Are Kids Shows Better NOW Than Ever?

Is this a new golden age for children’s entertainment? The Nostalgia Critic asks the question, are kids shows better now?

About Doug Walker

Creator of 5 Second Movies, Nostalgia Critic, Bum Reviews and more.

384 comments

  1. Honestly, Kids shows haven’t ALL been that good recently. Teen Titans Go for example is the worst piece of $#!% I’ve ever seen, and it came out a couple of years ago. There’s a lot of dumb kids’ shows that think they can get away with the excuse “It’s for kids, we don’t have to try.” But There are a handful of excellent animated kids shows. I’d rather have that handful than nothing.

    • I think the goof shows are by far the majority, though.

      • I did a head count and, sadly, they’re not. You know what IS the majority, though? Comedy. Every single animated ANYTHING has to be at least partially a comedy. That’s not to say that animated movies or shows can’t have some humor or comic relief, but what was the last great show you watched that didn’t have a hyperactive spaz in it to stop the show from getting TOO serious? Better: what’s the last show you saw that had an episode that was dark, had no comic relief, and didn’t have a happy ending to it?

        As far as I can tell, they don’t exist anymore.

        • Transformers: Prime. Seriously, there were quite a number of episodes, especially during the 2nd and 3rd seasons, that didn’t end “happily” – hell, a couple made it *look* like it was going to end on a happy note, only to pull the rug out from under the audience a moment later.

  2. I find it interesting that the shows that Doug has chosen to focus on are all *cable* shows. Granted, that’s probably because cartoons on the basic networks are practically an extinct species, but you have to wonder, if you believe the modern cartoon shows are “better” than even the Renaissance age shows, if being on cable, with relatively less BS&P regulations, has given writers, not just of cartoon shows, more freedom to actually *write* what they want. One also has to wonder (since Doug doesn’t mention the subject) how shows available through subscription services, like Netflix and Hulu, are affecting things these days.

    • There just aren’t that many online-exclusive TV-level cartoons yet. The only ones that come to mind are Bojack Horseman and the Rainbow Brite reboot.

  3. Lack of Regular Show deeply disturbs me. I should know. I have a high school diploma. Oooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I’m definitely calling it the 3rd boom*, or The Internet Toon Age. It’s an age of material fresher than what we got most of last decade, and it’s fueled by fandom interaction online with both other fans and the show talent. The content itself is compelling, and I’m always eager to share it with those not in the know, but the level of interaction between the audience and the creators is what makes this so far half-decade particularly special.

    *1st Boom was the initial Golden Age of film shorts/features (Disney, WB, MGM, etc), and the 2nd was the Animation Renaissance of the late 80s and throughout the 90s.

    • Neo-stalgia Fan 1

      To be fair there were some nice diamonds in the rough during the early 2000’s as well.

      • Which is why I said “most.” Things like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Foster’s, Teen Titans, Fairly Oddparents and The Boondocks are all great examples of the better animated material in that decade.

    • I have to add one more thing about the latter 90s: Fall 1997 seemed to be a time where many shows that were around prior began to diminish in quality, others stopped and new admittedly still quality shows came in (like the Cartoon Network originals). While the kids boom was definitely fading, animation kept its fire going a little while longer through prime time anmated sitcoms like King of the Hill, Futurama and Home Movies. 1999 was absolutley the big year for that sort of thing, as two of those shows I mentioned came from that year. As that faded, though, [adult swim] became a retirement home for what was left of that period.

