Hey everyone, here’s the first list I’ve done in quite a while. I’ve been wanting to do this for a very long time and finally found the time to get around to it. I hope you enjoy!
Honorable Mentions (shows that came close, or shows I am otherwise only semi-familiar with):
Daria – Identifying with Generation X on a molecular level, Daria is in many ways the antithesis of the other major class of 1997 animation, South Park. Studious, reticent, and weary, Daria is a life-questioning exercise in stasis as a fundamental principle of existence.
The Flintstones – Telling parody of mid-century Americana and how it both filtered through, and was informed by, the development of television and the middlebrow sitcom style that The Flintstones apes. Has lost some of its bite over time, and it wasn’t exactly Nicholas Ray to begin with, but still an amusingly barbed, early expedition into the development of what might be denoted a modern American culture.
Johnny Bravo – A meaningful expose of pompadour-strutting, greaser-fronting male chauvinism and inadequacy with hints of surprising sensitivity and periodic cartwheels into cherished absurdity and whimsical slantwise pop-culture parodies before it become the nom de plume of animation.
The List, in Alphabetical Order:
Pendleton Ward’s epoch-defining animated ball of pliant clay is probably the poster-child for modern animation’s free-wheeling no-compunction attitude toward logic. Boasting a simple, unadorned animation style that serves as a catalyst for dethroning narrative complication and restively pursuing its unique brand of demented whimsy, the relatively simple, undefined nature of the Cartoon Network house drawing style avoids filling-in the characters or environments not out of failure to complicate them but as a spirited buttress to their endless fluidity and flexibility. Filling the show’s look in with detail would only ossify the endlessly kinetic, kaleidoscopic, nearly cubist nature of the mile-a-minute, cocaine-addled comedic style that is as much about reconfiguring the audience’s worldly understanding of basic geometric shape as it is about conventional “jokes”. Other shows have “done” it better, but Adventure Time is still the opening gambit in anyone’s argument these days for animated television as a sort of storytelling anti-matter disabused of common sense or even a modicum of explanation. The potential for animation to follow its heart’s content in applying the childlike anti-logic of an emotional miscreant flowers fully within.
A kiddie insurrectionist take on post-modernism from before this sort of deconstructionist ethos was hip, Animaniacs is slightly trivial in comparison to the naughtier, more mutinous works that have come in the ensuing two decades (it seems downright sober compared to even Adventure Time). But the playful, sprightly, carnivalesque show remains both a reworking of the latent expression of a world spiraling out of control implicit in the original Looney Tunes cartoons as well as an oddly prescient extension of The Simpsons’ rejiggering of television tropes for a new-fangled Clintonesque world. Sure, as an animated tumor, it never metastasized into the downright society-upending conflagration that future exercises in comedic anarchy would. But as babies’ first metatextual show, it is a divine trip back into the inflection point where animated TV would split off from the halcyon, innocent river of old and into the distorted tributaries of the modern era.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
While most animated shows vaguely mask their rejection of narrative progression, Aqua Teen Hunger Force lets its ramshackle ridicule and psychotropic contempt for linear time and character logic bleed both raw and profusely. The premier breakout hit of Adult Swim’s sometimes subversive, often overweening animation block, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is one of the only shows fronted by the channel that genuinely bridges the gap between astringent and genuinely transgressive. Instituted as a satire of the superhero genre, the Hunger Force cross-pollinates bracingly unpremeditated surrealism with a nearly brutalistic animated style that can morph between charmingly insouciant and harshly apocalyptic on a dime. The later seasons took their toll on the series’ worth, but those early episodes feel like a trip into the carnal inner sanctum of animated television’s worst nightmares and most libidinous desires to simply exist without rules or regulations.
