Category Archives: Best of Animation – TV

#1 Best in TV Animation: The Simpsons

The_Simpsons_LogoCould it really be another? There have been funnier shows, better looking ones, and shows with better stories to tell, but it’s hard to argue against the show that made prime time animation a thing and has lasted over 25 years. The Simpsons are an American institution at this point. There are people in their twenties who have never had a year of their life pass by without a new season of The Simpsons. That’s pretty incredible. And say what you will about the quality of the show in recent times, there’s still a large body of work that’s among television’s best.

Let me actually start with the argument against The Simpsons being number one. Really, that argument boils down to the show not being very good for the last ten or fifteen years. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fan of the show willing to argue that the best is happening right now. The general consensus seems to be that the show’s peak was probably seasons two through seven. Seasons eight through twelve have their moments, and from there the show has been in a downward spiral of re-used plot devices and poor gags. After all, how many times have Homer and Marge split-up during an episode only to patch things up in the end? Or how often has Bart pulled some elaborate prank only to feel remorseful after the fact? For me, the best era of The Simpsons probably ended with the season nine premiere, “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson.” It was a promising start to what ended up being a mostly mediocre season. I’d argue though that The Simpsons ever since has mostly remained mediocre and has never produced a truly awful season. Though I concede one should feel fortunate if there’s at least one memorable episode per year that isn’t a Treehouse of Horror installment.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

Even if I were to go so far as to say that The Simpsons has been bad since season nine, that’s still nearly two-hundred episodes of quality prior to that. Such an episode total dwarfs almost every other series on this list with the only comparable being South Park (which has had its own peaks and valleys over the years). When The Simpsons was operating at its best it was sharp, funny, satirical, but with enough heart to make viewers care about the characters. It operated as a pretty typical sitcom, but one willing to take advantage of the animation medium. Characters never had to age and the town of Springfield could be filled with hundreds of characters without the need to expand the cast.

What made The Simpsons a hit was its edgier brand of humor when compared with other sitcoms. The Simpson family was dysfunctional. Bart and Homer were always at odds with Homer being a rather poor example for the kids. They weren’t as hopeless as Fox’s other family, The Bundys, but they certainly weren’t The Waltons (much to the dismay of then President George H.W. Bush). Bart dominated the early episodes, often getting into trouble and just being a general delinquent. Overtime, Homer moved more and more into the spotlight as his I.Q. seemingly deteriorated more and more each season. Lisa and Marge have mostly served in a supporting role with each representing a foil for the male members of the family. Often once or twice per season one of the ladies would assume a starring role. The supporting cast became robust and episodes would even follow someone from Springfield with The Simpsons serving in a supporting role. It’s hard to pick a best character from outside the family because there are just too many to choose from. The miserly Mr. Burns is so good as the boss character/villain of the series (boss as in Homer’s boss, not video game boss, though he did serve in that role too). Krusty is well known as Springfield’s resident celebrity as is the cartoon duo Itchy and Scratchy. Moe, Barney, Troy McClure (voiced by the late, great, Phil Hartman), Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and on and on it goes. I doubt there’s ever been a larger cast in the history of television.

The cast is positively ginormous.

The cast is positively ginormous.

Every cartoon needs its own look, and visually, the series has always been distinct with its yellow skin-toned characters and circular eyes. Everyone sports three fingers and a thumb and wears the same clothes every day. The quality of the animation was a bit crude in the early going with some of the colors in the first season looking washed-out. As the series became a success, more and more money was tossed its way and the quality of the animation has steadily risen each year. In fact, that’s one thing the current episodes can boast over the classics: better animation. The show is often bright, but not distractingly so, with a lot of Springfield often appearing kind of run down. The main theme of the show was composed by Danny Elfman and is about as well-known as any other television theme. Shockingly, Fox has been able to keep the same vocal talent onboard over the years, though it hasn’t always been easy. There was a time when it appeared as if the rising costs of production due to raises for the cast would eventually kill the series, but now that seems unlikely. Everyone is past their career prime at this point and there’s less of a call for them to leave the show to pursue something else. They’re also all nearing or beyond retirement age and I imagine The Simpsons is a nice source of income they can rely on now. They’re also not stupid and know the show has gone past its peak so they’re unlikely to demand significant raises going forward, unless they collectively all decide they don’t really want to continue working on the show and demand Fox make them an offer they can’t refuse. It must be noted though that The Simpsons hasn’t avoided some tragedy over the years (it would be almost impossible for it to considering how long it’s been on) losing two popular talents. Phil Hartmen, who voiced many supporting roles, was murdered in 1998 while Marcia Wallace, voice of Bart’s hard-luck teacher Mrs. Krabappel, passed away in 2013. Both actors had their respective characters retired upon their death.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

Just as it’s hard to pick a favorite character, it’s hard to pick a favorite episode or even season. The show was so good and so consistent in the early 90’s that it seemed to turn out a classic every week. “The Telltale Head” from season one is arguably the show’s first classic, along with the very first episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open-Fire,” which is still the show’s best Christmas episode. “Bart the Daredevil” is another classic with an iconic moment even referenced in The Simpsons Movie. “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Flaming Moe’s,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Marge vs The Monorail,” “I Love Lisa,” “The Last Temptation of Homer” and so many more. It truly is a daunting task to list the best of the best. Just coming up with a list of the best Halloween specials is hard (which The Simpsons must have a record for most Halloween episodes, easily)!