  5. Neo-stalgia Fan 1

    Nicely said Doug. While these days it can still feel like kind of a mixed basket in terms of quality, there definitely is a larger boon of intelligently written and well made kids cartoons than there have been in the past. There’s always been something good or enjoyable with every era, even the “dead zone” era you mentioned (though opinions my vary), but now a days a “good cartoon” is a lot more common to come across for ANY viewer of any age or gender. It feels like cartoon networks, like say, Cartoon Network, are finally opening themselves up to more new possibilities than we’ve seen in a long time. The only issue I have with this is that this means that they will accept almost ANYTHING now, even some stuff that probably shouldn’t have been accepted in the first place. Opinions on shows like Uncle Grandpa and Clarence are going to vary, but when you weigh them against shows like Steven Universe, Avatar, or Gravity Falls, you can tell that they have more of a different goal in mind. While many of the shows that you displayed as examples, and few that others brought up here, do seem to have the intention of expanding the viewer’s mind and perceptions, other shows like UG and Clarence or the newest We Bare Bears seem to be more focused on being relevant rather than new or unique. I’m not saying trying to be relevant to the times is in itself a bad thing, but if it’s the sole identity of the show then it’s not going to be as timeless as any of its siblings. A lot of what I find Cartoon Network to be greenlighting lately tends to revolve around at least two things: current trends (social media, viral videos, “hipster” culture, etc.) and the random factor. Rather than creating unique mysterious expansive worlds that draw from various aspects of our own world from any time period, a lot of what I’m seeing these days are slice of life style shows, which again isn’t inherently a bad thing, but a majority of them are trying to hard to be current and not offer anything else. Take We Bare Bears for example. Three characters live in a modern world and try to do modern things. The twist? They’re bears. From what I’ve seen so far, there’s not much capitalization on the whole bear thing, they just happen to be bears. It’s still early in it’s air life, so maybe its a bit premature for me to judge it, but first impressions are still important. The random factor however is something I think Cartoon Network (as well as competitors Nickelodeon and Disney Channel) was struggling for the last 10 years or so to try and “crack” in order to hit the big goldmine of modern viewership. The vast integration of the Internet into our social lives have led to many past, current, and still propagating trends, the biggest of those being the idea of random humor. Surreal humor has been around for decades, but the current branch of saying “I like trains” while having a banana for a head and riding a unicorn shooting lasers in space is only about a decade old or so, and it’s still immensely popular. This trend is what I believe to be what has influenced many of Cartoon Network’s string of comedy-driven series from the past few years or so, mainly with shows like Flapjack, Chowder, Adventure Time, and even shows like Regular Show and Gumball to some degrees. Some of these felt like hit and miss to me, but the end result is that in some way or fashion Cartoon Network has found new successful shows that have largely built up it’s current identity. While Flapjack and Chowder (some of the earliest attempts at this goal of combined surreal and random humor in my opinion) may not have reached as far or done as well as today’s shows, Adventure Time was sort of the equivalent of a home run after two strikes. This may have encouraged CN to open its doors to more new writers and their ideas which in turn allowed other shows like Regular Show, Gumball, and SU to get their chance. However, it still seems that some shows are still ruled by focus groups, as I feel that shows like Uncle Grandpa and Clarence are still trying to target a misrepresented demographic, having characters and themes that are either too random or too quirky. But that could just be me. What’s even more disappointing about this is that in an attempt to accept anything NEW and modern in the hopes of getting new successful IP, some great shows from the past that many fans and creators want to see make a comeback, such as Codename: Kids Next Door, aren’t even being given the chance by the higher ups. This sort of gives me the impression that whoever is running things in CN now doesn’t have much respect for the station’s legacy or doesn’t want to rely on past successes unless there is no other option left available, despite the fact that another great number of today’s widely praised programmings are typically revivals or reboots of previously existing shows, like TMNT, MLP, and Transformers. So although we have diamonds like Steven Universe, Avatar, and Gravity Falls, we may also still see stations go in favor of more out of left field experimental shows like Uncle Grandpa and Sanjay and Craig over reviving high in demand revivals of already proven successful shows like KND or Power Puff Girls (though to be fair I guess they did give that one a shot and messed it up). Still, at the very least we still have many great shows to outmatch and outnumber the mediocre stuff that keeps creeping up, and it in turn definitely will influence and inspire the current generations to make even greater stuff in the future. I just hope that every diamond in the rough will be given it’s chance to shine beyond the dirt.

    Sorry for the lengthy post by the way. But it’s not like many people read these anyway right?…right?…

  6. littlewillie610

    These days, I try the only watch the really good cartoons, so I can’t definitively say if this is the best era of kids cartoon. That being said, the good shows are pretty damn good.

  7. Excellent vid.

  8. its clearly due to Anime influence… and I say this, not that western animation is bad or anything, but Anime was already showcasing these things years and years in advance… its just now that the American (and I do say American is doing this the most, as Europe did have several series with a very serious undertone at times) broadcast is exploring these themes more and more.

    • That’s definitely a product of more and more creators being fans of it. Steven Universe’s animation approach is a perfect example of this, also acting as a visual representation of the show’s tone. You could think of it as a “fusion,” I guess.

  9. Come on, Steven Universe is good, but it’s no “Adventure Time!”. How can you not be a brony? It’s so much freaking better than the old MLP! Don’t you care?! And why won’t you review “Loonatics Unleashed”? Okay, enough of that, I believe modern cartoons are better too.

