25 cartoons to get obsessed with, now and forever

The connection between cartoons and youth often casts an unfair stigma: that cartoons are for kids, kids who can suspend disbelief to relate to talking to animals or who still believe that magic can exist.

That’s not only an unfair assessment, it’s inaccurate. Animation is a medium through which all kinds of stories can be told, including stories as emotionally complicated and textured as those of any prestige drama. Not all cartoons are cheeky or slapstick; not all cartoons are meant to impart lessons to kids who are still figuring out the world. Plenty aim to relate to and entertain grown-ups, too.

“You’re dead if you aim only for kids,” goes one apocryphal quote from Walt Disney, about working in animation. “Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.” And it’s true: Cartoons are for everyone. The goal of any good cartoon is the same as that of any good piece of entertainment. They are meant to be enjoyable and inspiring, no matter who (or how old) you are.

While the wide variety of animated TV series in existence may seem daunting to some, there’s something out there for everyone. So below, we’ve listed 20 great shows to help get you acquainted — or reacquainted — with cartoons. Whether you usually watch TV with family or prefer to settle into these beautifully constructed worlds on your own, the list offers diverse entry points to suit all preferences.

For the whole family

A huge group of characters from The Simpsons
The Simpsons’ world is much bigger than just the Simpsons family itself.
Fox

The Simpsons (1989-present; 31 seasons)

A lot of younger adults have never known, or can barely remember, life before The Simpsons. The show’s 31 years (and counting) on the air make it by far the longest-running American sitcom in history, animated or otherwise. It’s so recognizable, quotable, and memorable as to be inextricable from modern culture, and not just in the US, but all over the world.

It is unfathomable to me that anyone could watch an episode of this groundbreaking sitcom and not at least smile. Unsurprisingly for such a long run, the show’s quality has sagged over the past decade. But when The Simpsons is firing on all cylinders, it’s the kind of comedy you’ll need to pause several times, because you’re laughing too hard or too loudly to hear what anyone’s saying anymore. Every element of The Simpsons is meticulously considered for its joke potential, from blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em sight gags to subtle turns of phrase.

Maybe The Simpsons has lasted so long because of its extremely basic premise: Here’s a working-class American family, and here they are, living their lives. This simple conceit lends itself to being riffed upon in both small and extraordinary ways. Or maybe the show’s success stems from how dense the town of Springfield is, with an expansive cast of characters that offer endless story possibilities and permutations. Or maybe what’s most lovable is how, even when Homer is chosen to go to space or baby Maggie shoots Mr. Burns, The Simpsons always resets at the end of the day. Everything is a constant in Springfield.

If you’re overwhelmed by the episode count, here’s my hot tip: Don’t worry about missing most episodes beyond season eight. Season nine is when the show began its decline from straight perfection to a more of a crapshoot. And now that you know where to look, if you somehow have never seen any episode in full (which, how?) … please go do that. —Allegra Frank

Where to stream: Disney+, Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Bob’s Burgers Fox

Bob’s Burgers (2011-present; 10 seasons)

Bob’s Burgers is The Simpsons’ heir apparent: Both comedies air on Fox, star quirky, working-class families, and take place in vague American cities full of odd neighbors, friends, and frenemies. The show also borrows from The Simpsons’ sense of pure love for all of its characters: No one on Bob’s Burgers is judgmental or cruel or mean, not even the Belcher family’s slightly sadistic youngest daughter Louise.

The series is also as funny and marathon-able as any great sitcom should be. It’s loaded with approachable pop culture gags, absurd stories and characters that never get too out-there, and tons of excellent original music. I recently asked my best friend, a huge Bob’s Burgers fan, how many times she thinks she has watched the show now: 50 times and counting for her favorite episodes.

I asked what keeps her coming back. “Bob’s Burgers is a really refreshing family comedy, because it was the first show in a long time where the family actually likes each other, despite the chaos,” she explained. “The Belcher weirdness/quirkiness/whatever you want to call it is always celebrated and made relatable, rather than derided.” —AF

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Finn and Jake in Adventure Time Cartoon Network

Adventure Time (2010-2018; 10 seasons)

The 2010s saw a renaissance in 11-minute cartoons for both kids and adults, pushing a fledgling trend of the 2000s ever further. The best of these 2010s shows, for my money, was Pendleton Ward’s 10-season series Adventure Time.