Batman: The Animated Series
Most animated series operate without the constraint of time on their hands, free to float every which way and short circuit temporal laws at their whim. This isn’t a knock against them; by and large, the pocket contempt most animation implicitly holds for the rigor of physics and the miasma of narrative logic is the very lifeblood coursing through the medium’s art, not a decrement but a grafted-from-silent-cinema exercise in short circuiting the reality principle. Not so with Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s ripped-from-Gotham animated series, which overturns the bull-in-a-china-shop consternation of most animated television for a more restrained, narratively-forward tragedy.
Batman: The Animated Series is orchestrated not by the fortuitous meeting of overt chaos and bedlam, as with most animation, but from a considerably more baleful, malignant, melancholy form of pandemonium rooted in a suffocating Art Deco atmosphere and a then-unheard-of emphasis on character as a foregrounded object in animation. A prognostic for the typically strong DC comics animated universe, the swamp-tarnished hall of mirrors that was The Animated Series collided the Gothic aura of the Tim Burton film (while eliminating the trivial blockbuster airs) with a spinning carousel’s worth of animated delights. Curdling typically one-and-done animated episodes into a torrid collage of Shakespearean tragedy and frigid animated minimalism, the world of animated television would never be the same.
Beavis and Butt-head
A synergistic slacker’s paradise entangled in the milieu of early ’90s culture, Beavis and Butt-head is deceptively melancholic in its entropic treatment of off-base youths intertwining themselves in the media around them as a font for escape from their barely-present everyday lives. Mike Judge’s first hit, Beavis and Butt-head popularized his trademark animated scrawl and laconic Southern drawl with the two titular anti-heroes who expended afternoon after afternoon sitting around and trying to understand a life that was essentially passing them by. Beavis and Butt-head remains a study in the human id’s indomitable ability to find entertainment in anything, a hoarse, salt-water exercise in the uneasy intersection of low-brow and high-class.
Eschewing the runaway-train kingdom of animated tumult, Loren Bouchard’s stellar Bob’s Burgers is a decidedly more laidback concoction in an age where The Simpsons has ceased relevance and more unscrupulous reprobates like Family Guy and its imitators have staged a coup and declared themselves regal rulers of the animated landscape. Bouchard’s whimsical but casual writing denigrates the all-hands-on-deck, shoot-’em-up writing style of Seth McFarlane and substitutes its own more laconic cadence of down-tuned but still plenty acidic revelry.
Much as the often touted adjective “honest” is easily the most overbaked, pointless word in any critic’s vocabulary, there’s something genuinely heartfelt and urgently innocent about the emergent, let’s-have-an-adventure day-dreaming tempo to the show. While so many modern animated shows delve so deep up their own innards into the moribund region of reckless, self-conscious post-modernism craziness, the burgers flipped at Bob’s place exhort us to consider the beauty of everyday experience (with just one bat, or two, added into its belfry). Burgers began roughly, as a second-rate charlatan or a false prophet claiming the Simpsons throne left barren years ago. But its cogent view of humanity’s unflappable ability to find trouble and treasure within the most furtive of crevices has turned it into the real deal.
Netflix’s animated exegesis of modern ennui and the all-consuming tremors of celebrity emptiness struggled to find its footing for half of a season. Now two seasons in, the once lost group of animators and writers has now found the light – even if titular once-sitcom-star Bojack Horseman turned wealthy-layabout and long-night-of-the-soul-seeker remains lost in his own personal darkness. In the world of Bojack Horseman, we’re all shower self-loathers, but an odd form of redemption arrives in melancholic tough-love. Screw-lose but never off-base, Bojack is disturbingly rambunctious in its take-no-prisoners ribald humor, but the casual demeanor with which it blends empathy, nihilism, and irony into a swirling plunge into the toxic cloud of self-image adds a refreshingly matter-of-fact, distressed humanism to the show set at a remove from the cringe-inducing superficiality of Family Guy.
Rejecting the convivial atmosphere of most animated television by besieging itself with the kind of crestfallen emptiness seen mostly in live-action drama, but still retaining the psychedelic foolishness of animation at its best, Bojack is a true televised miscreant that duplicitously blends the best of live-action and animation. Not only a great animated show, Bojack is categorically the best Netflix TV production thus far, animated or not. It paints a world in which we all pick our crosses to crucify ourselves on, and it provocatively proposes that not only do we not know the answers, but sometimes we can’t even come within the ballpark of the right questions.