  10. As much as I like the 90’s cartoons, I will admit that there have been really good cartoons of the last 10-15 years. Shows like Steven Universe, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Gravity Falls, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Regular Show, all really good entertainment for children and adults alike.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s all good, for example, Nickelodeon’s output has dropped considerably in the last few years, and Cartoon Network keeps trying to shovel Teen Titans Go down our throats. Not to mention all the good shows that were cancelled for no damn good reason, like Young Justice, Megas XLR, Motorcity, The Spectacular Spider-man, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes…

    Okay, maybe I’m just cynical. It’s good to remember that there are still worthwhile cartoons out there, something I should have to remember more often…

  11. Doug, you may not be smoking enough to quite grasp how amazing Dog With A Blog is (until the puppy voice actors show up, at least)

  12. TL;DR – I disagree on SO many points.
    The big one for me is animation. I can’t take a 2D show seriously if it isn’t hand-drawn. That’s why the Looney Tunes, Batman: TAS, Animaniacs, etc. are all SO FREAKING BEAUTIFUL. They weren’t thrown together on a computer for cheap. I’ll admit Avatar and Korra are also beautiful toons, but they are animated as if they were hand-drawn with pen-and-paper references. I think Adventure Time looks cheap, crappy, and effortless. Luckily it’s the worst offender, but I can’t really say anything to praise Gravity Falls or Steven Universe. I miss the days when animation quality was emphasized over how quickly and cheaply it could be produced.
    As for content, I’m a proponent of shows with a single goal in mind. Animaniacs and Looney Tunes are there with the express purpose of being funny. Batman: TAS is there to be badass and thought-provoking. Batman can sprinkle in some comedy to keep things fresh, but it’ll always come back to its roots by the time the credits roll. I don’t like the idea of cartoons addressing heavy topics like depression, sexuality, and abandonment because that takes the role of the parent away. If I want my kids to learn about these things, it’s my job to teach them, not the job of some preachy cartoon. I’d prefer to turn on the TV and know for certain that the shows my kids watch won’t try to influence their thinking on touchy subjects. If they bring up such topics, I’d prefer they take the Batman route: Acknowledge the problem and leave on an ambiguous note, prompting kids to ask questions from people they trust.
    I see where you’re coming from, Doug. I just don’t agree with you.

    • Guywhothinksstuff

      It might just be a question of what we’re used to, but I’m right there with you in thinking Adventure Time looks awful. With Gravity Falls I don’t mind the animation, but it’s something you almost have to just accept so that you can watch the show (for the terrific stories and characters). There was something so vibrant and, well, real about Animaniacs and the others you list.

      I will slightly disagree with you on the content note – I think Doug does a disservice to shows like Animaniacs when saying that modern shows are better because they address harder issues; that wasn’t Animaniacs’ point. As you say, it was a comedy. And even for a comedy it managed to sprinkle a whole range of emotions across its run, as did Batman: TAS despite being a drama. I don’t, however, think there’s a problem with having shows, even kids’ shows, with a range of core intentions. For example, Animaniacs may not have been ‘preachy’, but it was certainly ‘teachy’, and that’s no bad thing (when it’s done as well as they did it). Some of my favourite moments in comedy shows are when they take that moment to let a harsh reality set in: having broken down your barriers with the comedy, they’ve opened you up to experience something different and powerful. Those are the moments that have stuck with me, years and years later. Even not thinking of it as a way to influence kids’ thinking, it can just make for great entertainment.

    • Uh, no, it doesn’t take “anything away from the parent”, and even if it did it’s better because at least there’s no bias.

      Also, animation isn’t necessarily for kids. Kids may learn something from it, may even identify strongly with it, but ultimately it’s the oklder fans that will get the kicks out of it.

      • “Also, animation isn’t necessarily for kids. Kids may learn something from it, may even identify strongly with it, but ultimately it’s the oklder fans that will get the kicks out of it.”

        That’s kind’a true, but while Animation isn’t necessarily for kids, for the most part it’s considered for both kids and adults, and in more than one way; be it that there are kid friendly cartoons as well as adult ones like Family guy and South Park, or simply child-friendly cartoons that can cater to adults as well, and even showcase the younger audiences mature themes but in less exaggerated ways like in the more adult cartoons.

    • FluttershyApproves

      I disagree about Steven Universe. Sure it’s not hand drawn but it’s one of the most beautiful shows on TV right now because of it’s use of color and background design. Just watch Ocean Gem if you need to be convinced. This show is beautiful

  13. Why does nobody mention My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as one of the great cartoons of the 2010s? I know that it might not be groundbreaking like Steven Universe or Adventure Time, but if you ask me, it takes the 80s formula of cartoons and updates it drastically, with much better characters than the 80s version of MLP.

