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Why TV’s next Golden Age might come thanks to adult animation

A masked man in a tight bodysuit flying
“Invincible” is an hourlong animated adaptation of a superhero comic book series.
(Amazon Studios)

“M.O.D.O.K.” executive producer Jordan Blum describes the upcoming stop-motion series as “a midlife crisis story about a supervillain.”

Cocreated with Patton Oswalt, the show follows the uniquely shaped Marvel villain as he struggles with his responsibilities as a husband and father as well as his declining career as the head of an evil organization.

For the record:

11:04 a.m. Nov. 23, 2020In an earlier version of this post, the last name of show creator Mike McMahan was misspelled as McMahon.

“He’s in his 40s, he’s got a family [and] he believes he’s destined to rule the world,” said Blum. “But what happens when all that’s taken away and your family leaves you and suddenly, you have nothing and you have to figure out who you want to be and what you want to fight for?”

The 2021 Hulu show is just one title in the growing list of adult animated shows headed to a television near you, as more streaming platforms and networks expand their offerings in the genre.

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Amazon Prime Video has its own superhero show slated for a 2021 premiere. Created by Robert Kirkman, “Invincible” is an adaptation of his comic book series cocreated with Cory Walker. Unlike “M.O.D.O.K.,” “Invincible” is a traditionally animated hourlong drama.

‘Solar Opposites’’ Justin Roiland (‘Rick and Morty’), Mike McMahan and Josh Bycel discuss the Hulu series’ hand-washing episode and the coronavirus.

A four-person family including two that are giant heads
Hulu’s “M.O.D.O.K.” is cocreated by Jordan Blum and Patton Oswalt.
(Hulu)

“The superhero space in film and television is extremely crowded, so I thought that one way to make [‘Invincible’] stand out and be more unique would be to have it in animated form,” said Kirkman. “It [also] allows you to do more with the storyline. If we were to do ‘Invincible’ in live-action, there would be extreme limitations on the scope and the scale of what we’re doing.”

Of course, adult animation is not limited to superhero fare. There are shows with sci-fi and fantasy elements. There are even musicals. But it’s the ever-popular animated sitcom that really helped launch the genre.

‘The Simpsons’ effect


Although it was not the first animated show to air on prime-time television, “The Simpsons” has long been credited as the show that changed adult animation.

Originally conceived by creator Matt Groening for a series of shorts that ran during “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “The Simpsons” debuted as a stand-alone half-hour series in 1989 and has since become the longest-running American scripted prime-time television show. The animated sitcom’s 32nd season — which will see the series air its milestone 700th episode — kicked off in September.

“I remember when ‘The Simpsons’ first came out, adults and parents wouldn’t even take a second glance,” said Wellesley Wild, showrunner and executive producer of Hulu’s new “Animaniacs,” a reboot of the ‘90s original. “It was so ahead of its time. But I think it accelerated the evolution of adult animation — people saw what was possible.”

His “Animaniacs” co-executive producer Gabe Swarr recognized the influence of other animated series in the rise of adult animation on TV, but agreed, “We owe a lot to ‘The Simpsons.’”

That series’ popularity and critical acclaim spurred the creation of other long-running animated sitcoms such as “King of the Hill” (1997) and “Family Guy” (1999).

Twentieth Television’s executive vice president of animation, Marci Proietto, said it is understandable that everyone else is looking for a “Simpsons” of their own.

“We’ve been doing [adult animation] for over 20 years and it’s been really successful and profitable and the shows are amazing,” said Proietto. “I can completely understand why everyone wants to play in our sandbox.”

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The Simpsons family in their living room
“The Simpsons,” now in its 32nd season, is television’s longest-running prime-time scripted series.
(Fox)

From “The Simpsons” to “Bob’s Burgers,” the company is known for the animated comedies it produces for Fox, which in the early years was one of the few networks — and the only one of the broadcast networks — to stake a significant claim in adult animation. But more recently, 20th Television has produced “Solar Opposites” for Hulu, “Central Park” for Apple TV+ and “The Prince” for HBO Max. (There is also “American Dad,” which originally aired on Fox and has since moved to TBS.)

