Trying to talk seriously about American television animation is a difficult thing to do. You can’t talk to people about these shows if they haven’t seen them, and usually, especially if they do not have children or a television set, they haven’t.
As for trying to find good shows in the medium to watch, and determining what genres or sub-genres they belong to, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. But those needles are worth finding!
Yet, it wasn’t always this way.
Once upon a time, there were basically two genres within television animation. The type that made you laugh (or was supposed to), and the kind that was all about good-and-evil adventure. That was basically how it was between the 1960s and the 1980s. Other than shows that tried to cross-pollinate the two, such as Rocky and Bullwinkle, there was a bit of a never-the-twain shall meet philosophy going on.
But, in the 1990s and 2000s, it all went out the window. A new generation of animators emerged in the field, and, while having the greatest of respect for their elders, proceeded to shake the box in entirely unexpected new ways.
Sure, it was obvious on the surface. The Simpsons, for example, was and is a sitcom, and The Powerpuff Girls was (and soon will be again) an action-adventure program. But those are limiting descriptions. Saying that they were both “cartoons” is like saying Glenn Gould and Oscar Peterson were two Canadian guys who played piano.
Now, in the 2010s, the ball-game has gotten screwier.
Take, for example, a new and recent favourite of mine: Pig Goat Banana Cricket. Named for its four protagonists, this program is a helter-skelter blend of old-school 1930s-style animation and contemporary satiric edginess. Nothing is sacred, and everything is taken for granted. Even when one or all four of the protagonists gets into a whack of trouble, as they often do, providence (in the form of the writers) rescues them. They blithely and hilariously make their way through life, shaping jokes and gags to their whim, like jazz musicians riffing on the great American songbook.
Other than the obvious label – comedy – what do you call a show like that within the limiting confines of genre?
The attitude regarding what genre is now in television animation seems more to be: What the hell is that? It seems that the animators don’t know how to make straight beers anymore, and are focusing on boilermakers and scotch-and-sodas borrowed from all media genres that they think might work, but don’t always.
Increasingly, animators play by their own rules here rather than anyone else’s. If you get it, fine, but if you don’t…
And, if you don’t believe me, try to watch it once in a while.
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The holder of an MA degree from the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, and a lifelong animation fan, he has published short fiction in a variety of genres for various magazines and anthologies, as well as essays on his favourite topics for similar publishers. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Chupa Cabra House), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming) and Nothing About Us Without Us: The Adventures of the Cartoon Republican Army (Dreaming Big Productions, forthcoming.)