Sifting through the massive pile of media consisting of new animated shows, cartoon sequels, offshoots, and licensed spinoffs, it’s not easy to wrap your head around the various cartoons that actually hold some sort of artistic merit or concise vision. Of course, there are safe and influential bets you can find wisdom in (see: The Simpsons, Adventure Time, Batman: The Animated Series). But what about the underdogs of animation, the ones that never really quite made it big due to poor ratings or relative obscurity?
Well, we here at Screen Rant remember a few of those underappreciated animated bits, and we’ve compiled a bulk of them into this list. From spinoffs that are worthwhile to short-lived shows you’ve probably never heard of or just flat out forgot about, we’re diving into 15 of the most underrated animated shows in television. Take a trip down memory lane and check out the rock solid (and highly underrated) collection of series we’ve assembled below. You might just discover a new gem for your media collection!
After animator Bruce Timm worked on the infamous Batman: The Animated Series, he went on to co-create a new show alongside Paul Dini and Tom Ruegger for the Kids’ WB programming block in 1995. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, this new venture was called Freakazoid!, and it saw its titular character poke fun at pop culture, a la Spielberg’s other show, Animaniacs, while breaking the fourth-wall and dishing out slapstick humor like no other. Despite its poor ratings during its two-year span on the WB, the show garnered a cult following through reruns on Cartoon Network and its home video releases.
Freakazoid was the alter-ego of the nerdy 17-year-old Dexter Douglas, who was able to turn into his hero form after a computer bug triggers Douglas to absorb all of the Internet (yes, all of it) into his body. This gave Freakazoid his strength, endurance, and obvious insanity. The hero was a parody of most Marvel and DC Comics characters at the time, though it ws also labeled by some to be a ripoff of Mike Allred’s Madman comic book series, as both characters wore similar costumes and featured similar powers. Regardless, it was easily one of the best Saturday morning cartoons around during its brief run.
14. Mission Hill
Bill Oakley and John Weinstein are probably best known for running The Simpsons for the series’ seventh and eighth seasons and penning some of the show’s greatest episodes, such as “Marge Gets a Job” and “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song”. However, the power couple really got the opportunity to shine through the short-lived Mission Hill — a series that aired from 1999 to 2002 on The WB and Adult Swim, respectively, to much critical acclaim but poor ratings. The show followed the millennial adventures of Andy and Kevin French, two brothers who hardly got along, living together in a hip apartment in the city of Mission Hill.
The dynamic of the show was handled meticulously, as each piece of dialogue stood out amongst its competitors in the animated genre. Voice work for the show was provided by Brian Posehn, Vicki Lewis, Nick Jameson, and Tom Kenny, making every actor nearly inseparable from their cartoonish counterparts. The series’ humor was delivered in a dry, subtle manner unmatched by most cartoons at the time, essentially standing as a smart man’s animated sitcom for a generation not yet ready to appreciate it. Mission Hill was way ahead of its time, and unfortunately, it still remains drastically underrated (and canceled, obviously).
13. The Tick
From 1994 through 1996, Fox Kids, the Saturday morning FOX programming block for children, aired a particularly ridiculous superhero series called The Tick. Based on a comic book of the same name by Ben Edlund, The Tick followed its titular character on his crime-fighting adventures alongside his sidekick, Arthur. The duo would fight parodies of comic book villains, usually of the absurd variety. They warred against characters such as The Forehead, a henchman with…a massive forehead, and Chairface Chippendale, who literally has a four-legged chair as a head.
The Tick was a success for its time, though merchandising wasn’t as huge of a hit for the series. The show ran for three seasons and was critically acclaimed, nominated for a few Annie Awards and nabbing a few Emmys. It’s considered one of the greatest animated superhero shows of all time, although its popularity today has dwindled. The Tick’s top-notch absurd humor in the superhero genre cartoon is one of the first shows of its kind. Hopefully, Amazon’s live-action reboot of the series (due out in August) sparks interest in the animated series once again — and lasts a bit longer than its predecessor.
12. The Critic
Writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss served as showrunners of The Simpsons’ third and fourth seasons, which are two of the show’s most critically acclaimed runs. In 1994, the duo teamed up once again to create a series that, according to its creators in an interview with PopMatters, would serve as a “love letter to New York.” That show became The Critic, and it would air 33 episodes over three seasons, initially premiering on ABC and eventually finishing its short run on Fox. It was canceled due to its poor ratings in 1995, but it remains as an underrated gem for fans of The Simpsons and ’90s animation alike.
The Critic revolves around film critic Jay Prescott Sherman, voiced by Jon Lovitz, and his televised review show Coming Attractions. He’s harsh and elitist, acting as sort of a caricature of the serious film snobs of New York. The show’s witty humor is mixed up with various parodies and references to classic Hollywood films like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Lion King. The Critic had a solid run while it lasted, and it still holds up as an essential watch for cinema fans.
