The first time The Simpsons ever aired on American television as its own show was 25 years ago Wednesday. That episode — "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" — was technically a "Christmas special," and the series would begin regularly airing the next month. But it legitimately changed television and became a touchstone for a whole generation of writers and animators. So we wondered — what have been the 25 best animated series since The Simpsons debuted? And after a lot of wrangling (and leaving a lot of series we loved off the list), this is what we came up with. Please note: This list solely focuses on North American animation, which is most likely to have been influenced by The Simpsons. It's not that we don't like Japanese or European animation.
Created by: Dino Stamatopoulos
Aired on: Adult Swim
Ran: 2005-2008, 2012
Dino Stamatopoulos's riff on the old Christian cartoon series Davey & Goliath seemed, in its first season, like it was going to be a weak-sauce parody of something that didn't particularly need further parodying. But in its second and third seasons, the show deepened and grew into something lovely, stark, and heartbreaking. Particularly in season three, the show became about the journey from a life of faith to a life of disbelief, while trying to remain a good person on either end, and in the young boy of the title, the series found the perfect religious seeker for the post-ironic age. The show returned for one special in 2012, but its true high point was its final two seasons.
Watch it: The program is notoriously difficult to find. At present, a handful of episodes are available on DVD and for digital download.
Rick and Morty
Created by: Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon
Airs on: Adult Swim
On paper, Rick and Morty sounds like a good idea for a comedy sketch and a disastrous concept for a whole show: a parody of Back to the Future only with a sociopathic Doc and a more bumbling, idiotic Marty, and with space travel in addition to time travel. It shouldn't work, but Roiland (who voices both Doc-analogue Rick and Marty-analogue Morty) and Harmon have sustained it for 11 glorious episodes so far, without diminishing returns. It shares the love of pop culture pastiche of Harmon's other show, Community, and refuses to take the easy way out of humanizing Rick by painting him as grumpy-but-ultimately-good. He's just a bad person, and the show's much funnier for it. Take the time where he orders Morty to shoot at a race of insect people, assuring him that "it's okay to shoot them, they're robots." Morty shoots, the insect person he hits cries out in agony, and Rick clarifies that the robot thing was "a figure of speech. They're bureaucrats, I don't respect them." The whole show's like that: Rick deceiving Morty into helping him do unconscionable things and waving off his objections. It's wonderful.
Watch it: It's available on DVD and for digital download.
Created by: Alex Hirsch
Airs on: Disney Channel/Disney XD
Alex Hirsch's lunatic attempt to mash up the long summers of his youth with a whole fleet of weird and paranormal phenomena came out of nowhere to become one of the best series the Disney Channel had aired in years. What set this series apart was its dedication to telling sweet, whimsical character stories amid the chaos, with twin brother and sister duo Dipper and Mabel Pines making for two of the best characters in the recent animation sphere. The show could be wild and funny, yes, but it could also be surprisingly poignant and moving, and its finest episodes, like "The Time Traveler's Pig," are as much about the relationships between the characters as any sci-fi devices.
Watch it: The show is available on a handful of DVDs and for digital download.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Created by: Matt Maiellardo and Dave Willis
Airs on: Adult Swim
Just try explaining Aqua Teen Hunger Force to someone who has never seen it. There's this box of fries named Frylock who lives with an immature, troublemaking milkshake and a slow-witted wad of meat (aptly named Meatwad). Their next-door neighbor is the fat, slovenly, often-perverted Carl. Plus, the show's evolved so much over its run that it's only barely about any of the above anymore. Because creators Matt Maiellardo and Dave Willis have created a universe in which anything can and does happen, ATHF gives them a seemingly limitless canvas for their likewise apparently limitless capacity for weirdness.
Watch it: Much of the run is on DVD and digital download. The first two seasons are on Netflix.