Never gregarious, Aaron McGruder’s televised version of his famed comic strip dishes out harsh truth in both parsimonious and prodigal forms. Although it is sometimes inundated with the blame-black-people-too weight lumped on to most African-American voices of social critique these days – look at Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle for the most obvious victims of this fallout – The Boondocks is typically able to overcame the socially-imposed weight of having to criticize black characters as well as white ones in order to appeal to white audiences. Castigation comes by the truck-full in McGruder’s typically vicious vision of modern society where acrimony is the only order of the day. Yet he finds time for redressing his own culpability in such vehement rage by including an episode like “Return of the King”, where young Huey Freeman carves out a parcel of time to sit back, and like many African-American voices for freedom in the past, simply have a dream.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
John R. Dilworth’s Goya-grafted kiddie horror show still seems like the uncouth accident of Cartoon Network’s early forays into self-produced animation. Hardly mollified or diluted by the network’s in-house style, Dilworth fermented a scathing contrast between the relentlessly cartoonish character design Cartoon Network became known for and a veritable inquisition of otherwordly animated styles embodying terror in their very frame rates (sometimes villains are animated with a fraction of the movement of main character Courage, leading to a dissonant, diabolical sense of counterpose where Courage distinctly doesn’t belong in the frame). As a penitentiary of sometimes avant-garde experimental technique, some of the episodes border on Brothers Quay levels of idiosyncrasy.
A paragon of cross-pollinating Western styles and Eastern design principles, Shinichiro Watanabe’s anime is something of a dream-fulfilled for Westerners who struggle to engorge themselves with the pleasures of anime. In other words, it’s both a dream come true and a slightly overstated fiction whose reputation is largely derived from being one of the few animes that fit itself in to more Western narrative principles (much like how Akira Kurosawa remains the most esteemed Japanese director in the West, even though Ozu and Mizoguchi, at least, were arguably superior filmmakers).
So while I’m sure there’s a surfeit of anime as well-versed in their own styles, Cowboy Bebop is the most inimitably appealing to me. A firebrand of uncommon litheness and weight, the animation exhibits both an angular roughness and a supple, fluid celerity (the “camera”, insofar as it can be called that, is assuredly the most volatile and dynamic of any of the shows featured on this list). This contrast, combined with the show’s elegant habit of siphoning away exposition to rest on plaintive pauses that serve as presentiments for more mobile, knuckle-dusting excitement and blaring flashes of primary-colored intoxicants, results in a notably untenable concoction, like a show always threatening to run itself off the rails in the most exciting fashion.
One of the earliest exercises of animation as an avenue for empathy, The Critic envisioned the life of New York film critic Jay Sherman as a doleful amalgamation of asperity and untenable triviality. Maturing the animated form beyond the heyday of “the cartoon”, The Critic relied on animation as an alienating device (the animation inherently separating the audience from the “real” world) to dissociate the audience from our everyday lives. Thus, The Critic creates a modern milieu where life floats behind us like a ghost pining to be shocked into reality yet again. Film and existence bleed together in a show that resists the all-too-cloying temptation to reduce the critic to an art-hating snob. Instead, the show scalpels into the timid tepidness of his existence as an insecure enthusiast desperately resisting the onslaught of mollifying forces in the outside world; art, eloquently and ambidextrously, becomes both his escape from reality and the lens through which his reality is understood, a two-fer both discussed within The Critic and embodied by it.
