Pitchfork's Top Ten Cartoons
by Pitchfork

Hello. I'm Pitchfork and these are my favorite cartoons.

9. Downtown

In the 1980s, MTV aired music videos. In the 2000s, it aired asinine reality shows. Something had to fill the gap during the 1990s, and that something was original animated programming. MTV aired some killer cartoons between 1991 and 2003. While you could commend the network plaudits for funding and airing high-quality stuff like The Maxx, Oddities, and Clone High, it's pretty hard to admire the way it treated most of its cartoons -- underpromoting them, changing their time slots without warning every other week, and then cancelling them after they failed to attract as big an audience as Beavis & Butthead and Celebrity Deathmatch.

Downtown's thirteen episodes aired in 1999, during the twilight years of MTV Animation. The premise is simple: each episode follows a group of about seven teens and twenty-somethings through a day or a week or so of Manhattan life. It's both a slice-of-life sitcom and a period piece -- a time capsule containing a vision of New York at the turn of the century, before 9/11, Web 2.0, Bloomberg, and obscene living costs. Although pop culture, subculture, and NYC in-jokes are heavily featured, Downtown never really glorifies urban life. Its New York is simultaneously beautiful and disgusting; resplendent with possibility and lonely as hell.

Downtown doesn't just focus on dialogue; it makes conversation into its very subject. It's safe to guess that anyone with even a mild creative spark has occasionally found himself bullshitting with friends, listening to effortless exchange of stories and jokes, and wishing he could bottle it up and record it somehow. Downtown' creators do just this: collect the anecdotes and exaggerated stories from their friends around town and make fantastic cartoons about them. (Most of the voice actors are these friends; you won't see them credited for voice work anywhere else.) It must be emphasized that the writers/actors never glorify or congratulate themselves and their friends for being such hip cats. Pretty much every member of the main cast bears some glaring, self-destructive flaw, but we like and relate to them anyway, the same way we forgive our own friends for their quirks and shortcomings.

Downtown's dialogue follows curving tangents, launches into flights of fancy, and lapses into arguments; people stumble over their words and tell different versions of the same story. When the talking takes off, the animation follows suit, contorting and coloring itself to match the tone of the conversation. It takes the same jokes and stories we tell our friends and makes them as fascinating and funny as they are to us before the telling as is only possible with animation.

HIGHLIGHTS: Episode 6, "Graffiti." Chaka, Fruity, and Matt sneak into the subway tunnels during a service outage so Matt can do some tagging. Adventure ensues. I remember my friend's brother telling us stories about his days as a young scofflaw, when he and his buddies used to visit the subway "graveyards" in abandoned tunnels. This episode holds a certain vicarious nostalgia for me.

10. Megas XLR

I actually rate Downtown higher than Megas, but it helps to talk about the one before bringing up the other.

After MTV flushed their baby down the toilet (it never even bothered airing the final episode), Downtown's main creator, story editor, and lead animator regrouped and put together a pilot for Cartoon Network called "Lowbrow." It earned the most viewer votes during a 2002 contest, and was subsequently greenlit for a thirteen-episode run (followed by a thirteen-episode second season), redubbed Megas XLR.

The backstory is a bit complicated, but here we go anyway: Coop, a basement-dwelling twentysomething gearhead from Jersey City, discovers a busted mecha in the local junkyard. He takes it home, repairs it, pimps it out with sexy flaming 8-ball decals, and replaces the missing head with a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible. Unbeknownst to him, his new toy actually comes from a distant future in which humanity is mired in a losing battle against a ferocious alien empire. "Megas" was a prototype weapon built by the aliens and stolen by the human resistance movement, who sent it back in time for safekeeping. Its human pilot, Kiva, returns to the 21st century to retrieve it, but finds Coop unwilling to give it up. What's more, she can no longer operate it herself: with the cockpit missing, Coop jerry-rigged its control interface into the Hemi Cuda's dashboard with a complicated array of switchboards and video game controllers. Discovering that a lifetime frittered away playing video games in his mom's basement has turned Coop into a first-class mecha pilot, Kiva decides to remain in the 21st century and train Coop to be humanity's savior in the future war against the alien invaders.

The "monster of the week" format is much simpler. Coop does something stupid with Megas and invites some horrible alien terror into Jersey City. Kiva yells at him. Coop fights off the aliens and levels Hudson County in the process. Rinse, repeat, delight.

Like its ill-fated older brother, Megas XLR exhibits a keen fascination with subculture, local color, and the accessories of geek life -- science fiction, anime, video games, etc. Downtown's reality-grounded setting restricted it to only referencing the latter in conversations, but the science-fiction/comedy format of Megas allows for direct parody -- Coop and his pals actually live out the stuff Alex and his friends at the comic book shop can only fantasize about. Everything from Mobile Suit Gundam to Sailor Moon to Transformers to Endless Odyssey gets lampooned, and frequent nods toward video games, comic books, and American "guy" culture are the norm for each episode.