Loosely built around the adventures of a human boy named Finn and a stretchy dog named Jake, Adventure Time expanded and shifted from its initial standalone adventures to become one of TV’s most ambitious shows. By its end, it was a sprawling epic about the last human boy coming of age in a post-apocalyptic weirdo paradise, struck through with contemplative silence and frenetic joy in equal measure. And even though the episodes are extremely short, with 283 to get through, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy for a while. —Emily VanDerWerff

Where to stream: Cartoon Network (cable login required), Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

A scene from Futurama Fox

Futurama (1999-2003 and 2008-2013; seven seasons)

Futurama comes from The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, but the two series don’t share much in common beyond that. Futurama is a sci-fi comedy that also dabbles in romance, slapstick, and fantasy as it builds out the story of Philip J. Fry, who’s cryogenically frozen on New Year’s Eve 1999 and wakes up in the year 3000. There’s a lot of time travel and aliens and talking heads in jars, but there’s also true romantic tension and strong friendships. Futurama is, at its best, whip-smart, elegantly plotted, heart-wrenching, and joyously silly.

(Note that by “at its best,” I really mean the show’s original four-season run on Fox. The network unceremoniously axed the series in 2003, but after reruns on Adult Swim energized a new fanbase, it became a poster child for TV’s “brilliant but canceled” vault. Comedy Central later brought it back for more, but its disappointing second run lacked the earlier seasons’ wit and heart.) —AF

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

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Home Movies (1999-2004; four seasons)

Home Movies is an odd bird — but what a beautiful odd bird it is! Precocious elementary school kid Brendon is obsessed with making movies with his two best friends. The kids’ cheap-o films usually mirror the themes of the show’s larger plot outside of Brendon’s basement, where he deals with his brassy single mom, alcoholic soccer coach, self-loathing teacher, and whiny neighbor kids.

The show is animated in the unique but slightly off-putting Squigglevision style, which makes the characters look like they’re fizzling in a microwave at all times. Its earlier seasons also follow very loose scripting, leaving much of the dialogue to improv — which some viewers may find to be too unpolished or meandering for their liking. But every member of the cast gels perfectly with the rest, as if they’ve been performing as their characters for their entire careers. (The thing that maybe holds up the least is a recurring, sympathetic character voiced by Louis C.K.)

Though dearly departed broadcast network UPN axed the show (from the folks behind Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist) after five extremely low-rated episodes, Adult Swim saw the same potential I saw in Home Movies, and rescued it for another 47 installments. The laidback comedy is unique but often uproariously funny, and the characters are each lovable in their own weird way. Co-creator Loren Bouchard went on to create Bob’s Burgers, and Home Movies has a lot of that same pleasant spirit. —AF

Where to stream: Adult Swim

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play

A scene from Aggretsuko
Aggretsuko dedicates at least one scene per episode to some heavy metal karaoke.
Fanworks/Netflix

Aggretsuko (2018-present; two seasons)

If you’re a fan of the adorable Sanrio mascot Hello Kitty (who is definitely a cat and not a human girl thank you I will be taking no further questions!), it may be time to trade in HK for her arguably much more relatable friend Aggretsuko. Aggretsuko is a red panda working a dead-end job that she puts up with all day, only to let out her rage in drunken, aggressive, heavy-metal karaoke at night. It’s fantastic and bizarre and hilarious.

It might sound pretty one-note from that summary, or even a bit more adult than you’d expect from a show from the Sanrio universe, but there’s just enough quirky cuteness to entertain preteen Hello Kitty lovers too (see: some great spoofs on social media, and Aggretsuko’s best friends are sweet and loving). But as it goes along, episodes make use of the cute veneer to tackle heady themes like gender roles in the workplace, power dynamics in relationships, and what it means to be … well, a true adult. Who doesn’t ask themselves that question daily?

