By: Cole Kronman
Animation, and the perception thereof, has come a long way. Save for some stuffy academic circles and the occasional confused parent, the consensus that animation is a legitimate art form with the capacity for mature storytelling is becoming increasingly common. The past decade, especially, has seen a strong uptick in serialized animated television. Avatar: The Last Airbender set the stage as far back as ‘05, and Adventure Time really kicked off the movement a few years later. Since then, we’ve seen modern classics like Gravity Falls, Over the Garden Wall, Steven Universe, and even an Avatar sequel series in the form of The Legend of Korra. These shows are all for children, they’re all critically acclaimed, and they’re all deeply complex.
Adult animation is in a comparatively strange place. Popularity-wise, it’s doing just fine; I’m sure even some of the most devoted Rick and Morty fans are sick of seeing it absolutely everywhere. But what about quality? The whole concept of “cartoons, but with an edge!” was undeniably born from and popularized by The Simpsons, which was arguably the funniest show on television for a good ten or so years. But I’d argue that a good deal of modern adult animation takes more after Family Guy and South Park: at best, relatively funny without much substance. At worst, crass, intentionally offensive, and predicated on shock value. With the apparent rise of mainstream animated storytelling, why is animation for adults still more childish than animation for kids?
To be clear, I’m not arguing that adult animation is all bad, or even that it’s all mindless (and even then, mindlessness isn’t necessarily a bad thing). I’m arguing that it can, and should, go further. Look, I like Rick and Morty. It’s definitely no masterpiece, but I have fun watching it, and the show’s efforts to deepen its story and characters have been mostly successful. But it really does feel like an obstacle course sometimes; I find myself having to bob and weave around material that actively impedes my enjoyment. I remember the first few episodes in particular were a major slog, and I was about ready to quit after hearing what felt like the millionth rape joke (it was probably only the fifth or sixth, but that stuff wears you down fast, man). The show mostly outgrew cheap shots like that, but why were they necessary in the first place? Just to remind the viewer that, yes, you’re watching a super grown-up thing that makes nasty jokes on purpose because it can? It’s about the best explanation I can come up with.
R&M is sort of the hot-button adult cartoon right now, but there are plenty more that can, and should, be examined critically. Venture Bros., a rare example of an adult cartoon that tells a tightly-serialized story, is one of my favorites, but it’s still rife with uncomfortable hurdles. On the other side of the spectrum, there are absurdist comedies like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show I love but which aims for nothing more than complete, utter stupidity; a friend of mine once aptly described it as being “for people who think the word ‘condom’ is funny” (guilty as charged, I guess). Shows like Bob’s Burgers exist somewhere in the middle: laid-back, episodic, not really doing anything especially new. And that’s not a bad thing – Bob’s Burgers is wonderful, and probably the most accessible and inoffensive adult cartoon – but I’d love to see more shows utilize the medium to deliver smart, cutting satire in the same vein as earlier Simpsons. King of the Hill, Daria, and The Boondocks come to mind, but cartoons like these are fewer and further between than I’d like them to be.
Meanwhile, the complexity of children’s animation has grown considerably, and continues to do so. Over the Garden Wall is a moody, allegorical story about two siblings coming to terms with death. Steven Universe is about an adolescent boy coping with his late mother’s complicated legacy, and figuring out how to best carry on her efforts as a revolutionary. And then there’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the crown jewel of Western animation, if not television in general (oh, I’m saying it). A sweeping epic about war, culture, religion, imperialism, racism, and family, it has some of the most nuanced, well-developed characters and storytelling of any show I’ve ever seen, with a healthy dollop of gorgeous animation on top. And then Korra took all the worldbuilding from the first series and made a political drama out of it. It boggles my mind that these cartoons are for kids, not because I think the material is above them – kids are way smarter than people like to believe – but because it doesn’t really exist anywhere else. I can only imagine what form an adult-oriented cartoon would take if it were given scope and attention to detail on par with that of Avatar, and then built on that foundation to explore more mature themes, without any of the tastelessness.
Again, I like plenty of adult cartoons, despite my misgivings. The only well-known ones I can confidently say I hate are the aforementioned Family Guy and South Park, and it’s a shame that these two have as much pull in the industry as they do, but I still have faith that it can grow beyond them. I owe a good chunk of that faith to BoJack Horseman, an ongoing Netflix show released a few years back that continues to garner critical praise. BoJack is a darkly comic exploration of mental illness and celebrity culture masquerading as a goofy animal cartoon, and it comes closest to embodying what I want to see most from adult animation: its characters are interesting, its story is serialized, it’s funny without punching down, and it’s received recognition as a compelling drama in its own right. The show has, for many, eroded barriers between animation and live-action, reinforcing the notion that the former can be just as interesting as the latter. Time will tell if BoJack inspires positive change, but on behalf of all the other animation nuts out there who just want some quality ‘toons, here’s hoping.