One thing that doesn't get much love from Megas is MTV. In almost every episode, some fictional representation of the network gets the shit blown out of it. Clearly the crew was still smarting from MTV's treatment of Downtown, and it's really hard to blame them for bearing such a grudge.

HIGHLIGHTS: The episode in which Megas gets impounded, forcing Coop to jump through the hoops at the DMV before he can get it back and rescue Kiva from an alien bounty hunter. Another episode has Coop rigging a DDR pad into Megas's control system. The regularly-occurring Downtown-style flights of fancy.

Oh, and there's also the fact that the only character from Downtown to reappears in Megas as a member of the main cast is Goat -- the last person from the Downtown crew who belongs in Y7 programming. (Goat in Downtown; Goat in Megas XLR.)

8. Neon Genesis Evangelion

I think I love this show. It's hard to be certain. I've only run through it once, and I'm not sure I can ever do it again.

Every family has its own Christmas traditions, and mine is no exception -- but our yuletide ritual, unlike most peoples', involves special psychoactive holiday brownies. (I'm told it goes way back to when my father and mother were dating. They did a surprisingly good job keeping it a secret from my sister and I until we were both in our twenties.)

One Christmas day a few years back, I had just swallowed a brownie and was wondering what I should do with myself when my sister appeared. "I got the Neon Genesis Evangelion box set," she said. "Wanna watch it with me?"

"Evangelion?" I said. "I guess I've heard good things about it before. Yeah, let's check it out."

Marathoning through Neon Genesis Evangelion on a heavy dose of mind-altering drugs was either the best thing I ever did or one of the worst. I can't decide. We watched the whole bloody thing in a thirty-hour span. My mind felt like melted rubber afterwards. It was the most mentally and emotionally draining cartoon I had ever watched in my life.

I don't recall many specifics, but I do remember how at some point -- about halfway through -- it made this surprise turn from "really clever and well-made anime about giant robots" into "harrowing self-portrait of a chemically-imbalanced anime director's nervous breakdown." Evangelion becomes less a show about brilliant and special people defending Earth from mysterious alien invaders than one about brilliant, special, and hopelessly damaged people defending Earth from mysterious alien invaders while doing horrible things to each other and themselves.

I don't think I have the emotional wherewithal to watch it again. I'm also a little afraid that it won't be quite as intense as I remember it, and I'd rather that Evangelion retain its dark mystique for me. Everyone else, however, should watch it immediately if they have not already done so.

HIGHLIGHTS: Rei's reflections from Episode 14. The only part of the show I've watched more than once.

7. Batman: the Brave and the Bold

Batman is everybody's favorite superhero because he's the darkest superhero.

Everybody liked Batman Begins because it was more serious and realistic than other comic book movies. Everybody liked The Dark Knight even better because it serious and realistic, and also very dark.

The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke are the best Batman stories of all time because they're the darkest, the most grim, and the most serious.

People like Batman: the Animated Series because it is a dark and gritty cartoon show -- doubly in the case of Mask of the Phantasm, its foray onto the big screen. People like Batman Beyond too, since it is dark, gritty, and futurepunk -- doubly in the case of Return of the Joker, its violent direct-to-video movie. They also like Gotham Knights because violent and dark.

People who talk like this don't know Batman -- or at least not very well. They seem to be unaware the grim and tortured urban avenger is only the character's most recent (and therefore most popular) incarnation, and that he spent two decades as a jolly cartoon character who traded fisticuffs with villains like Kite-Man and Crazy Quilt in various museums of giant props. This version of Batman may be out of vogue, but you can't call it a bastardization (as have several YouTube commentators) because it was the and only Batman for many years.

Batman: the Brave and the Bold, which resurrects the lighter, happier Batman, anticipated a fan backlash and actually took a few minutes during one of its first batch of episodes to address these viewers directly.

As you can see, the caped crusader featured on Batman: the Brave and the Bold is definitely not Tim Burton's, Frank Miller's, or Tim Nolan's dark knight detective. This Batman comes out during the day, is almost never seen out of costume, does very little brooding, and regularly travels through time, into outer space, and between dimensions on his crimefighting beat. In the spirit of the Silver Age, The Brave and the Bold happily throws any pretense of plausibility out the window. When the fifteen-year-olds who complain about how ridiculous it is for Batman to fly around in a spaceship equipped with an "alien nullifier beam," they're sort of missing the point. Of course it's ridiculous. It's intended to be.

The Brave and the Bold is designed with two target audiences in mind:

1.) Boys between the ages of five and thirteen.
2.) Comic book geekazoids in their twenties and thirties.

Either the writers are Batman fanatics themselves, or they did a lot of homework. As you might have noticed, nerds are always happiest when the television/film take on their favorite comic book makes obscure references only they can pick up on, and The Brave and the Bold is bursting at the seams with DC Comics esoterica. Up until the third season, the show's creators make a concerted point of pairing Batman up with the DC heroes you don't often see outside of the comic book store, like Bronze Tiger, the Metal Men, and Kamandi. When the more familiar superheroes do appear, it's frequently in one of their lesser-known incarnations: Jay Garrick as the Flash, Ryan Choi as the Atom, Guy Gardner as Green Lantern, and the Justice League International instead of the Justice League of America. In the late second season and the third season, the more familiar DC mainstays start popping up. After forty episodes of a superhero all-star cartoon without Superman and Wonder Woman, their belated appearances have the taste of a rare treat.

