Adult Swim; Cartoon Network

The best animated shows (and episodes) of the decade

December 19, 2019 at 10:30 AM EST

The end is nigh — for the 2010s, at least. Over the last month, EW has been counting down the best (and worst) pop culture of the decade that was. We’ve ranked the best TV shows from the past 10 years, as well as the best comics, so it seems only right to also honor the medium that maximizes the strengths of both those formats: animation.

Animated shows went through a renaissance in the 2010s. Classics like She-Ra, DuckTales, and Avatar: The Last Airbender got fresh makeovers and a new sense of purpose, while total newcomers like Adventure Time turned the whole format on its head. BoJack Horseman proved animation could cover relevant adult topics while also indulging in all the colorful fun fans of the genre show up for. There were so many good animated shows last decade, in fact, that it’s impossible to do them all justice in a ranked list. But below, you can find 10 of EW’s favorites, along with one key episode that highlights each show’s unique strengths.

Netflix

10. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

We kick off this list with one of the decade’s most refreshing revamps. Originally a toy-selling cartoon that represented one of the worst examples of “comics/cartoons about female characters designed to appeal to young boys,” the new She-Ra got such a unique take from showrunner Noelle Stevenson and her team that it might as well be a different show. Not only does the new version include more respectful outfits and some welcome LGBTQ representation, its focus on female friendship (and its toxic inverse) was endlessly compelling. It’s hard to imagine a more frustrating and fascinating antagonist than Catra (A.J. Michalka), the Sasuke to Adora’s (Aimee Carrero) Naruto. But the whole colorful cast is a plethora of welcome presences, from the well-meaning villainess Scorpia (Lauren Ash) to the steadfast hero Bow (Marcus Scribner). Plus, the show gets bonus points for creating one of the most addictive theme songs around. Available on Netflix.

One key episode: “The Battle for Bright Moon” (season 1, episode 13) This is a sword-and-sorcery show at heart, and the season 1 finale was the best kind of epic fantasy battle. You could hardly find a better summary of the joys and strengths of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power than the good girls all teaming up for the first time and blasting Catra away with a literal rainbow.

Cartoon Network

9. Over the Garden Wall

Many of the shows on this list have lasted years; some of them were going for most of the decade. Even She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which only debuted in 2018, has managed to release four seasons since then. But there’s something to be said for Over the Garden Wall, a short and sweet miniseries from the mind of Patrick McHale. The journey of brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) to find their way home from an enchanted forest only takes 10 episodes, but manages to tell a satisfying, self-contained story while also leaving room for each chapter to have its own flavor. Available on Hulu.

One key episode: “Songs of the Dark Lantern” (episode 4) Wirt and Greg had been warned from the very beginning that a mysterious Beast lingered in the darkness of the woods, but this episode is where the threat really materialized. Their stay at a creepy tavern is a great showcase for the show’s unique musical style, topped only by the final seconds of the episode when one disturbing song makes clear just how close the Beast really is.

Netflix

8. Big Mouth

Should cartoons be aimed at children or adults? Other shows on this list choose one audience over the other, but Big Mouth strikes right in the middle at the transition from one phase of life to the next. With a style clearly influenced by independent comics, Big Mouth doesn’t shy away from the grossness of the human body as it goes through the changes of puberty. Even when things get a little too absurd, the comedic voice cast can help balance everything out (though co-creator Nick Kroll voices many characters, important roles are also played by John Mulaney, Jenny Slate, and a very game Nathan Fillion, among others). Available on Netflix.

One key episode: “The Planned Parenthood Show” (season 2, episode 5) The show’s most ambitious episode is split into different short stories that each examine aspects of Planned Parenthood and reproductive health through the lens of different characters and genres. Nick’s sister Leah (Kat Dennings) chooses a contraceptive through a Bachelor parody, while Andrew (Mulaney) reckons with his paranoid fear of STDs during a horror spoof (which climaxes with a Get Out riff featuring Jordan Peele himself).

FOX

7. Bob’s Burgers

An interesting family is the basis for so much great TV. The Belcher family of Bob’s Burgers created five unique personalities (Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene, and Louise) who each added their own flavor to the show’s warm comedic palette. Like The Simpsons before it, Bob’s Burgers often bounced its central family off the equally weird inhabitants of the surrounding city, but still created a unique vibe separate from Springfield. One of the show’s most brilliant choices was casting male actors as the voices of Tina and Linda; in particular, Dan Mintz’s performance as Tina gave adolescent horniness the awry sound it deserved, perfect for the age of internet crushes. Available on Hulu.

One key episode: “Topsy” (season 3, episode 16) Louise’s journey to pop the myth of Thomas Edison through a science fair project is a nonstop laugh riot, from the duet “Electric Love” (which turns Edison’s electrocution of an elephant into a love ballad) to the “Spiceps”/”Spice Rack” contest between Bob and Linda (left hilariously unresolved at the end), to Tina dressing up as said elephant and committing to her performance so thoroughly that she terrifies her entire family.