Also, Aggretsuko and everyone else on the show is extremely cute, so prepare to wanna buy so much merch after you watch. Capitalism! —AF

Where to stream: Netflix

Viewer discretion advised

Rick and Morty Cartoon Network

Rick and Morty (2013-present; four seasons)

Rick and Morty is much deeper, darker, and more emotionally complex than its popularity and reputation for attracting toxic fans might suggest. The show’s trans-dimensional hijinks can be super fun and funny (and horrifying in a David Cronenbergian body horror-type way), and the tangents the show veers wildly toward are great comedy writing. There are small moments in some episodes that don’t have any big payoff until much later on, and then fundamentally change everything that has happened before and after in shocking ways.

A lot of this success is attributable to co-creator Dan Harmon, whose beloved sitcom Community became known for its witty storytelling and integration of pop culture goofs. Rick and Morty delivers on both of those. But Harmon’s public struggles with his mental health also influence Rick and Morty more obviously than they did Community. Depression, family strife, and unhealthy coping mechanisms abound. These give the show its strong sense of hopelessness, uncertainty, and self-actualization that makes it more than just funny: It’s often very moving and profound. —Allegra Frank

Where to stream: Adult Swim (cable login required), Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Diane and BoJack Horseman.
BoJack Horseman is packed with visual jokes and references, even in darker episodes.
Netflix

BoJack Horseman (2014-2020; six seasons)

When I tell people that BoJack Horseman is one of the best shows of the last decade, some of them look back at me, puzzled: Isn’t that just the really depressing Netflix show about a horse with man hands?

To which I say: Yes? But also, extremely no? BoJack Horseman isn’t all tears and death and drugs and booze and abuse, though it does involve those things. It’s also really, really funny — funnier than almost any other show on this list, I’d argue, especially if you appreciate a good pun or parody.

BoJack (Will Arnett) is a literal horse-man and former sitcom star looking to keep his dimming fame bright. Decades of addiction and unresolved trauma and self-sabotaging behavior have marked him as impossible to work with, production poison. The only people in his life who can stand him are his roommate Todd (Aaron Paul), his agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), former TV rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), and Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who’s been hired to ghostwrite BoJack’s autobiography. Half of these characters are anthropomorphic animals, by the way — much of the show’s silliness and best moments stem from its mixed-up world of humans and animals.

But it’s wrong to write off or dismiss the darker aspects of it, because those boost BoJack from just a brilliant riff on Hollywood culture to something challenging and honest. My friend and former colleague Julia Alexander summed up the show’s emotional, lasting impact in a beautiful piece on Polygon:

For all of BoJack’s worst qualities, he was never dishonest about his true self. BoJack is the first person to admit his flaws and, what makes his tale even sadder, is that he wants to change but can’t figure out how to do so. That’s what makes us want to root for him to survive, and to win — there is a little piece of BoJack in all of us. He confronts the self-realizations that we might be too scared to do ourselves.

—AF

Where to stream: Netflix

Tuca & Bertie Netflix

Tuca & Bertie (2019; one season)

Tragically canceled after one season — I will never forgive Netflix for that — Tuca & Bertie was one of the best shows of 2019, and consistently scratched an itch I didn’t even realize I had. Created by Lisa Hanawalt, a main designer and producer of BoJack Horseman, the show centers on two 30-year-old bird women who are best friends: Bertie (voiced by Ali Wong), an anxious and self-doubting songbird, and Tuca (Tiffany Haddish), her free-spirited Toucan friend. They’re often joined by Speckle (Steven Yeung), Bertie’s sweet, dependable robin boyfriend. It’s a show about friendship, being a woman, trying to figure out your career, understanding your emotions, navigating tough decisions, and figuring out that making mistakes doesn’t spell the end of the world. And it’s completely delightful. —Alissa Wilkinson

Where to stream: Netflix

Undone Amazon

Undone (2019; one season)

Rotoscoping is a classic, controversial filmmaking method where animators trace over live-action footage to create a look that’s more realistic look than even the fanciest CGI. When done poorly, it can drop viewers into the uncanny valley of discomfort. But when artists lean into the surreal aspects of the technique — that the images it produces exist on the line between fact and fiction — it can be beautiful.

