A sampler of brilliance from the year's best cartoons.

By Darren Franich and Christian Holub
December 16, 2020 at 01:30 PM EST
Credit: DC Universe

It’s a great age for TV animation, offering wonders for every age and taste. Disney and Cartoon Network slip experimental twists into family-friendly adventure tales, while the streaming boom encourages all manner of M-for-Mature weirdness and visual hysteria. This list honors our favorite animated series of the year by offering new viewers a signature episode. Think of it as a sampler platter, and trust us, you’ll want more.

Credit: Netflix

Bojack was arguably doing #MeToo episodes before any other series, exploring the moral borderlands of Hollywood inequity way back in its early years. Still, the lynchpin episode of the bleakly funny cartoon’s final season stands out as one of the defining statements of this showbiz era. Caught in revelations about his relationship with his late costar, Bojack (Will Arnett) comes clean-ish about his troubled past in a TV interview. In an unexpected twist, the interview earns Bojack an outpouring of support, as people praise him for his confessional honesty. In a stunning feat of grasping narcissism, Bojack decides to do another interview, essentially turning “confessional honesty” into a schtick. The results are devastating, inevitable, and necessary, forcing the talking horse (and the audience) to fully understand the damage he’s caused the people closest to him. —Darren Franich

Credit: Netflix

Castlevania has always been about Dracula. In both the animated Netflix show and the classic video game franchise it’s based on, the protagonists have been solely focused on killing the famous vampiric count. But...Dracula died at the end of season 2. Some viewers might have assumed that would be the end of Castlevania, but instead the show roared back with its best season ever. Without Dracula sucking up all the oxygen, Castlevania was free to pursue all-new story avenues in season 3. The most interesting came in the middle of the season, when new arrival Saint Germain (Bill Nighy) finally shows us in a dream what the “Infinite Corridor” he’s seeking really is: A portal to the multiverse. The sight of a medieval fantasy character staring down steampunk landscapes and sci-fi portals was one of the most mind-blowing things on TV this year. —Christian Holub

Credit: Disney XD

It’s going to be tough to say goodbye to DuckTales when its current season ends, but we can’t deny the show is going out in style. Everything has been dialed up in season 3: The humor, the stakes, the meta-inventiveness. Showrunners Matt Youngberg and Francisco Angones often talk about how they’ve drawn inspiration from every past incarnation of DuckTales: The original show, the movie, comics, games. In the home stretch, they started drawing inspiration from every other Disney Afternoon cartoon too. Season 3 kicked off with a magical riff on the Quack Pack and Goof Troop sitcoms, while this epic two-part episode used a quantum machine to literally pull supervillains out of the original Darkwing Duck show — thus giving DuckTales’ version of Darkwing (Chris Diamantopoulos) a true trial by fire. Watching goofball pilot Launchpad McQuack (Beck Bennett) evolve into a mature hero in his own right exemplifies what is so fulfilling about DuckTales, and the new adventure family he’s formed with Darkwing and Gosalyn (Stephanie Beatriz) offers a ray of hope in the face of cancellation. Disney, if you’re listening, please greenlight a Darkwing Duck spin-off stat! —C.H.

Credit: DC Universe

From the moment he first appeared on Harley Quinn, James Adomian’s Bane has clearly been riffing on Tom Hardy’s iconically eccentric take on the character from The Dark Knight Rises. Season 2 standout “There’s No Place to Go But Down” leans even harder into this parallel, with Bane imprisoning Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) in a prison pit much like the one seen in Christopher Nolan’s 2012 film. This gives showrunners Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern the opportunity to ask the question, what would actual therapy look like for Batman villains? Would Killer Croc benefit more from being able to paint out his violent fantasies than being trapped in the revolving door of Arkham Asylum? Probably not, but it’s still a hilarious take on well-worn characters. If that weren’t enough, “There’s No Place to Go But Down” was also a pivotal episode for the relationship between Harley and Ivy, proving that it really is the backbone of the show. —C.H.

Credit: Adult Swim

Topicality is not really something you want from a show about a caveman and a dinosaur struggling to survive an ultraviolent nightmare world. Yet Adult Swim’s brutal prehistoric epic turned unexpectedly timely in this freaky tale of a destructive virus running rampant. A peaceful vegetarian sauropod gets infected and becomes a stumbling rage monster, destroying its entire herd before setting its ravaged eyes on Primal’s heroic duo. It’s a great demonstration of creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s wordlessly kinetic storytelling, as the chase turns into an elemental survival tale that dead-ends in an explosive volcano. —D.F.