On the eve of The Simpsons’ dissolution from the pop-culture hierarchy (the more rambunctious, unchained, invidious South Park had largely taken its claim as king of the playground by the end of the ’90s), the show’s creator Matt Groening saw fit to redraw the line with a work pitched somewhere in between his more jejune The Simpsons and the increasingly obstreperous, more adaptable new-school of South Park. The balance between the two, for me, is a superior show to either of its obvious forebears. Borrowing, and in the process transforming, the fractious free-for-all pandemonium of South Park and the more lackadaisical chill-out post-sitcom style of The Simpsons, Futurama not only invoked the classical animation rules of defining characters as primary-colored, antithetical types manically colliding into one another. It also subtly reformed its electron particles with new, more positive energies over time (such as diving into breakout character Bender’s insecurities and closet-desires with an odd but genuine empathy for his inner-dreams).
Best of all, it doubled as a ruthless nuts-and-bolts skewering of the smarmy “fifteen minutes in the future” allegorical social conscious of so much middlebrow science fiction, proposing instead a future none of us can meaningfully relate to, let alone understand. Although 1000-years-in-the-future transplant Phillip J. Fry is the crux, and the protagonist, of the show as the nominal fish-out-of-water and the presumed lens through which we are befuddled by the future, none of the characters in the show’s future can make heads or tails of their world-gone-awry to begin with.
Alex Hirsch’s Gravity Falls feels a little like the backyard adventures of the grandchildren of Twin Peaks. An orgy of assiduous absurdity and transgressive small-town Americana, Gravity Falls bucks the episodic trend epitomized by typical animation fare to emerge as arguably the great lost (now found) campfire tale of the childhood imagination. A delirious trek through adolescent night terrors fueled by and resolved through discovering the humor in even the most dastardly of situations, a coursing conviviality uplifts the show when it threatens to become mired in the very X-Files mythology-swamp it both satirizes and congratulates. Groovy stuff, and the self-imposed two-season deadline ensured its fire erupted and burnt out rather than fading away.
Few works of art have ever invoked a vision of American life so crestfallen and violated as Invader Zim, a dingily-animated work of apposite malcontent horror that drops a none-the-wiser alien in the middle of an ion-storm nightmare image of America and disrobes the country of its value as a paean to modernism. Bridled only by its unfortunate early death, Invader Zim’s holocaust screed on American culture suggest some unholy terror locked between Ren and Stimpy driven over the abyss and Junji Ito, like Spongebob Squarepants trapped in ever enclosing visual spaces and gasping for one last breath of water. Although the show wasn’t perfect, it boasted a denser, more robust, heavily-lined scrawl for animation that urgently depicted the various harsh edges, grotesque nooks, and desperate crannies of life. Plus, in its manic edge-of-sanity pacing and the creeping, festering nastiness hidden in every corner, it provoked the thought that a cataclysm of the mind could exist just about anywhere.
Mostly esteemed for the shows it shepherded to spin-off status – Beavis and Butt-head and the phenomenally kinetic, knuckle-dusting Aeon Flux chief among them – Liquid Television was MTV’s avant-garde animation block from the heyday of MTV as a legitimately, proudly disreputable upstart channel for youth to coalesce into a rampaging, lashing force to be reckoned with. Rapid-fire, free-form nonsense and experimental tomfoolery kicking around shattered, fractured pieces of animation in all forms coalesced into a Frankensteinian smorgasbord of pure animated nonsense enlivened by the unbridled, effervescent revelry of artistic invention. With MTV mostly a superfluous abscess these days, it does well to honor a time when it was engaged in arrant warfare with the status quo, hurling redoubtable, squirrely invective at the animation royal guard on a daily basis.
It’s nearly impossible to fully excavate the worth lurking deep in the Warner Bros. well because the cartoons have been endlessly rewritten and updated by modern works of animation, godparenting the whole cloth of animation that has arrived into the world since. Nonetheless, serving as an animated conquest of social propriety, a pillaging of normality, and a reflection of a world where rules were being constantly rewritten, the sharpest shorts in the Looney Tunes canon are among the most cherishable social tracts in the Western canon, in addition to being magisterial works of down-trodden outsiders and impeccable exercises in economy, timing, and wit.