The Simpsons has been on television for so long that its legacy is likely going to be forever linked to its longevity. It has almost surpassed the show’s reputation for just being a damn good TV show. And how long will it go on? Who knows? The natural assumption would be 600 episodes, or maybe a 30th season, but it’s possible the show just goes on and on until someone too important decides to leave. It likely won’t go quietly as I imagine Fox would not allow the show to just end without making a big deal out of it, and they should. The show deserves as much. If it weren’t for The Simpsons it’s unclear what the landscape for adult cartoons would be. Sure, The Flintstones came first, but The Flintstones were not as nearly as impactful. While The Simpsons embraced the animated form, The Flintstones tried to be a typical sitcom that just happened to be animated. I may not watch The Simpsons on a weekly basis anymore, and really have not since the nineties ended. I still do not look forward to the day when The Simpsons has ended. It may no longer be the best show on television, but I still think the world is a better place with The Simpsons on at 8 PM every Sunday.


#2 Best in TV Animation: Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Three…Two…One…Let’s jam!

Of all the mainstream arts, television is the one that has seen the biggest advancement in terms of relevance over the past fifteen years. It used to be that TV was nothing more than the idiot box, a thing to rot our brains with. It was the home of the sitcom, a mostly safe way to kill 25 minutes on a weeknight, or daytime soap operas with outlandish and never-ending plotlines. Even the more celebrated dramas often had a “play it safe” mentality designed to entertain for a single episode before putting everything back in place for next week. There wasn’t much going on that seemed worthy of the term “art,” and an actor jumping ship from Hollywood to the small screen was seen as an admission of failure on said actor’s part.

Things are different now and some of the best stories, acting, and directing are occurring on television. Most of this is attributed to premium cable network HBO and their series The Sopranos and The Wire often cited as the two most influential. Basic cable has jumped in on the fun over the past eight years or so with much celebrated hits like The Walking Dead, The Americans, and of course, Breaking Bad. The main networks are still mostly home to popcorn fair but they’re slowly catching on to the changing television landscape.

Before all of these shows were breaking the mold, there was Cowboy Bebop. Cowboy Bebop is an example of strong story-telling with great character development that refused to be a slave to the popular TV tropes. The fact that it was coming out of Japan likely had something to do with it because Cowboy Bebop would never have existed as-is if it were American made. Just imagine a hugely successful show voluntarily ending after just one season of twenty-six episodes (a film would later be released but there’s never been talk of a season two or spin-off that I’m aware of). Cowboy Bebop set out to tell a complete story, and that’s what it did. If there was a temptation to double-back on that and have a second season it was ignored and probably for the better.

From left to right: Ein, Ed, Spike, Jet, and Faye.

From left to right: Ein, Ed, Spike, Jet, and Faye.

Cowboy Bebop is largely credited to director Shinichiro Watanabe, who presided over the twenty-six “sessions” that make up the series. Cowboy Bebop follows the crew of the Bebop, comprised of bounty hunters in the year 2071. In this setting earth has largely been abandoned by humanity due to asteroid activity. A large collection of people now live on Mars, but a lot of the solar system as we know it has been colonized. The Bebop is captained by Jet Black, a former cop with a cybernetic arm. His main running mate is Spike Spiegel who was formerly messed-up with a criminal syndicate but now hunts bad guys for coin. They’re a fairly unsuccessful duo when the series begins but they’re soon joined by Faye Valentine, a woman with no memory of her past and a huge debt to settle, and the sexually ambiguous child Edward, who speaks in the third person and is a computer whiz and hacker extraordinaire. Rounding out the group is a welsh corgi by the name of Ein, a dog with near-human intelligence. They’re mostly a motley crew and often their bounties get away or find a way to devalue themselves preventing the group from really cashing in. Most of their relationships are a bit strained with Spike and Jet often wondering how their duo came to be this group. Faye basically comes and goes at her leisure while Ed just seems to enjoy hanging out with the crew. The various dynamics work out well as they clash often but all seem to reluctantly accept one another’s help when needed.

All of the characters are interesting and well-developed in their own right, but Spike is the show's main character.

All of the characters are interesting and well-developed in their own right, but Spike is the show’s main character.

The animation for Cowboy Bebop is a sophisticated take on the standard anime style. The characters do not possess the exaggerated features of many anime programs but retain enough of the art form’s style to be considered anime. Characters tend to be long of limb. They look like they should animate in a stiff manner but they tend to have a certain flow about their movements. There’s a mixture of handrawn animation and CG with most of the CG reserved for the spaceships. Some episodes are visually dark, others bright. Some settings have an industrialized look to them, others are leafy and green, and some neon and futuristic. There’s a lot going on in the twenty-six sessions and the nomadic nature of the crew adds considerable variety in both story-telling and visuals.

Music is a big point of emphasis by Cowboy Bebop. In fact, each session title is a reference to either a song or style of music. There’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Jupiter Jazz,” just to name a few. The music was done by Yoko Kanno and a better anime soundtrack you will not find. The opening title “Tank!” is a jazz-fusion track that has undoubtedly influenced several shows since like The Venture Brothers and Archer. The closing track for each episode, “The Real Folk Blues,” perfectly captures the show’s more melancholy moments. The show’s dub is also particularly impressive. Several of the names attached to it are well-known in the animation community such as Steve Blum (Spike), Wendee Lee (Faye), and Beau Billingslea (Jet).

