The state of animation: Five adult animated shows you should watch next

Oct. 5, 2022, 10:20 p.m.

Welcome to “The State of Animation,” a column about the wonderful world of cartoons. Animation isn’t just for kids, but it’s a medium that allows for ample creativity and continues to grow in popularity as time goes on. From groundbreaking animated movies to dark cartoon comedies, I’ll be showing you a bit of everything. By the end of this series, I hope to help you find your next animated show to binge and prove that cartoons are for everyone.

There’s an expectation that once we head off to college we have to abandon everything childish, including cartoons. However, despite being associated with childhood, animation can do so much more than just tell stories meant to entertain kids. In fact, cartoons can grow along with us, through the booming world of adult animation.

Catering to a mature audience, these animated shows can explore darker topics or create rather complicated narratives relative to children’s television. While children’s cartoons often must present simpler stories due to their younger audience, this genre is free to experiment with things like existential themes, morbid humor or political intrigue since it knows its audience is more understanding of such ideas. Plus, without the limitations of live-action productions, adult cartoons have the ability to become more vibrant than many shows filmed in the real world. Adult animations can combine the stunning visuals you’d expect from the latest Pixar flick with the nuanced storytelling or humor of primetime television.

In the past few years, the rise of streaming has been the main contributor to the growth of the animation industry. 2021 saw a 100% increase from 2020 in adult animation orders from streaming services and other media companies according to ToonBoom’s annual report. More recently, Netflix’s hit series, “Arcane,” won the 2022 Emmy for “Outstanding Animated Program,” the first-ever streaming show to pick up the award. The demand for animation has led to a boost in creative storytelling, as creators and companies try to innovate the next big hit to compete for consumers’ attention.

Clearly, there is an increasing expanse of excellent adult animated shows that push the boundaries of audiovisual storytelling. But where does one start? Here are some of my recommendations for an animated show you could be watching next. 

Arcane” (2022). Created by Christian Linke and Alex Yee. (Netflix)

Arcane” is a tale about two cities colliding, and how the lives of two sisters are torn apart. It’s a sprawling epic that intertwines both fantasy and science fiction, using some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen on streaming television. Just by watching the first episode, it is clear to see why “Arcane” won the Emmy for “Outstanding Animated Program”. 

The show follows Vi and Powder, two sisters growing up amongst the rising tensions of two rival cities. Above ground is Piltover, the gleaming metropolis, and below is the grim subterranean city of Zaun. As factions tear these worlds apart using magical technology and drugs, Vi and Powder’s own sisterhood is tested. Despite being set in the world of the popular video game, League of Legends, absolutely no knowledge of the game is necessary to enjoy the show. Anyone can jump in and experience its glorious battles, fascinating lore and intricately woven character development. Everything from its story to its music is a delight to enjoy.

Who do I recommend it to?
People who love shows like “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but want to watch something that takes the action and drama up a notch.

Inside Job” (2022). Created by Shion Takeuchi. (Netflix)

What if every popular conspiracy theory was real? From aliens living among us to hooded figures secretly ruling the earth, “Inside Job” is an outrageously funny workplace comedy set in the world’s shadow government. Our protagonist, Reagan Ridley, is the mad genius helping lead Cognito Inc., the agency covering up every wild conspiracy you’ve ever heard of. She and her coworkers make treaties with lizardmen or hunt down malicious celebrity doppelgangers in order to haphazardly stop threats to the world’s perceived normalcy.

The creator of “Inside Job,” Shion Takeuchi, is a former writer for zany shows many of us loved growing up such as “Gravity Falls” and “Regular Show.” “Inside Job” clearly harkens back to the randomness and weirdness of Takeuchi’s past work, while exploring a more irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at modern society.

Who do I recommend it to?
Fans of conspiracy theories or of surreal cartoons like “Gravity Falls.”

Smiling Friends” (2022). Created by Zach Handel and Michael Cusack. (Adult Swim)

“Smiling Friends” is a show about a colorful charity trying to help people smile. However, despite the wholesome premise, this brightly-colored cartoon is actually a dark comedy. The show’s protagonists, lovable Pim and pessimistic Charlie, realize spreading happiness is a lot harder than it seems no thanks to everything from a terrifying woods monster to a delusional rival company called the “Frowning Friends.”

“Smiling Friends” is a stand-out in adult animation due to its unique absurdist humor. While lots of adult animated comedies rely on edgy humor or comedic formulas, “Smiling Friends” has a deep understanding of unpredictability. Its creators Zach Handel and Michael Cusack are also known for their offbeat internet animations on Newgrounds and YouTube.

Who do I recommend it to? 

Enjoyers of absurdist internet memes.

Bee and Puppycat” (2022). Created by Natasha Allegri. (Netflix)

This show feels like eating a berry-topped pastry on a busy spring day — it’s sweet, with a taste of offbeat tartness. “Bee and Puppycat” manages to be an amazing comfort cartoon with its beautiful pastel visuals, relatable characters and a plethora of shenanigans involving cats. We follow Bee, a recently unemployed young woman, and Puppycat, the strange alien creature that she stumbles upon one fateful day. Together, they go off to fulfill odd jobs at bizarre locations in space. Equal parts endearing and surreal, it’s the type of show that is somehow both relaxing and surprising to watch. 

Each scene and character is soft and inviting, drawn in a delightful art style colored in lots of pinks and blues. It’s a show full of twinkling starry nights and cozy interiors. Yet despite such whimsy, it still explores more mature themes, albeit with much levity. Bee struggles with working and adult life, while Puppycat seems to be dealing with a past identity, a life lost to time. The show’s story just grows more fascinating as it goes on.

Who do I recommend it to?
Fans of adorable franchises like “Sanrio,” or cute yet complex shows like “Steven Universe.”


Love, Death & Robots” (2019). Created by Tim Miller and David Fincher. (Netflix)

With “Love Death & Robots,” every moment is a surprise. As an award-winning anthology show, each stand-alone episode has a completely different story and style. In one episode, you get battles between nightmarish vampires and cat-wielding explorers. While in another, a stranded astronaut watches their reality blur with hallucinations on a distant moon. Spanning genres such as sci-fi, fantasy and horror, “Love Death & Robots” pushes the envelope of what short-form animation can do, telling engrossing stories always under twenty-two minutes. Plus, the show has no specific order since Netflix tailors a unique sequence of episodes specifically for each user. Sometimes violent, sometimes sensual and sometimes just plain silly, “Love Death & Robots” has a taste of everything.

Who do I recommend it to?
Fans of “Black Mirror,” or people who wished Pixar shorts involved more cyborgs and mutants!


Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Kristofer Nino is a writer for the Arts & Life section. contact arts 'at' stanforddaily.com

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