The 30 Best Animated TV Shows Ever Made

May 26, 2022

Category: Entertainment

Where cinema had lived through three full eras prior to the first animated theatrical release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, commercial television has essentially grown up with cartoons. The first image ever broadcast was Felix the Cat spinning around on a turntable. From there, the preponderance of cartoons on TV led to an end of the animated theatrical shorts, which also made the crossover eventually.

From the first made-for-TV cartoon, Crusader Rabbit, in 1949 — only two years after the first TV sitcom aired — to the Hanna-Barbera-dominated ‘60s and ‘70s, to the toy-focused branding of cartoons in the ‘80s and the unparalleled Renaissance one decade later, television and cartoons have always gone hand in hand. There are so many to choose from over the years, but here we give you our picks for the 30 best animated TV shows ever made, listed in chronological order.

Photo: Jay Ward Productions/WildBrain

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (1959)

Significant in its impact on the animated cartoon format, Rocky and Bullwinkle has a style of humor that still holds up today. Amidst the two titular heroes getting chased by spies Boris and Natasha, the show presents other segments that star characters who became celebrities in their own right, such as Mr. Peabody, his boy Sherman, and Dudley Do-Right. A carryover in tone from the radio serial days, but with a comedic identity that was ahead of its time, the series has a style that’s later reflected in a lot of cartoons from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond.

Photo: Warner Bros.

The Flintstones (1960)

There have been few cartoons to earn the staying power of The Flintstones, which maintains cultural relevancy even more than half a century after it went off the air. Everyone’s favorite modern, Stone-Age family was the result of Hanna-Barbera wanting to capture both child and adult audiences. Inspired by the edgier likes of Tom and Jerry, with heavy doses of The Honeymooners, the show was aired in prime time (the first cartoon to do so), given a laugh track, and adhered to a simple formula of a married couple, Fred and Wilma Flintstone, living in the Stone Age with their best friends Barney and Betty Rubble. Prior to The Simpsons over three decades later, The Flintstones held the title of longest-running network animated series.

Photo: Warner Bros.

The Jetsons (1962)

As a counterpoint to the prehistoric Flintstones, Hanna-Barbera’s The Jetsons follows a futuristic family living in the year 2062. George Jetson commutes to work in a flying car, which soars through Orbit City between Googie-styled high-rises, and then comes home to a robot maid who helps his wife Jane maintain their Skypad apartment. Despite the high-tech environment, George, Jane, and their two kids navigate their relatively quaint lives with ease, save for the occasional treadmill malfunction. Although the show has endured a lasting legacy and become a paradigm of retro-futurism, The Jetsons only lasted for 24 episodes upon its initial run, but enjoyed success during Saturday morning reruns and was revived over 20 years later.

Photo: Funimation

Speed Racer (1967)

While Hanna-Barbera was dominating animated TV Stateside, a fledgling Japanese company called Tatsunoko was working on a series called Speed Racer (also known as Mach GoGoGo), based on a Japanese manga, which follows a young racecar driver as he becomes the best in the world thanks to his high-tech racecar Mach 5. The series, which had been edited and dubbed in English, came to define Japanese animation for American audiences for decades, enduring in popularity into the ‘90s in syndication.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969)

Hanna-Barbera took its classic formula to the horror-comedy genre in 1969 with the inaugural Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, tapping into loose formats suggested in films from the ‘40s and ‘50s while inventing a few tropes of its own and introducing some of the most iconic characterizations ever. The titular dog and his teenage pals help solve mysteries of ostensibly haunted locales as various hijinks ensue. Despite a short-lived first series, Scooby-Doo and the gang have lived on in a total of 13 seasonal shows, and counting, and a slew of films, specials, and comic books. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is the iteration that started it all, but later series such as The Scooby-Doo Show and the youthful A Pup Named Scooby-Doo are notable as well.

Photo: Buena Vista Television/Disney

DuckTales (1987)

Educational and fun without being preachy, DuckTales led the way for children’s cartoon shows at a time when they lacked spunk and staying power. The first Disney animated series in syndication, DuckTales was massively popular over the course of its three-year run, which led to a theatrical film and gave Disney room to launch a slew of cartoons to follow, thus establishing the Disney Afternoon block. Of course, the path had already been paved some 35 years earlier by Disney’s comic book series Uncle Scrooge, which followed the character and his three grandnephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as they travel around the globe in search of treasure.

