It’s extremely difficult making a list of my most favorite animated series, even when Japanese anime is excluded, which I did for this list (I already made a list for anime some years back, though I’ll probably be revising it in the future). Through the years, I’ve watched and become fond of plenty of cartoons. Thus, I had a hard time reflecting which of these I like the most.
In fact, this list is actually three years in the making. The pool started out with more than 60 titles (again, anime is not even included in that 60!), which I gradually cut down to 30. And then I rewatched these 30 animated series (will mention them in the honorable mentions) – not all their episodes, of course, but ample enough (again, took me three years) to help me carefully evaluate which of them belong to my all-time twenty. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t only focus on how they still hold up after rewatching them as an adult, but I still put into consideration their impact on me when I was watching them as a kid.
Honorable Mentions (nos. 21 to 30, in random order): Hey Arnold!, Futurama, BraveStarr, Wacky Races, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Adventure Time, Darkwing Duck, Ducktales, Captain Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars, Popeye
18.) BEAST WARS: TRANSFORMERS (1996-1999)
Beast Wars tells the story of the conflict between the Maximals (the Autobots’ descendants) and the Predacons (the Decepticons’ descendants). The two factions crashed on prehistoric Earth, which proved to be rich in raw Energon. Much power can be derived if Energon crystals are processed, but extended exposure to it is very harmful to both Maximals and Predacons in their robot form, thus, they were forced to take on alternative animal forms. The Maximals’ beast modes are usually mammals, while the Predacons’ are usually dinosaurs, arachnids, and insects (however, a Predacon named Dinobot – who takes the form of a raptor – switched to the Maximal side early in the story).
As a kid, I also enjoyed the original 80’s Transformers series (as well as the Japanese versions), but I believe the Beast Wars series is superior for it has the kind of storytelling depth, intense action, and great character arcs that the original series never had.
The 3D animation looks extremely dated and inferior now, but back then its visuals were groundbreaking.
19.) ALADDIN – THE ANIMATED SERIES (1994-1995)
This is generally considered as the best animated series that spun-off from a Disney animated feature. It features Aladdin and his eclectic gang going on fantastic, swashbuckling adventures. The series has thoroughly fleshed out the characters and their relationships – especially the romance of Aladdin and Jasmine (see the episode “Eye of the Beholder”) – and they have become one of my most favorite ensembles in fiction.
Also, it’s worth acknowledging Dan Castellaneta for filling up for Robin Williams as Genie. Genie is Williams’ most iconic character, and it’s a tough act to follow. But Castellaneta did a fine job as a substitute.
18.) G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO (1983-1986)
In retrospect, I admit that this is one of the dumbest, most ridiculous cartoons I’ve ever watched. Nonetheless, I get to tremendously like this animated series (and G.I. Joe as a fictional organization) as much as the property’s classic Marvel comic book series. And until now, I still understand why this had appealed to me a lot as a kid: it has all these themed, one-dimensional but kickass characters engaging in an action-packed but naïve, over-the-top, and diluted war – just like something from a child’s energetic, imagination-full playtime.
17.) RECESS (1997-2001)
Recess is a clever caricaturized depiction of American schoolchildren, wherein they have their own functioning society – complete with cultural, economic, political, and class systems– within their school premises, which is often practiced during recess time. The series focuses on a gang of fourth graders led by T.J. Detweiler as they go on their daily lives in the aforementioned set-up.
16.) SAMURAI JACK (2001-2004)
When Cartoon Network started making its own original cartoon series, it was clear in my mind that Samurai Jack was the best among the lot. It follows the adventures of a time-displaced samurai prince named Jack as he searches the means to travel back to his time period and defeat the demon Aku.
A revival series is scheduled for release in 2016!
15.) AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (2005-2008) & THE LEGEND OF KORRA (2012-2014)
I have to count these two animated series as one since The Legend of Korra serves as the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender (and this is my list anyway, and I can do what I want). These two series are America’s best and most successful attempt to adopt Japan’s anime-style in both storytelling and animation. They have riveting character arcs, amazing fight scenes, engrossing storylines, and fantastic world-building.
14.) SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU! (1969-1978)
This list needs at least one Scooby Doo cartoon, and I went with Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, the first series and, in my opinion, the best. As a kid, I was a big fan of the concept of mystery-solving teen detectives like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators. So I really liked Scooby Doo, Where Are You! because it’s basically like that – four teens solving mysteries – but with a twist: their cases seemingly involve supernatural phenomena at first, but eventually turn out having rational, criminal causes. Plus, they have with them a mumbling, cowardly semi-anthropomorphic Great Dane named Scooby Doo, who happens to be a terrific comic relief.
