I love cartoons. You are supposed to grow out of them, but I'm not really fond of the concept of things society says you're "supposed" to do so as the years go by I do not find any desire to stop watching, especially when I enjoy them so much. So as the quality of these animated shows just seems to trend upward, I can't imagine that I ever will stop watching.
Conventional wisdom says that animated shows are for a few specific groups. Obviously, many are intended for children, though I would argue that shows like Spongebob Squarepants are much more intelligent than they let on. Then there are the shows like Family Guy that cater to the young adult and frat boy crowd, and while those shows may have their moments, as a whole they revel in their immaturity and shock value. Also, there are weebs, and if you don't know what those are, well, maybe that's for the best.
However, I feel the animation medium has so much more potential for deeper concepts and character examination. Their clarity of vision and aesthetic cohesion lend themselves to reaching more directly into people's heads and hearts. Animation is just as universal as any other form of media, and it seems like creators realize this in a major way.
There are many examples of highly thoughtful or clever animated shows: Archer, Gravity Falls, Attack on Titan, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Regular Show. Hell, The Simpsons is so vastly renowned and influential I shouldn't have to say any more at all. But, as it stands, there are two series that I tout as the exemplars of elevated animation. And I'd like, if I may, to share my thoughts on these shows and why they're so important, not just to me, but to society at large.
Rick and Morty
Whoa, there's a lot to unpack here, Rick and Morty is one of the smartest and most subversive shows on television, regardless of it being animated. I've had multiple discussions about it, and every one of those leads to the same conclusion:
What began as a parody of Back to the Future has bloomed into a work that's equal parts deeply referential and painfully nihilistic. It is a show that gets people thinking deeply about the implications of universe hopping and what that means about the nature of existence in that reality, while, at the same time, wondering who the hell Cronenberg is.
The series pulls references from pop culture icons and real obscurities alike. Sure, we can all recognize and enjoy the episode about The Purge and its merits as a concept, but I would put money down that the average viewer has no idea the huge swath of scenes and ideas lifted wholesale from Zardoz. Trust me though; you're better off not catching that reference, just ask Pete or me about the mental anguish that movie laid upon us. The writers clearly have a deep and abiding love of film in all forms and draw from a well of pop culture ephemera that seems bottomless.
The references stack up hard and fast, but at the same time, the show is undeniably creative. Vignette episodes like "Rixty Minutes" give the incredible voice talent of Justin Roiland a chance to improvise with a fervent sense of humor that feels different from anything else on the air. Meanwhile, the program introduces new characters and locations at a frenetic pace, sucking all the comedy they can manage out of each element, then casting them aside with equal speed. Nothing is sacred to this show, so it has this sense of freedom that would border on carelessness if it was not so apparent the writing staff loves working on it.
Meanwhile, Rick is so far above it all he holds open contempt not just for the entirety of existence in the universe(s) he inhabits, but, much of the time, for the audience itself. He is clearly aware that he's part of a show and while that's not a new concept, he is unique in seeming to resent the people watching. Rick throws out fake references to test audience reaction and calls them out on it. He insults the demand for more episodes like previous ones. He even reveals information about his past in a tragic and heartfelt story beat, and then immediately laughs at any who believed it. Rick does not care about what anyone thinks, not even you, the viewer, and is happy to take your time and belittle you in return.
In fact, it feels the language of the show is contention. While Rick contends with the very bounds of reality, the audience struggles to make sense of the plot threads and line up the edges to reveal some epic arc to which, they have convinced themselves, the show has to be building. It can't all just be a waste of time, can it? Time will have to tell on that one, but what I find more interesting is how a show can develop such a devoted fanbase when it appears not to care about what they think of it.
It is a tough nut to crack, but I may have an idea there. In my opinion, this quote encapsulates the show:
"Nobody exists on purpose. No one belongs anywhere. Everybody's gonna die. Come watch TV."
The express purpose of the show is not to fit into some grand scheme or to represent some greater truth or meaning. It's a show about being a show and reveling in the magic of engaging stories and comedy for the sake of comedy. This idea may seem overly simplified, but I believe simplicity is what the show, and therein Rick as well, really wants. It exists in the current entertainment industry, where everything is part of a bigger universe and trying to diversify into more formats to become the next multimedia mega-sensation. It yearns to be self-contained and whole. Rick mirrors this philosophy as it is evident the knowledge of the cosmos has made him miserable, so he returns to his family. I think the audience can intuit this and align themselves with Rick and the show in the desire for something that at its core is just about being funny.