Created by: Adam Reed
Airs on: FX
The basic idea behind Archer — an office comedy, only at an office full of secret agents — is hardly original. But the execution is stellar. A lot of elements are borrowed from Reed's previous Adult Swim shows Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021 (both contenders for this list), but channeled into a more traditional format, where the singularly bizarre characters and joke-heavy dialogue can shine. Sterling Archer is a mash-up of like 15 different stock characters: the debonair Bond-esque spy, the hyper-allusive smart aleck ("who am I, Karl Landsteiner?" he replies when asked for his blood type), the caddish lothario, the mama's boy with abandonment issues, and so on. Even more impressive is Pam Poovey, a character who genuinely could not exist on any other show. Only on Archer could the office HR director be a coke-loving, sexually aggressive underground fighter who has the entire third stanza of Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" tattooed on her back, just below a running tally of the men she's killed.
Watch it: The series is available for digital download, and it's on Amazon Prime streaming.
Created by: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein
Aired on: The WB, Adult Swim
Ran: 1999-2000; 2002
Oakley and Weinstein served as co-showrunners for The Simpsons in seasons seven and eight, when the show took a turn toward more realistic, emotionally grounded storylines, ones which served Lisa particularly well (see "Lisa the Iconoclast," or "Summer of 4'2""). So it's perhaps not surprising that its next series featured another precocious, misunderstand protagonist: 17-year-old Kevin French, who is forced to move in with his older brother Andy when his parents move to Wyoming. Kevin is more insecure and socially inept than Lisa ever was, which makes the amount of empathy Oakley and Weinstein depict him with all the more affecting. The show still feels strikingly current. Andy's apartment is in the titular neighborhood of Mission Hill, a blend of every neighborhood that would become a haven of hip twentysomething culture in the ‘00s. Andy's an underemployed recent college grad who dreams of becoming a cartoonist, which is practically a cliché after the financial crisis but feels startlingly prescient here.
Watch it: The complete run is collected on DVD.
Created by: Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, Mike Judge
Aired on: MTV
Daria Morgendorffer first appeared as the aloof, sharp-witted, recurring foil to teenage dumbasses Beavis and Butt-head. But the show's spinoff status was always obscured. Its first episode aired nine months after the original run of its parent show and contained very little reference to it. Daria and best friend Jane spend their time contemplating the absurdity of life while mocking suburban teenagehood. The show runs on the basic underlying premise that life simply isn't fair and no one can find true happiness, particularly in high school. The series is relentlessly uncompromising and is thrillingly free of the typical melodrama and sentimentality associated with fictional depictions of female adolescence.
Watch it: The entire series is available on DVD and Amazon Prime.
Created by: Seth MacFarlane, Mike Barker, Matt Weitzman
Airs on: Fox, TBS
A famous gag in The Simpsons involves Homer coming upon a picture of Family Guy's Peter Griffin, labeled "plagiarismo," only to turn the page and find a picture of American Dad patriarch Stan Smith, labeled "plagiarismo di plagiarismo." And that's the reputation this show has had for far too long, living in the shadow of all of the other shows that more or less look like it. But this is actually the best thing co-creator Seth MacFarlane has ever put his name on, a skewed look at suburban life that abandons anything like Family Guy-style pop culture cutaway gags in favor of the grandly, outlandishly surreal. Start watching from about season three on. You might be surprised how sharp, funny, and dark this show can be.
Watch it: New episodes air on TBS, while the show itself is available on DVD, for digital download, and on Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Created by: Michael Dante Di Martino, Bryan Konietzko
Aired on: Nickelodeon
Ostensibly a children's series, it was no surprise when the rich, involving Avatar: The Last Airbender started wrapping in those kids' parents - and then people who didn't even have children at all. The show's mythology was so beautifully thought out and its story so arresting and perfect that it couldn't help but draw in viewers, always pushing forward to the next big confrontation or story point. The show takes place in a world of "benders," who can each manipulate one of the four classical elements, and at its center is the idea of someone who might be able to manipulate all four in one person. The action sequences are terrific, but the show is also worth watching for its visuals, which are influenced by cultures from all over the world. A loose spinoff, The Legend of Korra, set in the same world, is almost as good.
Watch it: The show is on DVD. It can also be purchased for digital download and streamed on Amazon Prime.
