The popularity of the long-running animated series “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and “Family Guy” defied the common perception that cartoons are just for kids. In fact, some of the best American animated shows of recent years have featured cultural references and subject matter best appreciated by viewers who’ve lived long enough to get the jokes — and who are mature enough to understand the emotions and experiences the series’ creators are exploring.
Here are 11 sophisticated, hilarious and sometimes even philosophical shows for adults to stream … but only after the youngsters are in bed.
‘Harley Quinn’ (2019-present)
One of the most recent animated shows “for mature audiences only” is also one of the most gleefully vulgar. Kaley Cuoco (of “The Big Bang Theory” fame) gives a fantastically foul-mouthed voice performance as Harley Quinn, the deluded ex-sidekick of the supervillain the Joker. Made for Batman fans who have a sense of humor — and who have a high tolerance for blood-splatter and profanity — the hilariously irreverent “Harley Quinn” looks like an ordinary superhero cartoon but is spiked with jokes about the twisted psychology of caped crusaders and their maniacal archenemies.
‘Rick and Morty’ (2013-present)
As clever as it is controversial, this freewheeling satire starts with the basic concept of “Back to the Future” — with a mad scientist and his teenage sidekick, hopping through time and space — and then quickly becomes a ferocious and hysterically funny critique of fantasy-adventure stories. As the drunken super-genius Rick and his gung-ho grandson Morty swing through one reality-bending caper after another, they leave massive destruction in their wake, in densely packed stories that are framed by the creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s knowing and nihilistic take on science fiction. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Futurama’ (1999-2003, 2008-2013)
Not to diminish the legacy of “The Simpsons,” but “Futurama” may be the best TV show that the producer Matt Groening has ever made. Set in the 31st century, this loving spoof, which was canceled after four seasons on Fox and later revived by Comedy Central, features smart riffs on classic science-fiction tropes like robot uprisings, ecological disasters and alien invasions. But at heart this is a charming and wise commentary on existence itself, with a cast of freaky characters — humans, extraterrestrials, machines and mutants — who react to the wonders of their world with the same blasé, self-interested attitude that seems to dominate life in any era. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘King of the Hill’ (1997-2010)
Stream it on Hulu.
In the decade after “The Simpsons” became a hit, TV producers tried — and mostly failed — to emulate its success. The most enduring “Simpsons”-inspired series was “King of the Hill,” created by Mike Judge (the creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head”) and Greg Daniels (a writer for “The Simpsons” who later was a creator of NBC’s “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation”). This amiable domestic sitcom, set in small-town Texas, arrived in the late 1990s, at a time when America’s regional and political divisions were getting harder to ignore. “King of the Hill” presents a nuanced portrait of a deep red state, where the propane salesman Hank Hill tries to cling to his old-fashioned values while acknowledging that times are changing.
‘Bob’s Burgers’ (2011-present)
In a quaint oceanfront neighborhood, Bob Belcher struggles to keep his hamburger restaurant going, with the help of his eternally optimistic wife, Linda, and their three eccentric kids: the boy-crazy Tina, the impulsive Gene and the benignly mischievous Louise. With just that simple premise, the “Bob’s Burgers” creator Loren Bouchard has produced some of the funniest, sweetest and most imaginative TV comedy of the past decade. With the help of some colorful animation — and the occasional catchy song — these unassuming 22-minute stories about school, holidays, family gatherings and cooking play like rich sagas, full of life and wit. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Home Movies’ (1999-2004)
“Bob’s Burgers” fans should venture further back into Bouchard’s career and watch the show he created with Brendon Small, about a preteen boy (voiced by Small) who works through his anxieties by making microbudget films with his friends. “Home Movies” isn’t as polished as “Bob’s Burgers.” The animation and character designs are cruder and the stories are more loosely plotted, with a lot of improvised dialogue. But some voices will sound familiar (in particular that of the comedian H. Jon Benjamin, who plays multiple roles on both shows); and “Home Movies” similarly derives humor from everyday life.
Benjamin has become one of TV animation’s more prolific and recognizable voice actors. His deep, growly, deadpan tones are flexible enough that he can play both ordinary schmoes and — in “Archer” — a hard-boiled secret agent who loves Burt Reynolds movies and sophomoric sexual innuendo. “Archer” works as both a stylish parody of spy-thriller clichés and as a legitimately thrilling action-adventure show. But it’s primarily a dark, raunchy comedy, featuring very funny actors whose characters approach the job of international espionage as just another dreary office gig, full of annoying co-workers and mundane hassles. (Read the New York Times review of Season 7.)
‘The Venture Bros.’ (2004-present)
Before “Archer” or “Rick and Morty,” the Adult Swim series “The Venture Bros.” was already delivering savvy pulp parodies laced with impressively obscure pop culture references. Loosely based on “Johnny Quest,” Fantastic Four comics and many other action-adventure stories about heroic families, “The Venture Bros.” imagines iconic cartoon and comic book characters as older and embittered, embarrassed by their mixed legacies. Throughout the series, the creator Christopher McCulloch (credited as his pseudonym, Jackson Publick) references a larger, long-vanished mythology, borrowed from the best of old genre favorites. The show suggests that sometimes even years of honor and glory can leave heroes feeling hollowed out.
‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’ (2000-2015)
In Adult Swim’s earliest days, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” was the show that best exemplified the Cartoon Network programming block’s commitment to wonderfully dopey, stubbornly inexplicable absurdism. Ostensibly about the private lives of three semi-superheroes — a highly intelligent floating box of french fries, a grumpy milkshake and a childlike meatball — this show seemed like it was made exclusively for pothead college students up late on weekends. And yet even now there’s something delightful about how the “Aqua Teen” creators prize viewers’ baffled laughter over comprehensibility. (Read the New York Times review of the “Aqua Teen” movie.)
‘Big Mouth’ (2017-present)
Stream it on Netflix.
Animation as a medium allows writers and artists to fill the screen with almost anything they can imagine — including, in the case of “Big Mouth,” demons who represent a group of teenagers’ emerging sexual desires. The “Big Mouth” voice cast includes some of this era’s funniest comedians: Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jordan Peele, Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig and more. The bright, cartoony style and the comic timing of these actors convert acutely embarrassing adolescent moments into something boldly honest and funny. (Read a New York Times opinion piece about the show.)
‘BoJack Horseman’ (2014-20)
Stream it on Netflix.
A sneakily soulful dramedy about a depressed horse who used to be a sitcom star, “BoJack Horseman” is as visually exciting and strange as any other adult animated series, even if it’s ultimately more of a character sketch. The creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg uses this story about a rich has-been as a way to comment on the soul-sucking grind of show business, and to illustrate the insidiousness of addiction and mental illness. But while the humor can be grim, this series is also snappily paced and — like many of the best animated shows for adults — oddly life-affirming. (Read the New York Times review.)