By far though, the best thing going for Cowboy Bebop is its story-telling. The show slowly peels back the layers of each character throughout the series. At first, Spike comes across as a reckless cowboy who cares only about collecting his bounties. As the series moves along, we see he’s actually a good person at heart and when push comes to shove he usually opts to do the right thing. His story is what I would consider to be the main story. Some of his past, including his rivalry with current syndicate member Vicious, is revealed in the fifth episode “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” More is then revealed in the two-part “Jupiter Jazz” which is essentially the midpoint for the series before wrapping with the two part finale, “The Real Folk Blues.” His story is compelling often alternating between exciting and sad. Faye also has a window to her past opened as the series moves along and hers is just as captivating and arguably more tragic. The episode most centered around her, “Hard Luck Woman,” is one the show’s more satisfying. Jet and Edward are also examined and each has difficult choices to make. We learn a lot about these characters and it’s painful saying goodbye after just twenty-six episodes, but that’s part of the show’s lasting impact.

The Spike/Vicious rivalry is one of the show's main conflicts, but it's never overplayed.

The Spike/Vicious rivalry is one of the show’s main conflicts, but it’s never overplayed.

Interspersed amongst the episodes are one-off palate cleaners, if you would. These episodes take on the form of a “bounty of the week” and we get to see the Bebop crew in action. Some are laden with humor such as the psychedelic “Mushroom Samba” while others are dark and violent, like “Pierrot le Fou.” Even though these episodes are lighter in content, they still offer moments for the characters to deepen our understanding of them or make use of creative story-telling devices, like the Alien inspired “Toys in the Attic.” Truly, there are episodes more likely to be cited as favorites but there is no bad episode among the twenty-six.

Cowboy Bebop nails it at pretty much every level. It’s visually engaging, aurally amazing, and its story-telling was ahead of its time. If the show had a smell or taste attached to it I’m sure they too would have been excellent. It’s rather unique among the other shows on this list, most of which are either comedies or children’s shows. Cowboy Bebop will make you laugh, but it’s definitely not a comedy and its mature subject matter puts it squarely in the adult zone. It’s really one the greatest shows made for television and one of Japan’s finest exports. Thirteen hundred words can not do it justice.

#3 Best in TV Animation: Futurama

FuturamaWhen Futurama was first announced I didn’t think much of it. It felt like an unofficial spin-off of The Simpsons with a stupid title. The premise, a 20th century slacker getting cryogenically frozen to awake in the 30th century, probably should have interested me more than it did. As a result, I, along with most of America, mostly ignored the show during its initial run. Only when re-runs started surfacing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of programming did I truly give the show a chance. And what do you know? – I loved it!

Futurama follows the exploits of Fry, Bender, Leela, and the rest of the Planet Express package delivery crew as they parade around the universe getting into more trouble than a normal package delivery company would expect to. Like The Simpsons, Futurama relies on satire and a diverse cast of characters for its humor, and setting the series a thousand years in the future actually makes the satire come rather easy. It’s almost as if show runners Matt Groening and David X. Cohen watched Back to the Future Part II and decided a show that centers entirely on the future portion of that film would be a great idea. The future is a lot like our present, only America essentially rules the entire globe with President Nixon, now a head preserved in a jar, coming into power early in the show’s life. There’s also the Democratic Order Of Planets, or DOOP, which attempts to police the entire known universe with the incompetent Zapp Brannigan as its leading general. Robots handle a lot of the menial labor on earth with relations between humans and robots tenuous at best.

This picture essentially tells you all you need to know about Bender.

This picture essentially tells you all you need to know about Bender.

The principal cast revolves around the Planet Express crew itself. Fry (Billy West) is the main protagonist who is time-displaced due to a mishap in 1999 and doesn’t seem to mind it all that match. He’s a well-meaning but plainly stupid sort of character. His best friend is the robot Bender (John DiMaggio), who would rather chain smoke and steal than actually do any work around the office. Leela (Katie Sagal) is the pilot of the Planet Express ship and nominal love interest of Fry, a subplot that actually takes quite a while to fully develop. She also happens to be a one-eyed mutant. Professor Farnsworth (also voiced by West) runs the company (mostly incompetently) with the help of Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr), Amy Wong (Tress MacNeil)e, and Dr. Zoidberg (West). As you may have noticed, the voice cast is pretty well stocked with talented individuals, some who made a name for themselves with Groening’s Simpsons. West is the obvious star and one of the very best at his craft, but everyone is pretty top-notch making Futurama arguably the most well-voiced program in the history of animation.

Visually, the show is excellent and for most of its run was superior to its predecessor, The Simpsons. Fox clearly was pretty generous with the budget for the show’s first four seasons as traditional hand-drawn animation was blended well with computer-aided visuals where appropriate. The show is bright and vibrant and the setting helps to give it a unique look. As expected, there are some pretty standard tropes of the future setting like transportation tubes and laser weapons to go along the obvious hover cars. The show doesn’t make too many attempts at actually predicting the future, and given the setting is a thousand years away there’s little need to. The various aliens and robots are usually pretty fun to take-in and is where most of the show’s visual creativity ends up being on display.

Billy West lends his voice to many characters on the show.

Billy West lends his voice to many characters on the show.

Most importantly, the show is just plain funny. The characters tend to work well with each other. Fry and Bender are often the ones getting into mischief, and early in the show’s run, Leela was often left to play the straight man (woman). Bender is the unofficial star of the show as his general selfishness and law-breaking ways make him both hilarious and popular in the same way Bart Simpson did ten years prior, only with the debauchery and lewdness magnified considerably. Dr. Zoidberg, likely the universe’s worst doctor, is often a source of humor at the character’s expense considering he is both poor and foul-smelling. Professor Farnsworth is probably my pick for the most unsung hero of the cast. Whenever the show turns to him for a one-liner or a visual gag he seems to always deliver. The simple delivery of his “Tell them I hate them,” from “Fry and The Slurm Factory” gets me every time.