Also, "Pencilvester" is the most hilariously perfect pun name I've heard in my life.
At any rate, between fart jokes and existentialist crises, Rick and Morty is a show that has a broad range and fits well in any living room.
Something something plumbus reference.
Steven Universe is a show I have struggled with, and it is the reason I decided to write this big pile self-indulgence. It has given me more joy than any other show, but likewise, has caused anxiety and panic like few things ever could. This silly little cartoon has stirred more emotion in me than any piece of art I have experienced in my life.
The negative feelings I have regarding the show are entirely subjective and deeply personal. It was a show that I shared with my wife, who passed last year due to kidney disease. So the idea of watching the show without her around was beyond the pale for quite a while. Now, however, I watch partly in memory of her, and partly to delight in the warmth and acceptance the program fosters in its viewers.
Steven Universe is a new beast, both as a show and a character. The show is unique at its core, even if the premise sounds common: a group of superpowered individuals takes responsibility for a young boy after the loss of his parent, the former leader of the team, and the boy trains to discover his latent power. Pretty standard stuff there, except that the kid's power comes from his mother, not his father. That alone is enough to make this show stand out, but Steven Universe has a few more new tricks up its sleeve.
The members of the team, called the Crystal Gems, are sentient aliens created and named for precious gems(Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, Ruby, Sapphire) that project a self-image outward from their gem, in a form that is entirely modifiable but still identifies as female without having any actual biological sex. Yeah, things just became a lot more interesting.
The heart of the show is in relationships between the characters. Their backgrounds and histories with one another inform their actions and behaviors in ways that are rarely realized in any media. I could go on for quite some time(as if I haven't already) about this aspect but suffice it to say, these characters are fully realized, and their relationships feel natural and whole.
And then there's Steven. Little Steven Universe is a male character that's heavily defined by his feminine nature and his relationship with his mother. He is the emotional center of the team, teaching them all to be true to themselves and their feelings. Steven is also a fighter whose powers are all defensive in nature, preferring to protect the people he cares for and to show mercy and understanding to his foes. He's an anomaly in modern media in every way. A boy, who's clearly portrayed heterosexual, that is fully in touch with his emotions and shows a fondness for concepts historically coded feminine: cooking, sappy love stories, protective powers, the color pink, stuffed animals, musical theatrics... Basically, if it makes you think "girly" chances are Steven loves it.
All of this feeds into what I think is the thematic core of the show: Acceptance. Many of these characters and concepts can be interpreted as representations of different gender identities or sexual orientations. Tell me that these characters that can change their physical appearance to better reflect their inner selves are not readily identifiable to a transgender viewer. Steven is an active subversion of the typical "boy" identity. But here's the thing... They are all relatable and engaging characters that still tell a compelling story based on their actions and decisions as flawed people, not as cardboard representations of roles slotted in to fulfill diversity quotas. Every character on the program, friend or foe, is shown to be complex and layered as if they were real people. So, the takeaway here is that no matter how a person identifies, or what stance they may take on a subject, they are still people, that have feelings and motivations that may not be easily judged or readily apparent.
Also, and this can not be stressed enough, the show is just a pure joy to watch. It's genuinely funny in an innocent way that, even if it is accurate, feels like a disservice to call "childish." The complex and, admittedly, possibly controversial subject matter never bogs down the story from episode to episode. The overarching story is engaging and nuanced but never steps on the toes of the more personal, intimate plots of an individual episode. Even the filler episodes manage to be fun and full of personality!
There's a heart to the show that, much like the titular character, it wears on its sleeve. Everything from the color palette to the music is intended to be inviting and comforting, and the show's charms are hard to resist. The love and care of the artists exude from every background and frame of animation. This is a show that begs you to love it and promises you warmth and acceptance in return. I think this show wants to be your mother.
I cannot say enough to recommend Steven Universe to everyone I know. Truly, it's a show unlike anything else I have seen, and it has yet to let me down. Just thinking of it, I can't help but smile.
Wow, that was a lot of words. I guess you can see that I take my cartoons pretty seriously.
In this world, where everything is constantly vying for your attention it is necessary to take a moment to assess what you engage with occasionally. Take that time to figure out if what you put into your brain is elevated, even if it is just animated.