Animated shows have had a strange journey in popular culture. Once considered a kids-only zone, animated material has come full circle and burst onto the adult zone big time, thanks to the endless diversity and ever-increasing globalisation of content. Animated series are now taken seriously — even the ones which don’t take themselves seriously — as works of art as much as any live-action series. However, an essential difference remains which makes it trickier to rank animated series than the live-action ones. For many of us, the cartoons we watched as kids shaped us as much as our family or school life. We see them through an immovable nostalgic lens, through which objectivity has a hard time passing.
That being said, here’s a humble attempt to assess and quantify a boatload of quality that animation has given us. Bringing together the ‘then’ and ‘now’, these are, what I think, the 25 best animated series of all time:
25. The Flintstones (1960–1966)
This show is not only a classic comedy, but also one of immense cultural value as it was the first cartoon to reign over the primetime TV slot. This paved the way for the eventual success of shows like The Simpsons. The genius of the show is in its satirical view of mid-20th century suburban America — but one that is set in a comical Stone Age replete with ridiculous anachronisms. The other highlights are the sitcom-inspired characters, dinosaurs and other exotic creatures, and the unforgettable catchphrase, “Yabba Dabba Doo!”
24. Daria (1997–2002)
This generation-defining program presented one of the most accurate portraits of the soul-deadening, exhausting, frustrating, and yet wonderful, world of teen culture in the late 90s. The protagonist, Daria, is a cultural icon herself with her sarcasm, witticism, and “low esteem for everyone else.” But this memorable misfit isn’t the only character that shines in Daria. The beauty and authenticity of the show comes from its diverse range of characters, all colourful, funny and interesting in their own way. The series follows Daria and her friends and brilliantly presents their coming-of-age experience in a world full of cluelessness. It is unique, relatable, sensitive, and hilarious.
23. South Park (1997–present)
South Park doesn’t stop. Not just at a literal level, but in attitude — it is an unrelenting, unapologetic social satire that leaves no touchstone of societal ridiculousness unturned. The episodes are made quite quickly, which lets the show make timely comments on current events in a manner that always shakes things up. The series follows four schoolboys and their families and friends in the crazy town of South Park, Colorado. South Park leaves nobody unscathed — it even pokes fun at itself mercilessly.
22. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996)
One of the most culturally relevant series in the history of Japanese anime, this complex show is a masterpiece despite its flaws. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world, which must be defended against the invading evil Angels. These Angels can only be thwarted by giant combat robots. This generic trope is turned on its head by the criss-crossing of numerous heavy topics and themes, including religion, philosophy, psychology, and sex. It’s a remarkable study of despair, depression, teen angst, and is powered as much by raw emotion as by robot fights.
21. Your Lie in April (2014–2015)
This is a show that almost ought to have been a cliché, but it transcends familiar tropes through a beautiful and unique presentation. It centres around a young piano prodigy who stops hearing the sound of his piano after his mother’s death. The series begins two years after the tragedy, when he meets a young free-spirited violinist who helps him rediscover his passion for music. The music is integral to the series, and the musical sequences are a stunning auditory experience. They are not digressions, but essential to the plot and convey emotions spectacularly. The show is touching, poignant, heartbreaking, and has a powerful storyline.
20. Detective Conan/Case Closed (1996–present)
For a detective show that thrives on unrelated episodic mysteries more than the connected overarching narrative, Detective Conan has had a remarkable run and is still going strong. Of course, there’s the occasional mystery that doesn’t quite land, but most of the episodes are very well-written and well-presented. The child genius trope in mystery stories is given a twist, the fantastical nature of which actually makes the said trope more realistic. Little Conan isn’t a child at all, but has mysteriously been turned into one during an investigation gone wrong. While he attempts to unravel the secret of this, he also ends up solving hundreds of pretty exciting mysteries on his way. This show is a crowd-pleasing powerhouse entertainer.
19. Archer (2009–present)
There are many spy parodies out there, but it is difficult to find one as good as Archer. The show follows the adventures of a dysfunctional group of intelligence agents, and is set in deliberately vague timelines. The chief of them is Archer, whose looks, wealth, and capabilities are hilariously counterbalanced against his mommy issues — said mommy also being a member of the team. The group’s general incompetence, the strange situations they find themselves in, the sharp dialogues they fire off, and the show’s brilliant usage of the meta-comedy technique make it a great series.
18. Dragon Ball (1986–1989) & Dragon Ball Z (1989–1996)
Dragon Ball is an iconic franchise, of which these two series are widely considered the best. They are very different, but both bring unique things to the table, leaving fans divided on which is better. So, here they are given a joint rank. In Dragon Ball, Goku and Bulma embark on a quest to find the seven Dragon Balls, which could grant their possessor their greatest desire. In Dragon Ball Z, an adult Goku and his fellow warriors defend the earth from forces of evil, and the Dragon Balls return in a new way. Both the series are beloved for their action adventures and are globally renowned.
