In a recent piece designed to highlight the year’s best shows, Rotten Tomatoes, the mecca of aggregated criticism, gave “certified fresh” ratings to 74 television shows in 2015. Not a single one of those 74 was an animated series. The dreary and unnecessary second season of Broadchurch, the quickly canceled The Whispers, and the Entourage-but-about-sports Ballers all made it, but not BoJack Horseman, or Adventure Time, or Bob’s Burgers, or Archer, or Rick & Morty, or even The Simpsons, which aired one of its best episodes in seasons this year (more on that below). Things aren’t much rosier on Metacritic: Only one “cartoon” cracked the top-50 (BoJack).
I put cartoon in quotes, because clearly, animated shows are too often dismissed as inessential entertainment for kids. “I like [NAME OF SHOW], even though it’s a cartoon” is just as much a backhanded compliment as “you’re the most attractive hideous person in this room.” That’s a shame.
Some of the most indispensable shows on TV are animated, all of which are eligible for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. However, rules stipulate networks can only submit to one “Outstanding” category, which is why, like a junior knowing he can make the JV basketball team instead of working for varsity, The Simpsons and South Park always go for Outstanding Animated Program (only two animated shows, The Flintstones and Family Guy, have bothered trying to win Outstanding Comedy Series; they lost).
As a small corrective here, in no particular order, are eight of the best episodes of the best “cartoons” in 2015.
1. Bob’s Burgers, “Hawk and Chick”
With Parks and Recreation gone, Bob’s Burgers is now the most consistently comforting show on TV. Every episode is very good to great, and no episode this year was greater than “Hawk and Chick.” Bob and Louise have the show’s best relationship outside of Tina and butts. Their dynamic was first established in season one’s “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs,” and while the Burn Unit doesn’t make a return appearance here, we do learn about their love of a martial arts series starring samurai father Hawk and his badass, real-life daughter Chick. Bob and Louise attempt to reunite the duo, who haven’t spoken in years, and of course a film festival and dubbing jokes are involved. “Let’s go home, live our lives the best we can,” Bob says at one point. “I mean, we’re poor, but we’re happy.” And we’re happy Bob’s Burgers isn’t going anywhere.
2. The Simpsons, “Halloween of Horror”
It took 27 seasons for The Simpsons to do a proper Halloween episode. Sure, there have been decades of “Treehouse of Horror” installments, but those aren’t canon; they take place in a universe where toasters are time machines. What makes “Halloween of Horror” not only a great episode but one of the show’s best in years, is how grounded it is. A rare non-jerkass Homer is in good dad mode, trying to protect Lisa from everything terrible in the world, while Marge just wants Bart to have a memorable night of trick or treating. “Halloween” has a clever plot (the fallout from Lisa getting scared at Springfield’s Halloween Horror Nights), but it’s driven by the characters; that’s a rarity these days. Imagine how good season 54’s Halloween episode will be.
3. Adventure Time, “The Comet”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d be scared to show them Adventure Time. There’s a time in every person’s life when they should question their own mortality, but it shouldn’t be while watching an 11-minute episode of a Cartoon Network show with a talking cinnamon bun. Season six of Adventure Time began with Jake the Dog and Finn the Human trying to commit a cosmic crime, and ended with them in space, with a Purple Comet telling Finn that he can see the “end and beginning” as an astral being or travel back to Earth in his “meat existence.” It’s an existential crisis of an episode, one that asks you to seriously consider all the things that make life worth living. For Finn, it’s video games and ice-cream waffles; for viewers, it’s Adventure Time.
4. Archer, “Vision Quest”
Archer Vice wasn’t a noble failure, but it was nice to see the ISIS gang — except they’re no longer called that — back to weekly spy missions. The show still found room to play with the formula, though. In this episode, Archer and company are on the way to an early-morning meeting in Malory’s office when their elevator gets stuck. It’s a classic bottle episode, but with an Archer twist: Someone ends up masturbating in a corner. I’m not going to say who, but don’t worry, the episode ends with a nod to the 1985 Matthew Modine classic, Vision Quest.
5. Rick and Morty, “Total Rickall”
Rick and Morty was the only animated show to break into Uproxx‘s 10 favorite shows of 2015 list. In his glowing blurb, Chet Manley wrote, “The unique blend of comedy, sci-fi, and absurdity makes for some odd episode summaries, but fantastic TV.” No fantastic episode is harder to describe than “Total Rickall,” which takes Community‘s “Paradigms of Human Memory” and ratchets up the weirdness tenfold. Instead of a fake clip show, Rick warns the family they may be infested with parasites that give them false memories. There’s a Nazi, Sleepy Gary, a raptor that takes photos, an Amish cyborg, and Mrs. Refrigerator. Who’s real? Who’s fake? Only Mr. Poopybutthole knows. (Another reason why this episode is great: There’s a character named Mr. Poopybutthole. “Hardhome” can’t compete with that.)
6. South Park, “Tweek x Craig”
PC Principal, and everything he and his PC bros stood for (crushing p*ssy, basically), received most of the attention this season on South Park, arguably its best. But I’ve always been fond of the smaller episodes, the ones where the boys act their age. And when you’re in fourth grade, there’s no one boys understand less than the fairer sex. In “Tweek x Craig,” thanks to a sudden influx of Asian girls, South Park Elementary is introduced to yaoi, a Japanese art form that depicts male characters having romantic feelings for each other. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are making a point — that people are so quick to follow trends that they won’t ask questions — but mostly, it’s just funny to hear “The Book of Love” play over a montage of Tweek and Craig fan art.
7. The Venture Bros., “All This and Gargantua-2”
2016 is going to be a better year than 2015, because there’s going to be more than one episode of The Venture Bros. in it. Jackson Publick’s twisted and confident action-comedy hasn’t had a proper season since 2013, but to keep us appeased until next year, he and Doc Hammer wrote a massive and massively entertaining special with appearances from seemingly every character that’s ever been on the show and sets up what’s to come in season six. Venture Bros. one-offs are better than most shows’ entire seasons.
8. Every episode of BoJack Horseman
It takes awhile to get into BoJack Horseman. The first hurdle is the tired-sounding premise. Another show about a self-loathing has-been? The second: The first couple of episodes. But midway through season one, once the writers settled into BoJack‘s insider humor, the show got really good. And in season two, it got great. Everything’s much better: the references, the balance of dark comedy and refined drama, the character dynamics, even the self-loathing. “When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags” should be tattooed on everyone’s arm, before they make a horrible mistake they won’t be able to take back. You wouldn’t expect something so nuanced to come from a “cartoon” about a talking horse. Joke’s on you for underestimating animation again.