A Case for Animated TV Shows

 

In the lead-up to this year’s Emmy Awards, I decided to look up the nominees and previously-announced winners for a quick idea of how things would go. And while I was happy to see shows like The Handmaid’s Tale nominated for many of the primetime honors, I also looked at the shows selected for Outstanding Animated Program and related titles. As a result of this, I was mostly confused and a little upset. Why has “Steven Universe” never won an Emmy? Why would a typically low-rated program like “Teen Titans Go!” be nominated for an Emmy? And why on Earth would “BoJack Horseman” only be nominated for one category?

I hold it as no secret that I am a huge fan of animation in general. I can’t really understand why something that takes so much work to create is often seen as only appealing to kids. It almost seems that those who dismiss animation only think of what they saw as children or the more crude shows made for adults rather than masterworks by companies like Pixar or Studio Ghibli. And, unfortunately, this seems to be the mindset of many award-show voters.

The system for choosing the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature is particularly known for demonstrating this sort of apathy. Many of the voters are actors and admit to not actually watching the animated movies that they’re voting on. These will usually go with the one that their kid liked or the one that got the most marketing attention in America. Without this system, I would never understand how a movie as touching, beautiful and imaginative as “Song of the Sea” would lose to “Big Hero 6” back in 2014.

As for the Emmys, the process for selection is similarly peer-chosen, and this can lead to manipulation by “for-your-consideration” campaigns and/or falling subject to the default of whatever’s most well-known. And it’s not that I have anything against the two Emmy winners from this year, in fact I love them both. “Bob’s Burgers” has some of the best dry humor to ever be written/improvised for TV and “Adventure Time” has demonstrated incredibly imaginative storytelling for years now. I only find that - just like after any award show, it seems - there were a lot of animated works that could have used a little more attention.

In terms of shows marketed to children (that are still running), I cannot help but talk about “Steven Universe.” Now nominated for Best Short-Form Animated Program three years in a row, “Steven Universe” centers around a half-human boy being raised by three alien women. Throughout the series, they help Steven discover is inherited powers, find out more about his family’s past and defend the Earth from alien invaders and monsters. While a fairly simple premise, the show ends up addressing themes of identity that go untouched by a lot of adult programs, usually explored through some fascinating alien abilities. Most prominent is the power to combine one’s self - mind and body - with another person or multiple people. This leads to the characters exploring questions about relationships and gender and selfhood and mental health, and all through a way that isn’t explicit, it’s just sort of shown. A large number of LGBTQ+ characters, including the network's first nonbinary cartoon character has also made “Steven Universe” one of the most progressive shows on television. Along with some beautiful animation and a great soundtrack, it’s really surprising that this show hasn’t earned many titles beyond the Annies.

In terms of animated programs made for adults, “Rick and Morty” didn’t qualify this year, but I’m sure many would be shocked if an episode from the current season wasn’t at least nominated in 2018. Best known as the show that half of your male friends won’t shut up about, “Rick and Morty” is warranting of a lot of discussion. The show combines traditional Adult Swim-style humor with a lot of innovative science-fiction concepts. And as the show explores these concepts even further, it also explores deep and troubled parts of the human psyche, particularly in how one sees oneself and one’s actual and possible identities. There is plenty to talk about with “Rick and Morty,” but it’s not the adult cartoon show that I want to focus on here. The one I really want to discuss is Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”

Recently having released its fourth season - and quickly renewed for a fifth - “BoJack Horseman” is about an anthropomorphic horse (half of the people are animals on the show, this is mainly for comedic purposes) who starred in a cheesy sitcom in the 80’s and 90’s and has never really been able to separate himself from it. The show follows him and his friends as they try to navigate through relationships, mental health, addictions, identity and the generally unforgiving world of Hollywood. The social commentary in this show is biting and overt, as is the way it tackles a lot of harsh, universal realities about life itself. Ideas like how the past will always haunt you, love is always deserved and never guaranteed and that overall, idealized “fulfillment” in life probably won’t be attained by any of us. And these are shown through characters that seem almost too real. All of them are likable and funny but also deeply troubled, making mistakes and using every flawed coping mechanism ever conceived. It’s an insanely well-written show that some people probably shouldn’t watch for the sake of their mental health and that more people definitely should watch for the sake of their worldview. It's also a comedy, I promise.

The third season was one of the most funny and brutal seasons to date (until the most recent), and what was it nominated for at the Emmys? Voice Acting and nothing else. Granted, Kristen Schaal’s performance is amazing in the nominated episode, making for the most emotional moments of the season, but why is the writing not receiving recognition? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Regardless of what the Academy has said, I hope that more people will take the time to enjoy these other shows, as well as even more animated programs. The power to show anything you can imagine is a very strong one, and very effective. It has already created some amazing works of television.