Photo: 20th Century Studios/Disney

The Simpsons (1989)

When The Simpsons first debuted in 1989, not even its creator Matt Groening would have foreseen it running for 33 seasons, and counting. Historic stretches like that had only been reserved for the likes of Meet the Press and Gunsmoke, not acerbic sitcoms about a dysfunctional everyfamily with peculiar overbites and yellow skin. Yet, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson, along with the dozens of other memorable residents of Springfield, have become a fixture in television and helped change the landscape of the medium as a whole for a couple of generations now. And while one could argue that the show has, let’s say, overstayed its welcome, its Golden Era run of seasons 2 through 8 arguably stands as the greatest comedy series ever created for television.

Photo: MTV Networks

Doug (1991)

Doug, along with its two Nickelodeon compatriots below which all debuted on the same night back in 1991, helped to redefine creator-driven content and auteurist animation as a whole. Doug’s blend of comedy and nostalgia endures even today as viewers witness the experiences of a soft-spoken 11-year-old as he daydreams, falls in love, and listens to The Beets with his best friend Skeeter and dog Porkchop. The show lasted until 1994 on Nickelodeon and was then picked up by Disney for its One Saturday Morning block between 1997 and 1999 and as a theatrical film.

Photo: MTV Networks

The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991)

It’s hard to believe The Ren & Stimpy Show began on a children’s network, but things were different back in the ‘90s. Wild and brash, John K’s polarizing series about a waspish chihuahua and a dim-witted cat wasn’t educational and got censored often, with a handful of episodes or segments banned entirely for being too violent, sexual, or just plain controversial. Objectively, the show is an acquired taste, but nevertheless pushed the limits of animation at a time when people were struggling with what its limitations could actually be.

Photo: Nickelodeon/Paramount

Rugrats (1991)

Rugrats rounded out the 1991 triumvirate and proved to be a middle ground with Doug and Ren & Stimpy on either side, toeing the line between understated and brash. It follows a daring toddler, Tommy Pickles, and his scaredy-cat best friend, Chuckie Finster, as they explore the world around them. The show perfectly captures the mind of a baby as we witness how they view and learn about their ever-changing environment, often through an expressionist style of animation that fits well with the characters’ vivid imaginations. Dominating Nickelodeon over the course of the ‘90s, the series lasted for 9 seasons in its initial run and produced three theatrical films.

Photo: DC/Warner Bros.

Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

Prior to the debut of Batman: The Animated Series, serious cartoons were largely viewed as either overly self-aggrandized or campy. In 1992, all that changed with this complex and meditative adaptation of the DC Comics title that depicted our hero in a more mature light; a far cry from the live-action comedy series from the ‘60s. Batman never quite faded from popularity, but by the early ‘90s, the IP was hotter than ever with a pair of popular films by Tim Burton and definitive comic tales such as Year One and The Killing Joke that redefined the character. However, it was the Fox Kids TV series that ended up being the most informative of the direction in which the character would go, while also setting a new standard for voice acting.

Photo: Marvel/20th Television/Disney/Saban

X-Men: The Animated Series (1992)

The comic book industry in the 1990s was simply dominated by X-Men, which endured the infamous bubble burst and, at one point, had around a dozen different titles releasing each month. Making a series based on the property was a no-brainer, but few would have guessed it would have been this incredible. Dealing with social issues that the comics were inherently built for, the cartoon series — which features the likes of mutants Wolverine, Cyclops, Rogue, Storm, Beast, and, of course, Professor X — paved the way for the X-Men movie in 2000, which ushered in an entirely new era of superhero-dominated cinema in which we’re still living.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Animaniacs (1993)

Carrying on Tiny Toons’ legacy and tone, Animaniacs was just as wacky and goofy as its name implies, and also wickedly smart. Steven Spielberg is no stranger to striking gold, so it comes as no surprise that his first two animated series were such hits. Animaniacs follows a trio of forgotten-about Warner Bros. cartoons from the ‘30s: Warner brothers Yakko and Wakko, and their sister, Dot. The troublemakers guide the audience with songs and skits throughout their variety show of sorts, which also includes characters such as Slappy and Skippy Squirrel, the Goodfeathers, and the breakout stars, lab rats Pinky and the Brain, who wound up with their own spin-off.

Photo: ViacomCBS

Beavis and Butt-Head (1993)

Mike Judge’s masterpiece, Beavis and Butt-Head, was a cultural movement in its own right. This grunge-era phenomenon may have been the bane of every parent’s existence but was a rite of passage for their kids amongst their friends. Low-brow humor at its finest, the series features the two titular slackers as they rib popular music and laugh at potty humor. Young viewers laughed at the stupidity, but adult viewers relished in the commentary that stemmed from the apathetic idiots’ self-absorption. Everyone else missed the point.

