2D-animation has been a part of television programming for most of its life. The first animation to appear on television was Chad Grothkopf’s Willie the Worm, which aired roughly 10 years after the first-ever television broadcast. Since then, animated TV shows have had their ups and downs, each decade bringing with it not only technological advancements that made newer shows more efficient to produce, but also different trends that animation directors and TV stations pursued.
While everybody generally likes to think that the era of TV cartoons they grew up with are the best ones, that simply can’t be true. However, if one looks at the caliber of shows being produced by animation studios lately, it’s possible that 2D-animated television cartoons have been going through a golden age of high-quality offerings.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the floodgates seemed to have opened for these great shows, especially since whether something is good or not can be highly subjective. As well, no one year is completely devoid of good shows, even if it’s floating in a sea of mediocre content.
The 1990s saw an influx of influential animated shows, particularly in its latter half, and this trend continued through the 2000s. During this period of time, iconic shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, South Park, King of the Hill, and Spongebob Squarepants premiered as well as some underappreciated and short-lived gems sprinkled around throughout. The Simpsons was running what are considered its best episodes and Family Guy would do its first 3 seasons before its cancellation and eventual revival.
Particularly in relation to US animation, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, and WB were all pumping out new shows every year, many of which have been viewed favorably in retrospect. MTV also produced a few well-received animated shows but was prone to canceling them before giving them an opportunity to grow. As well, Adult Swim started its nighttime programming block in 2001 and has been a catalyst for experimental and adult cartoons with shows like The Venture Bros. and Home Movies.
While these were by no means bad years for TV cartoons, they were, if anything, just a ramp-up to where the medium is today. In 2007-2008, while some great shows from the 2000s like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Ed, Edd n Eddy were airing their final episodes, shows like Chowder and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack were starting their excellent, if brief runs. Matt Groening, now making Disenchantment, had the funny and at-times intensely emotional Futurama un-canceled and re-canceled during this time as well. In 2009, creators of cult-hits Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo Adam Reed and Matt Thompson would oversee the production of Archer, a show that would go through several revamps and digressions but is otherwise still going strong, with a twelfth season having been announced late last year.
Arguably, it’s the resounding popularity of Pendelton Ward’s Adventure Time that really played a large part in ushering in what this article is purporting to be the golden age of 2D-animated TV shows. Adventure Time began its life as a short produced for Nicktoons by Frederator Studios that was released on the Internet. After it became a viral hit, Cartoon Network picked the show up, and Adventure Time as a full-length show premiered in 2010. Adventure Time became a huge hit. While the show was developed to be for all ages, the show also has a considerable adult fanbase due in large part to the show’s handling of relatively mature themes. The show would air its finale in 2018 after 10 seasons and 283 episodes. 4 specials were announced for HBO Max, 2 of which have aired so far. The show’s popularity hasn’t seemed to wane any, as it’s still being used for promotional crossovers.
Around that same time, J.G. Quintel’s Regular Show had also started its run, another show that would become immensely popular with both kids and adults. The show was also known for gently pushing the limit when it came to what Cartoon Network was willing to let its shows do, and some gags have been edited out or otherwise modified since their original airing. The show would run for 8 seasons, 261 episodes, and 1 feature-length movie, concluding in 2017.
In 2011, long-running hits Bob’s Burgers and The Amazing World of Gumball would premiere. While the highly-regarded The Amazing World of Gumball would conclude after 6 seasons and 240 episodes, Bob’s Burgers, created by Loren Bouchard of Home Movies, is still going strong. Currently on season 11, it’s been renewed for up to a 14th, and a feature-length movie is in the works. Futurama would also make one final comeback (or is it?), giving fans yet another emotionally-packed finale.
Since then, countless fantastic and critically-acclaimed shows have premiered, and they continue to do so with no signs of stopping. The Legend of Korra, a sequel to the well-regarded and resurgently popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, aired 4 dramatic seasons. Adventure Time alum Rebecca Sugar created Steven Universe, which ran for 5 seasons and had a feature-length movie and epilogue limited-run series. Other limited-run series like Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall were also critically-acclaimed, and, along with We Bare Bears, Craig of the Creek, Amphibia, OK KO, Big City Greens, and The Owl House would continue the trend of shows made for all ages that would draw in sizable fanbases of adults and numerous accolades for being well-written, truly encompassing the “all” part of the phrase “all ages”.
Adult animation hasn’t languished either in recent years. For a long time, “adult animation” often just meant the show would be full of raunchy jokes and the characters would swear a lot. While that hasn’t necessarily changed, shows like Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, Midnight Gospel, and Tuca and Bertie (now part of the Adult Swim lineup) have expanded to deftly handle mature subject matters like societal issues and mental illness. Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty has been an at-times catastrophically huge cultural phenomenon, and alums from those shows have gone on to produce other high-profile shows, such as Mike McMahon with Hulu’s Solar Opposites and CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Lower Decks.
Other critically-acclaimed cartoons from Adult Swim have been Mike Tyson Mysteries, a Samurai Jack revival, and Primal, which was created by Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky. HBO has also stepped into the ring with original content, including Infinity Train, new episodes of Looney Tunes, and J.G. Quintel’s new show Close Enough, all of which have received highly favorable reviews.
Things don’t look to be slowing down any time soon. With all these truly fantastic shows in recent years, some created by talented individuals who worked on some of those other fantastic shows, the future of 2D-animated television shows looks bright. Animated shows have come a long way from being glorified toy commercials, and now they have the freedom to deal with all varieties of emotions, themes, and characters thanks in a large part to a lot of the shows mentioned above that broke new ground and continue to do so in those aspects.
Cartoons aren’t just for Saturday morning anymore.