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Life drawing: why is adult animation bigger than ever?

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It’s hard to say when it happened, but somewhere in the past five or so years, anime got so entrenched in the mainstream that articles announcing this development as a new discovery are inevitably mocked online for their cluelessness. The buffet of eastern animation has grown too broad to be diagnosed as a trend or analyzed as a monolith, no longer a novelty at a time when every rapper seems to have a nuanced take on which deep-cuts series deserve greater appreciation. Even those of us residing under rocks have the inkling that it’s no longer the domain of ninjas and other superpowered martial artists; what was once thought of as a genre has splintered into a medium, to the point that top-10 lists could be filled solely with entries about teens playing tennis.

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In the preponderance of on-air offerings across the tail end of this year, TV watchers can see this diversification mirrored through the exploding world of adult-geared animation. It wasn’t so long ago that the majority of American cartoons for a non-kid audience fell into one of two general categories: either domestic descendants of The Simpsons, or button-pushers predicated on their uncouth pairing of juvenile format and adult content. Springfield’s favorite family spawned a long line of descendants leavening the traditional at-home sitcom with line-drawn antics, a lineage including everyone from Hank Hill to Peter Griffin. The other umbrella covered the sniggering provocations affecting the appearance of Saturday morning fun-tertainment, everything from South Park and the oddities of Adult Swim to one-joke also-rans like the rightly forgotten Stripperella. This sector of TV has long since left that dichotomy behind, moving into a more fertile climate epitomized by a fall season chock-a-block with varied options of all tones and styles. As a term, “adult animation” no longer connotes anything specific, its openness to interpretation evident in an eclectic class of freshman shows.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown halted production on live-action programming, while leaving animated alternatives at a distinct advantage. Digital artwork and vocal recording sessions could all be done in relative solitude, and the delayed spike is now in full effect. Each piece of this trend – either through its visual makeup, subject matter or producing studio – comes with a clear antecedent illustrating the embarrassment of riches in today’s landscape. Some take their cues from anime, such as Marvel’s Hit-Monkey (a Japanese snow monkey takes bloody revenge on Tokyo’s chapter of the yakuza) or Netflix’s Arcane (a League of Legends tie-in fleshes out the backstories of the computer game’s characters). The slick, hyperkinetic visual sensibility that previously enlivened Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been fully integrated into the American cultural diet.

Other shows have a clearer one-to-one correspondence with their inspirations, the evident result of efforts to replicate past successes. The juxtaposition of warm-and-fuzzy profanity popularized by Netflix’s Big Mouth has come to bear in their Chicago Party Aunt, which gives shape to a popular Twitter account in the hard-drinking, chronically irresponsible Diane as she bonds with her gay nephew Daniel and coaxes him out of his shell. There’s also a bit of Big Mouth in HBO’s comedy Fairfax, in which a quartet of kids navigate the cutthroat world of street fashion in Los Angeles, though that’s got more in common with the dirtbag street smarts of the network’s now-canceled Animals. In either case, they continue the foulmouthed lineage of early landmarks in the aforementioned South Park mold.

Rick and Morty casts a long shadow, large enough that each new sci-fi-inflected series can’t avoid being considered in proximity to that crossover phenomenon. Though it comes from the creator of Gravity Falls, this week’s Netflix series Inside Job hews closely to the surrealism-of-the-week format, its setting at Deep State headquarters playing on lizard-people conspiracies and the like. We can find trace amounts of Rick and Morty’s DNA in the odd coupling of Teenage Euthanasia as well, which sees the zombie of a former teenage mother rise from the grave to connect with the daughter she’s never known. On AMC, the come-as-you-are ethic inspired by Adult Swim and their partners at Williams Street Productions can allow for an odd bird like Ultra City Smiths (from the stop-motion madmen behind Robot Chicken), in which Cabbage Patch Kids play out a noir homage of homicide investigation in a godless city.

The list of options goes on and on, encompassing the polarizing queer superhero series Q-Force, the deadpan gem Ten-Year-Old Tom from the Life and Times of Tim creator Steve Dildarian, and everything in between. In these boom times, anyone can find their preferences represented in a teeming universe of content, a lifelong predilection for cartoons no longer out of the ordinary. This latest generation of shows has served its viewership by maturing and expanding outward in every direction, as multivariate as the TV-watching public itself.

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