From BoJack Horseman to Rick and Morty, how cartoons captured an adult audience worldwide
Are we watching more cartoons for adults because like-humoured people from our generation are making so many of them? Or are they making more cartoons for adults because we’re bingeing these shows on Netflix?
Cast your mind back to the not-so-distant past, and you'll remember a time when most cartoons were either meant for kids or had a child protagonist (which made the show interesting to kids). At the tail end of the '90s emerged shows like Family Guy, with its abundance of sophomoric humour, and the profanity-laden South Park — which weren’t necessarily meant for children, but we know that eight- and nine-year-olds were religiously watching them (and voting for Cartman as their favourite television personality!). As cartoons and animated shows went "mainstream" however, they became less about kids and for kids.
Still, with the occasional exception of the critically acclaimed, beautifully-made, funny, and socially relevant The Boondocks (featuring predominantly younger protagonists) or the funny-but-vanilla Archer, animated shows (not anime) mostly followed a tried-and-tested path.
Circa 2013-14, all of that changed, mainly because of two shows — one, about a self-loathing, alcoholic, washed up anthropomorphic horse and another about the misadventures of a sociopathic mad scientist and his good-natured-but-always-worried grandson.
When Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty first premiered, The Simpsons had been on air for nearly 25 years. Interestingly (socially speaking), this was also around the time when research about millennials was in full swing — Deloitte and Pew were trying their best to make sense of this enigmatic generation that was about to overtake the Baby Boomers in number. This generation of overeducated digital natives who were caught in a maelstrom of student debts, low wages, and economic hardships because they had to bear the brunt of a global recession they hadn’t caused; a generation of liberal individuals who would subsequently be blamed for everything — from not being able to afford a home because they spent all their money on shallow things such as avocado toast, to moving back with their parents after college.
Empathetic researchers tried to explain to everyone that when millennials play video games, text, and tweet, they’re not avoiding reality; instead they’re developing skills like problem-solving and teamwork, for the future. There was extensive analysis in the media, about a quintessentially millennial phenomenon — delayed adulthood (this was also roughly around the time “adulting” became a legit verb; because adulthood was something you strove for or worked towards, being classified as an adult because of your chronological age didn’t guarantee you would act like an adult).
It’s tempting to view the the rise in cartoons for adults (cartoons...animated shows — call them what you want) as a direct result of these societal trends. We millennials want to delay adulthood, and we also just want to watch cartoons! Insert eyeroll emoji here. But is all of this just a sign of the “inner child refusing to grow up?” That's a bit hard to believe. People have written about the psychological benefits of adults watching kids’ cartoons, but that’s the point — shows like Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty don’t necessarily make you feel better or brighter, and they don’t show “that good always wins over evil, and that the sun will always come out tomorrow.” In fact, they often do the opposite. I’m not saying that watching these shows will make you depressed, or that they deliberately try to stoke your melancholia (well, maybe a little), but anyone who has watched these shows will tell you — they certainly don’t shy away from getting real!
Mental health, drug dependence, terminal illness, asexuality, neglected childhood, abandoning an offspring, death — these are just some of the issues that BoJack has dealt with in its first four seasons. And the show has handled them beautifully!
Rick and Morty, while infinitely lighter in tone and also generally more irreverent because of its inherent nihilism, also digs deep into issues such as familial relationships, suicide and depression, emotional abuse, substance addiction, and existential dread. Rick and Morty (and Summer) might go on intergalactic adventures and sing and gallivant, but the writing on the show is often also brutally honest and deeply disturbing.
A show like Big Mouth (about tween protagonists going through the hell that is puberty) feels less like a show about teenagers for teenagers, and more like its 40-year-old co-creators looking back at their teenage selves and trying to retrospectively make sense of a tumultuous time.
Even a Disney entity such as Star Wars Rebels is not fun and frothy in the animated version; it’s darker than the movies, and while it does retain the classic good vs evil trope, the cost of the struggle depicted is beyond anything a children’s cartoon would be comfortable showing.
So, if the preference for more “cartoons for adults” doesn’t necessarily signal a stubborn refusal to grow up or the need to watch a frivolous show where everything is fine at the end of the half hour, then what explains their recent rise and popularity, to the point that these shows have now become a mainstream genre? Besides BoJack Horseman, Netflix released animated originals Big Mouth, Disenchantment, and Final Space in the past few months — between these and the overwhelmingly popular non-Netflix cartoons (such as Rick and Morty and Star Wars Rebels), there have been more adult animated cartoons in the past few years than the past two decades combined. Or so it feels.
One interesting factor is the age of the creators of these shows — Bojack, Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, and Final Space have all been created (or co-created) by millennials or those somewhat older.
Olan Rogers (the creator of Final Space) is the youngest, at 31 years. Dan Harmon (co-creator of Rick and Morty) is the oldest — he’s 45 — but co-creator Justin Roiland is 38, so there’s that. Essentially, these are shows created by a certain demographic for a similar-ish demographic (89 percent of millennials say they watch most of their "TV" on Netflix versus live TV. Seventy-eight percent of Gen X say the same). Sure, Matt Groening is waaaayy older at 64, but that probably explains why Disenchantment felt so dated and unoriginal when compared to BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, or Big Mouth.
So, are we watching more cartoons for adults because like-humoured people from our generation are making so many of them and they’ve become mainstream? Or are they making more cartoons for adults because we’re just sitting in front of our screens bingeing these shows on Netflix etc? Or, like Ross taught a woefully-inefficient Chandler, is there a secret option number three — that cartoons for adults are arguably better now, and we watch more of them because we identify more with their sometimes-melancholic-always-astute humour? The drama and humour on these shows is often darker than earlier cartoons, the subject matter often uncomfortable, and the endings often unsatisfying — nothing is wrapped up neatly in a half hour and presented to us with a bow. And as a generation of 20-and-30-somethings still coming to terms with adulthood, that suits us perfectly!
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