Disney Channel

6. DuckTales

The other great animated reboot of this decade, DuckTales brought Disney’s Duck Family into the 21st century with enough ambition and talent for reinvention to outshine the original series. A star-studded voice cast (including David Tennant as Scrooge and Margo Martindale as Ma Beagle) breathed fresh life into these classic characters, who also got cleaner designs with an art style heavily influenced by Carl Barks’ original comics. Available on Disney+.

One key episode: “What Ever Happened to Della Duck?!” (season 2, episode 7) This one-of-a-kind episode is the exception that proves the rule of this show’s greatness. After teasing the mystery behind the disappeared mother (Paget Brewster) of Huey, Dewey, and Louie since the very first episode, DuckTales finally revealed what she’d been doing on the moon all this time. Structured around chronological entries in Della’s survival diary, the episode can get surprisingly brutal (after Della gets her foot stuck beneath debris in her initial rocketship crash, we next see her sporting a new robot leg). Though Huey, Dewey, and Louie do not appear on screen, their presence is very much felt — both in Della’s personality, which combines all their best traits, and in the heartbreaking lullaby she sings to them from a world away.

Everett Collection

5. Archer

It’s true: H. Jon Benjamin managed to star in two of the best animated shows of the decade, albeit playing wildly different characters. Whereas Bob Belcher is a good-natured family man trying to stay on top of the maniacs around him, Sterling Archer is an arrogant spy who doesn’t appear to care about anything other than his own material pleasures — but they both make hilarious protagonists able to bounce off their rich supporting cast. In its later seasons Archer reached into other genres, but Sterling himself always worked best as a spy totally insulated from the consequences of his actions. Despite being dumb and selfish, Sterling’s penchant for violence really did make him the greatest spy in the world. After enough near-death escapes and so many adventures you start to forget about the time you fought space pirates, you’d think you were immortal too. Available on Hulu.

One key episode: “Heart of Archness” (season 3, episodes 1-3) Okay, this is a bit of a cheat since this is technically a three-part episode, but this saga is as epic and funny as Archer gets. Following the dramatic death of Archer’s Russian fiancee in the season 2 finale, season 3 kicks off with him on a heartbreak odyssey. He starts off by seducing newly married women under a fake name in a tropical honeymoon hotel, and by the end of the trilogy he has risen and fallen as Pirate King, coached an underdog lacrosse team to greatness, and barely escaped an island fortress with his life.

Dark Horse Comics

4. Legend of Korra

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a very formative show for a lot of young people who came of age this decade, which explains why you can see its artistic influence everywhere now. So credit is due to co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for delivering a sequel series that maintained what people love about the original (martial arts blended with elemental bending, a core group of diverse characters saving the world and cracking jokes) while also developing the concepts in new directions. Filled with older teenage characters instead of children, Legend of Korra took a naturally darker approach to its storytelling — and yet its final shot was one of the most delightful TV moments of this decade, setting a new standard for both happy endings and LGBTQ representation in animated art.

One key episode: “Long Live the Queen” (season 3, episode 10) Legend of Korra was originally developed as a miniseries, and you can really tell watching the lackluster second season. But the team turned it around again in season 3, using the chaos of season 2 as a springboard for an extremely fresh story about the return of airbending to the Avatar world. As the primary technique of A:TLA protagonist Aang, airbending has a reputation for being the most virtuous and pacifistic of the four elemental arts, so it was a surprising joy watching Korra go up against an airbending villain. Voiced with rock star charisma by Henry Rollins, Zaheer allowed the show to explore anarchism just as seriously as A:TLA had confronted genocide and colonialism. That strain reached its peak with this masterpiece of an episode, in which Zaheer confronts the vain and corrupt Earth Queen. “Maybe I forgot to mention something to you: I don’t believe in queens,” he says, before delivering an act of violence so revolutionary and disturbing it might represent the ultimate divergence point between Legend of Korra and A:TLA. Plus, there’s some great Korra-Asami bonding time in this episode too.

Adult Swim

3. Rick & Morty

Who knew there was so much potential in a Back to the Future parody? What started as “what if Doc Brown but a drooling alcoholic?” has become a sci-fi epic so addictive and thrilling that even real-life mad scientists like Elon Musk and Kanye West want to imitate it. Co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have fused the encyclopedic pop culture knowledge of Harmon’s Community with the deranged energy of Roiland’s voice-over work. Years before Werner Herzog said “parsec” on The Mandalorian, he played an alien activist on Rick & Morty decrying humanity’s phallic obsessions while asking for a penis transplant from Jerry (Chris Parnell). That’s only the tip of the show’s guest roster, which also includes Stephen Colbert voicing a supervillain rival for Rick (Roiland) and (more recently) Taika Waititi voicing Rick’s alien intern. Rick & Morty doesn’t care too much about continuity or mythology, but its ideas are nevertheless endlessly inventive and creatively inspiring. Available on Hulu.

