The 10 Best Animated Series of 2018

TV Lists Best of 2018
The 10 Best Animated Series of 2018

You know it’s a strong year for animation when the top four series on this list already appeared on our ranking of the 25 best TV shows of 2018, but that’s really just scratching the surface. With special credit to Netflix, home to six of the 10 titles below, the range of audiences (children, teens, adults, all ages) and influences (anime, superheroes, classic sitcoms, video games) here is wide enough to embrace even the biggest animation skeptics, which means that you have no excuse for… Horsin’ Around. Get watching!

Here are the 10 best animated series of 2018:

10. Star vs. the Forces of Evil
Network: Disney Channel

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“Imagine,” I wrote in my love letter to Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Daron Nefcy’s metal-as-heck Disney XD series soon to start its fourth season, “if Buffy Summers punched a demon into another dimension, and in return got her hands on a star-shaped crystal that plunged her into a funhouse-mirror, Buffyverse-version of Sailor Moon.” I KNOW, RIGHT? And while SvtFoE’s first two seasons were mostly taken up with the daily hijinks of the magically inclined, monster-battling middle schooler, 2018 saw Star (Eden Sher, at her most intense) not just step into her role as future sovereign of the whole Mewnan people, but into her responsibility to explore the uncomfortably sticky history and contemporary impact of that role, with results that often indict her own not-too-distant foremothers and fathers as the root source of great moral wrongs. (Of the battle to reintegrate monsters into Mewnan society, Star’s best friend verbatim describes it as an effort to counter “centuries of bigotry and social biases,” as her mother, the Queen, repeatedly brushes off any request for honest self-reflection.) Goofy, girly and badass; combatively silly, morally complex and full of philosophical absurdity, SvtFoE is the smart, weird, politically engaged cartoon you’d never known it was possible to wish for, let alone to hope to see on Disney. Long live Star Butterfly! May your metal-as-heck heart never burn out. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Disney XD)

9. Violet Evergarden
Network: Netflix

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The key to Violet Evergarden is that it’s about the future. Violet, a former child soldier who survived a war and lost both her arms, has to face that future, and she can’t help but look backward. Her day job has her ghostwriting clients’ thoughts and memories. She endures PTSD-fueled echoes of her own past constantly. She yearns for her beloved superior officer who (we think?) died. And throughout, she struggles both physically, with her prosthetic hands, and socially, with everyone she meets. So much anime, including many titles on this list, focuses on conflicts during wartime; it’s rare to see one go all in on the conflicts that come with peace. Violet Evergarden’s argument—that those aftereffects are surmountable—is a compelling, important one. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Netflix)

8. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Network: Netflix

The original She-Ra: Princess of Power of the 1980s may have flipped the gender ratio on cartoons of its time, but it didn’t exactly change the world. It was still a toy tie-in show, and when the merch didn’t sell, She-Ra got the axe. That history is partly what makes the revival so special. Showrunner Noelle Stevenson took the elements that made She-Ra great—butt-kicking girl power, an LGBTQ subtext, and deep female relationships—into the 21st century with all the resources of DreamWorks and Netflix. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a beautifully animated, thematically confident product that’s as willing to tackle action set pieces as it is the dark conflicts of its characters’ upbringings and heroic destinies. The revival hasn’t changed the real world yet, either, but it’s given us plenty of fascinating, flawed, badass ladies to appreciate. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Netflix)

7. The Venture Bros.
Network: Adult Swim

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In 2004, way before BoJack Horseman or Rick Sanchez were mastering the art of self-loathing, Adult Swim’s Jonny Quest parody that could, The Venture Bros., introduced audiences to Dr. Thaddeus S. “Rusty” Venture, the pathetically egotistical genius-wannabe offspring of a Great Man of Science who turned out to be less of a great man than, well, a crappy father. In 2018, The Venture Bros. is still kicking, with a seventh season released this year that was as cleverly built as any of the past five—which, as longtime fans will tell you, is really saying something. The Venture Bros. has a wry, sarcastic, effortlessly referential and witty take on the ever-expanding superhero universes that make up our pop culture zeitgeist, and its core question, “What if all those people who wanted to have superpowers were just kinda pitiful dudes who never grew up?” is pretty much always relevant. And as tension begins to grow between Doc’s sons, Dean and Hank, nearing adulthood themselves yet still inescapably caught up in their family cape-and-cowl tradition, and Doc’s butterfly-themed archenemy, The Monarch, finally becomes recognized as a top-notch villain, it’s only going to get better. —John Maher (Photo: Adult Swim)

6. The Dragon Prince
Network: Netflix

After already hitting the post-Avatar the Last Airbender jackpot once with Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos’ venerated Voltron: Legendary Defender, Netflix dipped into the AtLA creative well once more to tap Aaron Ehasz (AtLA head writer) and Jack De Sena (lead voice actor) for The Dragon Prince. Warm-hearted and gorgeously designed, the series’ short first season tread enough fresh water with its inclusion of dragons, elves and classically European magic to draw in viewers unfamiliar with the AtLA brand, while still giving jonesing Avatar fans a taste of that old Ehasz-penned Four Nations magic, focused as it was on a not-unfamiliar trio of young warriors/students of elemental power/heirs to a throne (and their endearingly weird pet) striking out on a dangerous quest. Building on AtLA’s progressive ethos further, is made especially strong by its inclusion of a biracial, blended royal family, a badass, ASL-speaking deaf lady general, and an awkward goth teen witch as one of its kinda-villains—all details which, not incidentally, have also snagged the series some of Tumblr’s choicest fandom real estate. Only nine episodes long and ending with our heroes very much just getting started, the first season of The Dragon Prince can feel more like prologue than anything—but if this is what draconic prologue looks like, next season’s real deal is likely to be excellent. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Netflix)