13.) SWAT KATS: THE RADICAL SQUADRON (1993-1995)
Set in an anthropomorphic feline world, SWAT Kats features two of my favorite cats in fiction, T-Bone and Razor. The series follows the vigilante duo, who are equipped with high-tech gadgetries and vehicles (notably the “Turbokat” jet), defending Megakat City from a diversity of menaces ranging from mobsters to mutants to monsters to robots, while also being in constant conflict with the city’s unsupportive military-police. It’s a genuinely badass show, and with my affinity with cats, I find it extremely appealing. Moreover, it has one of the coolest, most rousing themes in cartoons.
12.) ARCHIE’S WEIRD MYSTERIES (1999-2000)
I’ve always loved reading Archie Comics. One of the unique things about Archie and his friends is its storytelling malleability. They can be depicted in any story or genre as desired. They can be in one-shot, comical sketches, as they are traditionally interpreted. They can cross over with The Punisher or Predator. They can be in a soap opera drama. They can be in a zombie apocalypse (read the excellent Afterlife with Archie). But my most favorite is that of the animated series Archie’s Weird Mysteries.
In a way, this cartoon reminded me a lot of Scooby Doo cartoons – teens dabbling in supernatural mystery cases. But with Archie’s Weird Mysteries, the supernatural stuff is really happening. For me back then, each episode is like a Goosebumps book, though less sophisticated but just as enjoyable.
11.) GARGOYLES (1994-1997)
This animated series centers on a clan of gargoyles that have been reawakened in modern-day Manhattan after staying as statues for thousands of years due to a magician’s curse. Displaced from their period, the gargoyles make the best of it by assuming the roles of New York City’s night guardians. They aid their human ally, police detective Detective Elisa Maza, in fighting crime as well as various supernatural threats that arise, while also constantly clashing with the Lex Luthor-ian CEO of Xanatos Enterprise, David Xanatos (who eventually became a powerful ally).
I love its rich mythology that includes references to Shakespearean literature, mature (but not too mature) and smart storytelling, and deeply well-realized characters.
10.) THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN (2008-2009)
I love almost all of the Spider-Man animated series ever produced (another one is in this list) but what makes The Spectacular Spider-Man stand out is its endearing mix of charming animation style, high school drama, Spidey-perfect humor, exciting action sequences, and well-written storylines. It totally knocked the ball out of the park in depicting the Spider-Man mythology through an animated medium that appeals to grown-ups but still remain 100% kid-friendly.
It’s just so sad that it’s cut short after only two seasons. It ended with still a lot of promise of awesome stuff to offer as well as unresolved issues. It’s one of the two premature cancellations of great animated series that still tick me to this day (will be mentioning the other one later this list).
9.) SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1994-1998)
The 90’s Spider-Man animated series very closely edges out The Spectacular Spider-Man in this list. Though Spider-Man is not as good as the 90’s Batman series, it did to Spider-Man what the latter did to Batman: served the purpose of supplementing my comic book reading in essentially defining the character and mythology for me. Though it’s hindered by censorship issues, the action is still essentially exciting (especially to a kid). It has fantastic story arcs that adapted and reinvented comicbook storylines, not only those from Spider-Man comics but other Marvel comics as well (e.g. “Secret Wars”). The series unfortunately had to end abruptly after five seasons, but it’s not due to poor ratings but behind-the-scenes production conflicts. Thus, it concludes with a cliff-hanger, but the twist of its last episode makes it one of the most memorable series endings I’ve ever encountered.
8.) AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES (2010-2013)
This is another show that has been cut too short, but I think the series wrapped itself nicely that I wasn’t as disappointed as I was with The Spectacular Spider-Man. Still, I wish more seasons would have been made (considering that its replacement, Avengers Assemble, isn’t really good). It’s a splendid show that not only featured elements from the Avengers comics, but from much of the Marvel Universe as well. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was definitely Marvel’s answer to DC’s excellent Justice League animated series. And it could have reached that level, too, if it wasn’t cancelled so early.
7.) X-MEN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1997
X-Men: The Animated Series is definitely Marvel’s best animated series production to date. This show is as relevant and definitive as its comic book source material and Fox’s successful film franchise. During its peak, it was immersive, thrilling, and fascinating. There are some silly and forgettable episodes, but all in all, it successfully adapted almost all of the comic book’s storylines, resulting to plenty of compelling TV watching moments. It also has one of the most kickass themes of all time.
6.) LOONEY TUNES (1930-Present)
The Looney Tunes shorts (and its sister series, Merrie Melodies) – just like Walt Disney shorts and other cartoon shorts of its time – initially had theatrical releases. But for many of us, it was through syndicated TV programs that re-ran these shorts that we were introduced to these lovable, wacky cartoons. Watching Looney Tunes cartoons nowadays, I’m still greatly amused and chuckle every now and then. But I can still remember how I find them hysterical as a kid, and they had me laughing so hard that I got tears on my eyes and left gasping for breath.
5.) THE SIMPSONS (1989-Present)
The Simpsons is not only the longest running animated TV series of all time, but the longest TV series of all time. And it’s still ongoing with no signs of being cancelled soon. Being born in 1989, I’m as old as The Simpsons.
