Top 20 Best Cartoons of the Century So Far

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Top 20 Best Cartoons of the Century So Far

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
The best cartoons of the century so far have demonstrates just how far television animation's come since Hanna-Barbera. For this list, we'll be looking at animated shows that have had the greatest impact on the 21st century to date. Our countdown includes “Adventure Time,” “Big Mouth,” “BoJack Horseman,” and more!
Transcript
Note: all VO to be redone as original is old, from 2015

Top 20 Best Cartoons of the Century So Far

Small screen animation doesn’t just belong to Hanna-Barbera anymore. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 Best Cartoons of the Century So Far.

For this list, we’ll be looking at animated shows that have had the greatest impact on the 21st century to date. We’re including shows that started in the late 90s as long as they aired the majority of their run in this century.

#20: “Big Mouth” (2017-)

#20: “Big Mouth” (2017-)
If “The Simpsons” was considered jaw-dropping back in the day, then “Big Mouth” would’ve made people’s jaws drop right off. Inspired by Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg’s own childhoods, this adult animated series exists somewhere between the blunt reality that middle schoolers face daily and their most inappropriate fantasies brought to life. It’s a show that explores subjects like puberty and planned parenthood, but it also has hormone monsters and talking pillows. At times, the series is like a sex education course if it were taught by comedians with wild imaginations. All the flights of fancy and gross-out gags aside, the show is surprisingly relatable for anyone who’s gone through puberty or is at that awkward stage in life. Plus, who doesn’t love Coach Steve?

#19: “The Boondocks” (2005-14)

#19: “The Boondocks” (2005-14)
“Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” this ain’t. Before she was an Oscar winner, Regina King voiced Huey and Riley Freeman, two opinionated African American children living in a white suburb. When you’re 10 and 8 years old, you’re more inclined to voice your thoughts, no matter how much they might trigger others. That’s exactly what “The Boondocks” did on a regular basis. Touching upon race relations, politics, and taboo subjects you definitely wouldn’t see on a live-action sitcom, the show didn’t just push people’s buttons. It ripped their buttons clean off and refused to apologize. Its unfiltered commentary made “The Boondocks” not only one of the most controversial cartoons ever to hit the airwaves, but also one of the most hilarious and provocative.

#18: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2012-17)

#18: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2012-17)
You’d think with two long-running cartoon shows already under their belt, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise would be officially exhausted. Yet, the new Nickelodeon reboot has taken all the best parts of previous incarnations to fashion what may be the franchise’s most impressive outing ever. The showrunners have worked in a number of their own inspired signatures too, including some Beauty and the Beast-style romance, ongoing parodies, morals that never feel forced, brilliant twists and unique animation - not to mention the catchiest rendition of the classic theme song you’ll ever hear.

#17: “Justice League” (2001-04)

#17: “Justice League” (2001-04)
From “Teen Titans” to “Young Justice,” DC has given us some of the century’s best superhero ensemble pieces. Yet, it’s hard to imagine anything topping “Justice League” or its equally ambitious sequel series, “Justice League Unlimited.” Taking place in the same continuity as “Batman” and “Superman: The Animated Series,” this series expanded upon the DC animated universe with more heroes and villains. While a dream come true for comic book fans, the show was also a great introduction for those not as familiar with the DC brand. You don’t need to read the source material to get sucked in by its stellar action, refreshing humor, and epic storytelling. Forget about that silly Snyder Cut. This is the best version of “Justice League” out there.

#16: “Regular Show” (2010-17)

#16: “Regular Show” (2010-17)
Any slacker who’s ever held a boring job will likely appreciate the off-the-wall lunacy of “Regular Show.” Centered on a Blue Jay named Mordecai and raccoon named Rigby, “Regular Show” always starts off with an everyday work-related scenario. Whether Mordecai and Rigby are setting up chairs or making hot dogs, they somehow always end up on wild misadventures involving mystical settings and beings. Funny and bizarre, the series demonstrates that excitement can be found even at the most tedious of jobs – especially if you have a good friend by your side.

#15: “The Fairly OddParents” (2001-17)

#15: “The Fairly OddParents” (2001-17)
Butch Hartman’s breakout series has one of the most inspired premises we’ve seen in any cartoon: a ten-year-old boy receives fairy godparents who grant him wishes, which usually come with an ironic twist. This setup made leeway for a ton of creative scenarios, taking Timmy Turner back in time, around the world, and even across the realm of television. Along the way, the show dropped numerous in-jokes and references that made Timmy’s adventures just as much fun for adults as they were for kids. While “The Fairly OddParents” did go on much longer than it should’ve, those early years remain among Nickelodeon’s finest. If you’re looking for a Butch Hartman series that’ll have you pleading for even more, there’s always the widely underrated “Danny Phantom.”

