Willing to squash and stretch the television and streaming mediums to their limits, the best animated television of 2022 relishes in anticipation and payoff. Returning series such as Harley Quinn and The Owl House cater to their respective loyal fan bases by emphasizing strong character writing and earned emotional heft — even when it’s nestled in humor. A handful of new shows, including The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder and The Boys Presents: Diabolical, leverage the goodwill that came from titles that preceded them to craft stories and art that look radically different from what came before but still feel natural in context. A few debuts break new animated ground entirely, delivering to us the digital worlds of Pantheon and the fantasy realms of The Legend of Vox Machina for our eyeballs to feast on. Now that we’ve presented the year’s top animated films and (specifically, separately) its top anime series, here are the animated TV shows we couldn’t stop watching this year.
The Goodbye Family
The Goodbye Family is pretty different from every other show on this list. It’s a webtoon that looks as if it was made with MS Paint and centers a family of undertakers trying to eke out a living in a pen-scratched, gothic take on the Old West that’s fleshed out by rootsy Americana music and offbeat humor. Aside from the voices and music, it’s almost entirely made by creator Lorin Morgan-Richards, who based it off his “Weird West” comic of the same name. The Goodbye Family is extremely lo-fi but also unnervingly fun thanks to how it leans into the characters’ peculiarities and morbid humor. In one scene from the episode “The Seedy Snare,” matriarch Pyridine rattles off the Goodbyes’ list of payment options — “We take Gravepal, Renmo, and Coffin Bell wires, although crypt currency … I’m not sure about that one” — as another member of the family cheerily mops blood off the floor. The Goodbye Family is not for everyone, but it just might be for you, if you let it.
It sometimes feels like a miracle that any piece of animation can be fiddled with for as long as something like Lost Ollie was and still wind up being a coherent story — let alone a great one. In Lost Ollie’s case, it was in the works for well over a decade before hitting our eyeballs as a four-part limited series this year, directed by Peter Ramsey (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), created by Shannon Tindle (Kubo and the Two Strings), and inspired by the book Ollie’s Odyssey, by William Joyce. In Lost Ollie, the titular lost doll embarks on a Toy Story–like quest to find Billy, the young boy who lost him while surviving a terrible tragedy. Lost Ollie is melancholy and often more than a little scary, less a cutesy romp for kids than a meditative show about coping with grief and repressed memories. It also combines media to tell its story: Gina Rodriguez and Jake Johnson lead the live-action segments, while Jonathan Groff, Mary J. Blige, and Tim Blake Nelson lend their voices to the animated dolls — puppets turned into stunning digitally animated characters by ILM.
Undone, season two
Undone, one of the most mind-warping animated debuts of the 2010s, returned this year for a second season that delves deeper into the metaphysical, reality-shaping powers of its heroes and leans further into the stunning rotoscoped visuals of its first season. While Undone’s first season focuses on the experiences of Alma, a young deaf woman who can turn back time, the second season widens the lens to include more of her family, uncovering the powers and struggles her sister, mother, and grandmother have had to endure. Undone season two is striking in how it disassembles and methodically unravels its story of generational trauma, a story amplified by the photorealistic characters (modeled directly off the actors with the power of rotoscoping) and the phantasmagoric environments their powers carry them to.
Not many animated series — dramatic or otherwise — confidently stretch their episode lengths to fill a full hour of programming, but in the visually distinct sci-fi show Pantheon, the added time never feels padded. A high-concept thriller tackling mortality, capitalism, and artificial intelligence, Pantheon is based on short stories by Ken Liu and pinned on two high-schoolers who get enmeshed in a vast cyberconspiracy when one of them, Maddie, suddenly starts receiving chats from her dead father. The show is heady, reminiscent of ’90s anime such as Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor, and like those influences, it is fundamentally skeptical of the grip technology has on our day-to-day lives and uses the medium of animation to stage elaborate action scenes to dramatize that tension. Created by Craig Silverstein and animated by Titmouse (see also The Legend of Vox Machina a few entries down), Pantheon’s vision of an increasingly digital world is intoxicating to watch and worry about.