Undone leans into the benefits of rotoscoping by playing with reality from its onset. Alma is rudderless in a dead-end job and relationship, but a near-fatal car accident awakens a hidden ability within her. She’s able to time travel, a skill she learns how to use through an apparition of her dead, physicist father. (He’s played by Bob Odenkirk, in the most unsettling role I’ve ever seen him take on.) Alma’s unpredictable shifts through a dimension made of her memories would be impossible to illustrate in live-action. Worlds build and collapse breathlessly and breathtakingly; no other show on this list or on streaming looks quite as mesmerizing as this one.

Undone’s rotoscoped style could be off-putting to people who can’t handle watching an animated Bob Odenkirk closely resembling live-action Bob Odenkirk, but it’s an example of how to use rotoscoping well. Visually and story-wise, Undone is philosophical, thrilling, provocative, and upsetting in equal measure. Also, as you should come to expect from co-creator Raphael Bob-Waskberg (who also created BoJack Horseman), it manages to be super funny and witty too amid all the bleakness. —AF

Where to stream: Amazon Prime

Group shot from Archer FX

Archer (2009-present; 10 seasons)

At its peak — roughly its second through fifth seasons — the FX/FXX series Archer was so dense with literary references, sexual innuendo, and other jokes that it wasn’t uncommon for viewers to have to pause and rewind to catch all of the gags they had just laughed over.

What made Archer so terrific during those seasons was the way it told lots of different kinds of jokes. On the surface, it was an enjoyable parody of James Bond movies and other spy stories. But underneath the surface, it was a dark and twisted family story about Sterling Archer (voiced by the great H. Jon Benjamin, also featured in Bob’s Burgers and Home Movies) and his inability to escape his controlling mother (Jessica Walter). Couple that with one of the best ensemble casts in television — Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer, and Chris Parnell among others — and creator Adam Reed’s rat-a-tat scripts full of allusions and bawdy gags, and the result was one of TV’s funniest shows for a good long while.

Archer is longer in the tooth now, 10 seasons and 110 episodes in, but its creative team has found ways to keep shaking up its format, by transporting the characters and their relationships out of spy world and into other genres entirely, including World War II-era adventure films and space opera. —EV

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

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Space Ghost Coast to Coast (1994-2004; nine seasons)

Late-night talk shows are all about the interviews. Space Ghost Coast to Coast knows that, but it also knows there’s a bunch of silly rigidity and convention surrounding the often contrived conversations. And that’s what makes the series, which reuses animation straight from the old ’60s superhero cartoon Space Ghost, so subversive and nonsensical and transfixing. It was, as Sean T. Collins wrote for Grantland in 2015, “one of America’s first cringe comedies.”

“From its bargain-basement launch in 1994 to its place at the center of the wildly popular Adult Swim lineup in the 2000s, it helped introduce cringe comedy to the American viewing public, deconstructed the idea of the talk show beyond repair for a generation of comedians, and changed the look and feel of the entire animation art form,” Collins wrote.

Space Ghost’s amazing gimmick is that live-action, real-world celebrities are kinda sorta talking to a cartoon superhero that inexplicably hosts a talk show from a space station. Space Ghost is onboard with his alien nemeses-turned-sidekicks Brak, Zorak, and Moltar, who resent him and are forced to work on the show. But they dutifully help their captor with his pet project: a surreal 11 minutes where an animated superhero asks inane questions of hip guests like David Byrne and Thom Yorke (who were actually interviewed by a show producer, and not provided information on the episode’s content or script).

How the hell did an animated talk show this hilariously bizarre get on TV, let alone for 10 years? Don’t ask; just appreciate that it did. —AF

Where to stream: Adult Swim

Where to buy: iTunes

Saturday morning nostalgia

Sailor Moon group shot
Sailor Moon is one of the most iconic “magical girl” anime ever.
Toei Animation

Sailor Moon (1992-1997; five seasons)

Detractors will tell you that Sailor Moon and its ilk in the magical girl anime genre waste too much time on big, showy transformation sequences. “She spends all her time posing,” one benighted fool once said to me. “How’s she ever gonna kill a bad guy that way?”