Daffy Duck still functions as a parable for the put-upon, vilified victim of social change at a loss for the slippery slope of worldly chaos. Bugs Bunny is still a perfected inner sanctum of that chaotic mastermind micromanaging the world and deconstructing the rules of being (most famously in “Duck Amuck”, one of the earliest works of post-modernism in all fiction). Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner still survive as breathless combatants locked in a purposeless social game predefined for them. And Mr. Coyote’s endless stream of capitalist ACME constructions meant to ensure his success but ultimately catalyzing his failure still rethink the capitalist consciousness of commitment to new products, vestigial structures of modernity, that ultimately promise an easier life and only perpetuate conflict when they aren’t reinventing it anew.
Brendon Small’s second animated series after the also great Home Movies (co-creator Loren Bouchard also went on to solo success with Bob’s Burgers) runs red with the blood of his ebullient passion turned outward like a crazed mosh-pit of undying affection. A plague-pen love letter to the metal gods he worships (up to and including playing guitar and singing on most of the show’s songs, death metal earth-burrowers all), the show gleefully casts main axe-wielders Dethklok as maladroit, pernicious man-children so off-base with the world that their only choice is to reenvision a demented-carnival dream version of existence to fit their liking. Even with the gift of being one of the world’s largest in-fiction economies, they still don’t seem to fit in anywhere in a show that perverts the innocent nonsense of traditional children’s animation by twisting the nonsense-knife just a little bit more into the bone, and making sure that knife is sufficiently rusty while it’s at it. Oh, and the soundtrack is pretty killer too.
Pinky and the Brain
The single greatest modern utilization of Orson Welles’ booming baritone and supercilious, sonorous self-image as mastermind of the world also doubles as a tribute to the sort of mid-century B-pictures Welles elevated as part of his forced sabbatical from A-films. No doubt Welles found kinship in his beleaguered genius protagonists (characters he often subversively, self-critically curdled into blithe antagonists), and he would no doubt sympathize with The Brain, an Oliver Hardy to Pinky’s dim-witted Stan Laurel. Much like the other Spielberg-produced animated shows of the mid-’90s, Pinky and the Brain spills the beans on animation’s unending repetition via the show’s most famous refrain: “Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight?” “The same thing we do every night Pinky…”.
Rick and Morty
Not unlike Bojack Horseman, although not as formidably so, Rick and Morty disguises a spidery dissection of aimless depression underneath a barrel-chested, rococo madcap recklessness. Lacking the arch, ingratiating audience-baiting self-aggrandizement of creator Dan Harmon’s other show Community, Rick and Morty similarly explores that show’s nascent issues of attention deficit adventure as an avenue for passing the time in lieu of a more substantive, fulfilling life. Yet only Rick and Morty pursues these themes while remaining untarnished by the callow, eager-to-please histrionics of Community.
Perhaps it’s the added adaptability and room for more fulfilling flights into absurdism afforded by the animated landscape, or perhaps the animated nature of the show simply affords it the breathing room of not having to beg and please the majority public. But Rick and Morty is Harmon unchained with a feral, anti-bourgeois edge, reclaiming the carnal and the desperately vulgar from the civil norms of live-action television and throwing respectability by the wayside.
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show
A natural, slantwise evolution of the embryonic post-modern insanity of The Looney Tunes into full-blown surrealism in an era where televised animation wasn’t yet too sacrosanct and engendered to experiment with. Directly addressing the audience and upending the rules before they were even codified to begin with, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’s wry self-acknowledgment of its own construction was a progenitor for the now-exalted tradition of animated post-modernism. Even at its most absurd, the laconic chill of the characters buttressed the sense of a centrifugal world passing them by, like they were barely aware of their careening, out-of-control reality. True animated gumption walking right into the belly of the proverbial societal beast; this is animated television’s house first instance of breaking itself in.