Harley Quinn, season three
Anytime you think the DC film and television universes lack joy, you can rely upon Harley Quinn. This season’s animation may not look as fluid as past seasons, but it makes up for it in the writing: It deepens Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s relaysh. It gives us Bane as Carrie Bradshaw. It lets Joker tax the rich. And, oh yeah, three seasons in, Harley Quinn’s operating thesis — that Gotham City isn’t some serious, deadly place but a colossal joke worthy of merciless roasting — continues to deliver a seemingly endless stream of potty-mouthed material and laugh-out-loud-funny setups. It also never shies away from wearing a massive heart on its sleeve as this season increasingly centers the dynamic between Harley and Ivy, a couple I am convinced could cure cancer. Please give season four more animation money, Mr. Zaslav.
The Owl House, season two
You have to root for a Disney series willing to shirk corporate conservatism and commit to its convictions, and The Owl House did that this year with a milestone for animated LGBTQ+ representation: the House of Mouse’s first onscreen same-sex kiss in “Clouds on the Horizon,” the season’s penultimate episode. Even acknowledging that cartoons have gotten more and more queer in recent years, it’d be far too flip to ignore or minimize the representation of a Disney Channel show letting Luz and Amity lock lips. Creator Dana Terrace has been outspoken about how hard it is to convince Disney execs to even acknowledge LGBTQ+ identities, and since then, The Owl House has introduced Disney’s first transgender character, Raine Whispers, and aired an episode in which Luz comes out as bi to her mom. This year’s kiss, animated by Tom Barkel, is an especially gorgeous bit of work.
The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder
The triumphant return of The Proud Family to television could have come sooner, but we’re just ecstatic it came at all. The new show on Disney+ captures the same vibrant spirit as the generation-defining Disney Channel Original with some updates. Several of the episode titles are once again song references, but within them, Penny and her friends and family navigate social media, cyberbullying, and wokeness in the 2020s, their stories infused with kid-appropriate jokes and cartoon slapstick inspired by the golden age of American animation. Louder and Prouder works best when it brings new textures to the characters we’ve known for more than 20 years. The first season ends with the family following their roots back to Oklahoma to better understand what made the Prouds the Prouds — ending on a cliffhanger entirely focused on the emotional pain Suga Mama’s carried since childhood. The Proud Family was always fun and never facile, and Louder and Prouder works best when it honors that legacy. What also hasn’t changed is the creators’ commitment to a fluidly beautiful visual style: The show felt fresh and lively in its 2-D animated form in 2001 and still feels that way today, having been upgraded to 2.5-D animation with the digital tools available today and the help of the artists at WildBrain Studios and Snipple Animation.
The Legend of Vox Machina
A raucously adult Dungeons & Dragons campaign literally translated from a live play into animation, The Legend of Vox Machina is stuffed to the gills with blood, blue dragons, and profanity, and it’s an action delight. Its story originated with the web series Critical Role, in which live actors play a game together, sketching out their characters and negotiating the fantasy realm of Exandria as they do. After a massively successful Kickstarter campaign and the help of the animators at the studios Titmouse and Production Reve, the Critical Role players created The Legend of Vox Machina, an Amazon series based on its first campaign. The show’s D&D origins may be unique among animated series, but you don’t need much knowledge of roleplaying-game mechanics to enjoy the show. The characters in the Vox Machina party are all well defined by their respective traits and attributes, and the 2-D action animation is sumptuous to look at.