Where the show really found a way to separate itself from others is with its heart. It sounds sappy, but the show is surprisingly effective when it wants to make the viewer experience something other than laughter. The first episode where the show really successfully delivered on such was the Fry-centric “The Luck of the Fryish.” In that episode, Fry finds out his brother essentially stole his identity after he was frozen and basically lived out all of Fry’s dreams while becoming a national treasure. He owed it all to Fry’s lucky seven-leaf clover. Fry, in anger, wants his clover back and will go to great lengths to get it back, even if it means digging up his brother’s corpse. There’s a twist in the end and good luck keeping your eyes dry when it comes about. Of course, the show’s most infamous episode in this style is “Jurassic Bark,” in which we find out what happened to Fry’s dog, Seymour, after he was frozen and left him behind. I still remember the first time I caught the episode on television and the ending really snuck up on me and obviously made an impact. In general, the show does a really strong job of finding the humor in almost any situation. And even when the characters have to do something mean for laughs, the show is able to keep them from straying too far from a moral baseline so that the audience never turns against them. Even Bender has his moments where he does something nice.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama's cast became exceptionally large.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama’s cast became exceptionally large.

Futurama was originally unsuccessful during its initial run on Fox, though it did manage to last for the better part of four seasons. After the reruns performed well for Cartoon Network and DVD sales excelled, the show went the direct-to-video route with four feature-length films. They would eventually be chopped up into episodes that aired on Comedy Central, who picked up the show for an additional three seasons. Having the show come back from the dead was pretty awesome, but you would have a hard time finding a Futurama fan that felt the post-cancellation episodes were up to the same standards of quality as the first four seasons. Still, there were episodes here and there that stood out and subpar Futurama is better than most shows. The show ended with its 140th episode, a healthy run by any standard. In those 140 episodes the show made a bigger impact than all but two others, according to this list, and really stand among all television shows, animated or otherwise, as being among the very best.

#4 Best in TV Animation: South Park

imageViewers have been going down to South Park for nearly 20 years. That’s pretty incredible considering its humble origins, and if it weren’t for The Simpsons, we would likely all be marveling even more at the show’s longevity. More so than any other series featured on this list, South Park has demonstrated a willingness to change with the times in natural, almost seamless, ways. Originally the show focused on its four main characters:  Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman. These four eight-year-olds got into trouble, cursed like sailors, and often found themselves being confused about the world around them. Even though it’s a comedy, it sometimes felt like a more authentic coming-of-age series than most programs that aim to be just that. Being constantly puzzled by the actions of the adults around them while more or less trying to act like them often reminds me of how I was at that age, when profanity was a new and exciting tool to make use of. Over the years, South Park has taken on a more satirical tone often poking fun at current events, politics, and celebrity culture. Throughout all of this, it’s remained one of the funniest programs on television.

By now most people are aware of the origins of the show. College students Trey Parker and Matt Stone experimented with a crude form of stop-motion animation that utilized paper characters as opposed to puppets or clay and created a short work depicting a fight between Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus. This short would be remade with Jesus taking the place of Frosty and would eventually lead to Comedy Central making them an offer to produce their own series. Ditching the pain-staking stop-motion process for computer animation that mimicked it helped to create the show’s signature look. The look of the program back in 1997 when it debuted could probably be classified as crude, but has improved by leaps since though the show has never abandoned its signature style. Improvements in technology mean Parker and Stone can now create great looking content in as little time as a few days. This quick turn-around makes South Park unique in the world of animation, and in non-live television in general, in that fairly recent events can be satirized rather quickly.

The show often looks to pop culture for its humor.

The show often looks to pop culture for its humor.

Part of the charm of South Park is that not only has the style changed with the times but characters have grown and changed throughout the years as well. Cartman is the most obvious as he’s gone from an annoying little twerp to a true sociopath with some homicidal tendencies. Randy Marsh has gone form a well-meaning father to become more of a narcissist with some (admittedly cliche by animation standards) moronic tendencies. Mr. Garrison has gone from a closeted homosexual, to transgender woman, and back again (I think?). Characters that initially existed for shock value, such as Big Gay Al when it was still rare to see homosexuals on television, have been discarded before they ceased to be funny any longer.

Perhaps most remarkable is how South Park has primarily remained a two-man show. Sure, Parker and Stone now oversee their own studio with a full staff but the two of them still write virtually all of the material for the show and do 90% of the voice work. It’s somewhat surprising they’ve been able to resist the urge to simply hand the show off to some underlings while sitting back to collect checks. Most shows that last this long see full turnover in their writing staff. Larry David didn’t last half as long with Seinfeld, for comparison.

While the show has become more intelligent, there's still plenty of gross humor to be found.

While the show has become more intelligent, there’s still plenty of gross humor to be found.

This isn’t all to say that South Park is a perfect show. There have been plenty of moments where the show seemed to be running low on creative ideas. In its lowest moments, some may have considered what the show would look like with new voices contributing content but Parker and Stone have shown an ability to bounce back. The show has yet to truly hit rock bottom, but it’s probably safe to say its best years have past. So much of the program relies on shock value and after so many years there’s little the show can do to shock its viewers. When Cartman first sought revenge against Scott Tenorman by tricking the boy into eating his own parents I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Now seeing the character casually murder someone brings a much smaller reaction. Characters have been vomiting and defecating on each other for so long that the gags are neither truly funny or gross at this point. And of course the show’s longest running gag of Kenny dying each episode has long since been abandoned when that ceased to be funny.