#14: “Phineas and Ferb” (2007-15)

#14: “Phineas and Ferb” (2007-15)
Growing up, every kid likely dreamed of spending their summer vacations building rollercoasters in their backyards and traveling around the world. Chances are that you just ended up staying inside watching TV, though. “Phineas and Ferb” takes all of our summer daydreams and turns them into reality, encouraging kids everywhere to make the most of their free time through the tool of imagination. It does so with appealing candy colors, joyous music, and timeless characters. Oh, and there’s also a mad scientist and secret agent platypus, which are both awesome.

#13: “Bob’s Burgers” (2011-)

#13: “Bob’s Burgers” (2011-)
An animated sitcom about a traditional family was nothing new when “Bob’s Burgers” premiered. If anything, it sounded incredibly run-of-the-mill, especially for Fox’s animation block. The show almost immediately won over audiences, however, with its character-driven comedy, not to mention the characters themselves. It’s hard to single out a favorite in the Belcher clan, all of whom are so eccentric, but feel all-too-real. The series was developed by Loren Bouchard of “Home Movies” and Jim Dauterive of “King of the Hill.” You can definitely see their signatures here with working-class parents and rambunctious kids. While the show certainly isn’t without its wackier moments, the setting and scenarios give it a slice of life quality, or perhaps we should say slider of life.

#12: “Archer” (2009-)

#12: “Archer” (2009-)
While on the surface “Archer” might look like a comedy about spies, it’s actually a comedy about great characters. Animated or not, Adam Reed’s show has evolved into one of TV’s finest ensemble pieces of egomaniacs, psychopaths, sociopaths, and Cokey Monsters. It doesn’t even matter what the setting or premise is. As long as any of these characters are involved, the dialogue’s bound to be exceptionally crafted, the callbacks will be some of the sharpest since “Arrested Development,” and of course the voice actors will play off each other perfectly.

#11: “Samurai Jack” (2001-04; 2017)

#11: “Samurai Jack” (2001-04; 2017)
Genndy Tartakovsky created “Samurai Jack” partially in response to the action shows he watched growing up, feeling that they were too exposition and dialogue-heavy. “Samurai Jack” thus kept things simple, letting the eye-popping visuals do a majority of the talking. Just because its premise and characters were simple, though, doesn’t mean that the show was lacking in depth. On the contrary, Tartakovsky demonstrated how a single facial expression can tell us so much more than a monologue. Tartakovsky would use this same approach for “Star Wars: Clone Wars” and “Primal.” “Samurai Jack” remains his crowning achievement, however. While the first four seasons treated its audience like adults, the fifth and final officially saw the series grow up, finishing Jack’s journey on a deeply satisfying note.

#10: “Steven Universe” (2013-19)

#10: “Steven Universe” (2013-19)
Creator Rebecca Sugar challenged animation norms with “Steven Universe,” addressing sexuality, gender roles, and other coming-of-age themes that most kid-friendly shows wouldn’t/couldn’t speak of in the past. “Steven Universe” tackles these subjects in a way that’s easy for children to understand, but also sophisticated enough to resonate with older audiences. At its core, the series is about the importance of individuality, speaking out against those who force their ideals on others. What many view as perfection is often more flawed than we’re led to believe. After all, if every porkchop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs. As heavy as its morals are, “Steven Universe” is balanced out with a colorful visual style and a lovable protagonist whose wisdom lies in his innocence.

#9: “Gravity Falls” (2012-16)

#9: “Gravity Falls” (2012-16)
Let’s pretend this never made WatchMojo’s “Top 10 Hated Disney Animated Shows” list and appreciate “Gravity Falls” for the revelation in creativity it is. Earning comparisons to shows like “Lost,” “Twin Peaks” and “The Twilight Zone,” creator Alex Hirsch has fashioned one of the funniest and most addictive paranormal shows of all time, as well as one of the best stories ever told about a brother and sister. With numerous jokes and foreshadowing clues hidden in every frame, you’ll want to watch each “Gravity Falls” episode multiple times to catch them all.

#8: “Futurama” (1999-2013)

#8: “Futurama” (1999-2013)
While he may be best-known for giving us the residents of Springfield, Matt Groening has since taken us to the 31st century in “Futurama” and the realm of fantasy in “Disenchantment.” “Futurama” in particular saw Groening and co-creator David X. Cohen grow as storytellers. While the series was mostly episodic, all the characters showed significant growth throughout the seasons, never succumbing to Flanderization. Fry and Leela’s ongoing relationship notably kept fans invested for over a decade. As humorous and inventive as the show could be, it’s the emotional episodes that we remember best. Between Fry’s lucky clover and his dog Seymour, the emotions ran the gamut from bittersweet to devastating. Not bad for a cartoon with a robot whose catchphrase is: [broll: “bite my shiny, metal ass!”]