Photo: MTV Networks

Rocko’s Modern Life (1993)

Arguably Nickelodeon’s finest animated series, Rocko’s Modern Life thrived on its own voice and dedication to the witty and intoxicatingly absurd. Joe Murray created quite the universe, with Rocko and his friends Heffer and Filburt dealing with the strange and eccentric goings-on of O-Town and its inhabitants. Lasting for four seasons, the show was known for its not-so-buried adult humor, unique animation style, and peculiar storylines that would become wild and outlandish in order to allow wicked social satire to leak through.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Dexter’s Laboratory (1996)

Cartoon Network’s first hit proved the staying power of the network and paved the way for countless more shows to come. Following a boy genius who often experiences mishaps in his underground laboratory, typically at the hands of his dimwitted sister Dee Dee, Dexter’s Laboratory had a profound impact on the tone and animation style of popular series such as The Fairly OddParents and Johnny Bravo and ran for four seasons. Its creator Genndy Tartakovsky went on to make Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars.

Photo: MTV Networks

Daria (1997)

A spin-off from Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria was a big hit in its own right, a wry satire on high school politics that had misanthropic teens everywhere finally having someone to relate to. Where Beavis and Butt-Head’s resentment towards humanity may be a bit misguided, Daria Morgendorffer’s is less unfounded. We laugh with her, not at her, as she subtly makes fun of her self-absorbed sister and boneheaded parents. Daria and her best friend Jane quietly observe the world around them and can’t wait to get out of the hellhole they call high school.

Photo: 20th Television/Disney

King of the Hill (1997)

If you think about it, King of the Hill was the logical next step for Mike Judge. After creating Beavis and Butt-Head, he partnered with Greg Daniels to concoct a series so achingly simple that it’s come to define and celebrate slice-of-life of middle America. Set in a small town in Texas, the show follows Hank Hill, a propane salesman, and his family as they simply experience the mundanities of everyday life. The show lasted for 13 seasons on Fox, won a pair of Primetime Emmys, and is now gearing up for a revival.

Photo: Paramount

South Park (1997)

Pushing the envelope of TV, especially when it first debuted, with profanity and ultra-crude humor, South Park manages to shock and surprise without losing its unique vantage point. Following four young boys and their exploits in their titular Colorado town, Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s show is still going strong some 25 years later and is one of the rare long-lived cartoons that hasn’t lost its pluck, perhaps due to its belief that nothing is ever truly off-limits. Over time, culture has grown with the show, appreciating its candidness in an age of hypersensitivity.

Photo: 20th Television/Disney

Family Guy (1999)

Redefining irreverence and the capabilities of a non-sequitur within an established narrative, Family Guy, like the best cartoons, isn’t for everyone, but is arguably the most culturally dominant series of its era. Serving as a strange amalgamation of The Simpsons and All in the Family, Seth MacFarlane’s zeitgeisty force of nature wasn’t necessarily an instant hit, suffering from time-slot doom, airing opposite of dominant shows like Frasier or Survivor, and canceled after its third season. However, DVD sales were so successful that Fox revived the series, which still runs today and has won a trio of Primetime Emmys.

Photo: 20th Television/Disney

Futurama (1999)

Futurama chronicles the life of a 20th Century man, Philip J. Fry, who gets cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 and wakes up a millennium later only to discover that life is still sort of the same, with the addition of a one-eyed love interest and a cigar-smoking robot, among just a few other things. Matt Groening’s follow-up to The Simpsons may not have had as broad of an appeal as its predecessor, but it still found a dedicated audience thanks to its high-concept humor, which explains why it keeps coming back to life after being canceled on more than one occasion, with yet another revival coming out on Hulu next year.

Photo: Nickelodeon

SpongeBob SquarePants (1999)

Few shows, animated or otherwise, have ever seen the kind of cultural ubiquity as SpongeBob SquarePants, a cartoon that invented its own style of comedy and changed the way the genre was approached going into the 20th century. Centered on a yellow sea sponge who lives, ahem, in a pineapple, the Nickelodeon powerhouse was so popular that at times it seemed to be the only thing the network would air, but for good reason. SpongeBob and his starfish best friend, Patrick, carry out their ridiculous lives with a carefree naivete and optimism, much to the disdain of their dour neighbor Squidward, who can only ever hope to dampen their spirits. The ongoing series has run for 276 episodes so far and has seen the release of three theatrical films.

