The surprising depth and meaning in contemporary adult cartoons
Cartoons are often a childish, reductive medium. They take the forms of people, animals and places, break them down to their bare parts, and illustrate them. That being said, plenty of cartoons are visually appealing and stimulating — but for the most part, they are not considered high forms of art. Often, cartoon programs are directed towards children, but a good deal of them are directed towards adults. These programs often air on Adult Swim, the nighttime programming block of Cartoon Network. While adult cartoons often lean towards irreverent or absurd comedy, in recent years, there has been an uptake in high-quality content that has a striking amount of purpose and message. Programs like “Rick and Morty” and “BoJack Horseman” are changing the reputation of adult comedy for the better.
For the past decade or so, adult cartoons had mostly been directed towards the critique and lampoon of American culture. The stock formula is a middle-class family, with one son, one daughter, a baby and a pet or two. The longest running thirty-minute series, “The Simpsons,” does just that, having cemented itself in the hall of outstanding television many years ago. Variations on on the same theme, like Seth McFarlane’s three shows, “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” have been met with similar acclaim. The formula is tried-and-true, which has discouraged experimentation and ingenuity.
Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” has inverted this formula by changing some of the roles. Instead of the dopey, dumb father, grandfather Rick is a genius scientist across galaxies, and actual-father Jerry is ineffectual and plain. Rick is often paired with Morty, his grandson, who is hopeful and naive, but not stupid. The duo is a reworked Stewie and Brian from “Family Guy,” in a way, working with the same evil genius and simpleton dynamic that is referenced in countless other programs. “Ricky and Morty” also has a remarkable amount of depth in narrative and subject, taking place across countless galaxies and timelines. The blurring between real and fake that takes place is thought-provoking and poignant without sacrificing too much meaning. Occasionally, cartoons are great ways to make larger-than-life ideas digestible.
Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” completely ignores the stock formula and tackles themes in American culture that have often been ignored. The eponymous, washed-up sitcom star has to deal with his life after fame, with his then-contemporaries, like Mr. Peanutbutter, and PR agent / quasi-girlfriend, Princess Carolyn. The show actually carries a main storyline, which is a deviation from the irreverence of adult cartoons, and is not told in a linear fashion. The audience sees snippets of BoJack in the past that inform the narrative that is playing out in the present, which leaves them without key points of information. BoJack, voice by Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”), has no family in the main characters, and the show turns to the fear of isolation more often than not. The creativity and novelty of “BoJack Horseman” shows the power of streaming companies to make content that is original without being derivative as other series. The genre of adult cartoons is stepping forward with its assistance.
Overall, accessible pop culture hasn’t had an interesting adult cartoon in a long time. At high points in the arc of a television show, seasons three and four, respectively, “Rick and Morty” and “BoJack Horseman” provide viewers with an unforgettable, quasi-trailblazing moment in the history of television.