These people see as through a glass, darkly, and they should be pitied. Obviously the entire reason to watch Sailor Moon in the first place is the posing! That’s why Sailor Moon’s signature way of killing bad guys is to pose with a piece of jewelry and say a gently nonsensical English phrase while lights flash in the background and uplifting music plays! Sailor Moon is a battle between good and evil where good is pure aspirational hyperfemininity, and sometimes that’s all we need. —Constance Grady

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Arnold sitting on a bus in a Hey Arnold! episode. Nickelodeon

Hey Arnold! (1996-2004; five seasons)

Some of the most memorable episodes of this Nicktoon about idiosyncratic city kids involve a drug-like addiction to chocolate; a weirdo relative whose interests include gum and reading nutrition facts; family separation during the Vietnam War; an agoraphobic kid encouraged to finally leave his stoop and venture into the world; and an intense therapy session that unfurls years of childhood trauma in just a 30-minute runtime.

And yet, despite that wild and vast array of plot points and storytelling styles, Hey Arnold! is absolutely a kid-friendly cartoon about elementary schoolers blowing up their child-sized problems into do-or-die situations. It’s fun and funny and cute and quotable, with a great jazz-tinged soundtrack and dreamy shots of that good ol’ city life. It’s also unafraid to tackle heavy topics that real kids also sometimes have to deal with, without sacrificing entertainment value. More cartoons today should be like Hey Arnold! —AF

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Arthur
Arthur once ate an entire gigantic piece of cake in one bite. Honestly? Hero.
PBS

Arthur (1996-present; 23 seasons)

One of my best friends in high school chose the Arthur theme song for his senior quote in the yearbook. It was a silly joke, but a funny one, and also somewhat poignant. “Every day when you’re walking down the street / everybody that you meet / has an original point of view,” the song goes, a maxim that is especially important for homogenous suburban high schoolers to keep in mind.

Arthur’s world is anything but homogenous, although the caveat is that everyone on the show is an animal. The long-running PBS cartoon tells important life lessons through these fictional characters, with plenty of diverse perspectives, social connections, and family dynamics.

It’s the kind of show that celebrates every type of lifestyle, and does so with sincerity and humor. But Arthur and his classmates (as well as his iconic little sister, D.W.) can also be pretty mean or melodramatic — that’s part of the lesson learning! These kinds of higher-energy moments keep Arthur funny and relatable instead of cloying and preachy. At either end of that emotional spectrum, spending some time watching Arthur always makes for a wonderful kind of day. —AF

Where to stream: PBS Kids

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

DuckTales (1987) Walt Disney Studios

DuckTales (1987-1990; four seasons) / DuckTales reboot (2017-present; three seasons)

Disney+ is rife with animated shows to watch, but few of them feature a family of globetrotting, adventure-seeking ducks. Fortunately for all of us, DuckTales is there, both in its original ’80s glory and in a current reboot that captures much of what made the show fun while transporting it to the modern era.

A very loose adaptation of Carl Barks’s classic comics based on the family of Disney staple Donald Duck, DuckTales centers on the adventures of Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who hitch a ride with their incredibly rich Uncle Scrooge on a quest to scoop up all the money in the world. Celebrating a show about a crotchety billionaire in this, our season of Serious Doubts about Capitalism, might seem like a weird idea, but DuckTales turns Scrooge into the kind of crotchety billionaire America needs more of — angry at the right people and putting his heart in the right place (so long as he remains the richest duck alive).