Photo: MTV Networks

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005)

If you’ve ever wondered what great cinematography and scene composition look like in animation, just watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose inspired, cinematic shots only enhance the affecting storylines, meditative themes, and refined character arcs. Inspired by the groundbreaking style of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the American series isn’t technically anime but possesses a distinct Japanese influence, set in a world where humans are divided into four nations, each represented by one of the four classic elements (water, earth, fire, and air). Within each nation, there are benders who can telekinetically manipulate their given element. Aang, our protagonist, is the last surviving Airbender, and also a reincarnation of the Avatar, the international arbitrator of all the tribes.

Photo: Sony

The Boondocks (2005)

Tonally unique, let alone for an animated series, The Boondocks provided social commentary for the day and represented Black culture on TV in a way that few shows have ever done. Based on the syndicated comic strip of the same name, the series follows two brothers, Huey and Riley, who live with their grandfather and deal with things such as the generation gap and culture clashes both within their household and without. The show rocked the boat just a little bit in its day with its blend of searing criticisms and cultural parodies, unapologetic on both accounts.

Photo: Disney-ABC

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

Often confused with the Genndy Tartakovsky’s non-canon Clone Wars series from 2003 of which it was a quasi-reboot, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (notice the “The”) was overseen by George Lucas over the course of its seven-season run. It came out the same year as the theatrical film of the same name, which served as its backdoor pilot, and together gave us popular new characters such as Ahsoka Tano, Bo-Katan, and Cad Bane — who have since been added to Disney+’s live-action shows, with Ahsoka Tano getting her own spin-off — and expanded the lore beyond film and literature in the first time that was given any credence. The events of the show take place in the three years between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the series features franchise mainstays such as Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. The Clone Wars also proved that audiences could actually care about Star Wars in an animated medium and, in some cases, prefer it.

Photo: Disney-ABC

Archer (2009)

Possibly the most prolific animated show of the past 20 years, Archer has an unmatchable uniqueness and strangeness that’s made even more impressive by how smart it is. Prior to drifting into anthology series territory later on, the FX staple utilizes a hand-drawn Silver Age comic book style in tandem with hyper-limited animation, all while satirizing dysfunctional workplace politics in an espionage setting. Sterling Archer is a James Bond-inspired secret agent who works for an American intelligence agency headed by his mother. Known for its witty dialogue and dichotomous elements, the series also provides us with some of the best physical comedy in cartoon history.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Adventure Time (2010)

Popularizing a new brand of minimalist characterizations while allowing those characters to inhabit a deceptively detailed environment, Adventure Time proved to be very influential in the coming years. It centers on a young boy named Finn and his brother Jake, who’s also a shape-shifting dog, as they venture through a fantasy world of magic, wizards, and princesses. While aimed toward kids, the series generated viewership in the millions and ignited a new movement with its bonkers, anything-goes humor. Creatives on the show went on to create acclaimed hits such as Over the Garden Wall, Regular Show, Steven Universe, and Uncle Grandpa.

Photo: Disney-ABC

Bob’s Burgers (2011)

With shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy enduring for multiple decades, it’s easy to brush off the feat of a 12-season run. Bob’s Burgers is still going strong after all this time, and is perhaps even better and more popular now than ever, with a feature film arriving in theaters as we speak. Surrounding struggling burger restauranteur Bob Belcher are his eccentric wife Linda and more-eccentric kids Tina, Gene, and Louise, along with an assortment of colorful characters from their unnamed coastal hometown. The series is more character-focused than its contemporaries, with an underlying, if not subtle, sweetness and some of the funniest gags in animation history.

Photo: Disney-ABC

Gravity Falls (2012)

Curiously short-lived considering how popular it was, Gravity Falls only lasted for 2 seasons, but its influence can be seen in the likes of Steven Universe and Rick and Morty. One of the most unique animated shows of its time, the series was not only a hit among younger demographics but was mature enough to attract their parents as well. One part Eerie, Indiana, another part Twin Peaks, Gravity Falls begins as 12-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel get dropped off with their great uncle to spend the summer in this mysterious town. Creator Alex Hirsch has filled his episodes with countless hidden messages and cryptograms which expand the show’s lore.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Rick and Morty (2013)

A paradigm of modern animation, Rick and Morty is one of the most beloved and ubiquitous shows of this era. Serving as some sort of off-kilter version of Doc Brown and Marty from Back to the Future, Rick and his grandson Morty travel to different dimensions and planets via a flying car. Embedded into the zeitgeist of this age of the obsessive fan, the series is one of the few that has transcended the television medium to become a cultural phenomenon and merchandise machine. Garnished with the occasional meta moment, Rick and Morty is deceptively wise and astute despite its low-brow pretense.

The 40 Best Animated Movies Ever Made

After you’ve binged all of these animated series, check out our list of the best animated feature films of all time for more cartoon entertainment.

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