The resurgence of adult animated television series
How animation could be both the future and the end of television
By Colin Macgillivray, Arts Editor
With animation being embedded in the entertainment industry for close to a century, it’s hard to believe that this easily accessible medium of storytelling has just recently broken through into the adult world. Sure, you could argue that The Simpsons has had a cult-like following since its inception in in 1989. You could say that Family Guy pushed the boundaries of what someone can do with an animated series. South Park can even be thrown into the conversation, as its dedicated fanbase has kept the show running for 20 years. You could even suggest that this article is entirely baseless because it’s no secret that animated series for adults have been permeating the mainstream for years. But, it is hard to argue that the popularity of the genre has increased tenfold in recent years. We might have even entered a golden age of sorts.
This fact has everything thing to do with accessibility to these programs and the dissolution of the stigma surrounding adults watching cartoons. Adult Swim, an adult-oriented programming block on the Cartoon Network was, for years, essentially the only place that fans could access their favourite animated show. Due to its placement on a children’s network, there was surely some level of stigma harkened by those who insisted that “cartoons are for kids.” That’s why adult-oriented animation had trouble truly breaking into mainstream popular culture.
For years, busy-bodies and uppity-folk clamoured that these adult cartoons would infect the mind of the children and ruin society due to their crude nature and adult themes. Pseudo-intellectuals on web boards claimed that watching cartoons as an adult would make you revert into a childlike state. Parents around the world would insist that their children are too old for silly cartoons. The societal construct of misinformation that surrounded adult animated programming held the movement back. This, coupled with the lack of marketing and access, led to countless fairly decent shows being cancelled well before they were given time to shine. Futurama was cancelled in 2003 even though it received universal acclaim from both critics and audiences. Luckily the sci-fi satire was brought back in 2006 after overwhelming fan support. The Oblongs, an incredibly interesting commentary on social stratification and socioeconomics was cut short after a 13 episode run, while even Family Guy was cancelled in 2002 and was only brought back after staggering DVD sales.
Luckily, when a little streaming service called Netflix obtain the rights to countless adult animated series such as Archer, a spy-sitcom that offers some of the most brilliant voice acting in recent memory, American Dad, Seth MacFarlane’s criminally underrated black-comedy series and countless other incredibly popular animated series, the accessibility issues that plagued animated series immediately disappeared. Soon, after witnessing the tremendous demand there were for shows like Family Guy and Futurama, Netflix began creating their own animated content.
Shows like BoJack Horseman appeared and truly paved the way for mainstream success for adult-oriented animation. The series, which follows both humans and anthropomorphic animals through ludicrous scenarios, is not only extremely clever and entertaining, but it’s a realistic take on issues such as self-destructive behaviour and depression are arguably some of the most compelling in years. Due to its stellar cast, universal acclaim and position on the most popular streaming service in the world, BoJack Horseman proved to mainstream audiences that adult-oriented animated series can be more than just raunchy comedies.
Horseman’s success led to Netflix churning out four more adult animated series over the past three years. F is for Family, a more traditional animated comedy premiered in 2015, while Castlevania, a dark-fantasy series based on the popular video games, Neo Yokio, a science-fantasy comedy created by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig and Big Mouth, a crude coming-of-age comedy all came in 2017. Although the shows have had varying success, with Neo Yokio being borderline unwatchable and Big Mouth relying on shock value one too many times, this commitment to adult animated series shows that they could be the future of television.
Animation simply gives showrunners more freedom. Not only are they fairly inexpensive to make compared to live-action television, but animation fosters an environment of creativity. There are just so many different ways one can go with animation, while live-action is constantly limited by location, budget and things that real humans can do. Some may say it’s gimmicky and that a story that relies on animation is not a good story, but animation can enhance average stories and make them captivating.
Unfortunately, the fan bases for adult animated series are generally toxic. This is a generalization, of course, but one just has to look back to earlier this year when thousands of Rick and Morty fans harassed McDonald’s employees for hours because they had run out of Szechuan sauce. Remember the uppity-folk and busy-bodies that were mentioned before? The infamous Szechuan sauce incident confirmed their point about how adult-oriented animation makes you act like a child. This is why adult animated series could also be the downfall of television and how arguably the most accessible medium for children and adults could be ruined.
There’s an unfortunate heir of superiority that fans of certain shows, like Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman tend to have. Just because an animated television show deals with themes of existentialism or addiction, it doesn’t mean you’re inherently clever for watching that show. The self-indulgent behaviour that so many fans of adult animation have is genuinely disheartening. Not because it is incredibly narcissistic and annoying, but because their actions counteract the exact messages these shows are trying to present.
A core group BoJack Horseman fans insist on putting down fans of Rick and Morty, The Simpsons, or even Gravity Falls because ‘those shows don’t deal with as deep concepts as our show.’ This arrogant behaviour is exactly what a show like BoJack Horseman depicts as awful and counterproductive. Throughout BoJack’s four seasons, there are moments where a character will exhibit a superiority complex that will end up being a hindrance to their character, proving that being a bad person is generally not a good thing to do.
Again, a large number of Rick and Morty fans insist that they are incredibly intelligent for watching the show. Immediately after, they chant “Give us sauce!” at bewildered fast-food restaurant employees because a character in the show said it was good. Essentially the whole point of Rick and Morty is that being self-centred is destructive no matter how smart you are, which is clearly lost on the fools that shut down restaurants because they wanted a dipping sauce.
At the end of the day, the success of any entertainment medium relies on the fanbase. While these shows might have some incredibly delusional fans, it is refreshing to see something other than apathy when it comes to original animated content. If adult-oriented animation can continue to push the boundaries when it comes to comedy and drama, there will be a real future for these types of shows. If fans continue to derail fast-food chains and insist they are better than everyone else, a new stigma around these shows will emerge and adult animation will once again fall down the hole of irrelevancy.