14 of the best animated shows for adults from the last decade

Move over "Simpsons," these relatively newer series creatively break through reality to help us make sense of ours

Published April 25, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) and Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs) in "Invincible" (Amazon)
Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) and Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs) in "Invincible" (Amazon)

Over the last decade, the world of animation made specifically for adults has expanded far beyond some of the veteran series that helped pioneer the genre, like "South Park" and "Family Guy." And while we may have nostalgia for some of these series, others have lost their initial spark — as when Salon's Keith Spencer wrote how "The Simpsons" struggles to remain relevant due to its outdated politics.

We've compiled a list of some of Salon's favorite, newer animated series for adults with the stipulation that they're American and are less than 10 years old. Therefore, while we are huge fans of "Bob's Burgers" and "Archer" (especially the work of the late, great Jessica Walter), they are too old to be included as they premiered in January 2011 and 2009, respectively.

This past year has been a test for our mental health, and our viewing habits have reflected that, evolving from watching zombie flicks and true crime, to quirkier or more escapist fare. TV shows, with their ongoing storylines, have also appealed to us more than movies. In particular, these animated series utilized unique elements that break from reality in such a way that help us deal with and make sense of their own. 

Some of these titles may be familiar, while newer ones are lesser known. Either way, they're all worth honoring for their creativity and astuteness.

"Big Mouth" (Netflix)

Set in a middle school in Westchester, Andrew Goldberg, Nick Kroll, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett's "Big Mouth" perfectly captures the awkward transition from child to teenager that we've all tried so hard to forget. In the show, a group of pre-teens tackles puberty, their emerging sexualities, relationships, and all that good teenage stuff with the help of their "hormone monsters." These fictional characters are intertwined with the kids' suburban reality, and every adolescent affliction has a fantastical representation, whether that be the Shame Wizard or the Depression Kitty.

"Big Mouth" strikes the perfect balance of honest, relatable, and hilarious, and the fact that it's animated helps us feel like we aren't growing up all over again (thank goodness!). Although the show's main characters are 12-13, it's definitely targeted toward an older audience with sex jokes and explicit images out the wazoo. Whether you're in the mood to reminisce and wish that you too had a hormone monster to blame your teenage problems on, or you just want a good laugh, "Big Mouth" is the show for you. — Mayu Evans

"BoJack Horseman" (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman, the title character, is an anthropomorphic horse with a celebrity past. While figuring out how to deal with his fading stardom, he interacts with a mix of other troubled characters (anthropomorphic animals and humans alike). BoJack is best characterized as self-hating, armed with cynical humor and self-destructive behavior, and burdened by depression and addiction. 

Raphael Bob-Waksberg's show is an excellent example of how animation can make depression and other heavy topics easier to digest. It's more comfortable to take on your own questions about existence when they're processed through images of a world that don't look like our own. The separation between the two realities creates a space that makes self-reflection more manageable. The tragic nature of the show doesn't weigh us down the way a live-action drama might; BoJack's non-human form breaks him from reality enough for "BoJack Horseman" to be an enjoyable and binge-able watch. — ME

"Disenchantment" (Netflix)

If you're drawn to this show because it's voiced by Abbi Jacobson and animated by Matt Groening, know that "Disenchantment" is NOTHING like "Broad City" or "The Simpsons." And that's alright! The show has many charming qualities of its own; it's the story of cheeky Princess Bean and her two companions, an elf and a demon, as they navigate the medieval fantasy world of Dreamland.

Loaded with raunchy humor and magical creatures, "Disenchantment" deals with very relatable real-life issues such as loyalty, societal obligations, and gender roles. This show is a great one to speed through in a week or two — it's an easy watch with a nostalgic animation style and captivating landscape. — ME

"Final Space" (Hulu)

Gary Space (Olan Rogers) is a pretty lonely guy after being sentenced to solitary confinement aboard a small spaceship as punishment for impersonating a member of the elite Infinity Guard. His only companions have been his Deep Space Insanity Avoidance Robot Companion (Fred Armisen), the ship's AI (Tom Kenny) and a refrigerator he's dubbed "Beth" ... until he befriends a cute green blob named Mooncake (Rogers), who's a wanted alien being pursued by the villainous Lord Commander (David Tennant) It seems that Mooncake has the power to open the gate to Final Space at the very edge of the universe. 

Shenanigans ensue as Gary, along with a ragtag group of intergalactic characters, attempts to keep Mooncake safe, evade the Lord Commander and reunite with Quinn. Now in its third season, "Final Space" starts slow and has kind of a grab-bag approach to humor, but it quickly finds its footing and serves up some really unexpected emotional gut-punches along the way. — Ashlie D. Stevens 

"The Great North" (FOX/Hulu)

Set in Alaska, "The Great North" is basically the cold-weather cousin of "Bob's Burgers. Its creators, Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, have written for "Bob's Burgers" since 2011 and Loren Bouchard produces both shows.

