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The 25 Best Animated TV Shows Ever Made

From family-friendly series to sophisticated fare for adults, this is the best of the art form.

From Saturday morning cartoons to the late night offerings of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, animated series offer viewers the chance to escape into imaginative worlds, explore surprisingly complex themes, and experience what is possible outside of the confines of live-action filming. Here you'll find 25 animated series that have delighted kids and adults alike, impacted the cultural landscape, or brought rich mythologies to the small screen. Read on for the best animated shows ever made.

RELATED: The 25 Best Animated Movies Ever Made.

The 25 Best Animated Shows Every Cartoon Fan Will Love

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (1959)

Still from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends

While the puns and comedy in the serialized adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose often went over their heads—to say nothing of the Cold War context as they were pursued by Russian spies Boris and Natasha—the dark humor of Rocky and Bullwinkle primed a generation of kids to appreciate satire and social commentary in animated entertainment. Unsurprisingly, Simpsons creator Matt Groening has named it the show that inspired him to pursue animation (and to give Homer Simpson the middle initial J).

The Flintstones (1960)

Still from The Flintstones
Warner Bros.

Based loosely on The HoneymoonersThe Flintstones took on early '60s suburbia and pop culture from the safe distance of 10,000 B.C. The first animated sitcom, ABC's modern stone age family defined what it meant to be a primetime cartoon for all ages.

Muppet Babies (1984)

Still from Muppet Babies

Spinning off of Miss Piggy's weird dream sequence in The Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppet Babies focuses on the toddler-age adventures of Kermit and friends, who live together in a nursery where they are largely neglected by their never-seen-above-the-neck caretaker Nanny. The series took children's shows to a new level of intertextuality by infusing footage from newsreels, TV shows, and pop culture monuments such as Star Wars into the Muppet kids' imagination-filled adventures.

DuckTales (1987)

Still from Ducktales
Walt Disney Television Animation

This Disney Afternoon staple doesn't get enough credit for being one of the best comic book adaptations of all time. It perfectly captures the spirit of adventure and the indelible characters of the classic Uncle Scrooge stories from cartoonist Carl Barks, whose work went on to inspire the creation of Indiana Jones.

The Simpsons (1989)

Still from The Simpsons
Disney-ABC Domestic Television

What is there to say about The Simpsons that hasn't been said a million times? Now that it's in its 35th season, there's a decent chance it's been appearing on lists of the best TV shows since before you were born. Sure, its reputation has waxed and waned over the years, but it's hard to argue against a cultural institution.

RELATED: 20 Best TV Shows Based on True Stories.

Tiny Toon Adventures (1990)

Still from Tiny Toon Adventures
Warner Bros.

With a cast comprised of successors to the original Looney Tunes characters, Tiny Toons breathed new life (and a measure of gender equality) into the Warner Bro. animated universe. Rich with nods to pop culture and vintage Hollywood, plus the occasional They Might Be Giants song, it swiftly became a favorite of '90s kids.

Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

Still from Batman: The Animated Series
Fox Kids

Launched a few years after Tim Burton's Batman introduced the world to a more mature version of the Caped Crusader, this animated gem is often considered the definitive page-to-screen adaptation of the comics. With impeccable gothic noir style and a range that encompasses both comic book excess and serious emotional weight, it still holds up—whether you're a kid or an adult.

Beavis and Butt-Head (1993)

Still from "Beavis and Butt-Head"

The first animated series from Mike Judge, who would later go on to create the gentle, endearing King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-head couldn't be more different. The antics of the title characters are rude, crude, and outlandish, but the show is exceedingly clever in its stupidity, perfectly capturing the aimless vapidity of being a teenage loser with nothing better to do than sit in front of the TV and make fun of music videos.

Gargoyles (1994)

Still from Gargoyles
Buena Vista Television

In the early '90s, most kids TV shows told simple, episodic stories. Gargoyles is far more ambitious, crafting a complex fantasy narrative that stretched across seasons to tell a mythic story about an age-old group of monsters who are frozen in time for 1,000 years and awaken in the modern day to become the protectors of humanity.

The Tick (1994)

Still from The Tick
Fox Kids

Based on an offbeat comic series from Ben Edlund that was intended as a parody of superhero stories, The Tick seemed like an odd fit for a kids' show, but its bizarre humor—from the title character's persistent thickheadedness to nonsensical villains such as Chairface Chippendale (who had a chair for a face)—somehow remained intact, and won it enough of a cult following that it has been rebooted in live-action… twice.

RELATED: The 22 Best '90s Cartoons Every Millennial's Inner Child Still Loves.

Animaniacs (1993)

Still from "Animaniacs"

Stitched together out of vaudeville routines, film parodies, and a pop culture references spanning decades, it's hard to explain why '90s kids loved this wacky Steven Spielberg-produced series about a trio of fictional old-timey cartoon characters escaping from captivity on the Warner Bros. film lot and running amok through Hollywood. You just kinda had to be there. (Don't bother with the pandemic-era revival—it doesn't quite compare.)

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)

Still from Neon Genesis Evangelion

The series that launched a stateside anime boom, this Japanese megahit is, on the surface, a show about teenagers who pilot giant robots to protect Tokyo from invading monsters. But look deeper and you'll find it's so much weirder and more complex than the premise suggests, rife with themes of religion, nationalism, and the weight of psychological trauma. (But all those fighting robots make it go down easy.)

