us look.
The way in which the show depicted the parents in particular, from Tommy's neurotic mother Didi to Angelica's yuppie parents Charlotte and Drew, was particularly delightful and showed juvenile audiences that there was absolutely nothing more ridiculous than the prospect of growing up. The spirit of imagination, adventure and discovery that pervades the show made even the most jaded viewer feel young at heart again.
7 DOESN'T HOLD UP: BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD
Mike Judge's Beavis & Butthead was a joke that none of us quite got back in the day but we still laughed along anyway. The show starred two adolescents who passed their time snickering and making boneheaded commentary on contemporary music videos. It's primary audience was... adolescents who spent their time doing much the same. Yup! This is what we did before YouTube comments were invented, kids.
Despite the fact that the two protagonists had absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever and never once learned the error of their ways, everyone sort of fell in love with them. However, to explain the show to a contemporary teenager, you'd first have to explain what MTV was.
6 STILL HOLDS UP: CAPTAIN PLANET AND THE PLANETEERS
Here's the thing... Captain Planet And the Planeteers had absolutely no right to be good. A kids' cartoon with a heavy handed message about geopolitics and environmental awareness? Kids should have rejected it in their masses. Yet, while it was often headache-inducingly cheesy, the show's winsome sincerity had to be admired.
The show had a stellar voice cast of eco-conscious celebs such as Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Goldblum and Sting and consistently delivered some nice action set pieces and earnest character interactions. It also taught kids the value of compassion, communication and understanding over punching and kicking. In an age where we're more aware than ever of the urgency of climate change, Captain Planet seems strangely prescient.
5 DOESN'T HOLD UP: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
While it is predominantly known as a '90s cartoon, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series actually first aired in 1987. Thus, like many of its contemporaries it suffers from flimsy characters, lazy plotting and ultra-sanitized melee combat.
While the show had a handful of genuinely good moments it was a far cry from its darker, edgier and more satirical comic book origins. The show was, like Transformers or The Real Ghostbusters, little more than a toy commercial. Oddly, however, the accompanying action figures were in fact more closely modeled on the comic book iterations of the characters than their cuddlier animated counterparts.
4 STILL HOLDS UP: THE POWERPUFF GIRLS
The Powerpuff Girls' mainstream appeal is a testament to its quality. Think about it -- a show about three adorable little girls with superpowers created by a professor who's also their surrogate father shouldn't traditionally appeal to many demographics outside of, well, little girls. But the show's ready wit, fastpaced action and delightfully self aware sense of humor made it a winner with just about everyone.
The show began life in 1998 but kept going well into the '00s. While the 2016 reboot lacked the charm of its predecessor those original episodes are among the best content ever to come out of Cartoon Network.
3 DOESN'T HOLD UP: COW AND CHICKEN
Was this ever a good idea? Wearing its Ren & Stimpy influence very much on its sleeve the show also employed the same surreal sense of humor. Thankfully, however, it was a little less graphic and crass than what came before. Hanna-Barbera alumnus David Feiss created the comedy duo for his daughter; an anthropomorphic cow and chicken living in a predominantly human world.
The show lacked the intelligence and sophistication that many of its contemporaries (even the ostensibly silly ones) and leaned way too heavily on toilet humor. While it was occasionally successful in lampooning many of the conventions of kids' cartoons even at its best it offered nothing that other shows weren't already doing much better.
2 STILL HOLDS UP: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
'Perfect' isn't a word that should be bandied about without due care and attention, but Batman: The Animated Series is quite simply perfect. The show not only set a new standard for visuals and animation standards, it set an unbelievably high bar for narrative sophistication, character development and plot.
An argument could be made that B:TAS is the best iteration of Batman in any medium. And with a brand new HD remaster on the way on Blu-ray and DC's streaming service DC Unlimited, audiences both all and new will soon get to see this classic show looking better than ever!
1 DOESN'T HOLD UP: THE SIMPSONS
A lot of The Simpsons still holds up. In fact the so-called 'Golden Age' of episodes between seasons one and nine are every bit as brilliant as you remember. But The Simpsons as a concept... doesn't hold up so well. No, we're not going to go over the well trodden ground about how the show isn't as good as it used to be. Nothing is as good as The Simpsons used to be!
The fact is, however, that the formulaic family driven sitcoms of the '70s and '80s that The Simpsons lampooned have not been en vogue for quite some time. Plus, in the wake of the Apu controversy perhaps the show's comedic touchstones are less relevant as we near the 2020s.