17. The Simpsons (1989–present)
The Simpson family is one of the most recognisable cartoon families across the globe. The series is a milestone not just in the American animation industry but the entertainment industry at large. At its best, it delivers a sharp satire of dysfunctional America, full of people busy watching TV, drinking, sneering at their neighbours, doing meaningless jobs, and watching TV some more. But the humour doesn’t become mean, which makes it a feel-good, light-hearted kind of funny with an occasional splash of darker humour. It is consistently funny, which is why it’s still going strong after all these years.
16. Code Geass (2006–2008)
This hugely popular anime reinvigorated the Mecha genre when it was released. The political, social, and philosophical aspects of the show are complex and smartly depicted. The giant robots called “Knightmares” provide some great action, but the core of the show is a political drama. The quest of the group of rebels to overthrow an empire and fight for their beliefs makes for a compelling storyline. And the concept of the Geass is interesting too, even if it’s not something new. The Geass is a powerful weapon which can compel anybody to do anything the possessor of the Geass wants them to. Code Geass pools together many interesting ideas and explores them well.
15. One Piece (1999–present)
One Piece is not only a grand explosion of entertainment, but also a cultural phenomenon in the world of anime. All these years, and its popularity and influence is still beyond dispute. Monkey is a young boy with a super elastic body. He’s a pirate, who’s in it for the adventures and not the wickedness. He and his crew of misfits set off to find the legendary treasure known as “One Piece,” so Monkey can become the Pirate King. One Piece builds a remarkable world, with its own myths and rules. It presents a unique art style characterised by exaggeration. It is also renowned for its fleshed-out, likable characters, and an engaging storyline.
14. Samurai Jack (2001–2017)
Samurai Jack is a work of art in every sense. The premise is gold, the action is killer, and the animation style is a milestone achievement in artistry. Elements of dystopian sci-fi, samurai action, westerns, and fantasy are blended together seamlessly in this series. Samurai Jack is sent into a dystopian future by the evil wizard, Aku. In this timeline, Aku’s reign of tyranny has already wrecked havoc on the world. Our beloved samurai then begins a quest to go back to the present and stop Aku from taking over the world in the future. Action, adventures, time travel, and a dash of romance — this series has it all!
13. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002–2005)
This is an immensely popular anime with a great style of animation. It is set in the not-so-distant future where there are as many cyborgs as there are people. The depiction of this futuristic society is remarkable, as it seems quite believable.The series follows the members of an elite law enforcement unit, called the Public Security Section 9, as they investigate cases of cybercrime and terrorism. The “Laughing Man” storyline gives us an unforgettable villain and an interesting plot. The series is action-oriented, but also thought-provoking. It shines as a crime drama as well as a sci-fi thriller.
12. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008)
The trope of the hero discovering his abilities and trying to save the world has been done many times over — but not like this. The fantasy world created in this series is one worth marvelling at. The detailing is fantastic and original. This world has its own kingdoms and rules, and its own brand of tyranny, violence, and beliefs. Serious subjects are covered in a very effective way. The complex and heavy social and political questions, the rich characters, the narrative style, and the vibrant animation make Avatar a great watch. The blend of the different animation styles and influences also make it stand out.
11. Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995)
Dark and menacing, this memorable Batman series captured the mood and beauty of the original comic series perfectly. It wasn’t simply a cool show to watch, but a work of art. The mysterious atmosphere, the noir-style aesthetics, and of course, the amazing stories themselves set a gold standard for the superhero genre, which many other series then tried to emulate. It was heavily influenced by Tim Burton’s live-action Batman movies. The voice-acting is some of the best in any Batman interpretation ever made, and the soundtrack a masterpiece of its own. The art style is gorgeous, and the host of iconic characters are depicted brilliantly. It is widely considered to be the definitive take on Batman.
10. Wolf’s Rain (2003–2004)
This might be a surprise entry, for many, in the list. Many of you perhaps, may not have heard of it. Wolf’s Rain is an underrated gem that is largely overlooked. The concept is distinctly different from anything else out there. The world in this series is bleak and almost hopeless. And at its core, it’s a saga of hope and hopelessness, of creation, extinction, and re-creation, presented with a touch of genius. It is set just before the final apocalypse, and a legend says that Paradise will appear at this time. But only the wolves, led by the ‘Flower Maiden’ will find this Paradise. Wolves were hunted to near extinction, so they now disguise themselves as humans. A small group of wolves meet the Flower Maiden and they try to find this fabled Paradise. Standing in their way are human beings, who want to snatch Paradise for themselves.
The animation, soundtrack, story, and pretty much everything about this masterpiece is gut-wrenchingly good.
