Cartoons are like any other medium: they run the gamut from “Oh God I can feel myself getting dumber from watching this” to “This show better get nominated for an Emmy.” The latter category has recently been dominated by animation created specifically for adults. Despite being mostly overlooked year after year, there are several kid-oriented shows hiding humor and melancholy just under the wacky hijinks.
Baking heavy or adult subject matter into a cartoon is nothing new. From “Looney Tunes” to “Tiny Toons” and beyond, animators have been layering their stories for decades, saving parents and guardians from wishing to shuffle off this mortal coil rather than be subjected to another episode.
While the pickings in 2015 are slimmer than in other years – “Legend of Korra” has ended its run and we”re a far cry from the heyday of “Cartoon Cartoons!” on Cartoon Network – there are at least five animated shows that won”t make adults look for the nearest remote control. In fact, you might find yourself watching even without kids in the vicinity.
#5: “Regular Show”*
Premise: Two friends – Rigby the raccoon and Mordecai the bluejay – attempt to avoid work and responsibility in their job as park groundskeepers. Bizarre hilarity ensues.
Why you should watch it: Did you like the weird humor and irreverent tone of shows like “Johnny Bravo” and “Courage the Cowardly Dog”? Do you want to visit a universe where a man with a lollipop head and ghost with a hand growing out his skull in a permanent ‘Hi-Five” are just normal dudes? How about a look at the lackadaisical meandering of the your early twenties as you try to figure out how to adult, all through a lens of absurdist comedy? Then this is the show for you.
*This is the only show on the list that has won a Primetime Emmy.
#4: “Steven Universe”
Premise: Take the anime trope of the Magical Girl™, give it a twist (Steven is the Sailor Moon of this group) and make it one of the most LBGTQA-friendly shows on TV.
Why you should watch it: Love wins. The structure of “Steven Universe” is the same as many other cartoons that borrow heavily from anime; we”ve got heroes with a variety of powers and an audience-insert character from which to experience the strange new world of the Crystal Gems and their intergalactic war. It just also happens to have one of the most positive portrayals of queer characters and gender-fluidity on television. Plus it”s got KILLER songs.
#3: “Gravity Falls”
Premise: Twin tweens Dipper and Mabel head off to spend the summer with their quirky great-uncle Stan in a town that is the lovechild of the Bermuda Triangle and an episode of “Scooby-Doo.”
Why you should watch it: This show is for everyone who ever felt a little bit odd growing up and also has a penchant for conspiracy theories. Not only does “Gravity Falls” deal with the inexplicable supernatural occurrences in the town, the WHOLE thing is just one big puzzle of secrets waiting for fans to uncover and solve. This show is raising the next generation of tin-foil wearing, Illuminati-blaming Americans.
#2: “Adventure Time”
Premise: Possibly the last boy in the world – Finn – and his talking dog Jake live in the magical Land of Ooo with a cast of characters that range from a bubblegum princess to a goth-rocker vampire to a crazy old man who thinks he”s a king.
Why you should watch it: Nothing is as it seems in “Adventure Time.” That magical land? It”s the remnants of society left behind by a nuclear war centuries ago. That misogynistic old man? Suffering from magical Alzheimer”s brought on by saving someone he loved. That beautiful princess? Mad scientist. The blood-thirsty vampire? Pretty cool lesbian feminist. That sweet little old lady elephant? Raging egomaniac. For all it”s weird and wonderful fun, “Adventure Time” is built on a foundation of deep melancholy. Oh and again, KILLER soundtrack.
#1: “Star Wars Rebels”
Premise: Follow the adventures of the nascent Rebellion in the bridge of time between the end of “Revenge of the Sith” and the beginning of “A New Hope.”
Why you should watch it: On a macro level, Star Wars has always been about the war between the Republic and the Empire. But we”ve mostly followed the journey of the Skywalker family. “Rebels” opens the universe up more, to show what kind of damage extended warfare has on a place and a populace. Every single member of the “Rebels” team has lost people in the Clone Wars or Order 66. The show dives deep into the ramifications on the common folk when titans battle.