One key episode: “Pickle Rick” (season 3, episode 3) How could it be otherwise? Season 2 was Rick & Morty’s strongest outing as a whole, with each episode upping the “sci-fi tropes as a way of exploring a dysfunctional family” ante on the one that came before. Season 3 was a little more uneven, but “Pickle Rick” launched this show into the stratosphere and will define it forever (just check out that Pringles can, or that Kanye tweet). It’s a perfect balance of the show’s absurdity (in case you somehow haven’t heard by now, Rick literally transforms himself into a pickle) and pathos (he does so in order to avoid a family therapy session, but when he finally does arrive Susan Sarandon gives an incredible monologue about the banality and necessity of therapy). Pickle Rick!

Netflix

2. BoJack Horseman

The greatest joke BoJack Horseman ever pulled was forcing fans to describe its premise to others. “Uh, so it’s about a washed-up actor who was on a Full House-style sitcom in the ’90s, but he’s a depressive alcoholic now… and also he’s a horse and some of the other characters are also animals, and there’s a bunch of puns about that?” Somehow, a show about talking animals produced Will Arnett’s career-best acting and became the most prescient showbiz satire in a decade when the entertainment industry consumed everything. Available on Netflix.

One key episode: “Escape from L.A.” (season 2, episode 11) You know a show means business when it changes the title sequence for an episode. The penultimate season 2 installment represented BoJack’s last chance at breaking out of the rut his life had become in Hollywood. Gone to New Mexico on a desperate hope to reconnect with an old flame, BoJack instead found her happily married with a family. He settled down for a bit in their sitcom life, but things took a dark turn when the show unleashed an unsettling Alan Moore-style subversion of the sitcom cliche where adults accompany dateless teenagers to prom. BoJack’s near-seduction of his old friend’s daughter changed the show forever, indicating that creators Rapheal Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt would not shy away from exploring the darkness at the core of their protagonist. The dramatic return of the actual theme music on BoJack’s ride back to L.A. played like a cathartic remix of Kanye West’s “toast to the a—holes” that kicked off the 2010s, but if the cliffhanger ending of the final season’s recent halfway point is any indication, BoJack’s actions in New Mexico will continue to define the show to the end.

Cartoon Network

1. Adventure Time

People will be watching and talking about this show for a long time to come. Game of Thrones may have been the biggest fantasy show of the decade, but Adventure Time was the most inventive. Its spirit of playful fun and its inclusive attitude towards all different types of characters has influenced not only Steven Universe (whose creator, Rebecca Sugar, started as a storyboard artist here) but also Dungeons & Dragons itself, whose latest edition carries the mark of Adventure Time’s imaginative spirit. The student has become the master. Adventure Time was happy with all kinds of stories, from zoom-ins on the lives of background characters to epic adventures to save the multiverse. Even after 10 seasons in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, it still feels like there’s more to explore; we’re certainly counting down the days until the show returns in special installments on HBO Max. Available on Hulu.

One key episode: “What Was Missing” (season 3, episode 10) This episode isn’t Adventure Time at its most epic (that would be the three-episode showdown against the Lich that connects seasons 4 and 5) or its most ambitious (that would probably be “Islands” or one of the other miniseries from the final seasons). But “What Was Missing,” which finds Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum, and Marceline forced to perform as a band in order to liberate their beloved belongings from the dimension-hopping Door Lord, is a perfect encapsulation of everything that makes Adventure Time the best animated show of the decade. To name a few: the highs and lows of friendship, the use of original music to deepen characters and move the plot, and hints of greater stories beneath the surface (in this case, the first mention of a complicated romantic history between Marceline and Bubblegum).

Honorable Mentions

Dragon Ball Super: Dragon Ball Z is one of the best and most popular anime of all time. It already got one disappointing sequel in the form of Dragon Ball GT, but when original creator Akira Toriyama returned to the franchise, he managed to find new magic pitting Goku, Vegeta, and the rest against all kinds of new enemies and powers.

Gravity Falls: A whimsical adventure about two kids at summer camp grew into something deeper and different by the end.

Steven Universe: Rebecca Sugar’s show about a boy named Steven and the Crystal Gems who nurture and protect him absorbed Adventure Time’s influence while also building its own epic, radical narrative about family, identity, music, and gender.

Tuca & Bertie: BoJack Horseman art director Lisa Hanawalt’s own show differentiates itself from its forerunner in fascinating ways. There are many more elements to the art style than just 2-D animation, and the show’s exploration of its characters’ trauma led to some dark places even BoJack might hesitate before laughing off.

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