It also centers on the exploits of another quirky, super loving family, the Tobins, led by single dad Beef (Nick Offerman), who's in denial after his wife leaves him, and trying to keep his remaining family close ... a little too close for some wishing to spread their wings just a bit. Teenage daughter, Judy (Jenny Slate) wants at the mall photography studio instead of on the family fishing boat, while eldest son, Wolf (Will Forte), wants to move out (and live in the cabin next door) with his fiancee, Honeybee (Dulcé Sloan). Ham Tobin (Paul Rust) is the kind of spacey, but good-hearted middle brother, while Moon (Aparna Nacherla) is the youngest. 

A consistent theme in "The Great North" is that there's room, literally and figuratively, for your imagination to roam, which leads the Tobins into the wild situations — like capturing a moose whose gotten tangled in birthday balloons, participating in a town-wide Feast of Not People festival and setting traps for Bigfoot. Oh, and keep an eye out for Judy's imaginary friend Alanis Morisette (voiced by the real Alanis Morisette), who appears in the glow of the Aurora Borealis to offer questionable advice about boys and puberty. — ADS

"Harley Quinn" (HBO Max)

This one will make you stop thinking of Harley Quinn as just the Joker's girlfriend! After being left in prison for months by the Joker, Harley (Kaley Cuoco) finally realizes that he doesn't truly love her. Free from her infatuation with the Joker (and from his patronizing attitude toward her), Harley sets off to establish herself as a villain in the city of Gotham and assembles a crew of her own. With DC characters including Poison Ivy, Clayface, and Doctor Psycho by her side, Harley opposes the Joker in a chaotic and destructive face-off that leaves Gotham in pieces.

This show, produced by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, is much more than the story of a woman getting over her ex. "Harley Quinn" is a refreshing take on the classic relationship between Harley and the Joker, complete with dark humor, a strong female lead, and beautiful animation. — ME

"Invincible" (Amazon)

"Invincible," the new series based on Robert Kirkman's comic book character of the same name, poses a really big question: What is the price of having superpowers? The send-up of superhero movies and media follows Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yuen with some tremendously punny one-liners) who, after turning 17, begins to develop superpowers. This isn't unexpected. His father, Nolan (J.K. Simmons), aka Omni-Man, is the most powerful superhero on the planet — and Mark wants to be just like him. 

Eager to please, Mark throws himself into training under his father's watchful, eventually taking on the moniker Invincible. However, Nolan is keeping a huge secret, the weight of which could literally shatter the universe and change how his son sees him permanently. 

Grounding this out-of-this-world series is some tremendous voice talent that includes Sandra Oh, Mark Hamill, Seth Rogen, Gillian Jacobs, Andrew Rannells, Zazie Beetz, Walton Goggins and Jason Mantzoukas. — ADS

"Midnight Gospel" (Netflix)

For me, podcasts are best paired with a walk — visual stimulus or some sort of activity to do simultaneously is essential; otherwise, I tend to lose focus. Lucky for me shows like "The Midnight Gospel" exist. Created by Pendleton Ward of "Adventure Time" and Duncan Trussell, this animated podcast series follows Clancy (Duncan Trussell) as he travels through bizarre and beautiful universes using his multiverse simulator. Each episode is set in a different world, and each world displays different trippy landscapes where Clancy conducts his interviews. Though Clancy is seen interviewing strange and fantastical animated characters, the dialogues heard were held between real people on Trussell's podcast "The Duncan Trussell Family Hour." "The Midnight Gospel" has it all — engaging and fascinating visuals, apocalyptic storylines, and interviewees ranging from Drew Pinsky and Damien Echols to Caitlin Doughty. 

It's worth mentioning and, frankly, aggravating that all of the guest stars of Season 1 are white. Hopefully, Ward and Trussell can set their animations to conversations held with a more diverse set of guests in future seasons. Nonetheless, if you're due for a dose of colorful cartoons and witty interviews, this show is a must-watch. — ME

"Neo Yokio" (Netflix) 

The absurdist "Neo Yokio" shouldn't make sense on paper, much less on our screens. In the backstory for this alternate timeline of New York, 19th-century magicians saved the city from demons, and thus their descendants now rule as snooty yet fabulous Magistocrats. Our privileged, pink-haired hero Kaz (Jaden Smith) has it all – a robot butler named Charles ("The Young Pope" himself Jude Law) and two wacky pals voiced by Desus and Mero. Being feckless and rich, Kaz's main aim in life is to ascend to the top of the city's Bachelor's List against his nemesis Arcangelo. Oh, and this bizarre confection is all created by Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig. 

