I’ve taken a very unscientific approach to finding the most popular cartoons today, across a few different major categories, and I’d like to talk about what they can tell us with regards to the current state of popular animation.
Just a heads-up, I won’t be talking about animation for very young children, mostly because a lot of these shows are very similar to each other, and they haven’t developed much over the last 20 years.
Instead, we’ll focus on animated shows intended for adults, then animated shows intended for children (roughly 7 to 12 years old), then we’ll look at the in-between space that I like to call kid-dult animation, which is just cartoons that appeal strongly to both kids and adults, especially young adults.
Also, these are all shows that originally aired on television. Streaming services don’t release viewership numbers, so it’s impossible to tell which of their original series are the most popular.
Animation for Grownups
We’ll kick things off with one of Fox’s Animation Domination programs, and arguably their best animated show, Bob’s Burgers.
This show had a really strong following right out of the gate. The members of the Belcher family were just weird enough to spawn all kinds of memes, running jokes, and, especially, a bunch of merchandising opportunities.
Bob’s Burgers really doesn’t stray too far away from a traditional sitcom format. You’ve got a relatable family at the center, and we get to see them dealing with (mostly) relatable issues.
But, at least for the first several seasons, Bob’s managed to show off some really fantastic writing and there have been plenty of times when the show has inserted light political and social commentary into the mix.
Most notably, Bob’s Burgers draws very clear lines based on the topic of class.
Most of the show’s likable characters have little to no money. School faculty have to work second jobs to make ends meet. The town’s landlord is comically out of touch with how most people live.
Thankfully this content has never been so strong as to drive away new viewers, but I can appreciate that the show represents a tiny step forward for mainstream adult animation.
Only time will tell whether Fox will have the guts to take chances on even more bold animated shows in the future.
If Bob’s Burgers stands for a step forward, then Family Guy continues to drag adult animation backward.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, it’s an OK show. I’ve watched a decent amount and I have to admit that it can make me laugh.
But what was once edgy and groundbreaking for primetime TV inevitably becomes old hat, especially when the team behind the show loses interest in the idea of doing anything new.
Family Guy is just extremely profitable, and that means it will stay on the air until it’s not anymore.
In this way, Family Guy can basically serve as an extension of The Simpsons, a show that didn’t make it onto the list because its viewership continues to wane and I don’t imagine it can last much longer.
As it stands right now, Family Guy represents the old guard of animated television: the visuals are bland, the animation is as basic as possible, and the storylines have remained uncreative for years.
Stuff Kids Like to Watch
It’s a bit surprising to me that Spongebob has continued to run for such a long time, especially after the untimely death of series creator Stephen Hillenburg.
There was certainly a time when Spongebob was seen as outlandish and wacky, and sometimes even violent, but it never felt mean-spirited.
And yes, it’s yet another animated TV show that has lasted well beyond its intended lifespan, but that’s a bit easier to understand when we’re talking about a kids’ series.
The audience, children, are less likely to compare and contrast new and old episodes and track a decline in quality, especially since new episodes get aired right alongside old classics.
Spongebob’s continuation communicates that children’s animation still has room for shows that have zero educational value, as long as they’re remotely funny.
This also speaks to a much wider trend that applies just a well to Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, and Family Guy: if an animated TV show is a smash hit within its first few seasons, then it’s unlikely to die anytime soon.
Major TV stations have the inherent benefit of exposing their shows to huge pre-established audiences. If that first impression is powerful enough, it could spell a very long series run.
The Amazing World of Gumball
Gumball is slightly more interesting than the previous entries on this list, mostly because of its unique visual style.
Incorporating photographs and diverse character models, it’s easily one of the most visually bold cartoons on the list, even hearkening back to some of the quirkier kids’ animation of the 1990s.
But Gumball succeeded by providing low-stakes conflict, bright colors, and lovable characters.
I personally think it was also a big help to have the characters voiced by actual children.
And, like the best sitcoms, it features a non-serialized story, that is, stories that are one-offs, without a huge, connecting narrative.