King of the Hill (1997)

Still from King of the Hill

Inspired by creator Mike Judge's experiences growing up outside Dallas and centered on propane salesman Hank Hill and a quirky cast of his family and friends living in the fictional town of Arlen, the slow-burn comedy King of the Hill gives viewers an oddly endearing look at life in suburban Texas.

South Park (1997)

Still from South Park
CBS Domestic Media Networks via YouTube

A decade before the birth of YouTube, a crude, downloadable Christmas cartoon featuring a cast of grade school boys in Colorado titled "Jesus vs. Santa" swept the burgeoning internet. Nearly 30 years later, the unapologetic social and political commentary of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and friends has become an institution.

SpongeBob SquarePants (1999)

Still from Spongebob Squarepants
Nickelodeon Animation Studios

The infectiously whimsical cartoon following a sea sponge and his friends Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, and Mr. Krabs and their adventures in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom became an unexpected cultural phenomenon. Its massive success has sparked movies, merchandise, theme park attractions, and even a Broadway musical—and that's just so far.

RELATED: The 25 Best TV Theme Songs Ever Written.

Futurama (1999)

Still from Futurama
20th Century Fox Television

More than a decade after creating The Simpsons, Matt Groening launched Futurama, a far weirder, geekier show following Fry, a loser from the 20th century who is accidentally cryogenically frozen and awakes in the year 3,000—a future in which the technology has advanced but the people (and aliens, and robots) are as stupid and selfish as ever. Rife with clever sci-fi gags and bizarre humor, the show managed to survive getting canceled twice. (Its most recent season was released on Hulu in 2023.)

The Boondocks (2005)

Still from The Boondocks
Adult Swim

The Adult Swim series follows Huey and Riley Freeman, two young Black brothers navigating life in a predominantly white suburb—one adopting the revolutionary political and social consciousness of his namesake, Huey Newton, the other idolizing the gangsta rap lifestyle. Animated with lush anime styling and biting humor, The Boondocks gives voice to creator Aaron McGruder's sharp social critique and explores issues including racism, masculinity, and post-9/11 xenophobia.

Avatar the Last Airbender (2005)

Still from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Taking inspiration from Japanese anime while building a rich mythology of its own, this Nickelodeon series about Aang, a young hero of legend able to control and wield the four elements, is a coming-of-age story far more ambitious than most children's fare. It has not only attracted a large audience of adults but also been adapted into a (not very good) film and a (much better) live-action Netflix series.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

Still from Star Wars: The Clone Wars

In telling the between-movie adventures of ill-fated Jedi heroes Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, this computer-animated spinoff of 2002's critically maligned Attack of the Clones manages to shore up all the plodding plotting and character inconsistencies that made the Star Wars prequels so divisive, to the point that many fans who once hated that trilogy now look back on it fondly. That's no mean feat.

Adventure Time (2010)

Still from Adventure Time
Cartoon Network

Though ostensibly a Cartoon Network show for children, you'd be forgiven for mistaking this silly fantasy series following young adventurer Finn the Human and his dog Jake in the mythical Land of Ooo for a stoner's daydream. Filled with oddball characters such as a flying rainbow dragon, a talking video game system, a princess made of candy, and a rockstar vampire, its surreal humor and ambitious worldbuilding turned it into a cult phenomenon.

RELATED: The Most Hated TV Characters of All Time.

Steven Universe (2013)

Still from Steven Universe
Cartoon Network

Another Cartoon Network kids' show equally beloved by adults, Steven Universe was created by Rebecca Sugar, who worked on Adventure Time. It charts the destiny of the titular hero, who learns he's half-Gem (on his mother's side), the Gems being magical aliens who must protect the Earth from others of their own kind. Steven learns about his past and embraces his identity with the help of fellow Gems Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, and his coming-of-age is a rocky one (no pun intended); the show touches on themes of racism, gender questioning, depression, trauma, and self-acceptance.

BoJack Horseman (2014)

Still from Bojack Horseman

The titular character (an anthropomorphic horse, the washed-up star of a '90s sitcom) struggles with addiction, trauma, and the search for meaning in this critically acclaimed animated show for adults. Its sharp writing and complex characters offer a poignant and often darkly comedic exploration of mental health and personal redemption.

Bluey (2018)

Still from Bluey
ABC Kids

The heartwarming Australian series, about a six-year-old Blue Heeler puppy and her gentle adventures with her sibling and parents is beloved worldwide—by children and their caregivers alike. Bluey's emotionally mature yet ever-playful mum and dad, Bingo and Chilli, have also defined parenting goals for a generation of harried adults. The show's impact has been so great, the Australian government just put the pups on a $1 coin.

Arcane (2021)

Still from Arcane

Based on the multiplayer online video game League of Legends, this animated steampunk series transports viewers to the once-united, now divided cities of Piltover and Zaun. The clash between magic and technology drives the rich, complex narratives of its characters with a focus on the tumultuous relationship between sisters Vi (Hailee Steinfeld) and Jinx (Ella Purnell).

Scavengers Reign (2023)

Scavengers Reign

This narratively spare, visually inventive sci-fi story is set on a bizarre alien world upon which a human spacecraft has crash landed. In separate storylines, Scavengers Reign tracks the fates of the human survivors as they seek a way back home, uncovering the secrets of the planet's strange biology along the way. It was instantly acclaimed by critics for its evocative style and ambitious worldbuilding—earning a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes—but was canceled by Max after a single season. A recent pickup by Netflix has given fans hope the story will continue.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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