    I just don’t get why almost NOBODY brings it up among good to great cartoons when you talk about it. I know why Doug didn’t say it(he said he wasn’t a fan of the style, though he understands perfectly why people are into it) but I don’t hear it mentioned ANYWHERE outside of the fan community.

    • It and Adventure Time really did kick things off with this half-decade of animation. On the note of MLP, it taught us to be less dismissive of something due to past prejudice, and as a result we are now open to a wider variety of content by removing that age/gender barrier we assumed would never be removed. The characters are enjoyable, the world is imaginative, the lessons are worth reflecting on whether you’re kid or an adult, and outside the show it actually got people in touch with both other fans of the show and the people who make it in a meaningful way. In-person meetups are a fantastic development, and I’m looking forward to attending plenty more of them.

    • It’s a massive oversight on his part.

    • Frankly, there are 2-3 big shows that he missed and FiM is one of them. It can be excused knowing that he isn’t into the show, but showing a clip of it would have nice, at least acknowledging it.

  14. I finally worked out how to use the Screenwave player! Where’s my gold star?

  15. As far as continuous, ongoing storylines go, I think one big reason they’re a lot more common these days is that with modern technology, like DVR and instant streaming, it’s a lot easier to see every single episode of a series and in order without missing anything. If you think about it, back in the 80s and 90s, if you weren’t home for your favorite show one day and missed an episode, you would either have to wait for a rerun, or hope that that particular episode might get a VHS release Then if that show had an ongoing storyline, you’d be screwed as you would have to watch the next episode without having known what happened last time. I think that’s a big factor as to why a lot more shows these days, and not just kids shows, have more serialized stories as opposed to the old plot-of-the-day formula.

  16. Honestly…the best time was children programming was the 1980s in Germany. To this day I watch a good Czech/German production over everything the US-TV ever produced, and a lot of those shows are running successfully to this day for a reason.

  17. Great analysis but one thing that you are leaving out is the fact that the US market has opened its doors to other animation. Especially Japanese. Influencing creation and making the shows better and better and showing that you can do crazy stuff and still be smart.

  18. And here I come, theweirdo that doesn’t like any of that shows. I don’t think they are bad, but, I don’t like it either.

  19. I guess it IS true that kids shows today are better than the ones of are youth. I mean the newer Transformers and Ninja Turtles shows have better stories than the originals, AND they have more acurate animation, ’cause with the old ones, you can see goofs like 2 Starscreams or Michelangelo’s voice coming out of Leonardo’s mouth.

  20. Pompeius Magnus

    Doug makes some good points and I agree to a degree that this is something of a golden age for American cartoons, on both a technical and a writing level. I have a couple gripes with some of his arguments though.

    For one, his analysis is very US centric : Growing up in Europe I can tell you most kid oriented stuff(Cartoons and comic books included) here have always been laced with adult situation and theme.Thats fine, he’s talking about the stuff he grew up with, i.e Warner and Disney cartoons.

    I also think crediting shows like the Looney Toons for influencing the current product is a bit of a fallacy. Case in point : Rebecca Sugar has mentioned numerous times in interviews that Japanese shows are the major influence for Steven Universe. Pen Ward has credited Miyazaki works along with video games like Zelda as his main inspiration for Adventure Time. Alex Hirsch gives the credit to the X-Files and Twin Peaks for the general idea behind Gravity Falls. I think the fact that the modern creators are looking OUTSIDE of the traditional medium for inspiration is the major reason for a lot of it feeling so fresh and new.

  21. I’d say no not till we loses shows like teen titans go and johnny test aka the same repeated crap. other than those P.O.S. shows i can see the Idea behind this video.

  22. Good editorial. You’ve clarified the time line of this a bit for me.

    I just have one off topic disagreement to make with you. Logic and Imagination are not exclusive. Albert Einstein famously started his research with questions like “If light has a speed what would the head lamp on my motorbike do if I was driving just as fast?”.