5. Castlevania
Network: Netflix

We at Paste have argued that Netflix’s Castlevania became “the best videogame adaptation ever made” in its second season, but even that is fainter praise than the show deserves. After all, videogames have hardly translated to film or television with any success, leaving utter mediocrity as Castlevania’s knee-high bar to clear. Let that not take away from how high it flies. Adapted from the Konami franchise of the same name by award-winning comic book writer Warren Ellis, directed by Sam Deats and animated by the aptly named Powerhouse Animation Studios, the anime-style series’ sophomore outing is a bloody delight, a Gothic orchestra that both honors and deepens Castlevania’s dark world. Its first five episodes patiently establish motivations and stakes, building slowly but surely to the gloriously explosive payoff that is its last three episodes. At the heart of it all is a tortured Dracula (Graham McTavish), the best kind of villain: one with a point. “Mark my words—with Season Three we’re going after that EMMY,” executive produce Adi Shankar tweeted upon Castlevania’s recent renewal. We wouldn’t dare bet against it. —Scott Russell (Photo: Netflix)

4. Big Mouth
Network: Netflix

A cartoon comedy about puberty in which puberty is a literal monster—like, a big, hairy, yellow, horned and horny thing that keeps egging you and your hormones on to do super impulsive things. Surprisingly enough, it works, thanks in no small part to the ever-hilarious union of Nick Kroll (one of a group of creators, including Kroll’s childhood best friend and former Family Guy writer Andrew Goldberg) and John Mulaney, who lead a tremendous cast that includes Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, and Jordan Peele as, for some reason, the ghost of Duke Ellington. But Big Mouth’s biggest coup is its refusal to shy away from issues surrounding the way we discuss gender and sexuality in our culture. Its finest moment in that endeavor? This season featured an entire variety show-style episode about Planned Parenthood and all the services it provides outside of abortion. It was informative. It was lewd. It was hilarious. Now that’s entertainment. —John Maher (Photo: Netflix)

3. Steven Universe
Network: Cartoon Network

There may be no TV show more pure-hearted than Steven Universe. Yet it’s a show that refuses to allow its gentleness of spirit and dedication to the universal worth of caring for other people distract from the complexity of the world around those doing that caring. Its titular hero and his ever-widening group of friends and family—some human, some sentient crystal alien refugees called the Crystal Gems—are stuck in an intergalactic war, after all. And, following events that aired in one of the show’s signature “StevenBomb” episode clusters earlier this year, things only become more complicated for Steven and the crew, especially with another Bomb due to hit on December 17. Fans of Steven Universe tend to celebrate its remarkable diversity and affirmation of love in all its forms, across boundaries and binaries, most loudly—and rightly so. Add that to a nail-biting post-apocalyptic space adventure for all ages, a stunning pastel Nintendo-influenced aesthetic, and a killer soundtrack filled with musical numbers showrunner Rebecca Sugar writes herself, and there’s something for pretty much everyone here. It’ll make you feel better about being yourself, too. —John Maher (Photo: Cartoon Network)

2. Adventure Time
Network: Cartoon Network

As far as series finales go, “Come Along With Me” was probably the only title that made sense for Adventure Time after its 10 seasons and 283 episodes. The wildly influential show ended its run with a four-episode arc set 1,000 years in the future, retelling the final days of Finn and Jake in the Land of Ooo and their fight against an evil chaos god named GOLB. If you’ve never watched the show, that may sound ridiculous, but Adventure Time isn’t one of the greatest cartoons ever made because it avoided contradictions. The message of the final season—filled with some of the show’s trippiest animation, most heartbreaking sacrifices, and an (all-too-rare in cartoons) on-screen kiss between two powerful women—was that life is far richer when we embrace those contradictions with friends you trust. Just bring tissues for when the songs kick in. —Eric Vilas-Boas (Photo: Cartoon Network)

1. BoJack Horseman
Network: Netflix

Every few years, a new adult cartoon is declared proof of a “golden age of animation” and is crowned king by TV critics: Rick and Morty succeeded Archer, which succeeded Bob’s Burgers, and so on. The narrative is nonsense—animation has been great since the early 1990s, and has stayed great—but BoJack Horseman merits the hype. Somehow, an animated tragicomedy about a selfish, egotistical actor battling addiction and mental illness who also happens to be an anthropomorphic horse has become a uniquely compelling meditation on fame, pain, relationships, and our cultural moment. It’s also proven itself one of television’s most ambitious shows in terms of narrative complexity, with this most recent season experimenting with, among other things, an entire episode told via a single monologue. Oh, and the animal gags are to die for. —John Maher (Photo: Netflix)

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