Animated shows have come a long way since “Crusader Rabbit” debuted on TV nearly 70 years ago. What started out as programming that was almost exclusively aimed at children has turned into a dramatic artform that people of all ages enjoy.
From heavyweight dramas to silly comedies, there have been animated series pushing the envelope of TV storytelling for decades, especially in the past 30 years. Using ratings from viewers at IMDb and professional critics at Rotten Tomatoes, we came up with an average score and ranked the best animated shows in TV history. We also gave some bonus points for originality and influence, so it’s not purely a numbers game.
Where did your favorite animated series land on our list of the all-time greats?
#30 — ‘Æon Flux’ (1991-1995)
MTV was one of the first American cable networks to embrace animation for adults and, before hit shows like “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “Daria” made us laugh, “Æon Flux” blew our minds. The show’s run was very short — only 16 total episodes aired between 1991 and 1995 — but it left a lasting impression on anyone who watched. The series followed a secret agent, named Æon Flux, in the distant future. It was heavy on style and often difficult to follow but the animation, spearheaded by creator Peter Chung, was more like something you’d see in an artsy comic book than the stuff you’d see on TV.
#29 — ‘Bob’s Burgers’ (2011-Present)
Of Fox’s blockbuster animated lineup, “Bob’s Burgers” has been the unquestioned king of acclaim for nearly a decade. While shows like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” get more press, this sitcom about a family who runs a hamburger restaurant is the one critics have been fawning over for years. The show’s outstanding voice cast is one of its highlights, counting comics like H. Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman, Dan Mintz and Kristen Schaal among its players. This isn’t the last show on our list created by animator Loren Bouchard.
#28 — ‘Animaniacs’ (1993-1998)
If you ask someone who grew up in the ’90s about the cartoons of their childhood, they’ll probably bring up “Animaniacs.” This zany (to the max) show was produced by Steven Spielberg and created by animator Tom Ruegger, who has another legendary show on this list. “Animaniacs” followed Yakko, Wakko and Dot, three siblings who lived in the water tower on the Warner Bros. Studio lot. The series was pop culture-obsessed and had no set-in-stone format, making it a blast for kids who loved energetic comedy.
#27 — ‘Clone High’ (2002-2003)
Canada isn’t as heralded as Japan or America when it comes to producing animated shows, but this little gem is an exception. “Clone High” first aired in Canada before being picked up by MTV, where it had a short but memorable run. Its 13 episodes followed the happenings inside an average high school whose student population was made of clones of famous figures like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Cleopatra. Actors like Will Forte and Nicole Sullivan provided voices. The show itself was created by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who would go on to direct “The Lego Movie.”
#26 — ‘One-Punch Man’ (2015-Present)
Like most great Japanese anime series, “One-Punch Man” is based on a popular manga book series. The show follows a superhero named Saitama who grows bored with his job since he’s able to defeat every opponent with a single blow, leading him to challenge tougher villains. The show was universally praised when it debuted in 2015, with its first season holding down a perfect 100-percent Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes from all critics. The long-awaited second season debuted in 2019 and more than 83,000 viewers have given the whole series an impressive average score of 8.9 out of 10 at IMDb.
#25 — ‘Futurama’ (1999-2013)
A show that was brought back from the dead by its passionate fanbase, “Futurama” had a seven-season run that spanned two networks and 14 years. The series was created by Matt Groening, the cartoonist behind “The Simpsons,” and it followed a slacker who was frozen for 1,000 years before waking up in the 31st century. Beloved voice actors like Billy West, Tress MacNeille and John DiMaggio gave it one of the best casts in animation history, while the witty writing and colorful animation helped earn it six Emmy Awards.
#24 — ‘Big Mouth’ (2017-Present)
Netflix has carved out a niche as one of the best networks for quality animated shows and “Big Mouth” keeps up that trend. It was co-created by comedian Nick Kroll and is a semi-autobiographical story of his adolescence. “Big Mouth” has been praised for its no-holds-barred depictions of puberty and the trials of middle school. Kroll is joined on the show by other funny people like John Mulaney and Maya Rudolph. The series has earned an impressive 100-percent Fresh score from Rotten Tomatoes across both of its seasons so far.
