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10. THE MUPPET SHOW
Story: a variety-show set in an old vaudeville theatre featuring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear in a series of slapstick and surreal sketches and songs.
Praise: The characters’ personalities play off of each other constantly and the writing is always on top form, delivering joke after joke and hitting the high notes not just with children but also with adults, a little risqué at times. The music was a feast for the ears, too. But perhaps the greatest quality the show had was that each joke played out so that the real “joke” wasn’t so much the line itself, but rather the characters’ reaction to it, mostly through the form of the two grumpy theatre critics who made incisively meta cracks about how bad the show was.
9. THOMAS & FRIENDS: SERIES 1&2 (IL TRENINO THOMAS)
Story: Thomas the Tank Engine and his locomotive friends work at the service of the Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hatt, performing menial tasks on the Isle of Sodor.
Praise: The beautiful model sets and backgrounds were meticulously crafted to match the books’ lavish English countryside setting, and though its subsequent follow-ups are awful, the original 1980s series (Seasons 1-2) is full of charming trains, heart-warming morals, and the added bonus of some of the best railway collisions in all of TV. Why do I love this show, is it the cute graphics or personalities, Ringo Starr’s narration, or the writing and dialogue? Who am I kidding, it’s the crashes!
Story: Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and their dog Scooby-Doo travel across America to solve mysteries and defeat “monsters”, who are usually just humans in costumes.
Praise: Today, it’s easy to say that Scooby-Doo has been on for too long, but when it first started, it was a great show that, had it stuck to a 64-episode run, would have been remembered as fondly as the other cartoons on this list. The concept was so original for the time (a group of monster-hunting teens and their dog, in a time where most cartoons were just stories about one big and scary animal hunting another smaller and cuter animal, and getting injured!), the characters so unique and a portrait of 60s America (especially Shaggy, a stoned, dog-biscuit-chomping hippie), and the dog was such a brilliantly funny and lovable character, that at the time, it was quite special, and full of clever ideas, memorable locales and ghosts, and silly jokes to boot.
7. TOM & JERRY
Story: Thomas the cat tries to catch and kill Jerry the mouse. Hilarity ensues.
From the opening seconds of each episode, you can already guess the story: Tom will chase Jerry and get hurt a lot. That’s all there is to it, no subtlety, no gimmicks, no frills, just a cat getting beaten up – and it’s as hilarious as all hell. The cat and mouse’s fast-paced frolics have delighted children– and attracted a substantial adult audience with the occasional risqué or mature joke – through an impressive run of 161 episodes released in cinemas, plus countless more made for TV. Considered one of the greatest theatrical cartoons of all time and rewarded by multiple Academy Awards over its run, the original Tom & Jerry is a stone cold classic.
6. POKEMON: THE INDIGO LEAGUE
Story: Ash, Pikachu, Misty and Brock travel the world to capture Pokémon and battle the evil Team Rocket, with the ultimate goal of being the Pokémon Master.
There have been many cartoons featuring capturable battle monsters, but the original series of Pokémon stands head and neck over the competition with its appealing characters, lovable mons, and awesome storytelling. Over the course of the season, we got to see Ash mature from a cocky and immature brat into a courageous, selfless and often unpredictable hero who would put his life on the line to save his friends. Sadly, the series didn’t stop there, and dragged on, declining constantly in quality.
5.FIREMAN SAM: THE ORIGINAL SERIES / SAM IL POMPIERE
Story: a team of firefighters led by the titular Sam saves people and extinguishes fires in the quaint little Welsh village of Pontypandy.
Praise: Each episode is only ten minutes long, but packed with character development, pratfalls, and a cute soap opera angle, with the series’ extended cast providing plenty of fun interactions and even a love triangle. The firefighters often make mistakes, they are flawed human beings, not superheroes, and the series has an occasional touch of satire to it. There are three different series – the first is stop-motion, the second is Claymation and the third is an all-CGI cartoon – but the first and second are my favourites. Finally, the theme song is an electrifying power ballad with a rocking guitar, concluding with a rousing, drawn-out cry of “SAM IS THE HERO NEXT DOOR!”
4. THE PINK PANTHER / LA PANTERA ROSA
Story: a series about a panther who never said a word, but got into plenty of trouble.
Praise: this series was made on a low budget, with basic animation and recycled music and sound effects, but its strength was in its ability to constantly invent new twists on familiar plotlines such as “Pink is hungry”, or “Pink gets into trouble with the police”. There was often something of Buster Keaton about it, with a lot of effort put into the minutia and timing of every single joke, even something as basic as Pink slipping on a banana skin. And that score, man, that music – it’s totally groovy, man, if you dig what I’m saying. (I could practically get a Master’s degree in ‘60s hippie slang!)
3. LOONEY TUNES
Story: a series of cartoon shorts originally released in cinemas, starring animal characters such as Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Tweety Pie the canary.
Praise: Looney Tunes was Warner Bros.’ wild and whacky answer to Disney’s more sophisticated and cutesy ‘toons. There were no morals, no thrilling set-pieces, no jaw-dropping animation effects, just a steady stream of gags, including pop-culture parodies, over-the-top slapstick, and weapon use: there was a form of wholesome catharsis in seeing Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, or Elmer Fudd end up on the receiving end of a shotgun blast in one scene, only to reappear unharmed in the next. Add to that the fact that these shorts, originally produced for an adult cinema audience, are jam-packed with innuendo and black comedy (including several deaths and/or suicides, crossdressing, and even same-sex kissing!), and you’ve got yourself one of the most infinitely watchable, exquisitely funny cartoon series of all time.
Story: Yakko, Wakko and Dot cause mayhem with their friends Slappy the squirrel, Pinky and the Brain the lab rats who want to conquer the world, and many more.
Praise: Not only was it technically several series in one, with the main Animaniacs episode being sandwiched between Pinky and the Brain, Slappy Squirrel, Mindy & Buttons, and others, it was also wildly inventive. Set in the same universe as Looney Tunes and featuring similarly vivid visuals, slapstick comedy and adult-aimed humour mixed in with educational content and lovable characters, it’s every bit as side-splitting, rib-tickling, and insanely brilliant. Perhaps the best thing about it is the level of sophistication and quality that went into every part of it, from the luscious 30fps animation, to the witty wordplay and script, to the bombastic score and beautiful songs. A cult favourite to the degree of The Simpsons or Rick & Morty, there’s really no other series quite like it, for a good reason: it’s just THAT awesome.
1. JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED
Story: Batman, Superman and friends form a team called the Justice League, who protect the world from supervillains, aliens, and other threats.
Praise: I cannot put words on how much I love this show, I just do. Watch it. You’ll laugh, you’ll shiver, you’ll cry. It’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes scary, sometimes emotional, often all of those at the same time, and always action-packed. It’s got Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, it’s got EVERY single DC superhero and villain. It’s well-written, deep and mature. It’s a kids’ show that’s written for adults, a compelling superhero dramedy for all ages. It’s the definitive adaptation of the DC Comics universe, and a definitive gold standard in superhero storytelling for children and adults alike. It’s Justice League Unlimited.
Next week, tune in for the WORST children’s TV shows ever!
PS: RIP Adam West, the 1966 Batman, died last week – his campy and humorous portrayal of the Caped Crusader, in a series known for its surreal and parodic tone, made him one of the most memorable Batman of all time. Holy rest in peace.