Once thought of largely as kid’s stuff, cartoons are increasingly aimed at older audiences. Mirroring the rest of television, more animated stories have become serialised rather than episodic, following storylines that continue from season to season and facilitating a deeper investment in the characters and their journeys.
In contrast to episodic series like Spongebob Squarepants and Teen Titans Go, serialised cartoons like Infinity Train and Hilda tell individual stories while advancing an overall narrative from episode to episode, gripping our attention with strong writing and captivating characters. It’s a recipe for addicting television, especially when you can consume them one after another.
Here’s all the animated shows you should check out.
Attack on Titan
When it comes to serialised storytelling in animation, the Japanese are way out in front. In Japan, animation — in the form of anime series — is more widely accepted as a medium suitable for telling complex stories aimed at older audiences. And a good example of a recent show that has unfolded a complex story across multiple seasons is Attack on Titan. In a post-apocalyptic future, humanity is under siege by the titans, mysterious humanoid creatures of gigantic proportions. Some are mindless people-eating machines, while others appear to be conscious and calculating.
The people of Paradis Island have not seen a Titan for a century when the man-eating giants unexpectedly return. Attack on Titan’s storyline is heavily interconnected, hinging on the lore and history of Titans as well as the inner workings of the military organisation that defends the massive walls of the city. Eren Jaeger (Yûki Kaji) is a young boy whose mother was eaten by a Titan the day of the first attack. He joins the military to seek revenge, and as the seasons progress, secrets about Jaeger’s past become lynchpins in the series’ overall mythology. Every minute detail connects to the larger story, so you won’t want to miss one episode.
Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy
A gripping prequel to the original 1984 Transformers cartoon, this new Netflix series tells the story of an epic war on Cybertron, home planet to the Autobots and Decepticons. The story depicts the conflict that led the Transformers’ to escape to Earth. Every episode tracks the development of leaders like Megatron and Optimus Prime and reveals pivotal details about the AllSpark, a Cybertronian artefact with the power to bring technology to life. The AllSpark is the key to saving the machine beings’ civilisation, and whoever holds it has the power to lead Cybertron.
Another multi-season anime series rewarding binge viewing, Food Wars offers a great blend of episodic stories and a complex overarching narrative. Student Yukihira Soma is competing to be the best chef of the prestigious Totsuki Saryo Culinary Institute. The story follows Soma and his fellow students as they battle (via cooking) to obtain a seat within the vaunted Elite 10 Council, made up of the school’s best chefs and, in the process, save the school from being overtaken by a strict, traditionalist headmaster. Watch each episode in order to follow the outcomes of the cooking challenges and understand the stakes the students face in their fight for school’s fate.
Living in the middle of Beach City are the Crystal Gems, a group of rebel aliens who vow to protect planet earth. Gems, Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet live on earth and raise young Steven, the half-human/half-gem son of their former rebel leader Rose. At first glance, you may think each episode exists on its own. Once the truth begins to unfold, you realise every moment reveals something pivotal about who Steven’s mother really is and the dangers that face the planet. You will feel compelled to watch Steven Universe’s evolution all the way through to the series’ extended coda, Steven Universe Future.
BoJack Horseman is a former sitcom star living in Hollywood attempting to stay relevant in the modern entertainment industry. Horseman’s terrible reputation and deplorable personality make it difficult for him to maintain any sort of relationship. As the series progresses, we learn more about his upbringing and how it has affected his adult life. Every character has a part to play in Bojack Horseman’s rehabilitation, whether they know it or not. Also, Bojack Horseman is a talking horse/man.
The series’ arc, now complete, is phenomenally written and emotionally mature, addressing issues of trauma, addiction, depression, and anxiety. To understand the character arcs, you must watch it in its entirety.
The awkward and embarrassing realities of puberty are laid bare in this exaggerated adult cartoon created by Nick Kroll. Best friends Nick Birch (Nick Kroll) and Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney) are just trying to get through middle school, but their hormones (which take literal form as foul-mouthed monsters) are affecting their life decisions. Each character is assigned a hormone monster to guide them through this strange time. The embarrassing moments and evolving relationships are carried throughout each season. Kids get together and break up, experiment with their identities, and strain the bonds of friendship, and, along the way, new forms of emotional baggage are embodied in memorable form (from “depression kitty” to “anxiety mosquito”). You don’t want to miss one minute of these characters’ terrifyingly unique — and universal — pubertal journeys
Star Wars: Clone Wars
The Star Wars franchise famously began in media res with Episode IV. For the past several decades, fans have been showered with prequel after prequel to fill the original films’ story gaps. The Clone Wars are a pivotal moment in the tale, and led to the scattering of the Jedi and the rise of the evil Empire regime. Star Wars: Clone Wars takes audiences through the legendary conflict. This is the show responsible for the popular character Ahsoka Tano, who appeared in the second season of The Mandalorian. The series originally aired between 2008 and 2014. After a six-year break, it returned in 2020 to finish out the epic plot — which continues on into followup series Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: Resistance. Every episode reveals intricate Star Wars lore and introduces you to characters crucial to the galaxy far, far away.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is an imaginative retelling/reboot of She-Ra: Princess of Power, the 1985 spin-off of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Adora is a young soldier trained to fight for the all-powerful Horde in the land of Etheria. One day she discovers a magical sword that transforms her into the Princess of Power and unlocks her greater destiny as a hero and freedom fighter. The truth about Grayskull and the history of She-Ra drives the lore of this young adult cartoon. To understand the power of Grayskull (and find out what happens to the loveable cast of characters), you will need to watch all 52 episodes.
Jake the dog and Finn the human strive to be the greatest heroes in the land of Ooo. At first, the story seems disjointed, as though each episode is random and could be viewed out of context. But watch enough of them, and a larger narrative emerges, and you being to understand the truth: that each episode is one piece of the story of the end of the world. In particular, the storyline following villainous character The Lich reveals the truth about the creation of the land of Ooo, and is integral to the future of our main characters. Each episode plays a part in the overall arc and the eventual series finale.
A young girl named Tulip Olsen (Ashley Johnson) is struggling with her parent’s separation, and the only thing she is looking forward to is coding camp. When her parents cannot communicate properly to give her a ride to camp, she storms out of the house in frustration. While she is attempting to walk to camp, a mysterious train arrives, miraculously going in her direction. Each episode uncovers this train’s mysteries and solves another piece of the puzzle to Tulip’s safe return home.
Hilda lives in the forest with her mother and dog-like pet twig. The forest is full of magical creatures like trolls, giants, and little elves, and Hilda never interacts with other human children. Her mother is tired of worrying about her daughter’s safety in the woods and looking forward to “regular people” problems, rather than those created by the woodland creatures continually appearing in her home. They move to the big city, and Hilda must make friends with human kids. But her mother doesn’t realise there is still all sorts of magical mischief to get into in the city. Every adventure brings a new series regular to the show and builds upon the world in which Hilda operates. Miss one episode, and all of a sudden, Hilda has five new neighbours and magical friends.
Twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) are sent to the great uncle “Grunkel” Stan’s (Alex Hirsch) shack in the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Dipper is disappointed that he’s going to have a lame summer in this boring town, but quickly finds out some weird stuff is happening in the woods. Don’t be fooled by the episodic nature of their shenanigans: Every item in the background and every unlikely turn of events is connected to the larger narrative with cataclysmic stakes.