But this isn't like a superhero version of Family Guy by any means. You needn't understand any of the nods to comic book obscura to enjoy The Brave and the Bold, though it does mean you'll get more of a kick out of it. What makes it such a fun show is its earnestness. Even when it pokes fun at superhero camp, it never treats its material with any smug derision. As silly as they were, the comic books of the 1950s still flew off the newsstands, and not because of their appeal to anyone's jaded sense of irony. They weren't particularly deep, but they certainly weren't unimaginative or boring either. When you listen to Two-Face pun on every possible variation of the number two in a span of ninety seconds, see Batman teaming up with Space Ghost to battle aliens, or watch Aquaman express such irrepressible glee at being such a muscly good guy, you sometimes wonder why superheroes ever got so damned serious to begin with. They can be just as much fun when they're trying to be -- well, fun.

HIGHLIGHTS: The episodes written by Paul Dini, of Batman: the Animated Series fame. These include the ultra-meta "Day of the Dark Mite," the vintage Scooby Doo team-up in "Batman's Strangest Cases," and "The Chill of the Night," the one "serious" episode of the whole series. And though it's not written by Dini, the Superdickery-inspired "Battle of the Superheroes" episode is mandatory viewing.

6. Aeon Flux

When I was in my "tween" years -- which elapsed before the word "tween" entered the lexicon -- late-night MTV cartoons were an indispensable part of my sleepovers with friends. The two-hour Beavis & Butthead blocks were great, sure -- but there was also the other stuff: the arrestingly hip and hypnotically bizarre cartoons that were nothing like any others I'd ever seen. My favorite of these, then and now, is Peter Chung and Howard Baker's Aeon Flux.

Aeon Flux defies analogy. Except for maybe the artsy action shorts from The Animatrix and Gotham Knight (and maybe the ultra-wacky Reign: the Conqueror anime), there's not much to which it can be compared. It began as a series of Liquid Television shorts about a silent leather-clad female spy in a strange future world, whose adventures always ended with her own violent death. When the first (and only) season of full-length episodes rolled out, a few things changed: the characters spoke, the plots had a bit more substance, and the heroine (usually) got out of every episode alive. What remained unaltered was the show's disorienting lack of context. Though we're tossed hints, we know next to nothing about the the characters or the world they inhabit. Watching Aeon Flux as a twelve-year-old, I stayed glued to the television just because I thought if I watched long enough I would figure out what the hell was going on. I've watched the whole series now -- more than once -- and I'm still not entirely sure. But everyone and everything in Aeon Flux is so strange, dangerous, and nasty that, really, we're all probably better off not knowing more. (Speaking of nasty, it's fascinating how ugly these people are. Anime, by contrast, likes to smooth out creases and make everyone sparkle. Peter Chung highlights the wrinkles, bumps, folds, and fluids. Aeon Flux's sex scenes are some of the least wankable in adult-oriented animation.)

At the heart of Aeon Flux is the yin-yang dynamic between its main characters. The "villain," Trevor Goodchild, is a brilliant but sinister head of state with a genuine desire to improve humanity and its quality of life in the nightmarish metropolitan labyrinth it inhabits. Trevor represents order, intellect, and the desire for control. The titular "heroine," meanwhile, is an agent of desire, freedom, and anarchy who wants to screw up Trevor's big plans -- despite their irresistible mutual attraction to one another.

Most episodes adhere to a basic formula. Trevor hatches a scheme of some sort. Aeon moves in to foil it. Chaos ensues. Lots of people die. Twelve-year-olds have hard time sleeping.

The experience of marathoning through all ten episodes of Aeon Flux leaves you just as exhausted as ten hours of Evangelion. While Evangelion can be quirky, funny, and cute when it's not being mentally and emotionally wracking, but Aeon Flux is consistently dark, dirty, and confounding. Whenever a story actually gets an unambiguous resolution, it's rarely a happy one. Betrayal, death, dismemberment, mutation, and collapse are the norm.

Nevertheless, Aeon Flux is still a whole lot of fun to watch in moderate doses. (I find it's usually best to stop after three episodes to give your psyche time to recompose itself.) "Avant garde" animation doesn't get much better than this, and I wish more American outfits were putting forth this kind of effort today.

HIGHLIGHTS: Trevor's monologues. It's hard to call the guy a villain when he can make such an elegant and compelling case for himself -- and the virtuoso VA performance don't hurt much neither. History will also show that he dropped the "that which does not kill us, makes us stranger" line thirteen years before The Dark Knight's Joker made it popular. Unfortunately, I can't find any quick links to Trevor's better speeches on the You Tube. If you care to look into it, some of his best are in Episode 5, "The Demiurge:"

Light, in the absence of eyes, illuminates nothing. Visible forms are not inherent in the world, but are granted by the act of seeing. Though the world and events do exist independent of mind, they obtain of no meaning in themselves: none that the mind is not guilty of imposing on them. I bid my people follow, and like all good equations, they follow; for full endowment of purpose, they do submit - in turn, they resign me to a role inhuman, impossible, and unaccountable. But I can no longer stand the sleepless nights...

