6) Rocko's Modern Life
Good or bad, Nickelodeon cartoons were adept at sneaking things past the censors, and there was no better Trojan horse than Joe Murray’s Rocko’s Modern Life. Few would be surprised at finding adult humor in the grotesque Ren & Stimpy, for example, but Rocko’s is a deceptively cute show that slipped in stuff for parents and gifted-class kids in a much smarter way.
Gags involving milking-machine romances, veiled phone-sex jobs and a restaurant called the Chokey Chicken inevitably get Rocko’s mentioned in “I can’t believe they did that in a kid’s show!” discussions, but perhaps the real adult angle came from the way Rocko’s titular life was an awkward, meaningless parade of humiliation and loss. This wasn’t just a subversive cartoon for children; it was also a look into their futures.
Instead of boring you with the title theme, here’s a Rocko’s clip that Nickelodeon didn’t let through twice.
7) Might Orbots
There’s only one reason Mighty Orbots made this list. It’s not because of its stories, which are clichéd, grade-school preaching about robots fighting space creatures sent by a giant vagina-like living computer. And it’s not because of its goofball heroes, who are all quite lame compared to Voltron or any given Transformer. No, Mighty Orbots is worth a DVD release just because it’s one of the best-looking cartoons Saturday morning ever saw.
The ‘80s were a wasteland of badly animated shows, but the 13-episode Orbots has shockingly high production values, thanks to all the money that its American producers threw at TMS Entertainment and Osamu Dezaki. The director of pulp anime classics like Rose of Versailles and Golgo 13, Dezaki enlisted frequent collaborator Akio Sugino, future Studio Ghibli animator Katsuya Kondo and a host of other anime talents to make the series look better than any cartoon on the air in America or Japan. Their budget was sadly wasted on storylines only slightly less dull than your typical Snorks time-killer or toy-commercial anime, but man, Orbots looked great wasting it.
Another show with ambitions far beyond the forgettable toy line it shilled for, Exosquad put together a far-reaching pastiche of “realistic” robot anime and World War II allegory. Comparing its bald blue villain to Hitler may be a bit much, but Exosquad came credibly close to adult-level space opera, casting its beleaguered grunt heroes at the center of a three-way war among Earth’s military, space-faring pirates and humankind’s rebelling, genetically engineered slave race. Better yet, the series had the holy-shit-someone-actually-died element that makes a cartoon into a masterpiece when you’re 10 years old.
Despite sharing crappy timeslots with awful shows, Exosquad lasted 52 episodes and, like most ‘90s cartoons better than Extreme Dinosaurs, gained a fan following. And unlike a lot of its counterparts, Exosquad deserves it.
9) Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures
Ralph Bakshi is revered as the father of mature-audiences animation, even though nearly all of his creations, from Fritz the Cat to Spicy City, are god-awful and about as “mature” as naked drawings of Princess Jasmine on the restroom walls at Disney World. Bakshi has his moments, though, and he found more than a few in his 1987 revival of Mighty Mouse.
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures also marked the genuine debut of animator John Kricfalusi, capturing the manic style that he’d later use in Ren & Stimpy (and then waste by becoming a hopelessly bitter, self-exiled malcontent). Kricfalusi wasn’t the only future animation star who worked on the series, which also shows off early work from Batman: The Animated Series’ Bruce Timm and Tiny Toons’ Tom Minton, among others. It’s spastic, sketchy and never as fluidly animated as Kricfalusi’s later stuff, but Mighty Mouse’s offbeat humor makes it far better than nearly anything else Bakshi’s given us.
10) New Kids on the Block
There are hordes of terrible cartoons lurking in the past two decades, and the worst are often misguided attempts at turning celebrities and cult movies into Saturday Morning fodder. Somewhere, amid Hammerman, Gilligan’s Planet, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Little Shop, Little Rosie (yes, a Roseanne Barr cartoon), It’s Punky Brewster and the Kid N’ Play cartoon, there’s a monument to commercialism and boy-band ephemera in New Kids on the Block.
No one would buy a DVD boxset of New Kids on the Block: The Animated Series, a dreadful, cheap-looking bore based primarily on the five New Kids being chased around as though they’re Beatles in 1965. But that’s not the point. This should be resurrected for a DVD release just to serve as an example of the unvarnished, soulless inanity that can be wrought through cartoons. Like a criminal’s head stuck on a pike in the middle of Best Buy’s DVD section, it’d be a warning to us all.