Not since the 1960s heyday of Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera has there been a greater time to experience television’s best cartoons. The difference is that in 2016, these critically-acclaimed shows are not for the kids.
With the rise of premium television content, cartoons like Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, and the Emmy Award-winning Archer, are thriving as they cater to a generation of Spongebob Squarepants fans that have now grown into adulthood. Today, cable and streaming services suffer less censorship than their more commercially-backed broadcast counterparts (i.e. ABC, NBC, FOX) giving these networks more control over content.
The distinct raunchiness of these shows thrives off their shock-value, yet there is something reassuring to viewers as they are berated with obscenities: as long as it comes out of the mouth of an animated character, it isn’t cross the line. This, of course, is a method of adult animation first brought into national spotlight by Fox’s The Simpsons and pushed further with Comedy Central’s then-breakout phenomenon, South Park.
Two decades later, South Park – a show that thrives on its ability to offend – is back at the top of its game. The show’s 19th season, which debuted in the fall of 2014, was praised by critics as the show’s best in a decade and a revitalization of the series. Season 19 explores its own meta-dilemma of living blissfully in ignorance while today’s world is bombarded with safe spaces, social justice warriors, and of course, Whole Foods.
In its newest season, South Park uses nostalgia and politically correct culture – arguably opposing forces – to question what society is “supposed to be” in an unidealized world. Aside from a JJ Abrams-rebooted National Anthem, Season 20 prominently features a new character, “Member Berries,” which is pure, skewed, nostalgia personified into talking, hypnotic fruits.
Nostalgia, as we are reminded time and time again, is powerful. So powerful that cartoons – animated shows for children – are now some of adult comedy’s most complex shows. Take newer series Rick and Morty (Adult Swim) or BoJack Horseman (Netflix), for instance. Each show, through their titular characters, struggles with the existentially woeful idea of life’s insignificance.
These heavy themes of nihilism, addiction, absurdism, depression, and cosmic horror compose the intricate skeletons of these shows, complimented by a mask of friendly, familiar – even nostalgic – animation.
…Rick’s outlook balances Albert Camus’ theory of accepting the absurd to achieve freedom while simultaneously personifying Frederich Nietzsche’s idealized nihilist.
Rick and Morty at first glance is a show about an alcoholic grandfather who forces his socially inept teenage grandson to go on sci-fi adventures with him. Funny, right? Well… yes. It is funny. What drives Rick and Morty, however, is the nihilism and absurdism that lie at its core.
Rick and Morty is riddled with philosophical theory (shoutout to Wisecrack). Some major moments of the show deal with surviving humanity’s irrelevance in the greater universe, but its absurdist dilemma is perhaps best manifested in Rick’s coping-mechanism-mantra: “Don’t think about it.” This behavior spotlights the cosmicism developed by 20th Century writer H.P. Lovecraft, which speculates that the greater universe is inhuman, and has no care for human hopes and desires. As Morty puts it in the episode “Rixty Minutes”:
“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV,” (Season 1, Episode 8).
Rick’s struggle with his own insignificance is what allows him to act lawlessly and carelessly. He knows that with infinite realities, a single life is minimal, replaceable, and without greater purpose. The duality of Rick’s outlook balances Albert Camus’ theory of accepting the absurd to achieve freedom while simultaneously personifying Frederich Nietzsche’s idealized nihilism. This duality is reflected in Rick’s own creation, Abradolf Lincler (exactly what it sounds like), who resents the pain of his existence, and therefore, resents his creator: Rick.
From helper Mr. Meeseks to the butter robot, the series highlights the idea that existence is pain. Also see: Rick’s catchphrase, “Wub-a-lub-a-dub-dub” means “I am in great pain. Please help me.” It is the show’s bold sense of humor that makes it a comedy, but it is Rick’s battle with absurdism and his actions in nihilism that make the series a complex, stand-out hit for the network and for television as a whole.
Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman similarly follows the absurdist trials of its titular character (voiced by Will Arnett). BoJack, an anthropomorphic horse, is a washed-up ‘90s sitcom star in a world where anthropomorphic animals and humans coexist in a satirized, Hollywood-centric society.
While Bojack utilizes philosophical theory in a related manner to Rick and Morty, it uses its own means to explore these aspects of the human condition. While Rick and Morty use intergalactic and interdimensional travel as its vehicle, Bojack explores existentialist thought and self-worth through fame.
The series’ third season (released July 2016) finds BoJack promoting his major comeback film Secretariat. BoJack has finally secured his dream role, but he now fails to find personal value and happiness until his work is given the praise he believes he deserves. BoJack’s internal battle between fame and happiness – a major motif throughout the series – plays its most explicit role throughout this new season.
Indeed, Season 3 arguably saw the advancement of BoJack Horseman from a satire on fame’s emptiness to a certified existentialist display of art. Episodes such as “Fish Out of Water” (Season 3, Episode 4) underline BoJack’s absurdist dilemma as he promotes his new film at an underwater film festival where he is unable to communicate with anyone due to a scuba-like helmet. This practically silent episode, lauded by critics as a turning point for the show and one of television’s best episodes of 2016, highlights BoJack’s feelings of displacement and emptiness as any lack of praise, acknowledgment, and perceived purpose (staples of his view of fame) literally push his head further underwater.
It is not until the last scene of season finale when a child actress tells BoJack that she wants to be famous like he is that BoJack rejects his toxic pursuit of an idealized fame and finds himself intrigued by a pack of wild horses running through the desert. This final sequence, though left ambiguous, solidifies that BoJack’s lust for this fame is pointless – just as Rick’s pursuit of significance in the universe is pointless when at the end of the day, nothing really matters. At least, that is an interpretation of the theory that they present.
This new wave of adult animation makes cartoons for adults an intellectual, existential experience fueled by nostalgia and masked by a sense of spectacle. In this way, these shows create a wildly comedic, surprisingly successful, and highly entertaining programming block that prove cartoons are back and better than ever.
Images courtesy of Adult Swim, Netflix, and Comedy Central.