The Ren & Stimpy Show
Created by: John Kricfalusi
Aired on: Nickelodeon
The most critically acclaimed and influential of Nickelodeon's original trio of "Nicktoons" (joined by Rugrats and Doug), Ren & Stimpy is also a tale of war between network and creator, as Nickelodeon wasn't entirely aware of what it was going to get when it commissioned the series from animator Kricfalusi. What he turned in was wild, weird, and wonderful, far beyond anything anyone could have imagined. It garnered a cult following and surprisingly robust ratings. But his work was also more than the ostensible children's network was prepared to handle. He was dismissed after the second season, and the show became a shadow of itself. Still, we'll always have the first two seasons of a cat and dog behaving very badly.
Watch it: The series is available on DVD, with a few episodes streaming on Amazon Prime.
Created by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Bill Lawrence
Aired on: MTV
From one point of view, Clone High is yet another story of a cluster of hormone-riddled teens attending high school. What makes the show interesting, however, is that these teens are clones of important historical figures who are attending a high school secretly being run as an elaborate military experiment. (You know. That premise you've seen a million times before.) A moody Abraham Lincoln pines over the promiscuous Cleopatra, while Joan of Arc longs after Lincoln. Meanwhile, a womanizing John F. Kennedy also chases after Cleopatra, supported by his best bro, Gandhi. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Clone High manages to find the funny and the bittersweet in the midst of all that weirdness.
Watch it: The complete series is on DVD.
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
Created by: Bruce Timm, Paul Dini
Aired on: Cartoon Network
The DC Animated Universe remains one of the best dramatic interpretations of superheroes ever placed on any size screen. In Justice League and its continuation series Justice League Unlimited, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were free to use just about any character they wanted in pursuit of telling the best superhero stories possible. By digging into the DC vaults, beyond just Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, they were able to tell sprawling, enthralling tales that could be over in half an episode or could stretch out for weeks at a time. Western animation still isn't often sure what to make of serialized storytelling, but Justice League made it look surprisingly easy.
Watch it: The series is on DVD.
The Venture Bros.
Created by: Jackson Publick, Doc Hammer
Airs on: Adult Swim
Production of this series has been so spaced out that every new season — sometimes arriving after hiatuses that last years — is greeted as an event. And the show has also gotten steadily more popular in that time, as more and more viewers embrace the series' elaborate deconstruction of roughly a half-century of American pulp storytelling. Two brothers, the sons of a brilliant scientist, travel the world on missions of derring-do, along with their bodyguard, Brock, a mountain of a man who's ready for combat in almost every instance. But what makes the show are the moments between missions, when the longing for a faded, glorious past becomes so palpable it seems to emanate from the screen. This is, in some ways, a show about how America sees itself, versus how it actually is, and it's brilliant for it.
Watch it: The series is available on DVD and for digital download.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast
Created by: Mike Lazzo, Alex Toth
Aired on: Adult Swim
One of the most deceptively influential series of the past several decades, Space Ghost took the characters from a junky old Hanna-Barbera series and inserted them into the middle of a talk-show setting, where they could have the most possibility for utter strangeness. Celebrities dropped by to be interviewed, while the rest of the show's backstage shenanigans played out with an utterly straight face, even though one of the major characters was an evil praying mantis named Zorak. Was it terribly sophisticated? No. But it invented a whole new programming bloc — Adult Swim — and proved surrealism could sell in late-night TV.
Watch it: Some of the series is available on DVD.
The Powerpuff Girls
Created by: Craig McCracken
Aired on: Cartoon Network
One of the things that has made Western TV animation so exciting in the post-Simpsons era is the brace of visual stylization. TV can't exactly have the production schedule of an animated film, so, instead, it has embraced wild, outside the box artistic styles, to its benefit. Take, for instance, the Day-Glo pastel world of The Powerpuff Girls, three little girls created in a scientific experiment and gifted with superpowers. The show borrows freely from a wide variety of pulp sources, but what's most remarkable about it is the way that it seems like a little kid's strangest doodles come to life. It's also notable for being the rare animated series of its time to boast girls as the central characters.
