The Ten Best Episodes of Animated Television This Year

From long-running series like 'South Park' and 'Archer' to new kids on the block like Netflix's 'Big Mouth.'

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Dec 26 2017, 5:15pm

Screencaps via YouTube

Cartoons aren't just for Saturday morning any longer—they're for every day of the week. Like space aliens? There's a cartoon for you. Interested in the crossroads between high fashion and giant robots? There's one for you, too. Fascinated by the emotional toll of celebrity on anthropomorphized animals? Relax, you're covered! Want your toons to reflect the vast spectrum of race, gender, and identity? Consider it done!

The scope and variety of animated television is more incredible than ever. All of the shows on this list are good. Some have standout episodes, which are featured here. Others were pretty consistent across the board, making it a challenge to select individual episodes. The ranking is my personal taste, but if you like animation, then all are worth a watch.

10. Neo Yokio - "Hampton's Water Magic"

Netflix’s futuristic anime produced by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koening and featuring the vocal talents of Jaden Smith, Susan Sarandon, Jude Law, Tavi Gevinson, and VICELAND’s Desus and Mero, is a weird show. A mixture of standard anime demon fighting and insanely first world problems, Neo Yokio

isn't for everyone. Between incessant product name drops, it's diverse cast and a handful of truly unexpected plot points make the show compelling in a very 2017 way. Memorably, the fourth episode, “Hampton’s Water Magic,” centers around one of protagonist Kaz Kaan’s (Smith) male friends (The Kid Mero) falling into a magic swimming pool and being transformed into a woman. Genderbending is fairly common in Japanese anime, so it is refreshing to see it approached casually in an American cartoon. Kaan is thus forced to examine how badly he treats women—and everyone around him, tbh—giving viewers a glimpse at the potential Neo Yokio has to become really interesting in future seasons. Come for the gorgeous animation and Toblerone memes, stay for the eventual, cathartic collapse of the One Percent.

9. South Park - "Put It Down"

The first scene in "Put It Down" is just Tweek screaming and playing a discordant piano in reaction to intensifying relations between the US and North Korea. It makes the list on that alone, but also includes a compelling guide to acknowledging loved ones' problems without trying to solve them. Just listen and try to imagine how the other person feels, kids! Side plots about Donald Trump's irresponsible Twitter habits and culture's focus on dramatic problems over banal, but often more dire ones hit their mark. But this episode doesn't just have scathing satire. It's got heart.

8. Attack on Titan - "Warrior"

The highly anticipated return of Tetsurō Araki’s feudal future anime after three years brought all the spectacle and brutality anyone could hope for. The action is killer, and the show’s ability to convey complex emotions with detailed facial expressions—rather than cheap anime tropes—makes it one of the best shows of the year. It also draws viewers into a historied world that’s as reliable for shocking twists as it is violent. Each episode had it's own drama, but “Warrior” earns its place on this list for one of the biggest reveals since protagonist Eren’s Titan powers were revealed.

7. Adventure Time - "Islands Part 8: The Light Cloud"

After ten seasons, Adventure Time is ending in 2018. It appears showrunner Adam Muto and the crew are tying up as many loose ends as possible, and none has been more mathematical than Finn the Human confronting his roots in a miniseries that aired in January called "Islands."

For those that have followed the show since Jeremy Shada began voicing Finn at 13 years old, watching Adventure Time was a coming-of-age experience. Finn grew up with us, and his emotional biz is our emotional biz. In the show's second crack at the miniseries format, Finn finally learns about the civilization he comes from. All we knew of his origins came from his enigmatic, adventurous father, who was kind of a dick. In this series we learn about the kind, compassionate side of Finn that's really the only difference between him and the monsters he's fighting. This is the kind of narrative challenge that can make or break a TV show, but creator Pendleton Ward's acolytes tackle it with the emotional honesty and zaniness that draws as many adults to the show as kids.

6. Samurai Jack - "XCIII"

Samurai Jack returned this year after over a decade of fans praying for a movie—or any kind of conclusion to our near-invincible hero’s Sisyphean fight against the dark lord Aku. Despite the passing of Aku’s beloved voice-actor, the iconic Mako, creator Genndy Tartakovsky delivered the solid, satisfying ending the original 2004 run lacked. Season five delivered epic, artistic fight scenes, punchy supporting characters, and plenty of homages to myth and pop culture. It has everything viewers have come to expect from an episode of Samurai Jack—with the added benefit of a resolution. The finale is graceful and touching, but no sequence can touch the tension of season five’s second episode, in which Jack struggles with the emotional cost of constantly fighting evil while facing an elite guard of zealous female warriors who worship his nemesis.