One of the big risks of serialized cartoons like Adventure Time and Steven Universe is that characters are allowed to age, and if it starts to feel like the story has played itself out, it could be difficult to revitalize the series.
The Amazing World of Gumball is just a fun, easygoing show and it doesn’t need to be more than that.
I’m still skeptical that the show will continue to run indefinitely, but it has definitely staked a claim for quirky visual styles and child voice acting.
Teen Titans Go!
I have to admit up front that I grew up with the original Cartoon Network Teen Titans series, and I actually liked it quite a bit.
It was very obviously aimed at tweens and dipped into some heavier storylines, including some romance subplots.
It was also just a cool action show. The animation itself was moderately impressive for a TV series, and the characters had a decent amount of range.
So when Teen Titans Go! popped onto the scene, I was a bit confused. Why the bubbly, chibi art style? Why the super low-stakes plots? Why the same voice actors?
But the show has become a success, and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that this success has something to do with the superhero glut we’ve been living through for more than ten years now.
Marvel doesn’t offer a ton of content specifically aimed at kids, and so Teen Titans Go! is one of the only ways for kids to ease themselves into a superhero universe, with all the crazy villains and wacky shenanigans.
And Teen Titans Go! has the added bonus of focusing on lighter fare. No one’s gonna die on this show, even temporarily. That’s valuable, and DC would be foolish not to capitalize on it, although the live-action Teen Titans series they put out doesn’t give me a whole lot of hope.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
These last two shows are unique for multiple reasons. Sure, they both belong to the kid-dult category and seem to have no problem appealing to multiple age groups, but they also both have the benefit of getting talked about a lot. A lot. Especially online.
In particular, Avatar: The Last Airbender has this rock-solid, undying fanbase, and if you watched my video on Avatar’s storytelling, you’ll know that I now understand why that is.
It was just a great show for many different reasons, but above it all, the show nailed the basics of character and story.
Even the Avatar wiki remains one of the most active ones out there, and of course, it helps that Netflix has promised a new live-action series that they’d better get right.
This is also the only cartoon on the list that hasn’t been on the air for many years. It gets limited reruns on premium channels, but that’s about it.
The continued popularity of the show gives me hope that the future of animation is bright. Even if we’re not set to receive any new animated Avatar content for the foreseeable future, it’s still proof that there is a large audience for quality stories in a fantasy/supernatural setting.
Steven Universe/Steven Universe: Future
For a while, Steven Universe and Adventure Time offered a really interesting one-two punch of entertainment that worked for lots of different kinds of people.
Best of all, they each offered something unique. It wasn’t that Steven Universe aped off of Adventure Time, despite Rebecca Sugar having worked on that show for years.
It found its own voice and its messaging spoke to a whole lot of folks.
Sure, as its popularity grew, the online conversations about the show became more heated and factions began to form, but the show kept moving, and in a very ambitious move for an animated series, it rebooted itself with the Steven Universe movie and the subsequent Steven Universe: Future series.
Something I really admire about Steven Universe, as an entertainment entity, is that it feels like it could end at almost any time.
There’s technically always new room for a spinoff with new characters and all, but I’d be perfectly fine with Steven Universe doing either.
It could end right now or live on for many seasons, and I’d be fine with either scenario.
So what does Steven Universe tell us about the state of animated television?
Well, it’s mostly about content. The visual style is nice but it’s not all that wild.
But in terms of story and character, the show has blended elements of Western and Eastern animation, all while touching on incredibly heavy subject matter.
It’s yet more proof that audiences from age 5 to 35 are craving deep story and even complex lore, at least up to a point.
It’s possible that Steven Universe has made a real showing for complex, heartfelt animation in the future, even if it only appears on streaming services rather than traditional television.
That’s all for now. These are some of the most popular cartoons today and how they’ve impacted animated entertainment.
Please feel free to yell at me in the comments about shows I didn’t include or why I shouldn’t have included the ones I did.
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