The height in tension in any game occurs when the rules allow for the influence of human judgement. The advantage in this instance is held by the player who drops the ball to allow the opponent a hollow victory. Half of eternity is still eternity. Infinity and Zero are different degrees of the same value. Pain isn't real beyond the individual who feels it. But the nail is real.

If but the cosmos could possibly have come about innocent of history, and not wholly ignorant of all its potential -- unprejudiced, but aware -- rather than that its only trial be performed at the mercy of all its error.

(Oh, gosh -- the same voice actor plays the Dr. Cid in Final Fantasy XII. Cool.)

5. The Ren & Stimpy Show

Nostalgia's tendency is to cloud the judgment and lead to mistaken assessments. Example: members of the twentysomething to thirtysomething crowd who enjoy remarking "man, kids' cartoons from [insert past decade] are so dirty. There is no way the cowardly network executives would let people get away with this stuff today!"

This is nonsense. Kids' cartoons have not lost their edge. There's a lot of crap filling the airwaves, sure -- but that's nothing new, and the cream of the crop from any season between 1995 and today are consistently intelligent, funny, and full of adult in-jokes.

There is an exception to this rule: The Ren & Stimpy Show. It is exceptional because it established this rule. Were it not for Ren & Stimpy's influence, American television cartoons would probably be unwatchable to anyone above the age of thirteen.

Contrary to popular belief, Ren & Stimpy is a children's cartoon. There's nothing objectionable or mature about it. The difference is that it's so much more intense and sensuous (which doesn't mean the same thing as "sensual") than the other weekend morning cartoons of its time. Every kids' show had gratuitous violence and potty humor, but Ren & Stimpy's was crafted with respect for the potential of its medium. Its low-brow gags are so exquisitely choreographed as to elevate its booger jokes and dog-on-cat brutality above the bog of network slop and into loftier realms. This stuff is art.

Still -- you have to wonder how it came to be aired on Nickelodeon to begin with. Though it's a kids' cartoon -- and a brilliant one -- it's rather unusual that a Nickelodeon executive was totally cool with airing a show that frequently depicts shrieking descents into full-on psychosis. (I guess as long as there's no bad words or nudity, everything's gravy.)

Ren & Stimpy's meticulous and gorgeously disgusting Bob Clampett-inspired animation has been sufficiently described and praised elsewhere, but its sounds generally receive less attention. Cartoons are not just a visual medium, of course -- what audiences hear is equally important to what they see. Besides the dialogue, there is often a musical score (to set a tone) and sound effects (to accentuate action). Ren and Stimpy's aurals are as disorienting and forceful as its visuals, particularly because the sound effects have nothing to do with the actions depicted, but with the feelings they evoke. Ren's eyes snapping open sound like glass shattering; the awesome still of Mrs. Buttloaves is accompanied by the sound of a coyote howling in the distance. As for the soundtrack, classical compositions lend a clean and pleasant 1950s domestic campiness to the quieter moments, and bring an even more painful intensity to the lapses into violence and psychosis.

Fans of Ren & Stimpy often argue that creator John Kricfalusi is solely responsible for the show's success, but his role is frequently overstated. It is absolutely true that the show was at its best with him on board and took a huge hit after he stopped overseeing the animation, but the post-Spumco episodes are arguably even weirder than the originals. (Two words: Wilbur Cobb.) If you don't believe Ren & Stimpy's other architects (like Bob Camp) played just as important a role, please go check out Kricfalusi's Ripping Friends and Adult Party Cartoon and see how they measure up.

HIGHLIGHTS: I still have the lyrics to the Royal Anthem of the Kilted Yaksmen memorized. Why don't you?


After the seismic success of Evangelion, script writer Youji Enokido and assistant director Kazuya Tsurumaki had the clout to do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted with their next project -- and that's exactly what they did.

FLCL is a hard one to explain. It usually requires multiple viewings, multiple rewinds within each viewing, a sitdown with the commentary tracks, and a discussion with friends before it can be decrypted. Even then, it doesn't lend itself well to explanation or comprehension. I'm not even sure the creators knew exactly where they were trying to go; it's easy to get the impression that the writers and animators pulled several months of all-nighters and just made everything up as they went along. It's equally possible -- and likely -- that they simply intended for FLCL to feel as though it was the product of an in-house amphetamine binge.

FLCL tells two coterminous stories. One is about adolescent depression and angst in a desolate Japanese suburb, and one involves space pirates and out-of-control robots. The action wildly shifts between high-pitched, hyperkinetic chaos and post-industrial, low-key melancholia. One minute a kid is learning a hard lesson about growing up, and the next a man-child secret agent (or something) with fake eyebrows is chatting with the woman cutting his hair, and they're all animated in the style of South Park for some reason.