The 2010s reboot is built to appeal to modern audiences who expect more lore and backstory from their television. If you’ve always wondered just who Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s mother is supposed to be and why nobody seems to talk about her, well, the reboot introduces her. It’s also got a surprisingly stacked cast, including David Tennant as Scrooge himself. But at its core, it’s still about hijinks and tales of derring-do, just, y’know, undertaken by ducks. —EV

Where to stream: Disney+ (1987/2017)

Where to buy: Amazon (2017 only), Google Play (1987/2017), iTunes (1987/2017)

Animaniacs Warner Bros. Animation

Animaniacs (1993-1998; five seasons)

Animaniacs is very much in the spirit of old-school Looney Tunes. Siblings Yacko, Wacko, and Dot live in the water tower on Hollywood’s Warner Bros. lot, causing all kinds of mischief that stretches the limits of suspended disbelief.

It doesn’t get much more complicated than that, although in true Looney Tunes fashion, their mischief reaches some high levels of absurdity. With such a specific setting, Animaniacs also boasts movie parodies galore. Even real-life figures like Steven Spielberg make some not-infrequent appearances (he was an executive producer). The adult jokes and references hit even harder with age, and the show’s perfect singalongs and original music might hold up even better. —AF

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series
Mark Hamill’s take on the Joker is considered by some Batman fans to be the definitive version of the character.
DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Animation

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995; four seasons)

Batman: The Animated Series is arguably the best Batman adaptation in the abundant history of the caped crusader. Yes, that includes Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.

Creators Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Mitch Brian employed a loose serial format for their 85-episode cartoon to delve into the emotions, psyche, and complexities of Batman’s life in a way that a two-hour movie just can’t.

Even though it aired alongside shows for kids, Batman: TAS didn’t shy away from its title character’s trauma of helplessly watching his parents die and how difficult it is to be a hero in Gotham, a city that can feel so hopeless. The show extends that same kind of emotional empathy to its villains who, like Batman, are shaped by their own personal tragedies: Mr. Freeze wants to save his wife; actor Matt Hagen becomes Clayface after an experiment to restore his looks goes wrong; Poison Ivy just wants to save the world.

Batman: TAS is also known for its original and iconic portrayal of Harley Quinn who went on to become a beloved character (with her own movie), and for casting Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker, to play the Joker. —Alex Abad-Santos

Where to stream: DC Universe

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Kids’ shows for any age

The Crystal Gems in Steven Universe Cartoon Network

Steven Universe / Steven Universe Future (2013-2020; six seasons)

Steven Universe has a lot of love in its pastel heart, a spring in its step, and a tune at the ready for every occasion. The magical comedy about a sweet preteen boy who lives with anthropomorphic alien “gemstones” that he aids in extraterrestrial battles recently aired its series finale, putting an end to one of the most beloved and progressive kids shows of the 2010s. In 2015, former Vox writer Caroline Framke explained why the show is so important to its many dedicated fans, young and older:

Cartoons ostensibly meant for kids have always threaded in adult themes, whether it’s a Nicktoon exploring what it means to be different or Pixar teaching kids about depression. But Steven Universe goes even further. It weaves a diverse representation of sexuality, gender, and even sex into the very fabric of the show without wringing its hands about it. As in life, all that stuff is just there. Steven Universe naturalizes the issues many shows would rather sensationalize in a way that’s clever but not condescending to its younger audience.

—AF

Where to stream: Cartoon Network (cable login required), Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

Mabel and Dipper in Gravity Falls Walt Disney Studios

Gravity Falls (2012-2016; two seasons)

I’m a twin, so I’ve always had a soft spot for twin-related media — especially the kind that recognizes, hey, we’re each our own person here. Gravity Falls’ two main characters, Dipper and Mabel Pines, are twins. They’re also a brother/sister pair of diametric opposites, who truly care for each other in the face of the supernatural secrets they encounter in their great uncle’s attic during their annual summer vacation. The show’s central unexplained mysteries are offset by that family loyalty and all the lighthearted goofs that come with it.

Here’s what I said about Gravity Falls after the series finale aired in 2016:

Both twins were defined by their love for adventure and affection for investigating the world around them; these are qualities most readily found in the under-13 set. What most excited the brother and sister pair about their summer stay in Gravity Falls, Oregon, was uncovering its secrets. […] But that element of the show always worked best when it was supporting a greater story about the awkwardness of being 12. Time loops and unicorns are strange and hard to understand, as is adulthood. But they’re ideas kids can’t help but fantasize about, for better or worse.

