After the weird and wacky cartoons of the 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t clear which direction animation would go in during the next decade. As a result of new studios and the globalization of Western and Eastern animation styles, the cartoons of the 2010s delivered a blend of art styles and genres—mixed with the increasingly disillusioned and jaded mentalities of millennials as they began to enter the workforce.
- The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)
- Adventure Time! (2010-2018)
- Kill La Kill (2013-2014)
- Bob’s Burgers (2011-Present)
- Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-2018)
- Aggretsuko (2018-Present)
- Tuca & Bertie (2019-2021)
The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)
Creator: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Starring: Janet Varney (Voice), P.J. Byrne (Voice)
Where to Watch: Netflix, Paramount+, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Vudu
The successor to the popular show Avatar: The Last Airbender followed the events of Korra, the avatar who followed Aang. Her show began when she was an older teen, and the themes were markedly different and of a darker nature to reflect the older protagonists.
Sixty years after Aang helped to end the war with the Fire Nation, Korra learns to balance the four elements, her love life, and the complex politics of a world that has only recently achieved peace.
In learning about herself and the world around her, Korra demonstrates a hero struggling with mental illness. She continues to be successful with her limitations, not just in spite of them.
This show also helped redefine LGBT representation on Nickelodeon, specifically teaching acceptance to its primarily young audience.
Adventure Time! (2010-2018)
Creator: Pendleton Ward
Starring: Jeremy Shada (Voice), John DiMaggio (Voice)
Where to Watch: Cartoon Network, HBOMax, Hulu, Xfinity, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu
This Emmy Award-winning show follows the adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human as they navigate the weird experience of living in a fantasy world 1,000 years in the future.
The human world has long vanished, and the last living human must wield a sunny disposition to discover what happened in the past—and stop another world-ending apocalypse.
Each short episode focuses specifically on one strange event in life, or follows one of the numerous, well-fleshed-out secondary characters. Princess Bubblegum and Marceline are just two of the hilariously drawn and surprisingly realistic cast in this 2010s standout.
Kill La Kill (2013-2014)
Creator: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Starring: Erica Mendez (Voice), Matthew Mercer (Voice)
Where to Watch: Funimation, Netflix, Hulu, HBOMax
Despite the basic premise—scantily-clad anime high school girls battling with futuristic weaponry—Kill La Kill is anything but simple. It explores interesting meta-textual themes of exploitative conventions, especially regarding how sexualized the leading ladies of the show are.
But, more than that, Kill La Kill focuses on female friendship, the bonds between women, and how they grow and change over time.
Bob’s Burgers (2011-Present)
Creator: Loren Bouchard, Jim Dauterive
Starring: H. John Benjamin (Voice), Dan Mintz (Voice)
Where to Watch: Adult Swim, Hulu, Xfinity, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu
Although often compared to Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers takes a much more wholesome and realistic view of family dynamics. It also doesn’t do things solely for shock value—though, like Family Guy, it does feature plenty of fun musical episodes.
Bob Belcher, his wife, and their three children work together to run the burger restaurant of Bob’s dreams as they struggle to stay connected and support Bob.
Funnily enough, of the Belcher family’s wife and two daughters, only one character is actually voiced by a female voice actress: the youngest daughter, Louise.
Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-2018)
Creator: Lauren Montgomery, Joaquim Dos Santos
Starring: Jeremy Shada (Voice), Steven Yeun (Voice)
Where to Watch: Netflix
Voltron: Legendary Defenders was an ambitious show from Dreamworks and Korea-based Studio Mir. They brought the classic anime style of art from the 1980s cartoon and turned it into a high-quality production.
It’s full of soulful voice acting and epic battle scenes, featuring humans facing off against an invading species of conquering aliens in giant robots—which, of course, were kindly provided by a different species of aliens.
Unfortunately, the show fell apart in the later seasons as production time grew rushed, and the writers forced unnatural romances on some of the main characters to spite fan expectations. The first five seasons were a real treat for animation as a whole, however, and still very much worth the watch.
Starring: Erica Mendez (Voice), Ben Diskin (Voice)
Where to Watch: Netflix
This Japanese show dives into the soul-crushing grind of office work conditions for a young, single woman struggling with the overwhelming burdens of adulthood and capitalism.
Retsuko, the leading red panda lady, releases some of her inner turmoil by frequenting a local karaoke bar to scream her lungs out in death metal songs. She complains about her piggish boss, enormous workload, lack of a love life, and everything else that comes to mind.
Retsuko’s struggles are often assuaged by her loyal friends at the office, the awkward Haida and infinitely cool Fenneko.
This cartoon is both a refreshing comedy and gut-wrenchingly relatable. It often makes you cringe at the uncomfortable situations as they unfold on screen. Although a great show, it can often hit all too close to home.
Tuca & Bertie (2019-2021)
Creator: Lisa Hanawalt
Starring: Tiffany Haddish (Voice), Ali Wong (Voice)
Where to Watch: Adult Swim, Netflix
Starring two famous comedians as the voices of the titular characters, Tuca & Bertie follows the lives of the avian ladies living in the same apartment building as they navigate turning 30.
They still feel like they haven’t figured out how to approach adulthood, and provide humorous takes on everyday situations. These force the audience to question what’s considered socially acceptable—and why.
Although originally canceled after a single season, the massive fandom backlash forced Netflix to reevaluate how their algorithms rank shows to be canceled. They finally renewed the show for a second season, which is airing currently.
Cartoons of the 2010s built upon what their predecessors of earlier decades got right, while daring to explore all the areas mainstream animation barely touched before. Deeper themes, more relatable characters, and bolder humor carried many of these shows right into the next decade—and just might carry them through another.