I'm not sure why FLCL even works. It should be a mess. When you dump random stuff from the fridge into a blender and liquefy the whole mess, the result usually falls well short of delicious. But somehow, FLCL's hyperactive, high-pitched potluck comes out more palatable than most anime I've ever seen. What gives?

FLCL is such a freakish chimera of parody, angst, physical comedy, crude sex jokes, science fiction, rock n' roll, bildungsromanisms, social commentary, and J-crack that it's hard to single out which element is the most crucial. Is it the gratuitous zaniness? Probably not -- Panty and Stocking and Dokuro-chan are 100% gratuitous zaniness, and neither comes close to measuring up to FLCL. Is it the gritty coming-of-age fable at the story's core? Maybe -- but I used to wonder if removing the hyperactive silliness might sharpen the main story, I rather doubt it after reading the heavier, darker, and much less fun FLCL manga.

It's got to be the Pillows soundtrack. That's what welds it all together. Despite the huge fluctuations in content and tone, all the action moves to a unified musical theme. FLCL doesn't just slap Pillows songs in the background of scenes -- the action is scripted around the music. The visuals and the audio don't just occur simultaneously. They are inseparable.

FLCL careens between profundity and pointlessness, sorrow and joy, beauty and banality, gibberish and truth. It may be the product of an overcaffeinated animator circle-jerk, but there's a powerful poignancy at the heart of all its discordance.

HIGHLIGHTS: All of it. There are too few episodes (six) to single one out, and each is too dense to select just one scene. Just pretend you're watching a three-hour animated movie. But just watch.

3. Batman: the Animated Series

It's time for a hard reality check: the American-made action cartoons of the 1980s kinda sucked. I enjoy Silverhawks as much as the next twentysomething nostalgiatard, but the show doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Neither does G.I. Joe, He-Man, Thundarr the Barbarian, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the rest of the horde. Not only did these shows only exist to sell toys, but it's clear that the writers didn't think much of their audience. The first season of ThunderCats had fifty-six episodes. What would this seem to suggest more: that the team put a lot of time and work into the scripts, or that they were more concerned with banging them out as soon as possible and waiting for the action figure sales to roll in?

Most dark ages end with the rediscovery of the works of a bygone age, and the epoch of crappy American cartoons was no different. In this case, the old classic was the Max Fleischer Superman shorts of the 1940s, which directly inspired Batman: the Animated Series in the early 1990s.

When Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were appointed to oversee the creation and production series of a new kids' cartoon that could capitalize on the recent theatrical release of Batman Returns and keep selling Batman action figures, video games, pajamas, and ice cream bars well after the film left theaters, they approached it with a novel idea: just because they were making a kids' cartoon for network television didn't mean it had to suck. Because it isn't written under the assumption that its audience doesn't strictly consist of slobbering submorons, Batman isn't just something an adult can sit through with his eight-year-old son; it's something he can sit down and watch without his eight-year-old son.

As I am running low on energy -- and since most people reading this probably don't need B:tAS explained to them -- please allow me to say the rest of my piece in a faster, less taxing format.


1.) Kevin Conroy's two different voices for Batman and Bruce Wayne. I'd bet dollars to donuts this was directly inspired by Fleisher's Superman shorts. His Clark Kent would look nervous and say in a meek voice "this looks like a job..." and then finish it in a deeper, manlier, more confident tone: "...for Superman." In Batman, Conroy gives Batman and Bruce Wayne such distinct manners of speaking that it's no wonder the people familiar with both personas believe them to be two separate people.

2.) Mobsters and villains without costumes. Think back to G.I. Joe for a moment. EVERY. SINGLE. EPISODE. has the heroes dealing with an defeating the same faceless, raspy-voiced bad villain. It gets old. Batman's series bible bluntly asks writers not to solely rely on the Joker and Penguin, but to pit Batman against corrupt tycoons, mobsters, and terrorists as well. It's hard for characters like Mr. Freeze and the Riddler to lose their allure when they're so rarely seen. Heck, out of all 109 episodes (we're counting all three incarnations of the show as Batman: the Animated Series, The Adventures of Batman & Robin, and The New Batman Adventures and discounting the movies), the Joker only appears in eighteen.

3.) Similarly, the series bible urges writers to give villains motivations beyond "I'm greedy so I'm robbing a bank for the twentieth time" or "I don't like Batman so I'm setting a trap for him." The villains act as characters rather than wheels within the mechanism of the plot.

4.) The Joker. It's been mentioned a hundred thousand times elsewhere, but Batman's combining both the psycho killer and merry prankster versions into a single character is nothing short of brilliant -- as is Mark Hamill's showstopping performance.

5.) Robin is a college student and he wears pants. It's a great way of fulfilling the "wisecracking kid sidekick" requirement without actually having an insufferable second banana on the cast.

