I’ve watched a lot of TV cartoons in my day, but not in a steady consistent way. When I was a youngster, I’d watch any animation, any time. And then as a new father, I joined my son in watching a wide variety of excellent cartoons on Nickelodeon such as “Hey Arnold,” “SpongeBob,” and “Doug.” Now, in my dotage, I find myself discovering cartoons that are surprisingly sophisticated and adult.
Primetime television today is awash in cartoons but it wasn’t always the case. The early days of television did feature primetime shows like “The Flintstones” (yabba-dabba-do) and “The Jetsons,” whose depictions of prehistoric man and space age life did more to distort Baby Boomers’ understanding of the past and future than any other TV show, movie or book. But to networks and advertisers, animated series eventually started to seem childish, and by the mid-Sixties they were largely banished to the Saturday morning kids’ ghetto.
For almost two decades primetime animation was largely confined to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and other holiday specials. Then the upstart Fox television network took a chance on “The Simpsons,” which was originally conceived as a series of animated shorts for “The Tracy Ullman Show.” Launched as its own show in 1989, “The Simpsons” became one of the most consequential television shows of all time. As the network’s first top thirty show, it not only put Fox on the map; it also made animation safe for primetime again. Eventually it supplanted “Gunsmoke” as the longest-running scripted television show of all time and opened the floodgates for a surge of new primetime shows like “King of the Hill” and “Family Guy.”
The growth of cable television also opened up unlimited opportunities for more cartoon series. In 1992, Turner launched The Cartoon Network and other cable shows quickly got into the act, most notably Comedy Central, which introduced the ground-breaking “South Park” in 1997.
But however much I admire “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” I get the feeling that these shows are not really targeted at me. As clever as “The Simpsons” is, it’s still a primetime network TV show with a proclivity for happy endings. And the surprising amount of bathroom humor on “South Park” makes me think the show is geared at a very smart 13-year-old boy.
The last few years has brought another renaissance in animation, however. All of a sudden the cartoon world is the place to turn for an unblinking, honest appraisal of what it means to be human in the 21st Century. Consider these four shows:
“Archer” (FX) – Arguably the funniest and most politically incorrect show currently on television, “Archer” is about a dysfunctional spy agency whose lead agent makes James Bond look sensitive.
“BoJack Horseman” (NetFlix) – Possibly the bleakest show on television, this series anthropomorphically depicts the narcissism of Hollywood through the eyes of a washed up star who keeps undermining his own attempts to regain legitimacy and relevance.
“Bob’s Burgers” (Fox) – Set in an urban burger joint, “Bob’s Burgers” is a loving look at the modern working class family that’s one rung lower on the socioeconomic scale than “The Simpson’s.”
“Rick and Morty” (Adult Swim) – With hints of “Back to the Future,” this sci-fi series depicts the intergalactic and inter-dimensional adventures of an alcoholic scientist and his impressionable grandson.
What these four shows have in common is an understanding of the tragedy of human existence. Through humor, pathos, irony and flights of fancy, these cartoons illuminate the dark side of life. The characters on these shows are selfish, self-absorbed and frustrated in their ambitions. The only solace available in any of these series is the nuclear family in “Bob’s Burgers,” but even there happiness is fleeting at best.
Animation, once seen as a genre strictly for kids, turns out to be the perfect medium for adult-themed entertainment (and by adult I don’t mean “sex-based” programming.) Animation gives the creator as much latitude as his or her imagination will allow without worrying about the cost of special effects. And the characters (especially the children) never get old.
There’s also a softening effect to animation that makes harsh messages more palatable. The self-loathing of “BoJack Horseman” would be unbearable in a human actor but because the lead character is an animated horse we feel slightly distanced from and even amused by his plight. The same is true on “Archer,” where the unending stream of sexist, homophobic, racist, and other insensitive remarks would cause a riot if they came out of the mouths of actual humans, but actually seems hilarious when expressed by the cartoon characters.
These cartoons are not for everybody. Except for “Bob’s Burgers,” which needs to appeal to a broad audience on Fox, these shows are bleaker and darker than even “Louie” and “Girls.” Yet they offer an antidote to the overwhelming feel-good ethos of most TV programming. The term “Golden Age” is thrown around a lot by critics and industry observers, but it’s not that much of a stretch to say that we are now in a Golden Age of Animation.