Love, Death + Robots, “Volume III”
The often transcendent, always interesting bursts of cartoon magic in Love, Death + Robots have become reliable existential discussion prompts. “Volume III” of the anthology, created by Deadpool director Tim Miller and produced by David Fincher, is one of the series’ best short-film collections yet, each one bringing not just its own unique animation style but also new questions about what it means to be human, even if you happen to be a cute robot or an astronaut who interfaces with the machine heart of a distant moon. Love, Death + Robots toggles between funny, poetic, profound, and hyperviolent, depending on the shorts, which are directed by the likes of Fincher and Miller as well as award-winning animators such as Patrick Osborne, Alberto Mielgo, and Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Their artistic differences are, as always, a major asset to “Volume III,” which rounds out at a little over two hours. If the Pixar-esque bounciness of “Three Robots: Exit Strategies,” in which the title characters mock humanity long after we’ve all died, isn’t your speed, maybe the fluid photorealism of Mielgo’s “Jibaro” will be. The latter is the last of the bunch, a short in which the key-frame animation of a Spanish conquistador and his quarry, a dancing siren, often looks so convincingly sophisticated (and produced without motion capture) that you might actually forget they aren’t live actors.
Primal, season two
Primal already went really hard in its first season, and, true to form, it went even harder in its sophomore go-round. Director Genndy Tartakovsky’s series is one of largely self-contained “tales of savagery” starring Spear, a caveman, and Fang, a female Tyrannosaurus rex. Ferociously formidable apart and practically unstoppable together, they fight and gnash their teeth in a violent, prehistoric world full of hostility. Tartakovsky and his small team of animators tell their story almost purely through visuals: Dialogue need not intrude upon the limb-ripping mayhem. Still, Primal found ways to innovate this season: ripping Spear and Fang apart from one another for a time, surprising viewers with an episode set in the 1800s, and leaning further into the series’ supernatural and horror roots — as well as the show’s first three-part episode, a saga set on a city-size ship called the Colossaeus. Throughout, Primal demands unbroken attention thanks to the perfectly timed and choreographed brutality realized by Tartakovsky and his animators at Studio La Cachette. More than five years ago, our own Matt Zoller Seitz called him “the world’s greatest living action filmmaker” in his review of Samurai Jack’s fifth season. It’s as if Primal’s second season went out of its way to make that an understatement.
O Menino Maluquinho
Borrowing from the visual language of ’90s- and aughts children’s titles such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Codename: Kids Next Door, Brazil’s O Menino Maluquinho, released on Netflix in the U.S. as The Nutty Boy, is a hidden gem. Based on one of Brazil’s most beloved children’s comic-strip characters, the show follows a hyperactive boy who wears a cooking pot as a hat and hysterically leaves chaos everywhere in his wake. This one’s really for kids ages 10 and below, but it’s neat to watch a show that introduces a subtle window into Brazilian culture — seen in the architecture and background designs as well as plots framed around traditions such as the Festa Junina — that otherwise rarely get any kind of exposure in the U.S.
Tuca & Bertie, season three
Sadly a reliable heartbreaker at this point, Tuca & Bertie, created by BoJack Horseman designer Lisa Hanawalt and full of empathy and humor, was canceled yet again this year on the heels of another acclaimed season that let its characters deepen. The new season spends plenty of sharply written screen time on both Tuca dating as a recovering alcoholic and Bertie’s uncomfortable childhood memories. In the end, Warner Bros. Discovery couldn’t see a path forward for the show, especially since Adult Swim saved it from cancellation hell in the first place, but we won’t forget its endearing, sometimes absurd embrace.
The Boys Presents: Diabolical
Amazon’s blockbuster superhero satire The Boys is successful enough that an animated spinoff was probably always in the cards, but Diabolical is better than it really needs to be. Anthology style, its first season tells eight stories of characters in the world of The Boys who get their lives destroyed, their bodies maimed, and their minds broken by the superhero industrial complex in one way or another, allowing several writers, directors, and animation studios to take a crack at the entrails. The results are compulsively watchable and never overstay their welcome: No short runs over 15 minutes.
YEAR IN CULTURE
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