Now is a pretty great time for animation—there’s never been a wider array of strange, smart, and subversive cartoons for audiences of all stripes. While not all of them hit it out of the park in 2014—we’re looking at you, Chozen—the good ones were often brilliant, easily on par with the best live-action fare.
Before we get to our favorites, a small bit of housekeeping: For the purposes of this list, we’ll be excluding films from this roundup. Cool? That said, here are the year’s highlights:
Adventure Time. 2014 was a standout year for Adventure Time. In March, the acclaimed animated series wrapped up its fifth season, which began in 2012 and included a number of landmark episodes like “A Glitch Is a Glitch” and “All Your Fault.” Its sixth season, currently in progress, would begin a month later—bringing with it the wonderfully strange episode “Food Chain,” by guest animator Masaaki Yuasa.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoT3h7c6tLY]
Not sure why there’s been so much fuss over Adventure Time? Start with the grand, sweeping essay journalist and critic Maria Bustillos wrote in the spring of this year. Simultaneously strange and profound, Adventure Time remains a singular achievement in television, and one of the best things you can watch.
Rick and Morty. Created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty is an utterly bizarre show about an alcoholic genius and his grandson going on adventures together. While it technically premiered in December of 2013, most of the show’s first season aired in 2014, and that’s when all of the critical acclaim started pouring in. If you’re looking for some smart comedy to go along with your strange animation, you might want to give it a shot.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90iqltbkoiA]
The Legend of Korra. The Legend of Korra is hands down one of the best stories about a female superhero since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it spent most of 2014 being given the short shrift by its network. Season 3 began over the summer, but was unceremoniously yanked off the air by Nickelodeon midway through and relegated to streaming for the last few episodes. Then, in a surprise move, it was announced that the show’s fourth and final season would also be streamed exclusively online a mere two months later. Still, the show seems like it’ll be able to end on its own terms. And it’s probably going to be spectacular.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCEFMY4TWGw]
Star Wars: Rebels. In April of this year, Disney announced that the Star Wars Expanded Universe—the wide array of books, comics, and video games that continued the story began by the original trilogy—was no longer canon. From that point onward, the “official” Star Wars saga meant the one told in the films and the recently concluded Clone Wars animated series, as Disney’s plan for the beloved franchise wanted all future stories to be a part of one grand Star Wars epic. Star Wars: Rebels is the first bold new step in that direction, telling a story set between the movie trilogies. That alone makes it interesting, if you’re not too upset about the fate of the Expanded Universe. It helps that the show isn’t all that bad, either.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xg5YN3LAGw4]
“G.I. Jeff.” One of the most memorable episodes of Community‘s fifth season, “G.I. Jeff,” was an homage to G.I. Joe in all its gloriously cheesy ’80s animation. But like most of Community‘s crazy high concepts, it was about something much darker and sadder at its core: We slowly realize that the episode’s elaborate fantasy is one constructed by a hospitalized Jeff, who took some pills with Scotch in a state of depression.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1RAC_i1wtc]
Batman: Strange Days. For the Caped Crusader’s 75th anniversary, legendary animator Bruce Timm—the man responsible for the DC Animated Universe, which began with his 1992 animated series—returned to Batman for a brand new short. Called Strange Days, it’s a wonderful black-and-white throwback to the film serials of the 30s and 40s.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFwOS2R9o_8]
Mike Tyson Mysteries. I have no idea if Mike Tyson Mysteries is any good or not. I just know that it makes me laugh every time I remember that it exists.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P58WJ-4PxcU]
Bojack Horseman. 2014 was also the year Netflix got into the weird animated comedy for adults genre with Bojack Horseman. As a streaming service, there aren’t any ratings we can use to measure its success or failure, but the show did manage to attract an absolutely stellar cast—Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, and Amy Sedaris all voice characters in Horseman‘s strange Hollywood world, full of kooks and anthropomorphic animals.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1eJMig5Ik4]
Archer: Vice. FX’s over-the-top spy comedy began 2014 by completely blowing up its central premise in favor of having its cast starting a drug cartel. (To move a “literal ton of cocaine.”) It was an insane twist—but it also resulted in the show’s first Emmy nomination. However, this coming January will see the show “unreboot” itself and return to its traditional spy setting. Well, it was fun while it lasted.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bABkWUOYtu8]