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The Relevance of Adult Cartoons in Pop Culture

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Adult cartoons like “Bojack Horseman,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and “Rick and Morty” have cemented the genre as an essential vessel for pop culture references and our aging society. Artists and animators on these shows put in a great amount of work behind the scenes to give life to the moving pictures on the screen. Many of these shows have entered the zeitgeist of 21st century entertainment due to the raw, gritty and humorous takes they provide on a variety of topics. There are several factors that attribute to the rising power of adult cartoons in popular culture, and each speak volumes of the capacity of the cartoon medium.

Children’s TV shows typically deal with issues that are kid-friendly, themes of friendship, being responsible, and self-acceptance among others. The stakes, however, are generally low, leaving no gravity behind the plot mechanic. They’re simpler, cleaner than adult cartoons. At the end of many  episodes in  traditional children’s show, there is a return to the status-quo. The slate is wiped clean and while the characters may learn life lessons in that episode, there is no memory. In the next episode, another topic or common experience will be extracted for story material. This is reminiscent of sitcoms and the early age of TV. Shows like this were far more common and popular because they were familiar. Children’s shows are nearly always optimistic, bubbly and very rarely, if the story needs it, contain melancholic elements.

Ironically enough, the medium of cartoons popularized by and initially targeted towards children has been implemented to take on heavier topics via adult cartoons. Whereas a children’s show offers a more sanitized view of the world and delivers lessons through stories in that way, adult cartoons have no obligation to stick to that formula. There is more freedom to explore darker themes and delve deeper into real life through the very human struggles the characters are put through even if they’re not explicitly human. The stakes are very much real and it’s refreshing to watch content that aims to match the age and maturity of the respective viewer.

Another favorable aspect is that these shows are typically not hour long dramas that dally on at  their own pace until the climax of the season, but are rather presented episodically with efficiency. The cartoons typically run at less than half of that per episode, making it easy to binge-watch. Each episode operates with the understanding that the show has memory. Meaning the  lead character can be placed into whatever situation you see fit,  as a creator can make callbacks to prior seasons and better illustrate the character’s arcs because the audience is trusted enough to understand and appreciate this subtle but complex storytelling convention. These shows provide motifs and recurring ideas that can serve as cathartic release and make it accessible. It’s simply easier to commit to two or three 20 minute episodes than to ones that clock in at closer to an hour.

While the storytelling conventions and overall design doesn’t differ across genres and medias, what makes the adult cartoon so potent is its ability to go deeper into the psyche of humanity and explore consequences in a unique way. It has the hook of being able to have surrealist elements like a talking horse, or an interdimensional traveling mad scientist to draw viewers in. This is the superficial. Yet it is what helps identify a majority of shows in the genre. There is more creative license granted to these artists to incorporate strange events and build weird worlds because the underlying heartbeat of the story is still human. It provides opportunities to tell jokes that would be offensive but are rendered more along the line of absurd within the context of the show. Since there is more material to work with in terms of topics, adult cartoons can also get away with vulgar comedy. This may alienate some viewers who see it as unnecessary but it strengthens the structure of the genre. There aren’t as many restrictions and the license to create strange, unique worlds.

With adult cartoons, the demographic is there. The fundamental pillars of storytelling and story structure are there. The only thing that’s continually in flux is the creative output or external packaging of these tales. The genre has more reign to explore issues that affect adults and still show that while the characters and setting and the medium is conveying fictional stories, if they carry universal lessons about humankind, they have a greater chance of becoming a pop culture phenomenon.