The masterwork of Cartoon Network spiritual guide Genndy Tartakovsky, Samurai Jack boldly utilizes the fundamental narrative problem of all animated shows – their serialized, episodic structure that elides traditional notions of progression or closure – as a jumping-off point for insular mini-tales. Take the elusive “Jack vs. Ninja”, where a battle of wills transmorphs into an abstracted, experiential quarrel for two colors and their control of the screen. Or “Jack and the Haunted House”, where Jack’s living flesh is marked for elimination by the contrast between his simplistic, brash, cartoonishly angular form and the resplendent, realist charcoal-esque backgrounds that single Jack out in the frame as an unwelcome presence.
While so many animated feature films falter by trying to ape live-action film, animated television has sought to explore the caverns of its own medium, rejecting cinematic storytelling for a more non-representational, and in some cases psychedelic, world rooted in repetition and the slipperiness of causality. With the crippling, murky awareness that each new episode cannot but end with his failure weighing over Jack’s head (the show must go on, after all), Samurai Jack is a unique expression of, and commentary on, a weary character ensnared in the episodic nature of television where every episode must implicitly reset before the groundwork for the next may be laid.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast
The godparent of the Adult Swim empire masterminded by the deviant reprobates at Williams Street in Atlanta, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast feels like an elaborate post-mortem analysis of long-dead animation shows as well as one long drunken Christmas party canard/riff that was filed as an actual show as a result of clerical error. Far more than a dry-run through Adult Swim’s later shows, Coast to Coast skewers Hanna-Barbera’s less-than-well-funded animation pseudo-classics and the artifice of day-time television all without distending into the gluttonous limbo so many future Adult Swim shows would quickly fall into.
The show’s masterstroke – a progenitor for experimentation to come – was an inverted negative caused by the staff having to record live celebrity interviews prior to actually animating Space Ghost and the other characters asking the questions. A nearly heretical, impossible obelisk blocking their path turned into a void-touching twist of genius when it was used as the impetus to record interviews in advance and completely rewrite the questions afterwards, leading to an atavistic but forward-thinking slice of animated chaos that rewrote the book on the possibilities of television all while interrogating how editing mechanisms could be skewed to deceive audiences by eliding or overwriting the hurdles innate to creating animation. A masterclass in subject-predicate disagreement.
If nothing else, Trey Parker and Matt Stone deserve credit for being the first to posit that reigning royalty The Simpsons could be a teetotaler. In 1997, with a pointedly innocent paper-craft style of animation belying the ruthless cunning of their gloriously uncontainable mouths, they unleashed South Park upon the world and managed, for at least a handful of seasons, to continually kick up dirt in society’s face while subsuming the world under their verbal maelstrom. Admittedly, the show’s run has long prolapsed into an oblivious nothingness. But years ago, South Park deserved enough points simply for biliously proclaiming how ineffectual and catered other television shows had become. That seems like a sinecure today, but it was revolutionary at the time, and South Park’s resistance to easy ossification by engorging itself with a twinkle of self-amusement and a spirited, gleeful chaos ensured it never devolved into routine, ephemeral social commentary for the sake of social commentary.
Parker and Stone’s somewhat antiquated habit of clouding their delicious pandemonium with sudden-onset exposition and political commentary has, in recent years, engulfed the show almost entirely, like a relic from a bygone era when an animated show could accrue points simply for being political in the first place. That time has passed, and South Park’s has too, but good things don’t have to last forever to be remembered.
Kindled in the fire of sitcom history but gloriously warped and rewritten with a fluidity and malleability afforded only to animation, The Simpsons is, or at least was, one of the de facto philosophers of the modern era. Although it now seems stodgy and antiquarian, the heyday of the show feels as fresh as ever, especially in light of the overweening relentless irony of the grafted-from-Family-Guy chasm of modern animation. Although championed for its inimitable habit of upending social convention in its time, what stands out now about Matt Groening’s show is its casualness, its restful placidity, even its careful embodiment of an ideal of confident restraint in an era where so-called “animation for adults” has devolved into a day at the races of throw-everything-at-the-wall triviality. An unmatched mixture of finger-on-the-pulse modern attentiveness and refreshingly earnest classicism.