When the show is firing on all cylinders though, it still proves to be very funny. Last year’s season premiere which lampooned the NFL and crowd-funding sites was poignant with its observational humor and seems almost funnier now in light of recent events with the NFL and Roger Goodell, in particular. The show has been so good for so long that viewers just have great expectations. When South Park sets out to poke fun at the latest celebrity scandal it almost needs to go for the less obvious joke. To liven up the last two seasons the show has opted to adopt a more serialized format with plot lines lasting multiple episodes and callbacks being inserted. It’s a change I don’t think many saw coming, but it’s one that has worked to make even the lesser episodes feel more important.

By far, the show's greatest source of humor rests in its celebrity "guest" stars.

By far, the show’s greatest source of humor rests in its celebrity “guest” stars.

It remains to be seen how long the show will run for. Recently the season orders have been cut in half as Parker and Stone find it too daunting to create a full season’s worth of programs. Prior to that, the show had operated with two-part seasons occurring in the spring and fall so that Parker and Stone could have more material to work with. Clearly, it’s become more of a challenge for them to keep the show fresh but both insist that South Park is a part of them and the end is not yet in sight. This can only be considered a good thing for those enjoying satirical humor with their animation. The show has progressed from being about some potty-mouthed kids with an accident prone friend to something that’s actually pretty intelligent and cleverly produced (though the show is not above the occasional dumb or crude joke). And unlike most shows on this list, there’s still room for it to grow. Maybe in ten years we’ll be talking about South Park as the greatest animated comedy of all-time. Who could have predicted that back in 1997?

#5 Best in TV Animation: Batman – The Animated Series

Batman_the_Animated_Series_logoChildren of today can probably hardly imagine a world in which super heroes aren’t dominating the pop culture landscape. We’re in an era where even the Fantastic Four have received three chances at making a successful movie and less popular characters like Antman and Dr. Strange have either become mainstream or soon will. That wasn’t the case before 1990. Prior to that, only Batman and Superman had ever made a buck at the box office while The Incredible Hulk had a semi-successful television series for Marvel. When it came to cartoons, there was basically the many variations on the Super Friends and the Marvel Action Hour. The quality for these cartoons was something less than satisfactory.

When Tim Burton and Michael Keaton helped to make Batman popular once again, the powers that be at DC and Warner Bros. decided to give television another go with the caped crusader. Instead of another colorful super hero mash-up they opted to adapt the more current iteration of Batman. The resulting “Batman” (often subtitled “The Animated Series)” returned Batman to the night from which he was born. Developed chiefly by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the show embodied much of the recent films as well as the tone of the current comics. Robin was there, but only in a handful of episodes initially and he no longer dressed like Tinker Bell’s older brother. Villains that were popular on the older 60’s television program returned, but with a more serious take. Joining them were the more grounded villains like Roland Dagget and Rupert Thorne, mobsters who waged war from the comfort of their homes. Adding even more of a sense of realism to the program was the fact that the villains (and cops) carried and fired realistic weaponry as opposed to cartoonish laser guns that are always conveniently set to stun.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The Batman present in the animated series was not the ever-present optimist from the 60’s with the serious, but often cheerful, demeanor. This Batman, voiced exceptionally well by Kevin Conroy, was a moody, no nonsense, hero who truly embodied the term The Dark Knight. He’s driven by a quiet anger, it’s root cause being the murder of his parents he bore witness to as a child. Batman is fiercely driven and consumed by his urge to avenge his parents by cleaning up the streets of Gotham, a seemingly never ending task. His alter-ego Bruce Wayne exists only as a cover for Batman. This Batman has a lot in common with Frank Miller’s, only the delivery isn’t so heavy-handed and extreme. As usual, Batman has allies around him. By his side is his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who is more of a sidekick in the series as opposed to a moral arbiter. That role falls to Dr. Leslie Tompkins who often counsels Batman away from his life of crime-fighting. Commissioner Gordon heads the Gotham police department and relies on Batman probably more than he should while Detective Bullock is Gordon’s foil and often mistrusts the Batman. Robin is also around with an equally tragic backstory and Batgirl eventually comes into the fold during the second “season.”

Batman has no shortage of allies but he’d be nothing without his rogue’s gallery. The usual suspects are present such as The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and Penguin. They’re presented well, but the show is best remembered for its fresh approach when adapting the lesser villains. Two-Face is introduced slowly as district attorney Harvey Dent before his eventual transformation. His character is handled with care and his sympathetic nature is sort of a calling card for the series. The villain most often cited as coming out of the show for the better is Mr. Freeze. Once a fairly corny player in the comics, the depiction of Freeze in the animated series is that of a vindictive killer. Juxtaposing his cold demeanor is the origins for his madness over his wife’s apparent murder. His debut episode, “Heart of Ice,” is often mentioned among the show’s best. The show doesn’t always rely on its villain of the week (day, actually, since the program aired week days originally) as illustrated in “Beware the Grey Ghost.” In this episode, the show runners have some fun by pairing Batman with an out of work actor typecast for his work as a super hero in an old television show. His voice actor? None other than Adam West.