—AF

Where to stream: Disney+, Google Play, Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, iTunes

Avatar: The Last Airbender Nickelodeon

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008; three seasons)

A game-changer that influenced many of the other shows on this list, and many more besides, Avatar: The Last Airbender did just about everything right.

It was just one of many young adult fantasy series of the early aughts — think Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and innumerable fantasy anime (a medium to which Airbender is heavily indebted). But where most of them fumbled their themes or collapsed in the home stretch, Airbender never did.

Airbender invested in long, believable character arcs, as it slowly built its story about a team of kids trying to save the world into a profound protest against colonialism and military aggression. Sporting gorgeous animation and rich cultural details, Airbender above all bursts with wit, humor, and imagination. It won my heart faster than you could say “penguin sledding,” and it remains one of the most satisfying TV shows I’ve ever watched all the way through. Many of its episodes and memes have become iconic, and its May 15 Netflix release is much anticipated — with extremely good reason. —Aja Romano

Where to stream: Netflix (starting May 15)

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

SpongeBob meme
“sPoNgEbOb iS MaYbE My fAvOrItE ShOw oF AlL TiMe!”
Nickelodeon

SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-present; 12 seasons)

SpongeBob SquarePants is maybe my favorite show of all time, even if I stopped watching new episodes a long time ago. But I’d put its early run — the first three seasons, and the first movie — on the same level of “important animated comedy” as The Simpsons. SpongeBob himself is an enthusiastic, high-energy central character, and like The Simpsons’ Springfield, the world of Bikini Bottom outside SpongeBob’s famous pineapple under the sea is full of unique characters and wacky small-town scenarios.

There’s a SpongeBob quote or image or reference or meme to suit almost every single situation; the show is reliably funny and layered, with a different joke grabbing you every time you rewatch. It’s a lot more childish than The Simpsons or and other greats, which is probably because it’s a cartoon on a kid-centric TV network. But it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you can get on its wavelength of talking sea creatures, random gags, and high-energy antics, SpongeBob is forever. —AF

Where to stream: Amazon Prime

Where to buy: Google Play, iTunes

Over the Garden Wall Cartoon Network

Over the Garden Wall (2014; one season)

Over the Garden Wall is a 10-episode miniseries that packs a lot into each 11-minute episode, telling a somewhat dark but very moving story about two brothers who get lost in an enchanted forest on Halloween. There’s no time wasted over the course of the series, which manages to feel like a fun romp through a magical world while also moving forward at a steady clip toward the characters’ end goal of getting out of those woods.

What makes Over the Garden Wall so appealing across age groups is its adherence to the fairy tale formula — young heroes embarking on dreamlike adventures. But its style is more unique than traditional Hans Christian Andersen-style folklore. “The [quirky Americana] aesthetic makes Over the Garden Wall feel distinct among other fantasy or fairy tale cartoons,” wrote Simone de Rochefort at Polygon in 2016. “We have a rich, weird folk history in this country, and watching Over the Garden Wall made me wonder why we don’t put it to more use.

Over the Garden Wall is a great intro to the beauty of Weird Americana, with similarities to the animated classics The Secret of NIMH and Coraline — or maybe a better first dip into the slightly scarier side of bedtime stories. —AF

Where to stream: Hulu

Where to buy: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes

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Mickey Mouse (2013-ongoing; five seasons)

Mickey Mouse is so culturally pervasive that he’s as recognizable to Americans as a dollar bill, even if he’s mostly a brand mascot these days. But Disney has actually done Mickey some good in recent years, with this wonderful, novel series of shorts that star Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, and the rest of the core Disney crew getting into mischief of escalating intensity.

I say “novel” because the animation is more pop art-esque than we’re used to seeing from anything Disney, giving each character a design overhaul. These shorts, which are never more than about eight minutes long, are also often pretty weird; one of the first that Disney released has no dialogue except for some sporadic French. That leaves the viewer to really focus on the unique animation, which provides the ageless humor and heart of these breezy episodes. —AF

Where to stream: Disney+, Hulu

Where to buy: iTunes


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