At one time, The Simpson was my most favorite animated series. But I felt these later seasons weren’t quite as good as when I was regularly watching it. I tremendously enjoyed its clever and hilarious parodies of pop culture and the human condition. The edgier jokes are unapologetic but subtle enough not to offend and often go over the heads of its younger audience. Hence, kids can appropriately watch this show and find it funny, but only the grown-ups (and kids with mature minds) will thoroughly appreciate its comedy.
No other animated series has ever matched the cultural impact, popularity, and staying power of The Simpsons, and I don’t think anything can anytime soon.
4.) YOUNG JUSTICE (2010-2013)
Running for only two seasons, next to Firefly, this is the TV show that I’m most annoyed about for being prematurely cancelled. It has tons of unresolved plot points and untapped potential that a season 3 is something I believe should be imperatively made – even if through the comic book medium.
Young Justice is a brilliant, unique superhero cartoon. As I’ve written before:
Young Justice had everything: an exceptionally fresh and rich depiction of the DC universe; intense drama and action; interesting storylines; exciting plot twists; sharp and smart dialogue; wonderful animation; engaging characterizations; a great diversity of heroes and villains; and humor. Its premise of a team of superhero sidekicks/teen superheroes that operates as a “junior” squad engaging in covert missions or serving as an auxiliary arm of the Justice League when required is perfectly executed, which resulted in an overwhelmingly awesome product. I can’t find any other property that revolved itself around superhero sidekicks or teen superheroes – whether in comic books or TV or any other medium – that have been more delightful and enjoyable as Young Justice.
3.) THE VENTURE BROS. (2003-Present)
It was only last year that I started watching The Venture Bros., and it was only while making this list that I’ve realized that it’s among my top most favorite animated series of all time. It’s an action-adventure comedy series that follows the escapades and misadventures of the Venture family, consisting of inept teenage brothers Hank and Dean; their pseudo-super-scientist father, Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture; and the family’s violent and uber-macho bodyguard, Brock Sampson, and his subsequent replacement (when he decided to the life of a secret agent), the reformed super-villain Sergeant Hatred.
It started off as a parody of Jonny Quest. But it eventually referenced and spoofed plenty of properties from all niches and corners of nerd culture as well. It has an extensive cast of well-realized characters that are often excellent parodies of existing popular fictional characters (e.g. Prof. Impossible, a parody of Mr. Fantastic). It has been clever and rich in nerdy references that I think it’s the ultimate nerd cartoon, as full enjoyment of many of the gags are hinged on one’s knowledge of the references.
The only downside to The Venture Bros. is probably the fact that it’s something exclusively for adults, as it has plenty of elements inappropriate for children. Nonetheless, it’s a brilliantly written cartoon that is constantly evolving and getting better, that there’s a good chance that it will eventually become my number one when it finally wraps up.
2.) JUSTICE LEAGUE (2001-2004) & JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED (2004-2006)
These two series can basically be counted as one animated series since Justice League Unlimited is an immediate direct sequel after two seasons of Justice League.
Characters and elements that were first introduced from previous Bruce Timm projects (Superman: The Animated Series, Batman: The Animated Series, etc.) converge in this series, making it the culmination of Bruce Timm’s DC animated universe (or “Timmverse”). And from this came the ultimate animated adaptation of DC’s premier superhero team. In fact, I consider the Timmverse Justice League as the greatest depiction of the team in any medium, comics included. Seriously.
This show translated a lot of the DC universe into animation, brilliantly characterizing many of DC’s ensemble of superheroes and villains, and then brilliantly featuring them in epic story arcs and/or memorable standalone episodes.
1.) BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1995)
Though Justice League depicted a wide variety of DC superheroes during its run, it still couldn’t match the impact of the very first Bruce Timm animated series: Batman: The Animated Series. The show boldly adopted the dark and gritty tone that Batman was starting to get known for at that time, and set the standard for what a quality superhero animated series should be. Up until now, no other superhero animated series has been able to live up to this classic. In fact, in my book, no other animated series has been this great – that’s why it’s number one in this list.
The show offered complex stories, enthralling characters, provocative themes, and two of the greatest voice acting performances of all time in Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker), which would define what the Batman mythology is all about as much as what the comics had done. In fact, it can be argued that the reach and influence of this show has transcended those of the comics at that point. Personally, this show is a huge factor why Batman is not only one of my most favorite comic book characters ever, but one of my most favorite fictional characters of all time (he’s only behind Spider-Man and Sherlock Holmes).
Batman: The Animated Series was a groundbreaking TV show that perfectly epitomized Batman, one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, and effectively used his mythology to tell plenty of gripping and terrific stories on TV – or in any media, for that matter. Thus, two decades have already passed after it ended its original run, but it’s still the best animated series I’ve ever watched.