  23. WAIT, wait…
    So, that period from 2001 to 2006 where kids shows like Power Rangers Time Force, Teen Titans, Justice League and Ninja Turtles flourished where they tried to break away from the mold of kids shows and tackle darker stories, grittier action and more complex character arcs including some of the ones you cited doesn’t count?
    … Dafuq, man? You’re showing off Gravity Falls and Steven Universe like they’re the norm when clearly they’re not. Teen Titans Go is getting another season, Uncle Grandpa is still on the air, Ultimate Spider-Man and Agents of SMASH are still being produced, and that abominable show Avengers Assemble STILL refuses to address its many, MANY problems with its stories and characters.
    Plus, back in the day when Batman and Animaniacs were on the air, shows were varied. There were shows that were 100% comedic like Animaniacs, shows that were 100% serious like Justice League, and shows that were in the middle like Teen Titans. Now, EVERY show needs to be part comedy. Every show needs a hyperactive, over-enthusiastic lead like Mabel or Finn. There aren’t any darker, more serious characters in the lead. So I’d say that shows today aren’t better, they’ve just traded old problems for new ones.

  24. I think so, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a cartoon like the current My Little Pony than any other cartoon… well ever.

  25. You seem to have neglected that animated cartoons were originally made for theatrical runs long before the advent of television. They weren’t designed to be children’s entertainment or even family entertainment for that matter. The humor was slapstick bordering on burlesque, at times satirical especially in cartoons made during WWII taking jabs at rationing. Many contained racial stereotypes so egregious they would be and are unspeakably racist. When these were first shown on television as a means to fill airtime cheaply, they were uncensored. We got to see Betty Boop topless and in dusky make up as a hula girl, and heard Cab Calloway reference alcohol and booze in the Fleischer brothers cartoons. MGM gave license to Tex Avery to create the animated pin-up girl Red, whose lush curves and plump lips drove the wolves crazy. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in blackface. There were even fleeting references to transvestism and the occasional negative stereotyping of homosexuality.

  26. “We had some pretty awesome shows in our time”

    Voiced over a picture of a bunch of 90’s cartoons including …….. Doug…!!!!!

    I wounder if Doug noticed and if he put this together himself or not.

  27. I must be the only person out there that genuinely dislikes Adventure Time. I just couldn’t get past the art style and numerous irritating voices.

    • Guywhothinksstuff

      You are not alone. I’ve seen all of season one and a sprinkling of significant episodes from later in the run, and it still just seems awful to me. It’s not even like it’s just not my sort of thing (like The Office, which isn’t my type of humour but I can see its appeal), I really don’t see what people like about it; compared with all the positive reviews I’ve seen it’s like I’m watching a completely different show, one where the animation is atrocious, the characters are inconsistent and the plots are moronic (and, yes, the voices are irritating).

      • I don’t know what Adventure Time you’re watching, then.

        • Guywhothinksstuff

          Exactly. I don’t know how its fans (which I’m assuming includes you) can sing its praises based on the evidence I’ve seen (season 1 and the first few episodes of season 2, then a couple from the middle of season 3, the last two episodes of season 4 and the first two of season 5). The writing and the animation just both seem awful, squandering any depth the characters or the setting might be able to achieve (the potential of each are why I kept trying to get into the show). But the raving fan articles don’t seem to see that. I honestly have no idea why our perspectives should be so disparate; in other popular shows I dislike I can at least see the appeal, but I really have no clue what you’re seeing in that show.

    • thatchickwithlonghair

      I know I’ll get chastised for saying this but I don’t think it’s a good idea to show “ANYTHING” to kids….because some people don’t want their kids exposed to some content. And I’m not talking about violence or sexual content either. I’m talking about the stuff that goes against religious beliefs.

    • thatchickwithlonghair

      I don’t like it either. When everyone looks so…..bizarre, I can’t take a show like that seriously at all.

  28. Rocko the Great

    I too am a fan of kids’ shows I grew up watching. I liked Power Rangers, Pokemon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003 version), Digimon, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Toonami, Nicktoons, Avatar, Beast Wars, the Transformers Unicron Trilogy, Jetix, Fox Kids, 4Kids, Yin Yang Yo!, Atomic Betty, Kids’ WB!, Cartoon Cartoons, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain, and the DC Animated Universe of the 90s.

  29. Rocko the Great

    Wait, no mention of Yin Yang Yo! in this editorial?

  30. Actually this is the worst time in children entertainment. Speaking specifically of animation. The cartoons are ugly and unappealing and lack any depth or atmosphere. All bug eyed and flat. The art is cheap and garish. Looks like seven year old’s are drawing this stuff.

    The characters and stories are nothing short of retarded. There’s not one character or show I can relate to on a human level. It’s like the insane asylum of children’s entertainment. I don’t think the writer are very clever. They get off on sneaking in their cheap adult jokes and social messages and it just comes off as pretentious or self gratifying. It’s a nauseating deep pit of garbage today.

    Disney should sue itself for defaming their own mascot Mickey Mouse.

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