We may be living in a golden age for the best animated shows, which is why Star Trek: Lower Decks feels like such an anomaly. This uninspired Trek spinoff feels crass, unambitious and humorless — but the good news is that it’s very much the exception, not the rule, when it comes to animated shows for adults. There are plenty of exceptional programs that push the boundaries of storytelling, humor and visual quality, sometimes even with a dose of genuine heartfelt drama.
The Tom’s Guide crew has assembled a list of our picks for the best animated shows, all of which are easily available on one streaming platform or another. Some are ambitious new shows, blending sitcom humor with genre tropes, while others are beloved classic titles that helped pioneer the formulas we see today. Some of the shows here are suitable for kids; others aren’t. But they all have a sly sense of humor for the grown-ups in the audience.
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If Star Trek: Lower Decks didn’t live up to your expectations, the following animated shows almost certainly will.
Yes, Adventure Time's neon colors and sentient candy characters may reek of content that's super kids-only, but this series has surprising depth. Not only is the early-on plotline of Finn's feelings for Princess Bubblegum solid, reaching high peaks in "Too Young" (S03E05), but that's just the tip of the series' emotional core. The series, which follows the questing boy Finn and his anthropomorphic dog Jake, pulls off some seriously great television with how it slowly explains the backstory of The Ice King, the princess-kidnapping creep surrounded by penguins. That storyline has long, intricate developments, and hits a storytelling high in "Simon & Marcy" (S05E14), which is basically what happens if you took Cormac McCarthy's The Road and made it kid-friendly (but still have emotional resonance). I might just be a big fan, but it's always felt like Adventure Time never got the public awareness it deserved, as Cartoon Network never put it on a streaming service. But now that it's on HBO Max, you finally have no excuse to watch the series. — Henry T. Casey
Part James Bond parody and part office sitcom, Archer is one of the strangest and most consistently delightful shows on TV. Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is an international superspy, but the agency that employs him (run by his overbearing mother) represents a pretty standard nine-to-five job for the rest of his bickering, self-absorbed crew. As such, expect to see adventures about taking down former Soviet warlords and jokes about tax deductions in roughly equal measure. Archer, a surprisingly well-read alcoholic with severe mommy issues, is always ready with a devastating one-liner, and the rest of the team lampoon everything from office bureaucracies to mad science experiments. The later seasons get weirder and more experimental, including one season of film noir and one of sci-fi, but the earlier ones hold up well. You can watch it all on Hulu. — Marshall Honorof
Who’d have thought that talking animals could teach us so much about the nature of depression? BoJack Horseman is one of the shows that kickstarted Netflix’s push for original series, and it’s easy to see why this one resonated with people. Will Arnett stars as the titular character: a washed-up TV actor who’s also an anthropomorphic horse (humans and talking, humanoid animals coexist in this world, and yes, it’s fodder for a lot of puns). Half the time, BoJack Horseman is incredibly funny, with a mix of silly jokes, quippy one-liners and incredibly smart sight gags. The other half is profoundly sad, dealing with issues like alcoholism, loneliness and death. It’s the unpredictable mix of the hilarious and the heartfelt that makes BoJack so compulsively watchable. — Marshall Honorof
One of the many attempts to build on The Simpsons’ success in the mid-90s, The Critic benefited from having actual Simpsons writers and producers on its creative team. (A memorable crossover episode with The Simpsons didn’t hurt, either.) The show stars comedian Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman: an urbane, underappreciated film critic, who can’t stand mainstream Hollywood pablum. Unlucky in love and harried in his professional life, Jay falls back on his adoring son, his loving parents and his odd band of misfit friends. The Critic is hilarious, taking aim at every movie that was popular back in the ‘90s, from Jurassic Park to Star Trek: Generations. The show is sweet at times, though, and you can’t help but root for a lovable sad sack like Jay. Both seasons are available on Crackle — Marshall Honorof