The proliferation of streaming services has been one key catalyst for the recent boom in adult animation. If the initial post-"Simpsons” rise of the genre was fueled by cable networks like MTV and Comedy Central and shows like “Beavis and Butt-head,” “Daria” and “South Park” — as well as the birth of Adult Swim — streamers have shaped what followed twice over: first as platforms for network animated series, and then by creating original animation of their own.

“When I first started in the industry, it was either Adult Swim or Fox,” said Mike McMahan, one of the creators of “Solar Opposites” as well as “Star Trek: Lower Decks.” “[Those were] the two places you could play in. Maybe, if you were lucky, Comedy Central would take a stab at something.”

“Now it feels like there’s really great options and that all of the different streamers are really finding their voice as these new homes for very specific, fun adult animated shows,” McMahan continued. “I think it’s a huge benefit that these kind of shows don’t have to fit exactly in a time slot on a certain night. All they have to do is appeal to the fans of this kind of material. That hurdle is gone now.”

A scene from "BoJack Horseman" of two characters talking in a living room with a window overlooking a pool and L.A.
Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” helped launch the latest wave of animation aimed at adults.
(Netflix)

The next front in the streaming wars


The recent arrival of direct-to-consumer streamers such as Disney+, HBO Max and Apple TV+ in an already crowded market has made the competition for subscribers fiercer than ever for the companies that want to stay on top.

While each service has its own strategy for producing originals and licensed content, a number of companies have pushed to develop more adult animated originals in the last few years, guided at least in part by the viewing habits of their existing subscribers.

Netflix was the first to make its mark, with acclaimed shows such as “BoJack Horseman” (2014), “Big Mouth” (2017) and the Adult Swim-boundTuca & Bertie” (2019) helping to kick off the latest wave of adult animation.

But as the streaming home of shows such as “Family Guy,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “King of the Hill,” Hulu currently boasts the largest library of adult animated TV shows among all the platforms. The streamer debuted its first originals in this space this year, launching both “Solar Opposites” and “Crossing Swords” from creators known for their work on popular shows “Rick and Morty” and “Robot Chicken,” respectively.

“We know that we have a very sizable audience that is just wild for these shows,” said Craig Erwich, Hulu’s senior vice president of originals. “Not only do a lot of people watch it, they watch a lot of it. I think one of the things that’s kind of cool about some of these top titles is that they’re very rewatchable. Many people watch the episodes more than once.”

‘Solar Opposites’’ Justin Roiland (‘Rick and Morty’), Mike McMahan and Josh Bycel discuss the Hulu series’ hand-washing episode and the coronavirus.

Four aliens wielding weapons
“Solar Opposites” is one of Hulu’s first adult animation originals.
(Hulu)

Amazon Studios’ chief operating officer and cohead of TV, Albert Cheng, also sees adult animation programming as an important part of serving its customers.

“Adult animation is really important to meet the needs of our younger viewers,” said Cheng. “It’s a category of creative content on our service that really appeals to the younger millennials that are Prime [Video] subscribers.”

In addition to the second season of “Undone,” the acclaimed original that uses rotoscope animation, Amazon has the comic book adaptation “Invincible,” the L.A.-set “Fairfax” and the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired “Legend of Vox Machina” in its pipeline.

“It feels like a renaissance,” said Vernon Sanders, Amazon’s cohead of TV. “The degree of ambition and variety and types of animation personally gets me excited. I just think the sky’s the limit.”

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Bob Odenkirk, animated, in Amazon's "Undone."
Bob Odenkirk, animated, in Amazon’s “Undone.”
(Amazon Prime Video)

‘A good show is a good show’


It’s not just streaming services: Adult animation has been growing its footprint in traditional linear television as well.

Fox’s Animation Domination programming block has recently introduced new titles to its venerable lineup. Syfy hosts its own weekly block of adult animation programming that has expanded to include originals. Comedy Central has ordered a number of new revivals and spinoffs of past hits. Adult Swim remains an audience favorite for its unique and expansive offerings.