9. Gravity Falls (2012–2016)
This one is the complete package for both kids and adults. It is a powerhouse entertainer, and is loaded full of comedy, mystery, and paranormal investigations. The pop culture references and Easter eggs only add to the appeal. Twins Dipper and Mabel spend their summer vacation in the strange town of Gravity Falls, helping Grunkle Stan run his tourist trap called Mystery Shack. They also solve mysteries and battle against supernatural creatures which populate this town in great abundance. Gravity Falls is humorous, clever, and absolutely delightful.
8. Hunter x Hunter (2011–2014)
This show stands out in a giant crowd of generic battle shonen anime series. It has an interesting concept, well-drawn characters with good development arcs, and epic battles which are strategy-based and dynamic. The show also depicts personal conflicts, psychological complexities, and darker themes powerfully. It follows Gon’s journey as he trains himself to become a legendary “Hunter,” just like his father. He wishes to pass the demanding Hunter Examination and also track down his father, who abandoned him long ago. Hunter x Hunter doesn’t blindly follow tried and tested formulas but gives us a well-constructed, well-presented story with compelling and likeable characters.
7. Attack on Titan (2013–present)
This dark fantasy series is highly acclaimed and has a huge fan base worldwide. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it is the classic battle for survival story executed brilliantly. Giant humanoid Titans have taken over the world, and it is up to a group of elite soldiers, including Eren, to stop them from wiping out the human race. The animation and art work are stunning. The dark atmosphere full of suspense and horror feels visceral — it is violent and brutal. The characters are interesting, and there are twists and turns enough to make this series rise above its generic premise.
6. Rick and Morty (2013–present)
Rick and Morty has taken over popular culture ever since it burst onto the scene. It is incredibly creative and humorous. The series follows the danger-ridden misadventures of genius mad scientist Rick, and his average grandson Morty, as they traverse through alternate dimensions and parallel universes or sometimes simply try to be a normal family in their household with fancy gadgets lying all over the place. The ludicrous plotlines alone generate half the humour of the series. Along with sharp wit, the series also gives us some touching moments which make it more layered and life-like.
5. Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999)
Cowboy Bebop is widely acknowledged as one of the best anime series ever made. It offers us a variety of things — it is a sci-fi neo-noir drama with a Western spin. It has action, comedy, a great plot, and compelling characters. The series is set in a dystopian near-future, where a team of bounty hunters travel through space and track down criminals. It offers immense psychological depth, and explores heavy themes like loneliness, and the haunting effect of the past. The quality of animation is impressive for its time, and the characters are interesting and unique.
4. Steins;Gate (2011)
The narrative explores the concept of time travel in a unique way. Steins;Gate pushes the boundaries of science fiction, and builds an incredible and complex world. A mad scientist develops a time travel technology where the characters can text or send “D-mails” to the past to alter the future. Each time D-mails are utilised, consequences ripple through into the present, and make for a very compelling plotline. What starts as a comedy of sorts seamlessly turns darker later on. The plotline is solid, and the time travel rules actually make sense and are adhered to, which makes this series one of the best of this sub-genre.
3. BoJack Horseman (2014–2020)
This series about a washed-up Hollywood anthropomorphic horse who is a train-wreck of an individual, took the world by storm. It is simultaneously as hilarious as it is tragic. The depiction of a variety of mental health issues and social inequalities is about as searing and raw as it gets. The story of this alcoholic self-hating horse and his toxic Hollywood world has made for one of the best series in recent years. Its staple blend of the serious and the comic and its sharp social satire are second to none.
2. Death Note (2006–2007)
This innovative, original, and thought-provoking anime is buoyed by a smart storyline and interesting central characters. It centres around a high school student, Light, who comes across a mysterious notebook called the “Death Note.” The possessor of the Death Note can use it to kill anybody they know by name and face, by writing their name in the notebook. Death Note is a high quality entertaining thriller with a unique concept. It makes a bold choice to leave out any discussion of morality. While it’s not fit for a younger audience, it is effective in making us older ones ponder about the significance of Kira’s actions.
1. Fullmetal Alchemist (2003–2004) & Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009–2010)
Most may prefer Brotherhood because it is a faithful representation of the manga, but the first series is brilliant in its originality. It pulled off the plot it created with perfection. Both the series exemplify excellence in quality, hence, the joint spot. The incredibly innovative concept is brought to life by the brilliant animation, characters, allegories, and action. But what makes both the series raw, visceral and fascinating is the exploration of dark themes, human suffering and psychology. It’s brutal, but touching. It blend a variety of genres together and push the boundaries of each of them. Fullmetal Alchemist is the epitome of everything an animated series could be.
The above shows are a celebration of quality and diversity in the field of animation. But they’re only a sliver of the wealth of good series out there. All-time favourites like Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo co-exist with lesser-known novelties like Hell Girl and Monster. There’s something for everyone in the wonderfully complex world of animation. A significant part of art and culture, they offer a creative medium where imagination can run wild and possibilities are truly endless.