5. Archer Dreamland - "Gramercy, Halberd!"

FX’s spy genre spoof has reinvented itself so many times, it’s hard to keep track. This year Archer creator Adam Reed and his team boldly used the extended dream sequence—a device that led Roseanne to completely jump the shark—and it works. In the wake of Archer's shooting at the hands of Hollywood star Veronica Deane, he and his team of ISIS-agents-turned-private-eyes are plunged into a 40s noir setting within the superspy's comatose brain. The seventh episode, “Gramercy, Halberd!” is where Humphrey Bogart homages become overwhelmed by Archer's drug-fueled Archer-ness, and things go off the rails. It doesn't get more Archer than a 1940s cyborg created by an ex-Nazi scientist wielding medieval weapons, while our hero realizes he's been duped all along. Between all the drama, the jokes are machine-gun fast and as deadly as ever.

4. Big Mouth - "Girls Get Horny Too"

Despite its crude, Family Guy–like exterior sense of humor, Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's Big Mouth is a gem. Where else can you find thoughtful context about the messy biological process of growing up? Where can you find educational material about wet dreams and menstruation in a bingeable format that’s actually fun to talk about with friends? “Girls Are Horny Too” is essentially a primer on the female gaze in a relatable, everyday setting. Bonus points for the endearing conversation between female protagonist Jessi (Jessi Glaser) and her own genitals, voiced hilariously by Kristen Wiig. There's nothing out there like it.

3. Steven Universe - "Stuck Together"

For a show about three magic aliens raising a half-alien, half-human boy, Steven Universe’s peaks are often rooted in relatable conflict resolutions. “Stuck Together” centers on the titular Steven and one of his human friends—a teenager named Lars whose insecurities are often his own worst enemy—being kidnapped by evil magic aliens. The show’s ten-minute format lets creator Rebecca Sugar, the first woman to create her own Cartoon Network show, focus "Stuck Together" entirely on purging emotional demons. Steven and Lars, immobilized, are forced to confront the character traits that leave them at odds with one another. Their conversation does little to solve the larger problems they face, but the palpable shift in Lars’ outlook on life is meaningful to anyone who has been frustrated by their own lack of self-esteem. The great virtue of Steven Universe is its compassion toward messy feeling, and that's where this episode shines.

2. Bojack Horseman - "Time’s Arrow"

Netflix’s series about washed-up horse movie star Bojack Horseman (Will Arnett) trying to find himself amid the entertainment industry’s maelstrom of drugs, superficial relationships, and mental illness specializes in getting viewers to love characters it would be easy to hate. Season 4’s penultimate episode “Time’s Arrow,” is, perhaps, its most ambitious episode on this theme.

Bojack’s mother, Beatrice Horseman (Wendie Malick)—a tirelessly cruel old mare who seems to be responsible for many of her son’s neuroses—phases back and forth from her disorienting present struggling with dementia to inescapable flashbacks of her disappointing youth. In a Herculean feat, showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg, along with director Aaron Long and co-writer Kate Purdy, humanizes Bojack Horseman‘s closest thing to a villain. The climax offers hope for true change in Bojack’s behavior. It's a rare salve for the masochistic fanbase that just keeps watching him hurt everyone around him over and over again.

1. Rick and Morty - "The Ricklantis Mixup"

“To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty,” is the beginning of a meme that points out how easy it is to fall into the trap of over-praising Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s popular Adult Swim sci-fi sitcom—but damn it, “The Ricklantis Mixup” is 30 of the most compelling minutes of animated television I’ve ever seen. It’s a spider’s web of subplots within the floating space city where versions of the main characters, Rick and Morty, from other dimensions congregate.

“The Rickshank Redemption” reveals a society that mirrors the ills of the real world—police brutality, income inequality, fake news, political manipulation—while recovering from the events of season three’s explosive premiere. The eighth episode is packed with lightning-fast jokes and is fun to watch, parodying five or more different genres all at once. It’s stupid where it needs to be—looking at you, Cowboy Morty—but offers plenty of subtle details for fans who like to sift through every frame with a fine-toothed comb. It’s also an incredible acting feat for Roiland, who voices every character except for one commercial announcer for half an hour of whip-fast dialogue. No one knows how long it will be until new episodes of Rick and Morty are ready, but Harmon, Roiland, and their newly gender-balanced writer’s room will have to take their time to top this season.

Disagree with Beckett Mufson on Twitter and Instagram.

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