Animation Avenue Top Ten TV Special
A short time ago, Screen Highway head honcho Mr Swaffer presented his top ten US TV dramas. Animation Avenue is now getting in on the action with our top picks for the best animated shows. The list is split into two – the top five western series, and the top five Japanese anime series. There are a few notable omissions for various reasons; some I haven’t seen yet (Avatar: the Last Airbender, Madoka Magica), and others, I just don’t think make the grade (so no Seth McFarlane shows here). Feel free to make your case for your personal favourites in the comments below, but without any further ado, it’s time to get going!
ANIMATION AVENUE’S TOP 5 WESTERN ANIMATED TV SERIES
5. Archer (2009-)
Creator: Adam Reed
Cast: H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Amber Nash
The youngest show on the list, FX’s spy comedy has only racked up 3 seasons so far, but is already earning itself an impressive reputation. Archer earns extra points for not being another damned domestic family sitcom; instead, it revolves around the dysfunctional employees of the Intelligence Agency, ISIS, including the titular agent Sterling Archer. As the series has gone along, it has become more ambitious, both in terms of animation and in plot, with some stories sustaining multiple episode arcs. Boasting a fantastic central performance from the one and only H. Jon Benjamin, it also features a stellar voice-cast including Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler and Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter. The show has been a hit, critically as well as with audiences, so hopefully we have many years of Archer left to look forward to
4. Danger Mouse (1981-1992)
Creators: Mark Hall, Brian Cosgrove
Cast: David Jason, Terry Scott, Edward Kelsey
The only British show on the list, and the only one that was originally aimed at kids, Danger Mouse is, however, our second show to feature a secret agent! This classic, and so-very-British, 1980s series was the first in a wave by the much missed UK studio Cosgrove Hall, (Count Duckula, Victor and Hugo, and The BFG). Unlike so many other cartoons from your childhood, this has aged remarkably well. The animation may look dated, but the sharp scripts hold up brilliantly, proving just as funny today. It may have been aimed at children, but it pulls off the trick of working on different levels for adults and kids. These days that’s an approach attempted by most animation you see, but DM was ahead of its time. Good grief indeed!
3. Futurama (1999-2003, 2009-)
Creator: Matt Groening
Cast: Billy West, John Di Maggio, Katey Sagal
It’s a testament to how hard it is to keep an adult animation on the air that’s not The Simpsons, when even Matt Groening, the creator of that very show, can’t do it. After Fox cancelled Futurama, Comedy Central stepped in to rescue it and it is now back on the air. It follows hapless delivery boy Phillip J. Fry, who is accidently frozen in 1999 and thawed out on New Year’s Eve 2099. Fry meets a cast of colourful characters, including a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed robot named Bender, his distant nephew Professor Farnworth, a Cyclops called Leela, and an incompetent alien doctor named Zoidberg. A sci-fi comedy that pulls off the science-fiction just as well as the jokes, Futurama is a work of genius. There’s a million references for geeks of every stripe – put there by writers who are clearly true geeks themselves, not Big Bang Theory-style fakers. If that wasn’t enough, this is also a show with real heart; just check out the episode “Jurassic Bark”, and try to remain unmoved, I double dare you!
2. South Park (1997-)
Creators: Matt Stone, Trey Parker
Cast: Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Isaac Hayes
While nobody was looking, South Park quietly became the second longest running animated series: unbelievably it has been on the air for fifteen years. It hasn’t always worked, and the quality has varied wildly, but when it’s at the top of its game it’s amazing, and like nothing else. Showing the world through the eyes of four elementary school kids allows the writers to point out the ridiculousness of the adult world. It seems rude, crude and offensive (well, it is..) but it’s not stupid. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are in fact very very clever and it often shows. Or sometimes it’s just about poop jokes. Parker and Stone go to places no one else would dare, and it’s an equal opportunity offender; a show where nobody is safe from ridicule. Frankly, it serves as a helpful barometer – if you still get offended by South Park from time to time, you know you’re not beyond saving. The uniquely fast turnaround time (thanks to the still crude animation) means they can react to real world events faster than any other animation could ever hope for. Parker and Stone may go on to even bigger and better things (as indicated by their musical Book of Mormon) but their place in pop culture history is already assured thanks to South Park. If nothing else, Eric Cartman is easily one of the best comic characters of all time.
1. The Simpsons (1989-)
Creator: Matt Groening
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner
Conventional online wisdom says that nobody watches it anymore, but this is patently untrue. While even the most hardened fan would have to admit it’s not quite as good as it used to be, it’s not like it’s ever become actually bad. Even if it was (and there are those who argue it is), the quality of the show at its peak is enough to earn it this coveted spot. There’s little more that can be said about this towering behemoth of a show that has not been said before. Without The Simpsons, four out of the five shows on the list wouldn’t exist. There are no more influential shows in western animation, and few in popular culture as a whole. Its characters have become part of our shared culture; their catchphrases have become part of our lexicon. There was only ever one real contender for this spot. Could it ever really have been anything else?
