The Best Animated Series of All Time
[Editor’s Note: The below piece was originally published on November 20, 2018. It has been expanded from the 50 greatest animated series of all time to the 70 greatest as of March 22, 2023.]
Evaluating animated TV can be tricky. Not only is animation a medium that crosses a wide range of genres, but so many of our earliest memories in front of a screen are tied to an animated series, short, or special, and that impermeable nostalgia can be difficult to penetrate with typical critical tools like reason, logic, and other objective criteria. Some shows just click. They hit at the right time and capture a blossoming imagination. When it comes to ranking animated series, you’re not just analyzing TV shows. You’re critiquing childhoods.
More from IndieWire
'The Simpsons,' 'Family Guy,' and 'Bob's Burgers' Share the Ultimate Animation Crossover: Watch First Look
Of course, animation is also one of the more expansive TV subsets, with dozens of different tones and styles that make comparisons often feel like apples and oranges. There are cartoons, anime, short films, short series, short films turned into short series, web series, adult-oriented animation, and that’s before digging into all the individual genres, like old school slapstick comedies all the way up to the ever-more-popular dramatic animated series.
Like any other corner of the entertainment world, animation has also seen its share of waves, popular trends that spawn imitators and evolutions. Each era has a familiar style or approach, whether it’s half-hour comedies meant for mass appeal or more experimental fare unbound by rules or expectations. It’s always fun to track animation history through the years and see where things branch off and follow new pathways.
With all that in mind, animation needs a little extra celebration. Animated series can be dismissed simply because so many viewers see the medium as less substantial than anything done in live-action, thus eliminating even the best of the bunch from discussions of TV’s elite programs. That’s a damn shame, so to help remind everyone of the genre’s extensive impact and utmost significance, the IndieWire staff has put together a list of the top animated series of all time.
Of course, this also comes with a disclaimer that, even though these all fall under the overall branch of “animation,” that’s roughly where the similarities between some of these shows end. As such, there’s the usual difficulty of judging the relative worth and value of shows created in fundamentally different artistic ecosystems, using drastically different tools. We’ve tried our best to put this collection in some sort of order, but think of this more as a gateway to discovering some potential new favorites rather than a definitive, unmovable overview.
Honed from decades’ worth of options, the below ranking still only illustrates a sliver of the storytelling diversity animation has captured over the last century. Seek out what you haven’t seen and remember fondly those you have. Animation is a genre for all ages and all stories, no matter when you’re able to start watching.
Kristen Lopez, Hanh Nguyen, Liz Shannon Miller, Michael Schneider, Jeff Stone, and Christian Zilko contributed to this list.
70. “Final Space” (Olan Rogers, 2018-2021)
At the beginning of “Final Space,” Gary thinks he’s leaving his solitary confinement spaceship. Instead, he stumbles across Mooncake, the cuddliest alien in the galaxy cluster (who also happens to be a mighty weapon capable of incinerating entire planets). Thrust into preserving the fate of the universe, Gary and Mooncake (both voiced by writer/creator Olan Rogers) meet a group of robots and companions and robot companions who help them protect what they love. Along the way, over three seasons’ worth of wild galavanting and close calls, there are enigmatic beings, odd civilizations, and some conflicted unrequited feelings. But where the show had perfect timing in being able to assemble the best parts of other popular space crew adventures, it also became a casualty of a fast-shifting streaming world: Along with other animated shows like “The Fungies,” “Final Space” was part of the HBO Max library culling and is worthy of a proper, stable home. It has that balance between the personal and the universal that make all large-scale space stories worth the journey. —Steve Greene
69. “Regular Show” (J.G. Quintel, 2010-2017)
Courtesy Everett Collection
By the time “Regular Show” made its debut on Cartoon Network in 2010, the animated slacker comedy was already well-worn territory. It was no longer enough to place characters in increasingly weird situations while they avoided work at all costs—you had to do something exceptional to stand out. Fortunately, “Regular Show” did just that, constantly finding ways to cram more laughs into its 11-minute episodes than many competitors could fit into 22. Mordecai and Rigby are lazy, to be sure, but rather than the callous cynicism of “Beavis and Butthead” or the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” there was a sincerity to them that lent a degree of sympathy to their bizarre misadventures. Combine that with a superb cast of supporting characters, including the charmingly delusional Pops and the brilliantly inane Hi Five Ghost, and you get an innuendo-packed show that only got funnier as its eight-year run went on. —Christian Zilko
68. “The Midnight Gospel” (Pendleton Ward & Duncan Trussell, 2020)
Courtesy of Netflix
Arriving in spring 2020 at the height of a desperate need for escapism and right before the entertainment world was oversaturated with multiverse stories, “The Midnight Gospel” is just as interesting as a time capsule as it is an actual show. But it also works as a visual playground, a chance to bend the rules of physics into the kind of dream logic that makes perfect sense at the time but is incomprehensible to anyone trying to explain it later. The formal setup of the show is perfect for this: Clancy is broadcasting in a rainbow-colored reality where his interviews seem to bend the circumstances around him. As he hops through different dimensions, he and his guests escape zombies, ponder death, exact medieval revenge, and even come face to face with the embodiment of mortality. Using audio taken from episodes of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast, Trussell and the assorted members of a patchwork ensemble all work together to make sense of a nonsensical world. Even amongst the best that Netflix has to offer, it stands out. —SG
67. “Robot Chicken” (Seth Green & Matthew Senreich, 2005-present)
Courtesy Everett Collection