#23 — ‘Attack On Titan’ (2013-Present)
“Attack on Titan” has continued Japan’s long legacy of outstanding animated series. This show, which has aired three seasons since 2013, was directed by Tetsurō Araki, an animator we’ll see again on this list. It’s set in a world where humans live behind massive walls that keep them safe from man-eating creatures called titans.
“Attack on Titan” has been heavily praised for its worldbuilding, action and performances, although it has a reputation for dark subject matter.
#22 — ‘Space Ghost Coast To Coast’ (1994-2008)
Space Ghost was an obscure character featured in some Hanna-Barbera cartoons in the 1960s — but this groundbreaking series saw him stage a comeback as a late-night talk show host. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” was truly revolutionary, with its surreal humor and slightly poor production quality paving the way for all the later Adult Swim shows that would clone its style for decades to come. Adult Swim impresario Mike Lazzo created the series as the first original show for Cartoon Network and it was purely made for adults. Space Ghost would conduct bad interviews with real, live-action celebs and his cohorts, Brak and Zorak, would often steal the show.
#21 — ‘Home Movies’ (1999-2004)
Like several shows on this list, “Home Movies” was originally canceled after a short run before being brought back to life. It ran on UPN for a few episodes before getting axed but, luckily for fans, Adult Swim ran with it for four seasons as its first original series. The show followed an 8-year-old kid who aspired to be a director, making home movies with his friends. “Home Movies” was beloved by film lovers for its no-budget remakes of classics that the kids would stage. It was co-created by Loren Bouchard, who later went on to craft “Bob’s Burgers.”
#20 — ‘The Flintstones’ (1960-1966)
You could argue that “The Flintstones” is the most groundbreaking show on this list. It was the first American animated series to ever run on prime time television, airing on ABC for six seasons, starting in 1960. The show itself is an icon, following the lives of the Flintstone and Rubble families, who lived in the prehistoric city of Bedrock. Animation titans William Hannah and Joseph Barbera created the series, and cartoon royalty like Mel Blanc and June Foray were among the voice cast.
Without “The Flintstones” airing every week, an entire generation of American animators may have never been inspired to pick up pencils.
#19 — ‘Archer’ (2009-Present)
Yet another series on our list that stars H. Jon Benjamin, FX’s “Archer” has been going strong for 10 seasons so far, racking up many accolades and fans in that span. It follows the exploits of secret agent Sterling Archer, who embodies basically all of James Bond’s worst traits but is even more irresponsible. The show has gone in many unexpected directions since debuting, having whole seasons that have taken place in various time periods and settings. The show’s unique animation style and incredible cast, which includes Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler and Chris Parnell, are two of its strong points.
#18 — ‘The Venture Bros.’ (2003-Present)
The longest-running original series in Adult Swim’s storied history, “The Venture Bros.” has been around for 16 years despite only airing seven seasons so far. It’s about the semi-heroic Venture family and the many villains against whom they face off. The show features plenty of colorful characters — including heroes who are not all that great at their jobs — and tons of sci-fi and action-adventure plots. The cast is led by creator Christopher McCulloch, who previously worked on Fox’s “The Tick,” which is another show that nearly made this list.
#17 — ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ (1999-Present)
If you were ranking the most important TV characters created in the past 20 years, SpongeBob SquarePants would have to be near the top of the list. The titular character of Nickelodeon’s longest-running animated show ever — a claim it earned way back in 2012 — is a brand all his own. “SpongeBob SquarePants” is renowned for its ability to appeal to kids and adults alike, with off-the-wall humor, lovable characters and one of the best settings in TV history. The franchise has aired 12 acclaimed seasons on Nick so far and has included two movies and a Broadway musical. Not many shows can say that!
#16 — ‘Steins;Gate’ (2011-2011)
Yet another Japanese series that holds down a rare 100-percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the oddly-titled “Steins;Gate” aired 24 fantastic episodes in 2011 and hasn’t been forgotten. The show, which was based on a video game, follows a scientist who stumbles upon a method of time travel using a microwave oven. If it sounds bizarre, it is — but when has that ever been a bad thing in animation? “Steins;Gate” has been heavily praised by critics and fans for pushing the boundaries of sci-fi and finding a new way to tell a time-travel story, which is perhaps one of the most well-worn gimmicks in entertainment.