Watch it: The complete series is on DVD and available for digital download.
Created by: Genndy Tartakovsky
Aired on: Cartoon Network
Genndy Tartakovsky was responsible for so much great TV animation in the ‘90s and 2000s, but this artful, gorgeous series is his crown jewel. The series' plot follows a samurai warrior who's been tossed into the wrong time and longs to get back to his own era, but that's just an excuse to show off some of the best animation to ever appear on television, to say nothing of the show's sparse dialogue, which allows even more time to appreciate the lush visuals. Animation is too often viewed in the US as a joke-delivery mechanism or a way to keep the kids occupied. Samurai Jack could be both of those, but at its core, it was a deeply beautiful series, set in an unusual world.
Watch it: It can be found on DVD and for digital download.
Created by: Stephen Hillenburg
Airs on: Nickelodeon
If The Simpsons spearheaded the idea that a single animated could contain both jokes about art history, and completely absurdist humor about donuts, SpongeBob SquarePants proved both kinds of humor could work in a children's show that starred a sponge who lived in a pineapple under the sea and worked at a hamburger joint called the Krusty Krab. Like The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants made jokes that could only work in animation, like SpongeBob's friend Sandy, a squirrel who wears an astronaut suit to live underwater, but it also made smart points about the meaning of community. Both shows return to the same locations over and over again, imbuing them with meaning, making these series as much about the places they are set in as character or plot. Plus, SpongeBob proved hugely popular, becoming the longest-running animated series Nickelodeon had ever shown.
Watch it: Many episodes are available on Amazon Prime.
Beavis and Butt-head
Created by: Mike Judge
Aired on: MTV
Ran: 1993-1997, 2011
The Simpsons was the original "who will think of the children?!" series in terms of inspiring weird cultural panics about kids inappropriately idolizing animated characters. But after it became a bit more of a cultural institution, the mantle was taken up by this hugely entertaining series of shorts about two incredibly idiotic teenagers who waste their days away in the middle of nowhere, watching MTV and getting into stupid adventures. Watching Beavis and Butt-head now is to be slightly amused that anybody ever found it so scandalous, but maybe that's just because we all live in the world it created, one sort of vacuous and pointless and filled with ephemera.
Watch it: Due to the music video segments used, it is impossible to find the original versions of these shows. However, several episodes are collected on DVD.
Created by: Tom Ruegger
Aired on: Fox/The WB
It's easy to point to The Simpsons as a watershed moment in TV animation, because, well, it was. But Warner Brothers' contributions to that growth have largely been forgotten, because the studio mostly gave up on its television animation division. (Disney was also doing impressive work, though none of its shows from the era made this list.) Foremost among the studio's output for kids was this series, which started at manic and just kept getting more and more frantic with every episode. It was nothing but a joke-delivery system, but, man, those jokes were hilarious.
Watch it: The series is on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime.
Created by: Loren Bouchard
Airs on: Fox
Bob's Burgers should be boring. Its premise is straight out of the Fox animation playbook: a middle-class family with a slightly bumbling father, responsible mom, and 2.5 kids gets itself into hilarious situations. However, creator Loren Bouchard makes these recognizable characters all the funnier by giving the show a twist of absurdity — for starters, teenage Tina is voiced to wonderfully awkward effect by a deep-voiced Dan Mintz, a choice that reveals its perfection almost immediately. But what makes Bob's Burgers work is that it's not afraid to make these characters likable, even when they're deeply strange. This is a show that's willing to go a few steps wackier (and dirtier) than The Simpsons, without venturing into the chilly, just-testing-your-good-taste-limits zone of Family Guy. And that turns out to be the sweet spot.
Watch it: The first three seasons are on DVD and Netflix. The current, fifth season is on Hulu.