“Robot Chicken,” Seth Green and Matthew Senreich’s twisted piece of pop culture pastiche, is undeniably the best piece of art ever adapted from a magazine about collecting action figures. The stop-motion sketch show constantly mines the depths of almost-forgotten childhood media to create an absurdist collage that mixes the sacred (at least, sacred to viewers who grew up with these characters) with the utterly profane, providing an endless stream of rewards to the television addicts who stay up late enough to watch it on Adult Swim. Fueled by a unique visual style that uses recognizable toys as puppets for stop-motion antics, “Robot Chicken” has been able to rise above the multitude of other adult cartoons that lampoon pop culture and grow into a unique voice that’s all its own. —CZ
66. “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” (Jonathan Katz & Tom Snyder, 1995-2002)
Courtesy Everett Collection
One of the greatest things about adult animation is the genre’s ability to constantly find new ways to repurpose preexisting footage to create something new. In the case of “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” that meant turning stand-up comedy bits into therapy sessions. The show follows a laid-back therapist who frequently treats celebrity clients, often just sitting back and listening while each patient vents. Those lengthy, cathartic rants, of course, are often real stand-up routines performed by the celebrity guests, and each episode invites viewers to appreciate the healing power of comedy. The sessions are interspersed between scenes from Dr. Katz’s charmingly mundane life, and the series that was intended as no-budget content for cable still holds up to this day. —CZ
65. “Birdgirl” (Michael Ouweleen & Erik Richter, 2021-2022)
Animation is a place where anything can happen. Few shows based in the “real” world prove that better than this “Harvey Birdman” spinoff, wihch follows Judy Ken Sebben (Paget Brewster) and her chaotic reign as CEO of a giant megaconglomerate. Like an even more elastic counterpart to the live-action “Corporate,” “Birdgirl” takes the baseline “absurd horrors of capitalism” framework and turbo-charges the insanity. Product launches lead to global hypnotic episodes, company towns get frozen in time, and even the company HQ building becomes a metaphysical prison. Keeping the reins on all this madness is Brewster, who gives “Birdgirl” the kind of vocal adrenaline that could power an entire energy grid. None of this show should make any sense, but through sheer force of will and invention, the Sebben & Sebben team (formed, in part, by the incomparable combined talents of Kether Donohue, Negin Farsad, River L. Ramirez, John Doman, and Rob Delaney) are the perfect foundation for bedlam. —SG
64. “The Legend of Korra” (Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, 2012-2014)
Courtesy Everett Collection
Making a follow up to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was no easy task, but “The Legend of Korra” has only grown in esteem since its 2012 debut. Continuing to exist in a world where certain people can “bend” the elements, “The Legend of Korra” follows a reincarnation of Aang, the eponymous final Airbender from the original series. The sequel maintains the fantastical elements of the original series that fans love so much, while introducing complex themes and real social commentary. While much of its audience was inevitably going to be adults who grew up watching the original series, the show keeps them interested with added depth without ever straying from its mandate to create a compelling show for children. “The Legend of Korra” remained accessible to everyone throughout its four-year run, and moments like its depiction of a same-sex romance proved that even animation aimed at children still had vital, untapped capacity in the 21st century. —CZ
63. “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (Dave Willis & Matt Maiellaro, 2001-2015)
Courtesy Everett Collection
“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” may not be the best show Adult Swim has ever produced, but no series offers a better illustration of the network’s aesthetic. While Adult Swim’s earliest offerings repurposed old cartoon footage to create new stories, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” took the idea of washed-up pop culture figures living in television purgatory to its logical conclusion. Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad are anthropomorphic fast-food mascots who literally and figuratively float through life without a purpose, hovering above the ground as they fill their endless days with meaningless surreal antics. From its grungy animation style to its empty world where nothing ever changes, the nihilistic stoner comedy is an unapologetic love letter to half-assing it through life. The perfect show for a network that made its name by putting in less effort than anyone else. Or, at least, by appearing that way. —CZ
62. “Harley Quinn” (Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, & Dean Lorey, 2019-present)
It takes a special show to stand out and justify itself amidst a sea of IP-chasing, self-aware metatelevision. For all the superhero saturation in mainstream culture, “Harley Quinn” found a way to make an unfiltered, unapologetic adult-aimed show that was not only hilarious but brought some surprising depth to peripheral figures in the DC canon. Harley Quinn (a career-best Kaley Cuoco) becomes a different kind of star figure than in the most recent live-action movies. She’s messy and impulsive and great at causing chaos in Gotham. Alongside Poison Ivy (a perfectly cast Lake Bell), Clayface (the ever-valuable Alan Tudyk), King Shark (the always-welcome Ron Funches) and a roving band of misfit would-be supervillains, “Harley Quinn” gets to poke fun at the wider comics world without the show ever feeling above it all. The laughs don’t come without caring about the people (or hybrid sea-creatures or shapeshifting piles of mud) that deliver them. With a steady doses of romance, danger, and absurdity, these are half-hour adventures that still work even if you don’t know your Kite Man from your Calendar Man. —SG
61. “Star Wars: Clone Wars” (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2003-2005)
After the success of “Samurai Jack” and “Dexter’s Laboratory,” Genndy Tartakovsky had nothing left to prove in animation. But that didn’t stop him from taking on his most daunting challenge yet: creating a “Star Wars” cartoon for Lucasfilm. A show like “Clone Wars” was always going to have high expectations, which were not helped by the fact that its original run coincided with the rollout of the divisive prequel trilogy. But Tartakovsky rose to the occasion, and the result is a visually stunning show that can go toe-to-toe with the most stunning sequences from his past classics. To this day, it remains one of the most respected entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. —CZ
Best of IndieWire
The Best 36 LGBTQ Movies and TV Shows Streaming on Netflix Right Now
Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.