Stephen Hillenburg’s seemingly parochial tale of sponges and starfish, fry-cooks and jellyfish has morphed into quite the empire over the past 15 years. Although its back-half has transformed it into something of a social pariah, no failure can vanquish the off-kilter glee of Spongebob’s earliest days in Bikini Bottom. The giddy vocal talents (including resident carnival barker Clancy Brown) certainly help defray the costs of the slumming latter-day episodes, but the beguiling mixture of evanescent feather-light absurdity and twitches of truculent malodorousness really can’t be matched.
Mixing and matching Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Pee-wee Herman at will, Spongebob boasts an indescribably childlike id and a demented innocence that is implacable in the way it remains obsequious to comedy history while also somewhat malfeasant in its refusal to cater to the whims of anyone but its own free-floating mind. A munificent inspiration to children, and an attack on the fraudulent, feckless types that pass for childrens’ entertainment these days.
Dementedly aware of its own triviality, The Tick rewrote the book on the mid-’90s superhero cartoon craze by turning the whole enterprise into its own bastardized son with self-consciously supercilious, empty catch-phrases and no shortage of essentially pointless conflict expunged of essential meaning or confrontation. A sublime mixture of the capricious and the slacker-ish, Ben Edlund’s adaptation of his own anti-comic is animated as a carbon-copy of other shows being produced at the time, aping a simulacrum of its stately, full-bodied breathren (from Spider-Man to X-Men shows flourishing at the time) to skewer them from within. At any rate, I’ll be taking “Evil is out there making hand-crafted mischief for the swap-meet of villainy” with me to the grave.
An electric storm of ambling, nonsensical entropy, Uncle Grandpa is a sort of primal-animation that distills the nascent absurdism and implicit rewriting of narrative form in most television down to its most blatant while pushing it over the abyss into carnal mania. It’s an amusing exploration of the tropes of modern narration (Uncle Grandpa’s raison d’ etre of helping children quickly evaporates into an excuse for self-indulgence), as well as glorious exercise in the squash-and-stretch flexibility of animation and the limits of representational form in animation. Uncle Grandpa wears its limber insouciance so tightly it has to bathe in it, devouring all possibilities with a near-endless stream of side-characters and a Ferris wheel of brutally funny animated pandemonium. A tiny miracle, you might say.
The Venture Bros.
Williams Street’s finest currently running show has proven the channel’s most durable retexturing of the dormant Hanna-Barbera format, aging a boy-hero Johnny Quest type into frustrated adulthood, giving him two pseudo-Questian sons, and beleaguering him with the perils of his own incompetence as a father as well as his inability to live up to his own father’s adventures. Unlike Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Harvey, Birdman Attorney at Law, the idea isn’t simply an extremely well-played gimmick, but rather a thoughtful cliff upon which to dive into introspective family disharmony as well as surrealist animated tumult.
A concoction of equal parts melancholic human frailty and scabrous havoc, the show thrives on the split-second intersection of the mundane and the absurd. It is both the most carefully modulated flourishing of the much touted, trademarked adult-swim brand of reckless social upheaval as well as their less heralded but oft-present flickers of resigned, domesticated humanity having to deal with unfulfilled expectations and familial obligations tentatively teetering on the edge, just waiting to be dislodged from the ties that only partially bind them. Like Rick and Morty, The Venture Bros. disrupts its near-unmitigated ferocious comic onslaught with the anxious crawl of creeping personal panic kept in the characters’ mental periphery by the constant action around them. The Venture Bros. exhibits the rare confidence to violate its humor with these disquieting lulls, serving as parsimonious bouts of postpartum depression that reveal the vulnerability beneath the million-miles-an-hour adventure mash-ups. That the show appropriates the patented Hanna-Barbera visual style to make it look like a forgotten, demented mid-century artifact from another world is just the icing on the cake. A sublime study in the sky-high space-age dreams and fantasias of most mid-century pulp fiction curdled into coping with everyday failure, struggling with competence and domestication in a mundane world.