Created by: Matt Groening
Aired on: Fox, Comedy Central
Ran: 1999-2003; 2008-2013
Futurama premiered with a very clear organizing premise: what if the distant future is just like today, only more future-y? "Traditionally, you have either the overly optimistic world's fair/chamber of commerce/The Jetsons point of view or you have dark, drippy, cyberpunk, creepy future á la Blade Runner or Brazil or The Fifth Element," Groening said in a Mother Jones interview at the time. "I'm trying to offer an alternative that's more like the way things are right now, which is a mix of the wonderful and horrible." The show evolved considerably over its seven seasons (four for Fox, three after being revived by Comedy Central), but that central idea remained intact. Philip Fry, the protagonist, was a delivery boy when he was a cryogenically frozen in 1999, and he's still a delivery boy when he wakes up again in 3000. There are still terrible soap operas. Richard Nixon's still president. The result plays with more or less the same dynamics as normal sitcom but with a whole sci-fi world to boot.
Watch it: The complete series is available on DVD and Netflix streaming.
Batman: The Animated Series
Created by: Jean McCurdy, Tom Ruegger
Aired on: Fox
Moody, stylish, and packed full of adult appeal, Batman: The Animated Series felt like a nod toward what a Batman project could be in an era when director Tim Burton would leave the film franchise behind in favor of (shudder) Joel Schumacher. The series' aim was simple: tell good stories about Batman. It didn't always succeed at that, but even in the episodes that didn't work, it was relentlessly focused on pushing the boundaries of what people expected TV animation to do. It launched the DC Animated Universe, and it proved that lots of people would tune in for animation that was more than jokes aimed at kids.
Watch it: The series is on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime.
Created by: Pendleton Ward
Airs on: Cartoon Network
It's easy to miss how epic Adventure Time's achievement is, because the show is told in discrete 11-minute chunks. But the story of a boy named Finn and his dog named Jake takes viewers around every corner of the cheerful, post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, gradually revealing that it has more on its mind than whimsy. (That said, its whimsy game is airtight.) What's amazing is how even now, six seasons in, the show continues to surprise and impress with its wicked sense of humor and the depth of its raw emotions. This is a show that attempts to depict the hard truths of growing up symbolically and metaphorically, rather than directly. That it succeeds as often as it does makes it one of the best shows on TV right now.
Watch it: Several seasons are on DVD. The first two are streaming on Netflix.
Created by: Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Airs on: Comedy Central
South Park has run into the same thing The Simpsons has. It's been on the air so damn long that it's basically run out of stories to tell and is now riffing on its own history. (The Simpsons has proved more successful at this because it's more willing to go in for sentimentality.) But that's no matter. For roughly 10 years, South Park was one of the most thrillingly funny, inventive series on the air, a show that was willing to go for broke for any gag, be it a gross-out or political one. The show's politics occasionally seemed all over the place (mostly boiling down to "just leave us alone!"), but the fact that it even dared to go in for politics — in a show ostensibly about some kids in a small town in Colorado — made it all the more fascinating. It's a time capsule of the time in which it was made, but a great one.
Watch it: Every episode is available at the South Park website and on Hulu.
King of the Hill
Created by: Mike Judge and Greg Daniels
Aired on: Fox
It might seem a little weird to top a list of best cartoons with a series that could have so easily been live-action, but that's one of the chief appeals of King of the Hill. The series, about a family and group of friends living in a small Texas town, gains so much from creators Mike Judge and Greg Daniels's dual senses of both place and character. The people of this world are so finely drawn they could only exist here, yet they're also so universally recognizable that you probably know a version of each and every one of them in your own life. That's an incredibly difficult balance to manage, but King of the Hill managed it for the bulk of its long, long run. Even more impressive was how willing the show was to be still, to let its jokes come from silence, or even from going terrifyingly dark. Between The Simpsons and King of the Hill, broadcast networks tried and failed with many primetime animated shows. But after King of the Hill, the genre was here to stay. As well it should have been.
Watch it: The show is, thankfully, being rediscovered, as its entire run gradually makes its way onto DVD and digital download.
- Editor Timothy Lee
- Copy Editor Kelsey McKinney
- Developer Yuri Victor
- Image Credit Fox