#15 — ‘Justice League Unlimited’ (2004-2006)
One of the best original shows to ever air on Cartoon Network, “Justice League Unlimited” followed a tradition of excellent animated shows based on DC Comics characters that started in the 1990s. This series, which was even more acclaimed than 2001’s “Justice League” or 2010’s “Young Justice,” follows DC’s most legendary superheroes on weekly adventures. If you can name a DC character, they were probably featured in at least one episode of “Justice League Unlimited,” making this show a dream for comic book lovers.
#14 — ‘Rocky And His Friends’ (1959-1963)
Also known as “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends,” this series is unquestionably one of the most groundbreaking in American animation history. It debuted in 1959 on ABC — predating “The Flintstones” by almost a year — and would have a legacy that lasted much longer than its five seasons. “Rocky and His Friends” was more like a variety show than a sitcom, featuring a large cast of unforgettable characters whose stories were told in short segments each episode. The voice acting of June Foray, Bill Scott and Paul Frees is among the best ever recorded and creations like Rocky, Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and Mr. Peabody are just a few of the show’s beloved creations.
#13 — ‘Adventure Time’ (2010-2018)
Cartoon Network’s recent classic, “Adventure Time,” has a large following with adults but it’s one of the best animated shows that’s totally appropriate for kids, according to the experts on family-friendly content at Common Sense Media. This colorful fantasy follows the adventures of Finn the Human and his best friend Jake the Dog in the Land of Ooo. It aired 10 seasons before signing off in 2018, winning a prestigious Peabody Award along the way, which is something few animated shows can boast.
#12 — ‘Death Note’ (2006-2007)
With a 100-percent rating from critics at Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 9.0 out of 10 from nearly 200,000 users at IMDb, “Death Note” is in rarified air. This Japanese series ran for 37 episodes from 2006 to 2007 and fans have never stopped talking about it. The show follows a high school student named Light Yagami (a perfect anime character name if there ever was one) and his use of a supernatural notebook that can cause the death of anyone whose name is written in its pages. The show was directed by Tetsurō Araki, who was also behind “Attack on Titan.”
#11 — ‘Steven Universe’ (2013-Present)
This is yet another of Cartoon Network’s recent original series that’s been heavily praised for its originality and its positive messages for young viewers. “Steven Universe” is the story of a growing, half-alien boy who is learning to use his powers for the good of humanity. The show has been called revolutionary for its stories about personal identity, diverse friendships and LGBTQ representation, all of which helped it earn a Peabody Award. The series was created by Rebecca Sugar, a young animator who’s already become one of the brightest names in the genre.
#10 — ‘Rick And Morty’ (2013-Present)
Arguably the greatest original creation to ever come from Adult Swim, “Rick and Morty” is the network’s only series to ever win the Emmy for outstanding animated program. This wild sci-fi sitcom also has the highest average rating of any animated series on IMDb, holding down an incredible 9.3 out of 10 score from more than 270,000 users!
The show follows the adventures of the Smith family, especially young Morty and his mad-scientist grandfather, Rick Sanchez. Both of those characters are voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland, who’s also done voice work on “Adventure Time” and “Gravity Falls.”
#9 — ‘BoJack Horseman’ (2014-Present)
Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” has been called everything from the streaming network’s best original series to “the defining TV series of our time.” This animated dramedy tells the story of a self-destructive, washed-up actor named BoJack Horseman. The show’s voice cast is one of the best in the business, with Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris and Alison Brie as some of its stars.
After its decent first season, every other season of “BoJack Horseman” has earned at least a 97-percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
#8 — ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ (1995-1996)
It’s been more than 20 years since “Neon Genesis Evangelion” finished its 26-episode run but fans are still buzzing about this Japanese series. Loaded with religious imagery and massive, badass robots, this series is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans must battle to keep an alien race called Angels at bay. The show has been praised for its unique vision and storylines involving mental health, earning it a 100-percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The series was directed by Hideaki Anno, whose work has been among the most acclaimed anime in history.