The rogue's gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The rogue’s gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The artwork in the show is heavily based off of the set designs of Eric Radomski and the character designs of Bruce Timm. If you are not familiar with Timm’s work, it’s a low-detail approach with lots of angular lines. Lots of pointy-chinned females and square-headed males populate the show. His take on the various villains is often influenced by both classic works and the Burton films. Joker and Penguin are obviously takes on Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s more monstrous Penguin. Catwoman too resembles her look from Batman Returns but with the S&M aspect toned down. There’s a minimalist approach to the details with lots of flat, muted colors. Backgrounds were even done on black paper, most noticeably the opening title sequence, with light colors painted over them. This technique is credited to Radomski and often referred to as “Dark-Deco.” The show’s biggest contribution to the world of Batman though is easily the character of Harley Quinn, who first originated on television before making the leap to comics.

Whether you like the look of the show or not is a matter of opinion. It certainly needed to grow on me, but I appreciated the style of the show. Like the Burton films, Gotham is a modern city rooted in the stylings of the 30s and 40s. Batman possesses some pretty advanced technology but for some reason also watches a black and white television half the time. The low detail approach for the show’s look is a benefit to the animation itself. Rather than the somewhat stiff X-Men, Batman animates rather smoothly. The later series, The New Batman Adventures, who further reduce the detail to boost the animation but some would suggest they went too far as certain characters came across as too cartoonish.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

Batman The Animated Series is truly one of the great achievements in kid’s programming. Its serious approach to the character of Batman and his many villains really enhanced the product above what is typically expected of children’s programming. The only thing holding it back is the show’s consistency. It was originally ordered as one season of 65 episodes which is a pretty daunting task to come up with 65 well-executed episodes. The show is often one of those programs where the good episodes are really special but there’s a lot of filler to work around. The show becomes more watered-down when the short second season is added to the mix as well as The New Adventures which surfaced years later. That run produced maybe 2 or 3 worthy episodes with the rest being kid stuff, sadly.

Even so, the good produced by Batman The Animated Series is worthy enough to place it at fifth on my top ten list for animated television programs. The show also spawned some feature films, though only one was released theatrically, the fantastic Mask of the Phantasm. When the films jumped the shark with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it was the animated series that kept Batman relevant. It’s unlikely another super hero show could ever surpass it.

#6 Best in TV Animation: The Venture Bros.

2011-03-22-Venture_brothers-533x399Our number seven entrant on this list, Archer, has a lot in common with the number six entrant. So much so, that I couldn’t, in good conscience, rank it ahead of this one. Archer’s creators got their start on Cartoon Network’s adult swim, which is where The Venture Bros. currently (I use that term loosely) reside. Both shows are essentially animated sitcoms, with Venture being the more traditionally animated one. And like Archer, both utilize a setting that’s both dated yet futuristic. And while Archer may be a more modern Get Smart or a parody of James Bond and other spy-centric shows and movies, The Venture Bros. is basically a spoof of Johnny Quest with lots of nods towards comics and geek culture sprinkled about.

The Venture Bros. is the brainchild of Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. It first began as a fifteen minute crudely animated pilot that first debuted in 2003 on adult swim. Unlike most adult swim programs at the time (the ones created for adult swim, that is), The Venture Bros. did not use repurposed animation from other programs like Sealab 2021 or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. The animation it did sport though was certainly still low-budget when compared with other similar cartoons. The pilot successfully introduced the main cast for the series. There’s Doctor Venture, a “super” scientist of questionable morals and credentials who is apparently riding the coat tails of his long deceased father. Doc is essentially the Johnny Quest of this show, only he grew up to be a complete failure. In the pilot, he’s trying to hawk a death ray to the UN at a peace conference. His body-guard, Brock Samson, is a short-tempered bad ass with a righteous blond mullet. He’s Race Bannon without a conscience, and the appearance of the assassin Molotov Cocktease implies that Brock has a secret past. The actual Venture brothers the title refers to are Doctor Venture’s twin sons, Hank and Dean. They basically serve as caricatures of the goody two-shoes characters that often showed up in adventure shows. Hank looks like Fred from Scooby Doo, while Dean looks like a Hardy Boys reject. They’ve, up to this point, lived sheltered lives at the family compound and have almost no sense of danger or any awareness of the world around them. The two get into some trouble, without being fully aware of it, while their dad attends the peace conference. Both are pursued by The Monarch, Dr. Venture’s self-appointed arch-enemy. For as bad as Dr. Venture is at science, The Monarch is every bit his equal as a super villain. They’re also pursued by a one-off character, a ninja, who we are lead to believe wishes to assassinate Dr. Venture but it turns out he just wants to masturbate on Venture’s death ray.

The cast started small, but continues to expand.

The cast started small, but continues to expand.

This is the type of humor the series would become known for. The pilot was deemed a success and the show was given a thirteen episode first season with each episode running a half hour, a rarity for original adult swim programs. The animation was given a boost in quality, as was the writing and voice acting. Public and Hammer voice the majority of the cast, with Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton voicing Brock Samson. The main cast of Venture, Brock, and the two boys were kept intact, with “wacky neighbor” Dr. Orpheus brought in later (he’s a necromancer). The Monarch though was fleshed-out further, given a back story, as well as a stable of disposable henchmen. Conflicts between he and his right-hand woman, Dr. Girlfriend, highlight some episodes while his two most prominent henchmen, 21 and 24, are the other featured members of his stable. The Monarch, as it turns out, is a professional super villain contracted to harass Dr. Venture. He’s a member of The Guild of Calamitous Intent, which governs the conflicts between heroes and super villains and ensures the conflicts exist in perpetuity, essentially providing a reason why certain villain cliches exist. Venture, by virtue of his adventuring past with the original Team Venture, is still considered some kind of hero even though he’s almost irrelevant. The main theme for the show is failure, and both Dr. Venture and The Monarch embody it. Venture as the failed scientist, and Monarch as the failed villain for Venture often ignores his very existence.