11. Spider-Man: The New Animated Series
One of the most unique shows to ever come from Marvel Entertainment is Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, a loose continuation of the original Spider-Man film rendered completely in CGI and cel shading. It’s widely overlooked in favor of the (admittedly superior) 1994 animated take on the web-slinger, but this series’ unique look and fun vibe more than hold their own.
In the show, Peter Parker, voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, attempts to keep his relationship going with Mary Jane Watson, while Harry Osborn plots his revenge against Spidey, whom he blames for the death of his father, Norman (the Green Goblin from the original Spider-Man film). While all that’s going on, Peter tries to live a normal life while working at the Daily Bugle and attending Empire State University. As usual, he’s a busy dude.
The show is well written and serves as a cult classic to Marvel fans. It originally aired on MTV, creating a relaxed atmosphere for its series creators and allowing for more freedom with its scripts. Classic villains like Kingpin, Kraven the Hunter, Electro, and Lizard all made appearances in the show, with plans of Mysterio being scrapped when the show was canceled due to its poor ratings after airing only 13 episodes.
10. Stroker and Hoop
Stroker and Hoop aired on Adult Swim from 2004 through its cancellation in 2005. The show was a parody of buddy cop TV shows and films like Starsky & Hutch, Rush Hour, 48 Hrs., and Miami Vice, pairing two private investigators named Stoker and Hoop together to solve the often ridiculous problems they’re hired to tackle, such as stopping director Ron Howard from entering a client’s mind or watching a private event hosted by rapper MC Homicidal Rapist.
Stroker is voiced by Delocated star Jon Glaser, while Hoop is played by Timothy “Speed” Levitch. The series’ leads are based on two Burt Reynolds characters, from the films Stroker Ace and Hooper. With the help of their talking car “C.A.R.R.”, a la Knight Rider, the two private investigators take on cases and clumsily solve them. The two men are actually losers and still dress as if they were living in the ’70s, but most of the show’s humor comes from making fun of the dimwitted, often stuck-up ways the characters handle situations and each other.
9. Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man
Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man is a show created by Everett Peck, based on his Dark Horse comic book of the same name. An adult animated series and black comedy that aired from 1994-1997 on the USA Network, the series follows a bitter, self-hating anthropomorphic duck named Eric T. Duckman, voiced by Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander, who works as a private detective and resides in Los Angeles with his family.
The series was created by Everett Pack, along with Jeff Reno, Ron Osborn, Rugrats co-creator Gábor Csupó, and former animator on The Simpsons, Arlene Klasky. The show’s animation is similar to shows like Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and Rugrats, striking a super ’90s appearance and definitely providing viewers of today a slap of nostalgia. The humor, however, feels more like that of Ren & Stimpy, albeit magnified a bit to make it raunchier. Duckman‘s true strength lies in its neverending string of slapstick, rapid-fire jokes (and music from Frank Zappa, of course).
ReBoot may strike as familiar to those who’ve caught a screenshot of the series, but what you probably don’t know is that ReBoot is the first ever half-hour animated series to be completely rendered in CG. The show revolves around Bob, Enzo, and Dot Matrix, who work inside of a computer system known as Mainframe. The three heroes have to constantly prevent the evil computer viruses Megabyte and Hexadecimal from taking over Mainframe and ruining their computer-based city.
ReBoot was actually conceived in 1980, but it was unable to achieve the look it was going for until 1991. The show finally aired in 1994 after ReBoot’s production studio, The Hub, created enough episodes to tell a full story arc. 3D animation was completely new to this company, making the production process an arduous one. The show aired on ABC, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network during its prime run, which consisted of four seasons and 48 episodes.
7. Earthworm Jim
Based on the video game of the same name, Earthworm Jim followed the adventures of, well, an earthworm named Jim, and his adventures protecting the universe from villains who plan on conquering it. Just as ridiculous as the video game, Earthworm Jim often broke the fourth wall and featured the same silly villains as the video game series, like Psy-Crow, Bob the Killer Goldfish, and Queen Slug-for-a-Butt.
Similar to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, there’s often little explanation provided as to how exactly Jim got himself into the situations he’s presented in at the start of each episode. There’s not really any continuity either, aside from the regular appearance of Jim’s sidekick and friend Peter Puppy. But the series seemed to work as a cool spin-off from the beloved ’90s video game, airing on Kids’ WB from 1995-1996 for two seasons.
6. Clerks: The Animated Series
In May of 2000, ABC aired an animated television spinoff series of Kevin Smith’s first feature film, Clerks. It’s hard to imagine why or how this show got picked up, since Clerks wasn’t really a well-known name in cinema at the time, and Kevin Smith’s pull wasn’t nearly as large then as it was post-Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. But against the odds, the show made it to air, albeit briefly — only two episodes airing on ABC before eventually getting canceled.