#7 — ‘Gravity Falls’ (2012-2016)
Disney’s best original animated series ever, “Gravity Falls” found that rare blend of universal acclaim from both viewers and critics. This show follows the adventures of twins Mabel and Dipper as they spend a summer in the mysterious town of Gravity Falls. It’s a show aimed firmly at kids but its two-season run holds a 100-percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 8.9 out of 10 from users at IMDb. Actors Kristen Schaal and Jason Ritter voice the twins while creator Alex Hirsch does the voice of their great-uncle Stan.
#6 — ‘Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’ (2009-2010)
“Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” been heralded as one of the best Japanese series ever, which makes it a shoo-in for consideration as one of the best animated series of all time. A faithful adaptation of the popular manga series, “Fullmetal Alchemist,” this 2009 show tells the epic story of two brothers who search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. The series has been called intelligent, intense and a model for worldbuilding, earning a 100-percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. If you’re looking for a deep story from your animation, check out “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.”
#5 — ‘South Park’ (1997-Present)
A true landmark in American animation, “South Park” has been skewering our culture for 22 seasons so far and shows no signs of slowing down. The series examines the exploits of four boys who live in small-town South Park, Colorado and who always seem to find themselves at the center of the action. The show’s controversies are legendary and too many to list and its ability to turn self-serious celebrities into total jokes is one that few other shows can match. Its five wins for outstanding animated program at the Emmys is the second most in history.
#4 — ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ (1992-1995)
If you ask a room full of comic book lovers what their favorite animated series is, you’re virtually guaranteed to hear a few people say “Batman: The Animated Series.” This show is basically legendary at this point, being heralded by many as the best onscreen version of Batman, whether you’re talking about movies or TV. The show’s 85-episode run was co-developed by outstanding DC Comics artist Bruce Timm and it told some of Batman’s most engaging stories in tightly woven, dimly lit chapters. Many other cartoon comic shows have tried to emulate “Batman: The Animated Series” since, but its vision has never been fully matched.
#3 — ‘Cowboy Bebop’ (1998-1999)
People will argue forever about whether “Cowboy Bebop” is the best Japanese animated series ever — but there’s likely no question it’s the coolest show in TV history. Dripping with style and blasting a jazzy soundtrack that makes every action scene a joy to behold, this series is still unlike anything we’ve ever seen on the small screen, more than 20 years after it ended. It follows the adventures of a team of bounty hunters traveling on a spaceship called the Bebop, as they seem to narrowly miss striking it rich with a different target each episode.
“Cowboy Bebop” has a 100-percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 8.9 out of 10 from IMDb users, giving it one of the highest combined scores in TV history, but not quite the highest …
#2 — ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ (2005-2008)
That honor belongs to this series, which represents the best show Nickelodeon has ever produced and the best animated children’s series in history. With a 100-percent Fresh Rotten Tomatoes score and an astounding average audience score of 9.2 out of 10 at IMDb, no animated series has a higher combined total ever. This epic action series tells the story of a powerful boy named Aang who finds himself the key to ending a global war after awakening from a 100-year sleep. The show’s entire, three-season run was praised by virtually everyone who watched it, giving it a lasting legacy as one of the best TV shows ever, regardless of genre.
#1 — ‘The Simpsons’ (1989-Present)
It hasn’t always been consistently great over its mind-blowing 30-season run, but the ground broken by Fox’s “The Simpsons” has paved the way for nearly every adult-aimed cartoon that’s come in its wake. The show’s run through the 1990s is the stuff of legend, with all but one of its first 10 seasons garnering a 100-percent Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes.
Its 10 Emmy wins for outstanding animated program is also by far the most ever and are just a fraction of its 33 total Emmy wins. It rewrote the rules for TV sitcoms and showed many viewers — and network executives — that animation can anchor a primetime lineup. Few pieces of entertainment have had anywhere near the cultural impact that “The Simpsons” has had since 1989, especially in animated TV.