Several other characters debut in the first season that would go on to make repeat appearances. There’s Professor Impossible and his family who are an obvious parody of the Fantastic Four. Unlike the comic book heroes, Professor Impossible (voiced by Stephen Colbert) is a villain who keeps his mutated family hidden. His wife’s skin is transparent, his brother in-law is constantly on fire and in tremendous pain, while the their take on The Thing is a special needs man covered by a giant callous. There’s also Baron Von Ünderbheit, a hulking man with a steel lower jaw, who is best characterized by The Monarch as a “dime store Dr. Doom.” As the seasons have gone on the cast has been increased ten-fold. Many characters who seemed like they were just part of a throw-away gag-line in past seasons, like Sergeant Hatred, would eventually show up and play meaningful roles down the road.

The Monarch is a consistent source of comedy, and despite technically being a villain, is easily one of the stars of the show.

The Monarch is a consistent source of comedy, and despite technically being a villain, is easily one of the stars of the show.

The Venture Bros. distinguishes itself from other comedies by being adaptive. During the first season, the show seemed like it would parody Johnny Quest indefinitely with the family going on a new adventure each week. Instead, to throw everyone off, two of the main characters were killed-off in the season finale. This proved to signify that the show would not always remain so static, as there was a major shake-up with The Monarch as well and new villains were brought into the fold. Later seasons would further change the dynamic of the main cast and more hero and villain organizations were introduced. The plot of the show would become more complicated and intricate, and to the surprise of probably many, its various mysteries and cliff-hangers are actually quite interesting and rewarding. It still could be criticized for becoming too complicated, as no longer can one simply tune-in to any given episode and understand what’s going on. And some of the major changes to the cast could be criticized as being the wrong move. One very funny comedic duo was broken up when one of the characters was killed off, and it being several years since that happened, I’m still not convinced it was the right move.

As the show became more popular, adult swim kicked in more money. The show is now well-animated, and while it still retains its retro charm, it also just plain looks good. The fact that the characters actually change their appearance from season to season, even sometimes episode to episode, makes it a more interesting viewing experience than many animated shows on television. By far, the show’s greatest strength though is its writing. The plot for an episode can fall flat at times, but the dialogue is often so good, and so funny, that it doesn’t matter. The show is full of colorful one-liners that could serve as the basis alone for a blog entry. The characters also remain consistent, even amid the numerous backstabs and double-crosses, and very rarely does the show introduce anyone who isn’t worthwhile.

Expect to see plenty of comic book parodies such as Professor Impossible.

Expect to see plenty of comic book parodies such as Professor Impossible.

While some of the choices to take the plot in complicated directions can be criticized, by far the easiest way to criticize the show resides in the length of time that elapses between seasons. Publick and Hammer handle the writing, and like another great comedic duo Parker and Stone, are procrastinators. Unlike Parker and Stone, Publick and Hammer aren’t locked into a contract with their network which demands episodes be delivered by a certain date, so there have been numerous hiatuses for The Venture Bros. Part of the delay also is tied up in the show’s budget, which is much larger than most adult swim shows so renewals likely do not occur fast enough for a normal turn-around between seasons. To further illustrate the point, here is the premiere date and episode count for each season:

Season 1: 8/7/2004 (13)

Season 2: 7/25/2006 (13)

Season 3: 7/1/2008 (13)

Season 4.1: 10/18/2009 (8)

Season 4.2: 9/12/2010 (8) *the season finale was an hour-long

Season 5: 6/2/2013 (8)

A mockumentary on Shallow Gravy, a fake band in the series, aired in 2011 while a Halloween special aired in 2012. A “movie” “All This and Gargantua-2” aired on January 19th of this year and was basically an hour-long special to tide fans over until season 6 begins, but there’s no air date set for the first episode of season 6. It was first expected to premier in the fall of 2014, and then early 2015 (though the hour-long special is technically the first episode of season 6 so I guess it made the premiere of early 2015), but so far we have no idea when it will continue.

The lengthy production cycle, and the some-what sub par season 5, has dimmed enthusiasm for The Venture Bros. going forward. I wonder if season 6 will be the final season, or if there’s desire from all parties to continue the show beyond that. What the show has provided so far has been comedic gold. The humble parody it first began as has evolved into something so much more and hopefully when season 6 does resume it will reignite the franchise. Even so, the first five seasons have been so strong that The Venture Bros’ place on my list is well-deserved. With a strong season 6, it could even continue to rise higher!

#7 Best in TV Animation: Archer

key_art_archerUp until now, this list of the best in animation television has to offer has only included shows that have since been retired. They’ve also only consisted of shows generally created for children and aired on weekend mornings or week day afternoons. Archer changes that as the show recently finished up its sixth season, having already been renewed for a seventh, and airs late nights on cable television. The show is the brainchild Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, two guys who made a name for themselves mostly via Cartoon Network’s adult swim block. Their main break-out show was Sealab 2021, a show that utilized stock footage from the old Hannah Barbera cartoon Sealab 2020, a mostly drab and wooden show from the 70’s that few probably remember fondly. The animation was recycled and characters re-dubbed. What was once an environmentally conscious show with a sci-fi feel to it now was a show about a bunch of narcissistic, perverted, and some-what insane researchers stuck with each other miles under water. The show was funny and crude and one of the first ever programs to air on adult swim. If not for the untimely death of voice actor Harry Goz, the series likely would have lasted longer than it did.