The series is a delightful blend of classic anime homages, from the theatrical romance of "Sailor Moon" to the gender- and species-bending antics of "Ranma 1/2." Throw in hip-hop earworms, Victorian-futurist high society melodrama, and a penchant for pink – and you have a unique aesthetic that leaves you as comforted as Mecha enrobed in a jaunty yet cuddly sweater. This six-episode series (with a stellar, bonus "Pink Christmas" special) pokes fun at the elite but with such warmth and off-kilter humor that one can't help but simultaneously enjoy the escapism along with its optimism. – Hanh Nguyen

"Over the Garden Wall" (Cartoon Network)

Two half-brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), have a very endearing dynamic, with Greg consistently in all sorts of ridiculous and refreshingly carefree trouble and Wirt taking on the role of the worried older brother. On their journey home through a magical forest, the pair run into a cast of equally sweet and terrifying characters, from a talking bird named Beatrice to a mysterious figure called "The Beast." Patrick McHale's "Over the Garden Wall" has humor similar to what you might see in "Peanuts" and a unique animation style that constantly walks the tightrope between creepy and cute. Furthermore, the soundtrack is catchy and beautiful; Elijah Wood once said in a behind-the-scenes video that the show's music would be played on a phonograph. 

This show meshes the real world and forest world in a way that prompts the question: what does the forest represent? There is certainly a lot of interpreting to be done after you inevitably finish all 10 episodes of the miniseries in one sitting. — ME

"Rick & Morty" (Hulu and HBO Max)

When you think of newer adult animated series (as we said, "The Simpsons" and "South Park" are old now), Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland's "Rick and Morty" is usually the first to come to mind. Morty, a shy and cautious kid by nature, and his cynical genius grandfather, Rick, travel the universe, collecting near-death experiences and relationships with many zany alien characters along the way. Season 5 will be released June 20 with promises of more insane, intergalactic misadventures. 

Most episodes of "Rick and Morty" pose questions about human existence. Rick's humor is ever dark and nihilistic, and every problem that he encounters (no matter how extreme) is met with a "Who cares?" or "It doesn't matter." Existentialism is a massive theme in the show and an ever-relevant problem in pandemic times. While it's not brought up subtly, it's an easier issue to consider for ourselves because it's paired with impossible cross-dimensional animated fun. — ME

"Solar Opposites" (Hulu)

If you've ever wanted to watch something that has the same general vibe as "Rick and Morty," sans the pervasive nihilism, "Solar Opposites" is the show for you. It opens months after Korvo ("Rick and Morty" creator Justin Roiland), a misanthropic blue alien, and his family crash landed on Earth, which Korvo describes as a "horrible home." 

His partner, Terry (Thomas Middleditch) has adjusted just fine to life on the planet. He carries their pupa — a little blob that will someday become a sentient supercomputer —in a Babyjörn, loves trashy TV and has a rotating collection of novelty t-shirts emblazoned with phrases like "Straight Out of Anime," "Butter Beer Inspector," and "Bacon & Lettuce & Tomato." While Terry and Korvo bicker about whether or not it's time to leave the Earth, their children/replicants, Yumyulack (Sean Giambrone) and Jesse (Mary Mack), are left trying to fit in as well as they can at their local high school. 

This show has — and reliably subverts — some of the expected beats found in "fish out of water" comedies and classic family sitcoms, and is bolstered by a hefty dose of raunchy humor. — ADS

"Tuca & Bertie" (Formerly Netflix, coming to Adult Swim)

Created by Lisa Hanawalt, the animation style of "Tuca & Bertie" is like a more whimsical "BoJack Horseman," for which Hanawalt was the show's production designer and producer. On the show, titular bird best-friends face some of the big life changes that come in your late 20s. Effervescent Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) realizes that, after spending much of her life struggling with feelings of impermanence after her mom's death, she needs to stop floating from gig to gig and get her s**t together. Bertie (Ali Wong) is the opposite; she's a type-A perfectionist who is just starting to bristle at the bounds of her corporate job at Conde Nest and her warm, but kind of boring relationship with her boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun), whose idea of romance is scheduled sex (every Tuesday and Thursday night at 7:45; missionary, quickie-doggie, quickie-missionary). 

It's sharp, feminist and filled with fantastical touches, like a sexy penguin baker and a hot anthorpomorphized houseplant neighbor who is clad in cut-offs and shadowed by a small army of turtles who serve as slow-moving furntiture — and likely stash her weed in their shells. The bizarre flora and fauna world reflects just how our own can feel both fantastical and inspiring, even if we're troubled. —ADS

"Undone" (Amazon)

Starring Rosa Salazar as Alma, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy's "Undone" explores humans' relationship to time. Upon getting into an almost fatal car crash, Alma discovers an ability to learn about her life through visions from her father. With its use of rotoscoping, an animation style where live-action footage is traced to create a more realistic cartoon image, this show pushes the boundary between real-life representation and the imaginary world depicted by animation. While the animation technique might fool you into thinking that "Undone" mirrors reality-based dramedies, in actuality, it explores the power of visions over the actions and timelines of its characters. This show delves into the visceral and life-altering effects of tragedy and the mental transformation that follows. Additionally, "Undone" incorporates and emphasizes Alma's mixed-race and disabled identity, as well as her history with mental illness.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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By Mayu Evans

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, TVGuide.com and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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