ANIMATION AVENUE’S TOP 5 JAPANESE ANIMATED TV SERIES
5. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002-2005)
Creator: Masamune Shirow (Original Film)
Cast: Dino Andrade, Kevin Brief, Loy Edge
The Ghost in the Shell movie was one of the first break-out anime hits in the US and the UK, back in the 1990′s. GITS: SAC (as it is affectionately known) is a fresh adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s complex 1989 sci-fi manga. The series takes place in a world where robotics technology has advanced to the point where most people have traded in their old flesh and blood bodies for a cybernetic upgrade. Section 9 is a covert government intelligence agency in charge of fighting cybercrimes. Essentially a sci-fi cop show, in an immaculately created future, the two seasons (to date) mix on-going plot lines with standalone episodes. Full of not only fantastic looking action set-pieces, but also littered with thought-provoking sci-fi storylines that question what it means to be human, this is exactly the kind of show most western fans get into anime for. It also has a stunning soundtrack from the incredible Yokko Kanno.
4. Lupin III (1971-1980)
Creator: Kazuhiko Kato (Monkey Punch)
Cast: Yasuo Yamada, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Gorô Naya
Lupin III is the oldest show anywhere on the list, with Lupin’s first appearance being in October 1971. Arsene Lupin III is one of the most enduring characters in Japanese culture, with the original manga dating back to 1967. The titular Lupin is a gentleman thief and the great grandson of the French literary figure of Arsene Lupin. Alongside his regular cohorts – the loyal sharpshooter Jigen, the samurai Goemon, and his sometimes lover Fujiko Mine – he tries to keep one step ahead of the bumbling Interpol agent, Inspector Zenigata. The animation is dated, but it’s a ton of fun and has an irrefutable sense of genuine 70′s cool about it. It even features episodes directed by future anime legend Hayao Miyazaki. The only drawback is how hard it is to find on DVD – only Season 2 is available on region 1 and even they are out of print. In June 2012, US company, Discotek Media, is releasing a boxset of Season 1, so hopefully the rest will follow.
3. Paranoia Agent (2004)
Creator: Satoshi Kon
Cast: Jonathan Klein, Shôzô Îzuka, Toshihiko Seki
The only TV series from the late, great Satoshi Kon (director of Perfect Blue and Paprika) Paranoia Agent is a stunning work of art. The thirteen episode psychological-thriller follows a group of different characters who are all affected by a spate of attacks by a youth with a baseball bat, known (in the English version) as Li’l Slugger. It may not sound that great on paper, but this is a remarkable and singular work that stands as a reminder of what a talent we have lost in Kon. If you’ve already seen and enjoyed all his films, but haven’t seen this series, then you need to correct that post haste.
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
Creator: Hideaki Anno
Cast: Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi
There is no single anime of the 90s (or indeed since) that has provoked as much debate, or been more influential than Evangelion. Set in a future where Earth is under attack from beings (from… somewhere) known as Angels, on the face of it Neon Genesis Evangelion appears to be a show about giant robots versus monsters. Yet not only is there not technically any robots in it (the Evas are biologically engineered) but there’s also so much more to it than that. Ultimately a deeply personal work by director Hideaki Anno that can be read as a treatise on depression, it also works as a postmodern deconstruction of anime tropes. When a traumatised teenager is strapped into a giant (sort of) robot and forced to fight monsters to gain his father’s respect, things can get pretty bleak. Consisting of one 26 episode series, this show provokes discussions to this very day. Does all the Judaeo-Christian imagery mean anything or is it just window dressing? The end of the series proved controversial (enough for Anno to receive death threats) and ultimately resulted in a movie remake of the final episodes – 1997′s End of Evangelion. Which is the true ending? The debate rages on.
1. Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
Creator: Hajime Yatate
Cast: Kôichi Yamadera, Unshô Ishizuka, Megumi Hayashibara
“I think it’s time we blow this scene. Get everybody and their stuff together. 3… 2… 1… Let’s Jam!” From the minute the coolest opening sequence in the universe starts up, until that ending in the final episode, Shinichi Watanabe’s 1998 show is basically perfect. Following bounty hunter, Spike Spiegel, his loyal and long-suffering friend, Jet and the femme fatale, Faye Valentine, this is a show that has been more successful in the West than in its native Japan. It’s little wonder really; so much does it play to western sensibilities. Basically the best US cop show that America never made… IN SPACE, it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, John Woo movies, martial-arts and Blaxpoitation. Quite simply, it’s an irresistible concoction. It also boasts an amazing soundtrack in which Yokko Kanno (her again) and friends have produced several albums worth of music for the world of Bebop. There’s only twenty six episodes (followed by a movie) but it has more variety and covers more ground than many series twice its length. It’s the kind of show that even people who generally don’t like anime will enjoy. The best anime series on this (or any other) planet.