Credit: Adult Swim

The hit science-fiction comedy’s midseason return is an unstoppable fusillade of left-turn storytelling, so great that it’s almost uncomfortable. On a mysterious space train, travelers start telling stories about their encounters with Rick Sanchez (Justin Roiland). Except one of the travelers is Rick Sanchez, who doesn’t want to do an anthology episode. Then there’s a continuity explosion, a collision of a few different alternate realities, a prophecy of the show’s endgame… and Jesus? There are more straightforward places to begin with Rick and Morty, but the joke-a-second rapid-flying braininess of this seminal outing sums up the show’s unique combination of frantic self-awareness and kitchen-sink genre storytelling. —D.F.

Credit: Netflix

The final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was quite the change-up. While most of the show had previously been a fantasy war set on a fairytale planet, season 5 took a turn into hard sci-fi, with the protagonists sent to space to face off against a robotic hivemind army. You’ll need to watch the show from the top in order to fully appreciate the fulfillment of long-seeded character arcs, but this one-off episode featuring characters who had been left behind on Etheria — Mermista (Vella Lovell), Sea Hawk (Jordan Fisher), Perfuma (Genesis Rodriguez), and Scorpia (Lauren Ash) — is a great demonstration of the show’s strengths, albeit in an off-beat way. 
So much of She-Ra feels like the world’s most fun game of D&D, and in “The Perils of Peekablue” the characters themselves have to role play -- taking on disguises in order to infiltrate a club to gather information that will hopefully help their far-away friends. In true RPG fashion, these disguises help the characters become more comfortable with themselves. Speaking of disguises, one of the show’s most interesting characters — the non-binary shapeshifter Double Trouble (Jacob Tobia) — shows up, and the dark turn things take by the end is a great example of the very real stakes that undergird She-Ra’s final two seasons. —C.H.

Credit: Cartoon Network

Across five seasons and a musical movie, Steven Universe crafted an ever-expanding intergalactic adventure about the titular kid hero and his family-team of shiny superpowered gem aliens. The short-run follow-up Steven Universe Future took a closer look at the now-teenaged Steven (Zach Callison). Despite living in a happy-ending utopia, he’s secretly an emotional wreck, an internal struggle which goes full body horror when he starts magically swelling and transforming beyond his control. “How do I move on from all the stuff I’ve been through?” he ponders. “How do I live life if it always feels like I’m about to die?” The original series is a rewarding watch, but “Growing Pains” sums up this epilogue series’ unique therapeutic qualities. It’s one of the best shows ever made about dealing with the world not ending. —D.F.

Credit: Netflix

Oh, you know, just a hypnotic portrait of spiritual awakening as visualized as a breakout from space prison. Every episode of the stunning Netflix series sends Clancy (co-creator Duncan Trussell) on another conversational adventure inside his universe simulator, and “Annihilation of Joy” marks a high point for the first season in terms of philosophical exploration and sheer surrealism. Stuck to a “soul bird” named Jason (Jason Louv) who is himself stuck to an escaping prisoner, Clancy rides shotgun on several violent cycles of death and rebirth. It’s sort of like a videogame and sort of like Buddhism and sort of like Hinduism and sort of like that movie where Guy Pearce has to stop the riot in space prison. A standout episode in a deliriously unique TV series. —D.F.

Credit: Nickelodeon

Yes, this episode first aired on Nickelodeon in September 2006, but Avatar: The Last Airbender returned to Netflix this spring. That means that for many people it might as well have aired for the first time, and even those of us who watched it way back when got a perfect opportunity to revisit this generational masterpiece — particularly since this spring was so lacking in new TV shows. “Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a perfect example of what A:TLA got right and why it particularly resonated with viewers this year. The episode breaks the show’s usual format by splitting itself into mini chapters each focusing on one character, allowing for even deeper dives into the backstories and arcs that make A:TLA so rich. One of the standout segments even features Uncle Iroh (Mako Iwamatsu) visiting his son’s grave — a beautiful, poetic scene that felt even more touching in a year of so much mourning. —C.H.

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