Matt Groening’s sci-fi satire is arguably his best show overall. Sort of a more anarchic cousin to Groening’s Simpsons, Futurama follows the adventures of Philip J. Fry: a 20th-century pizza delivery boy who gets accidentally frozen until the year 3000. There, he teams up with the Planet Express crew to become… a delivery boy (but in the future this time!). Not only is Futurama hilarious, but it’s a deceptively smart show, chock full of jokes about math and science. There are also plenty of throwbacks to classic sci-fi, from Star Wars to The Day the Earth Stood Still. For classic Star Trek fans who felt down by Lower Decks, I’d recommend “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” which reunited most of the Original Series cast for a crossover adventure with the Planet Express crew. The show is available on Hulu. — Marshall Honorof
Gravity Falls may be a kids’ show, but it puts a lot of adult animation to shame in terms of how funny it is, how gorgeous it looks and how beautifully the story advances. In this Disney channel original, tweenage twins Dipper and Mabel Pines (Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal, respectively) spend their summer in the bizarre town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Supernatural stuff is always happening, whether it’s an army of gnomes trying to make Mabel their queen, or a merman taking up residence in the local pool. The show deftly combines recurring gags (Dipper’s unrequited crush on a teenage clerk, Mabel’s situationally appropriate sweaters) with surprisingly deep lore and continuity to create something that feels inspired in equal parts by The Simpsons and Twin Peaks. You can watch the whole series on Hulu. — Marshall Honorof
I'm the last person that I ever expected to recommend a DC Comics-related entertainment property. That's how good the DC Universe original Harley Quinn is. It might not be as good as the Birds of Prey movie, but this series is the adult animated superhero series I've wanted for a while. While it's raunchy and has its own amount of violence, it also packs a wicked sense of humor, and a solid emotional core. Which is to say it doesn't suffer from the dark angry vibe that pushed me away from Amazon Prime Video's The Boys.
This is due in large part to the friendship between Harley and Poison Ivy that grounds the show in relatable feelings. The series starts out with Harley striking out on her own, and trying to get away from The Joker, but the clown prince of crime does what he does best: popping up constantly to emotionally manipulate Ms. Quinn. Harley's not just joined by Ivy, though, as a strong supporting cast of criminals down on their luck, including King Shark (voiced by comedian Ron Funches) and Clayface. It all ties up into one very strong bundle supporting upward mobility in the ranks of organized crime. And no, it's not just on DC Universe; seasons 1 and 2 of Harley Quinn are now on HBO Max. — Henry T. Casey
Rick and Morty
If Rick and Morty isn’t the most successful show to come out of Adult Swim’s late-night animation renaissance, it’s at least the most recognizable. The brainchild of veteran animator Justin Roiland and sitcom mastermind Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty follows mad scientist, Rick Sanchez, and his unassuming grandson, Morty Smith, on a series of intergalactic adventures. Armed with a portal gun, a lot of booze and a penchant for improvisational rambling about totally unrelated topics, Rick’s adventures have taken him everywhere from the far reaches of space, to pocket dimensions that double as car batteries, to a planet that exists solely to house a private toilet. Rick and Morty is deeply silly and weird, but it’s also hilarious and, every now and then, even a little touching. You can watch it on Hulu. — Marshall Honorof
You can’t discuss animated shows for adults without at least mentioning The Simpsons. This sharp satire started in the late ‘80s as a parody of more earnest sitcoms like The Cosby Show, but grew into a cultural phenomenon in its own right. On the off chance you’ve never seen it, The Simpsons follows the adventures of an upper-lower-middle class family in the geographically ambiguous small town of Springfield. The show has run for more than 30 seasons, making it hard to pinpoint individual elements or episodes that make it so good. But generally, we can say that The Simpsons takes a critical eye to American culture, from violent children’s cartoons to unions in the workplace, and lampoons them in ways both hilarious and poignant. The whole series is available to stream on Disney Plus, although only the first ten seasons or so are really worth your time. — Marshall Honorof