Clerks: The Animated Series boasted poor ratings and it didn’t seem to mesh well with ABC’s other sitcoms at the time. Not only did the show seem out of place, but the initial airing of Clerks: The Animated Series ran out of order, with the show’s fourth episode airing first (despite it being littered with references to the intended first episode of the series). The original duo of Dante Hicks and Randal Graves were voiced by Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson respectively, with Smith and Jason Mewes also reprising their roles as Jay and Silent Bob. The show was great for its own little universe, but unfortunately, not enough people knew about that universe to begin with.
5. The Maxx
Based on an Image comic book series of the same name, Sam Kieth’s The Maxx was a strange, wonderful animated series that aired on MTV in 1995. The show follows The Maxx, a homeless superhero who lives in a cardboard box in the real world and protects her friend/social worker, Julie Winters. When The Maxx lives in an alternate reality, known as the Outback, he’s a protector of a character named The Jungle Queen. Julie is unaware of The Maxx’s world-hopping adventures, which makes for a strange chemistry and story arc to translate into animation.
The television series often changed its perspective and animation styles, switching from live-action, CGI, and traditional 2D animation to show a change in characters and perspective. Most of the show’s scenes are based purely on the comic book’s original panels, while the series itself plays off a fascinating look at the parallels between reality and a subconscious fantasy world. The way the story is told is unlike any other comic book show available, so if you’re looking for a fresh take on the genre, you’ve found it.
4. Clone High
Before Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wrote and directed The Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the duo worked on an animated television show for MTV called Clone High alongside producer Bill Lawrence (of Scrubs fame). The show was a parody of teen dramas revolving around a high school whose students were actually teenage clones of historical figures. The show’s cast consisted of a few names you might recognize: Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Cleopatra.
MTV ran the show from 2002 through 2003, prompting controversy through its depiction of Gandhi, which led to some headline-grabbing hunger strikes in India. MTV pulled the series, unfortunately, after 13 episodes of the show, due to the protest and low ratings. It wasn’t under years after its cancellation that the show garnered its small cult following. Clone High was witty and hilarious, though it also tackled issues like drug usage and social disorders, like Gandhi’s ADD.
3. Moral Orel
Moral Orel was a black comedy aimed at satirizing older claymation Christian-minded shows like Davey and Goliath and Leave It To Beaver-styled sitcoms from the ’50s. The series stars a little Christian boy named Orel Puppington, who lives in the fictional city of Moralton located in Bible Belt state of “Statesota”. Each episode follows a naive Orel as he learns of a Christian value and takes the lesson to a dangerous, yet hilariously dark extreme. Creator Dino Stamatopoulos definitely offended some folks with this Adult Swim series.
Orel’s father is a cynical alcoholic who hates his job and wife, and often beats Orel at the end of most episodes. His wife, Bloberta, is an overly happy woman who appears blissfully unaware of any problems around her. Orel looks up to the town’s pastor, Rev. Rod Putty, despite his sexually frustrating and lonely lifestyle. The show meshes these characters together and creates a weirdly dark sitcom, with Orel gleefully interacting with these pessimistic and bizarre characters to hysterical effect.
2. Superman: The Animated Series
After Batman: The Animated Series debuted to critical acclaim in the mid-’90s, DC Comics and Warner Bros. followed up with another show based on one of their flagship superheroes. Superman: The Animated Series was a mature take on the character, featuring complex themes and a modernized look at the Man of Steel. It was wonderfully written and beautifully animated, airing for three seasons and 54 episodes on the Kids’ WB programming block.
Created by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Bruce Timm, Superman: The Animated Series is drastically underrated compared to its Dark Knight counterpart. The villains, world building, and characters crafted in Superman: The Animated Series were pretty remarkable for the era, and Superman seemed as vulnerable and relatable as ever in this ’90s iteration of the character. Appearances from baddies like The Joker, Lobo, Darkseid, and Brainiac were high points, while Lex Luthor remained the ultimate arch-nemesis in the utopia known as Metropolis. Alongside Christopher Reeves’ live-action take on the hero, this series stands to this day as a definitive iteration of the Last Son of Krypton.
1. The Venture Bros.
The Venture Bros. is an Adult Swim animated series that parodies the superhero and adventure cartoon genres better than perhaps any other show in existence. Christopher McCulloch, a former writer on The Tick, had a huge hand in crafting this perfect ode to sci-fi, comic books, and all things nerdy. The Venture Bros. is a spoof of a cast of characters similar to Johnny Quest, following the adventures of Dr. Venture, his insanely violent bodyguard Brock Sampson, and his two incompetent Hardy Boy-type children, Hank and Dean Venture.
Every character in The Venture Bros. is a hilarious nod to another person, fictional character, or hero/villain in media. The Venture Bros. never ceases to create amazing spoofs, like Dr. Venture’s ultimate nemesis The Monarch, who is a villain obsessed with butterflies, or the Phantom Limb, whose limbs are entirely invisible, but head and torso are not. With a hefty roster of memorable characters, non-stop laughs, and 70+ episodes to binge, The Venture Bros. stands tall as one of today’s best (and most underrated) animated shows.
What other animated shows are deserving of more love from TV audiences? Let us know in the comments.