#7: “SpongeBob SquarePants” (1999-)


#7: “SpongeBob SquarePants” (1999-)
Although Nickelodeon produced a slew of successful cartoons during the 90s, “SpongeBob SquarePants” reached unprecedented levels of popularity for the network. This yellow sponge remains Nick’s unofficial mascot, standing out as the brand’s Mickey Mouse. “SpongeBob” encompasses much of the surreal, occasionally risque humor you’d find in “Ren & Stimpy” or “Rocko’s Modern Life.” At the same time, the series possesses a sincere optimism more akin to “Rugrats” or “Hey Arnold!” This unlikely combo has made “SpongeBob” a favorite among children, parents, and even college students. The series was admittedly never quite the same after Season 3 when creator Stephen Hillenburg left. If SpongeBob has taught us anything, though, it’s that even a downhearted day can evolve into the best day ever.

#6: “South Park” (1997-)


#6: “South Park” (1997-)
Most shows tend to peak sometime during their first couple seasons. With “South Park,” we’d argue that the show found its voice as the 90s came to a close and the new century ushered us into a brave new world. “South Park” has seen us through some especially trying times. Even during the darkest hours, “South Park” has been there to provide a unique perspective and a laugh. While some of the best episodes are simply about the boys just being boys, others are like time capsules that capture the zeitgeist to a T. Even after surpassing its 20th season, “South Park” remains more experimental and thought-provoking than most long-running cartoons.

#5: “Family Guy” (1999-2003; 2005-)


#5: “Family Guy” (1999-2003; 2005-)
It’s rare that a show is revived by a passionate cult following, but it’s even rarer when a show comes roaring back more popular than ever. “Family Guy” demonstrated the power of fandom, but that’s not the only reason Seth MacFarlane’s adult cartoon spoke to a generation of viewers. Nowadays, we’re used to seeing send-ups of obscure, nostalgic properties everywhere. “Family Guy” was ahead of the curve, however, with many of its cutaway gags poking fun at random facets of pop culture. Every moment tries to make you laugh and at its height, “Family Guy” hit its target like a fistful of chicken feathers. The show would dip in quality somewhere down the line, but that’s where “American Dad!” started picking up the slack.

#4: “BoJack Horseman” (2014-20)


#4: “BoJack Horseman” (2014-20)
The past two decades have given us a lot of animated shows that crept up on audiences with their dramatic impact, but none hit harder than “BoJack Horseman.” What started as a silly satire of Hollywood - we mean Hollywoo - matured into a character study about television’s most complex soul this side of Don Draper. Even before #MeToo and #TimesUp were trending, “BoJack” was already commenting on the toxic behavior that goes on behind the scenes of celebrity culture. It might be about a talking horse, but few shows are as brutally honest. Although it could feel like a Tennessee Williams play at times, “BoJack” also managed to tackle a wide range of different comedy styles, effortlessly transitioning between tragicomedy and lighthearted puns.

#3: “Rick and Morty” (2013-)

#3: “Rick and Morty” (2013-)
If you took the inventiveness of “Doctor Who,” the characters of “Back to the Future,” and the meta humor of “Community,” you’d get “Rick and Morty.” Although the series is still young, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have created a universe where the possibilities are limitless, both in terms of sci-fi and comedy. The belching Rick and neurotic Morty’s adventures can take them anywhere, from foreign planets, to inside dreams, to the multiverse’s countless different realities. Wherever they go, we can’t wait to go along for another ride.

#2: “Adventure Time” (2010-18)

#2: “Adventure Time” (2010-18)
After several seasons on the air, most shows eventually settle into a predictable groove. With “Adventure Time,” however, people never know what to expect whenever they tune in. Will we get a surreal episode, a laugh-out-loud funny episode, an emotional episode, an epic episode, or an episode changes everything we know about the characters we’ve come to adore? Whatever “Adventure Time” aspires to do, it almost always hits a bull’s-eye with its one-of-a-kind animation style, ingenious plotting, and endless creativity, transcending all the standard storytelling conventions we’re used to seeing.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Clone High” (2002-03)

“Over the Garden Wall” (2014)

“Kim Possible” (2002-07)

“Robot Chicken” (2005-)

“The Amazing World of Gumball” (2011-)

#1: “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2005-08)

#1: “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2005-08)
Coming out at a time when most animated shows either went past their expiration date or ended abruptly with no closure, “Avatar” was something of an anomaly. The series started incredibly strong and somehow ended even more strongly, delivering everything the creators set out to accomplish over the course of three epic seasons. It’s hard to think of another show - animated or live-action - that so flawlessly balanced action, comedy, romance, drama, and serialized storytelling, always knowing exactly how much to give its viewers. The show’s style, themes, and world-building would inspire a sequel series with “The Legend of Korra,” as well as a spiritual successor of sorts with “The Dragon Prince.” Yet, “Avatar” remains the gold standard for what’s been a golden age of animated programming.


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