6.) The show isn't afraid to be quiet and slow. The writers understood that you can't properly create tension with everything flashing and everyone shouting all the damn time. (The X-Men animated series, which shares more of its DNA with the rotten DiC cartoons than Batman, is guilty of this.)

7.) The anachronistic setting. Batman's Gotham City contains 1940s cars, 1930s architecture, computers, video games, police blimps, black-and-white television, and the occasional robot, laser beam, satellite, etc. "Timeless" might be pushing it; but since the 20th century belonged to Batman, it is only fitting that his world incorporates fragments and styles collected from the years between 1930 and 1990.

8.) You want to give your cartoon a dark atmosphere? Simply draw the backgrounds on black paper, like Batman's are. Easy, peasy, brilliant.

9.) You want to add a small artistic touch that will endow your cartoon with a glimmer of class and taste? Introduce each episode with a unique title card. Notice how the music changes from title to title. Each episode's score was individually composed for that particular show, and the title cards establish the aural tone what's to come.

10.) The opening sequence. I own all four DVD volumes of the series. In college, my roommate and I marathoned through the whole thing. To the best of my recollection, we never once skipped past it.

HIGHLIGHTS: I began compiling a list of the best episodes, but it became pretty extensive. I'd recommend watching the whole damn series. If that's too much of a commitment, you can always just watch the Mask of the Phantasm film.

2. The Simpsons

If you already understand The Simpsons, it is useless and superfluous for me to write anything about it. If you don't understand The Simpsons, it is pointless to try explaining it.

Younger readers probably at least recognize The Simpsons -- how could they not? -- and might wonder how such a typical and unremarkable show on Fox is such a big-to do and managed to last so long. "Because it's just been on forever," is the first guess, and it's not incorrect; a brand like The Simpsons is too lucrative to jettison. But it misses a few important details. The Simpsons might seem average, but this is because of how thoroughly it permeated American pop culture since its glory days in the early 1990s. And the reason it became such a strong and recognizable brand to begin with is because from 1989 to 1996 (or so), it was the best thing ever to air on television.

That might be a bit of a stretch -- but only a bit of one. There's not much of anything in the annals of American broadcasting that can compete with The Simpsons at its prime. Grouchy old nerds and hipsters gripe about how much better the show used to be so regularly that it's become something of a cliche, but that doesn't mean it's not true. Not only is it true, it's a titanic understatement. Early Simpsons isn't just "good." It's not just "great." Early Simpsons is iconoclastic. Transcendent. It's a tragicomic portrait of everything delightful and horrible in the national character. It's so brilliantly and richly written that it deserves to be taught in university English courses.

Given the current (miserable) state of the show, it might be hard to believe it was originally created to be a cartoon sitcom that reached a grittier and more realistic depiction of the American nuclear family than the live-action sitcoms of the day. This is most apparent in the very early episodes -- say, seasons 1 through 3. The Simpsons family was designed so as to be a model of unexceptionality -- the sort of people you'd pass at the mall and not give a second thought to. Before Homer mutated into a screaming hyperactive sociopath who achieved celebrity fame and changed careers on a weekly basis, he was a blue collar nonentity stuck in a lousy job he couldn't afford to escape; a dimwitted but well-meaning oaf who just wasn't cut out to be a husband or a father.

That's one thing for which old Simpsons fans can't forgive Zombie Simpsons: reducing its cast members from characters to caricatures. Bart's misbehavior was once based on frustration, fear, and a particular intelligence later writers didn't understand. Now he's less Holden Caulfield and more Dennis the Menace. Lisa was always the voice of reason, but she used to have a hellion streak of her own. Now she's a shrill, pedantic pain in the ass. Marge used to be a somewhat slow-witted saint instead of a nag. Maggie used to be an inert object that only her mother bothered with (like most babies) instead of Pikachu. Mr. Burns was horrible and scary precisely because he didn't act like a cartoon supervillain; Sideshow Bob episodes were a rare treat instead of an excuse for the writers to phone in another episode.

(Small side note: I picked that image up top because I love how gritty and crude the older episodes looked. The computer-animated episodes of today are shinier and and crisper, but look utterly sterile and devoid of charm by comparison.)

The process by which The Simpsons transformed from a sitcom to a cartoon was a gradual one that began sometime around season 4. At first it was hardly a detriment to the show, since the writers maintained an almost freakishly high standard for their work. But once it began, the metamorphosis was irreversible. Gradually the show lost its heart, lost its brain, and lost its spirit. It also lost its best writers and could never find adequate replacements. And yet it kept lurching along.

The problem was that it just kept going. Early on, the characters were still capable of surprising you. Springfield still had untrodden ground to explore, people to meet, and new stories to tell. After ten years -- to say nothing of twenty -- it's hard to extract new gold from an old mine. An artist with a mind for the quality of his work would probably call it quits at this point, but ultimately, The Simpsons isn't art. It's business. It had no choice but to keep going as long as it could still make money for Matt Groening and the Fox network. If, for whatever reason, The Simpsons had to be cancelled after season 7 or 8 and was never resurrected, it would have become a religion at this point. As it stands now, it's a joke that stopped being funny.