The growth signals that more and more people — including those in decision-making positions within the industry — are acknowledging the appeal of animated shows.

“It feels like our society is finally accepting [animation] in every area” of entertainment, said Swarr. “My entire career has been in kids entertainment and I haven’t done that much prime time, but I’m glad that animation is finally getting the recognition as having this broad appeal. A good show is a good show.”

McMahan also has noticed the shift, as the industry recognizes the existence of an audience that has been weaned on artistically daring shows such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” that have pushed animated storytelling forward.

“Back when I was first doing this, it used to be that half of an animated pitch was explaining why it absolutely had to be an animated show,” said McMahan. “Now, you don’t have to do that as much. People have a much broader understanding of animation in general, [so] you don’t have to just go to the places where there are like five animated shows already living.”

Netflix’s “Big Mouth” has found its new Missy, announcing Friday that comedian Ayo Edebiri will voice the biracial animated role vacated by Jenny Slate.

Two girls checking on a boy in a bush
Jessi, Nick and Missy in animated series “Big Mouth.”
(Netflix)

In this sense, streaming has shaped not only the business of animation on TV but also its narrative structure and aesthetics.

Although there have been more and more serialized kids cartoons in recent years, animated shows have historically featured a self-contained story in each episode. On linear television, this made shows more accessible to viewers who might not tune in regularly — a concern that’s been lessened in recent years by the growth of streaming and associated habits like binge-watching.

“The difference [in] doing a streaming show is it’s a different way of thinking about animation,” said Andrew Goldberg, cocreator and executive producer of Netflix’s “Big Mouth.” “You’re really making 10 episodes at once that are meant to be watched in a row, which is cool and different. And the ability to serialize relationships is really exciting and is one of the ways that we find even more emotional stories, because we track the relationships across different episodes.”

The “Big Mouth” creators also have been able to plan out each season’s theme in advance, knowing exactly how many episodes they have for their story. As series cocreator and executive producer Jennifer Flackett says, leaning into serialized storytelling in this way “just changed what animation was to us a little bit.”

COVID-19 and beyond


The entertainment industry on the whole has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but animation was quick to pivot to remote work to keep shows in production while its live-action counterparts had to shut down in March.

In fact, in a statement announcing its new adult animation unit in August, ViacomCBS’ entertainment and youth group President Chris McCarthy described animation as “pandemic-proof.”

But because animation has a longer lead time than other scripted and especially unscripted series, many new shows, both recently released and forthcoming, had already been in production long before the public health crisis.

While noting that the growing interest in adult animation predated the pandemic, 20th Television’s Proietto said that the current situation seems to have amplified the interest: “I think writers and studios realize that it’s something that can keep going through the pandemic. It is also very profitable and can last the test of time. It could go on for years if done well. So I think everyone is interested in how to do it now.”

Still, Erwich said that the current situation “does not factor into [Hulu’s] long-term strategy.”

“It might impact the delivery of shows, but it doesn’t impact the strategic direction of our commitment to being in the business with the best adult animated artists of the world,” he said.

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Two cartoon bird characters.
After being canceled by Netflix, “Tuca & Bertie” received new life from acclaimed animation stalwart Adult Swim.
(Netflix )

Similarly, Cheng said that COVID-19 does not really sway Amazon’s decisions regarding animation projects.

“We were already pretty invested in this direction,” added Sanders. “So we’re feeling very fortunate that there’s a lot of work that’s being done that isn’t hampered by the pandemic.”

But McMahan hopes that people will remember the value of animation and its ability to remain in production even during these hard times so the medium can continue to grow even after the current situation.

“I think that we are just scratching the surface of what we’ll be seeing in the next couple years because a lot of people that weren’t working in animation are suddenly thinking in animated terms,” said McMahan. “I also think that we are redefining how to make TV right now.

“A lot of people are working on their first animated show right now, but come next year, that won’t be the case anymore,” he added. “They’ll see how the audience returns. They’ll see how fun and easy it was. They’ll see the economic difference of making an animated show. And hopefully, that’ll open up doors that we’re not even predicting right now for people to get to make and take chances on stuff.”


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