Much like its predecessor Sealab 2021, Archer also feature minimalist animation and a cast of characters with few redeeming qualities. Unlike Sealab, the animation is created for the series and the characters are all new. While it has definitely been improved since season one, where characters wore mostly wooden facial expressions, the show’s approach to animation is as much about keeping down production costs as it is a stylistic choice. The show stars secret agent Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) who works for his mother’s firm ISIS (no, not that ISIS) as a field agent. Archer is an alcoholic, whore-mongering, sociopath who is emotionally abusive to nearly everyone around him. He’s the self-professed world’s greatest secret agent and is not at all secretive about that. He’s particularly mean-spirited, with the bulk of his abuse directed towards his man-servant Woodhouse who has dutifully served him since birth. And while he is indeed talented at what he does, his vices often mean that his missions are spectacular failures with Archer often getting side-tracked by sex, booze, or the occasional ocelot.

Sterling Archer is a secret agent devoid of any sense of professionalism or responsibility.

Sterling Archer is a secret agent devoid of any sense of professionalism or responsibility.

Archer’s co-workers at ISIS are also pretty flawed individuals. The other lead field agent is Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), who also happens to be Archer’s ex. Unlike Archer, Lana definitely cares about her job but her love/hate relationship with Archer often gets in the way. She has major commitment issues and when we first meet her she’s currently in a one-sided relationship with the staff accountant Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), whom she is most-likely dating just to piss off Archer. Cyril is everything Archer isn’t. He’s a professional and compassionate individual but his insecurities often get the best of him. He also may or may not be a sex addict. He’s so eager to please Lana that he’s often terrible at picking up on what she actually wants out of him. Because his tight-laced demeanor makes him such an easy target, Archer never passes up an opportunity to rip on him or embarrass him in some way. Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer) is the masochistic staff secretary. She actively seeks out both emotional and physical abuse (she has a fondness for strangulation) which leads her to Archer who can’t even bother to learn her name. She’s also extremely self-centered to the point where she really could not be bothered to care about anyone or anything that doesn’t directly involve her. Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) is the HR consultant for ISIS with an addictive personality. When we first meet her she seems like a sympathetic individual who is unjustly picked on by everyone else at work (mostly on account of her excessive weight) but is soon to be revealed to be just as shitty as everyone else. She has a massive appetite for not only food, but sex and drugs as well and she is not particularly discriminatory about where any of it comes from. She also offers no apologies for her behaviour and seems to be genuinely at peace with herself. Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) is another field agent who happens to be homosexual. He’s actually a pretty okay guy and a competent field agent, though he did pretend to be paralyzed to get out of work. Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) is the resident scientist of questionable morals. His lineage is also strongly hinted at throughout the series and is of dubious origins. His creations generally work, but his means are often unethical. Rounding out the main cast is Archer’s mother, Malory (Jessica Walter) who embodies many of the same vices of her son though she is more in control of herself. She is a former field agent herself and it’s unclear how she keeps ISIS afloat considering how poor their track record is.

Archer's co-workers aren't really any better.

Archer’s co-workers aren’t really any better.

The animation for the program is clearly not the star, as I pointed out earlier, it’s rather minimalist. The style for the show resembles something from the 1970’s, though modern technology is available and used by the cast. The writing is the show’s strength and the voice cast is an impressive one. Everyone seems to commit to their role 100%, no matter how ludicrous or filthy their characters become. The show’s mean-spirited approach to comedy isn’t for everyone, but it’s effortlessly funny just in its character interaction alone. The characters have also remained flexible, with many changing considerably since the first season. Most of the supporting cast felt like one-note archetypes at first, but have all gone not on to embody other traits and qualities. The only drawback is that virtually all of the characters have seemingly gone to the same place, with all becoming more and more like Archer each season. And while the show is a comedy, that doesn’t mean it’s not without plot. Many of the storylines carry over and are referenced again and again throughout the series and there’s hardly ever a throw-away character as most will pop up again. The relationships amongst the main cast also change and evolve, though they’re such bad people in general that it’s hard for the show to get the audience to root for any of the characters becoming a couple or even finding happiness. To go along with the impressive voice cast is a pretty dynamite score by Scott Sims, The opening theme is very jazzy and 60’s influenced and sounds like it could have easily fit into a number of James Bond soundtracks (or Cowboy Bebop).

There are many recurring jokes on the show, including Archer's obsession with Burt Reynolds and a certain song by Kenny Loggins.

There are many recurring jokes on the show, including Archer’s obsession with Burt Reynolds and a certain song by Kenny Loggins.

As a comedy series, Archer gets a lot of things right, but it’s also nearly impossible to watch it and not acknowledge that it shares a lot in common with the adult swim series The Venture Bros. From its hybrid dated, yet modern, look to the constant element of failure by the characters, it almost feels like a sister show. Even the opening themes are fairly similar. Which isn’t that surprising considering Reed and Thompson both came from the same place and being compared to The Venture Bros. is not at all a bad thing. Archer separates itself by upping the ante on the filth and depravity of its cast. It’s one of the show’s strengths and the main source for comedy, though it also holds the show back from ever really being able to do an emotional episode. For those that enjoy the show, that’s probably just fine as I personally would hate to see Archer try to make me do anything but laugh.