But that doesn't mean you should pass on The Simpsons if you've never paid attention to it before -- but you need to know which ones to watch. Though I'm partial to season 2, the consensus is that everything from season 3 through 6 is pure gold. Here are a few specifics for the curious viewer who wants to understand what all the rhubarb's about:

"Cape Feare," "Homer at the Bat," "Last Exit to Springfield." By popular consensus, these are the holy trinity of old-school Simpsons. All are mandatory.

"Treehouse of Horror III," Treehouse of Horror IV," Treehouse of Horror V." When I was in elementary school, my friends and I looked forward to Halloween because it meant a new Simpsons Halloween special. Trick-or-treating was just an added bonus. Each consists of three self-contained shorts. It astounds me how much mileage the writers were able to get out of six minutes.

"Kamp Krusty." This episode began as a concept for a Simpsons film, but got made into a regular episode when the idea was scrapped. This will give you an idea of what a Simpsons movie could have been.

"Selma's Choice," "New Kid on the Block," "The Last Temptation of Homer." I guess I'd call these my personal favorites. Individual enjoyment will vary, but they will not disappoint.

"Lisa's Substitute." This episode isn't as gut-bustingly funny as some, but I challenge you to find an episode of Family Guy that's this sad and beautiful.

HIGHLIGHTS: Highlights? Hmm. Let me think. I'm sure I can come up with a few choice morsels here.

Marge. I'd like to be alone with the sandwich for a moment.


"Blast that infernal card!"

"Up and atom!"

It sounds like you're workin' for your car! Simplify, man!

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together."

"I wash myself with a rag on a stick."

"Mmmmm...sixty-four slices of American cheese..."

All right! The mummy is ready for his mystical journey!

On frozen yogurt and curses.

"Hey! I'm trying to eat lunch here!"

"We can't bust heads like we used to, but we have our ways..."

"A woman is like a beer..."

I'd react pretty much the same way.

Homer's love letter (postcard) to Marge.


"I'm afraid little Lisa is going to need braces."


"I spent the next three years in a POW camp..."

"Walt Whitman?!"

God, this hurts to watch.

"She's faking it."

BLAUGH! I almost swallowed some of the juice!

"Go to hell, you old bastard!"


Better than every Family Guy movie spoof. Combined.

"That's like tellin' Gene Krupa not to go..."


More testicles mean more IRON.

"My name is Hans. Drinking has ruined my life."

Sideshow Mel wacked out on wowie sauce.

"That's a paddlin'."

Good evening. Tonight my guest is AFL-CIO chairman George Meany, and we'll be discussing collective bargaining agreements.

"My name is Mr. Burns. I believe you have a letter for me."

"Wow! An award statue!"

Get back to work, Stewart!

Genuinely good advice from Marge.

"Care to join me in a belt of scotch?"

Scenes from a better world.

"I'm a college man! I won't need my high school diploma anymore!"

Homer goes to Hell.

Bart goes to Hell.


1. Home Movies

If this were a list of which cartoons I consider to be best, early Simpsons would take the #1 spot. No contest. However, we're not talking about the cartoons I think are the best, but which ones are my own personal favorites -- and I can't call The Simpsons my favorite. Not after the way it broke my heart. Not when I have to explain to people how it used to be great and insist that I don't watch it anymore. I can pretend Seymour Skinner's real name isn't Armin Tamzarian, or that the episode where Homer and Marge dated in the 1990s (after meeting in the 1970s and having their first two children in the 1980s) didn't happen, or that The Simpsons Movie was just a bad dream, but that doesn't change the fact that The Simpsons name now tastes like piss upon the tongue.

And so here we are at Home Movies. I remember catching a couple of episodes in 1999, during its ill-starred premiere on UPN and feeling an immediate fondness for it. It was such an unusual specimen, nothing like any of the other prime-time animated sitcoms I'd seen -- so slow, awkward, and understated. Dialogue in The Simpsons is snappy and airtight, hammered fastidiously into shape before the voice actors get their hands on it Home Movies' dialogue is the opposite: most of the time, the actors improvise the greater portion of their lines. It's like listening to a conversational jam band. In this respect, the show is sort of like Downtown -- but instead of using cool kids from around town as its voice actors, the cast of Home Movies is represented by standup comedians who know a thing or two about improv. They're not hip and they're not urbane, but damn are they funny.

Naturally, Home Movies bombed on UPN, getting cancelled five episodes into its thirteen-episode first season. Imagine how glad I was to see it resurrected on Adult Swim two years later -- and imagine how thrilled I was when Cartoon Network ordered and aired new episodes.

Like the Simpsons family (in its early days, anyway), the Smalls live a less-than-charmed life. Paula is a dumpy, obsessive-compulsive divorced mother whose job as a creative writing teacher just barely keeps the family afloat. Her son, Brendon, is a neurotic, asthmatic, and ratlike eight-year-old who has taken up amateur filmmaking (emphasis on "amateur") as a way of coping with his parents' divorce. The main male figure in Brendon's life is John McGuirk, his overweight, alcoholic, and caustically cynical soccer coach. McGuirk (voiced by the now-ubiquitous Jon Benjamin) carries the show; most Home Movies' funniest and most memorable moments consist of McGuirk offering Brendon sagacious guidance and important life advice.

Some comparisons can be drawn between Home Movies and The Simpsons, but the ties are not nearly so obvious as in, say, Family Guy. Brendon is like Bart in that he's an academic underachiever who despises authority, although he uses creative expression as an outlet rather than rebellion and destruction. The similarities between Homer Simpson and Coach McGuirk end at their body shapes and drinking habits. Though he's not good at it, Homer is still a family man with a nice house, a wife, kids, and some modicum of happiness in his life, while McGuirk is lonely, broke, and bitter. Hemingway once said something to the effect that in order to be really funny, someone must first endure a great deal of suffering, and Coach McGuirk is really funny. For all his down-and-out, alcohol-soaked failure -- or probably because of it -- McGuirk possesses a powerful charisma and a peculiar brilliance. (Remember, Home Movies is written and voiced primarily by standup comedians, and I challenge you to find me a really funny comic who composes his bits around the themes of how happy he is and how great his life has been.)

In a lot of ways, Home Movies is a show about failure. The main cast members are all divorcees, misfits, and losers. More often than not, they fail at what they set out to do. Their attempts at romance always end with disappointment and heartache. The jerks of the world always win.

The only characters to enjoy any kind of success and happiness are Brendon's lawyer father (why didn't I realize until just now what he's played by Louis C.K.?!) and his gorgeous trophy wife, Linda. This is probably why they only appear regularly in season 2, once each in season 3, and vanish in season 4. They had to go. They don't belong in the same world as Brendon, John, and Paula.

If Home Movies has any sort of message, it would be one about counting your blessings, being grateful for what you have, and getting on with your life. As the show progresses, McGuirk becomes closer to the Small family, eventually acting as a surrogate father for Brendon and a (platonic) male companion for Paula. They hardly make an ideal family: by most measures, all of them are screwups, and they're all stuck in a rut together -- but at least they're among friends. In Home Movies' world of suburban dreariness and disappointment, you take what you can get.


The conclusions. Each season ends as though the crew didn't wholly expect a chance to do more episodes. Season 1's finale ("Brendon's Choice") has Brendon talking to his father for the first time after a long silence. Season 2 ends with his father getting remarried ("The Wedding"); season 3 ends with the birth of Brendon's stepbrother ("Coffins and Cradles"). Every batch of episodes concludes with a milestone in Brendon's life as he works through his parents' divorce.

As with The Simpsons, the progression of Home Movies can be very neatly distinguished on a season-by-season basis. Season 1 was the period of crude squigglevision animation and extensive retroscripting. Season 2's episodes follow a linear plot, and the content of Brendon's films clearly mirrors the events of his personal life. Season 3 has no continuous plot, uses more traditional scripting and less improvisation, and Brendon's films stop reflecting his personal life.

Season 4 is interesting for a number of reasons. It's probably the least favorite among Home Movies fans. This is where the show begins to fall into the same trap as The Simpsons: it becomes more of a cartoon. The plots get more contrived and gimmicky. The heretofore lovable background characters suffer from overexposure. It discards some of the realism that marked the best moments of the earlier seasons. Granted, season 4 contains a lot of gold -- it's only the "worst" season of Home Movies in the same sense that Return of the Jedi is the "worst" installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. But you rather get the impression that if the show kept moving along the same trajectory, season 5 would have fans complaining on message boards and skipping new episodes.

But there was no season 5. All signs point to a decision by Cartoon Network rather than the creators' choice. Some viewers and commentators suggest that the crew began work on season 4 knowing from the outset that it would be the last. At any rate, they definitely knew "Focus Grill" would be their final episode.

Brendon began making movies to help himself deal with his parents' divorce. When season 4 begins, he's talking to his father again and accepts his new stepmother (even if they still don't always get along). It's no surprise that many of season 4's episodes deal with Brendon's growing frustration and lack of enthusiasm for his filmmaking. (One suspects that Brendon's ambivalent feelings about his movies are based on the real-life Brendon Small's feelings toward Home Movies. Look what happens after Home Movies -- Loren Bouchard, Jon Benjamin, and Melissa Galsky continue working together on stuff like Lucy, Daughter of the Devil, O'Grady, and Bob's Burgers, while Small goes solo to work on Metalocalypse.)

As Brendon wonders what he's going to do about his filmmaking, the choice is taken out of his hands when his camcorder gets hit by a car and crushed. He doesn't even say anything about it. His filmmaking career ends (for now), Home Movies is over, and life goes on.

This is the one thing at which Home Movies succeeds where The Simpsons fails. IT ENDS. It has a resolution, and a felicitous and satisfying one at that. Regardless of the creators' intentions, Home Movies quit while it was ahead -- and a crucial part of creating something great and lasting is knowing when to stop.

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