Nov 16 2012 11:00am

Don’t Touch That Dial: Cartoons for Geeks

A look at the best cartoons for geeks currently on TV

Welcome to the final episode of “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a mini-series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, will break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Previously we delved into fantasy/paranormal, horror/comics/general geekery, mysteries/procedurals, and sitcoms, so in this very special episode we’ll tackle cartoons, namely Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic, and Regular Show. Be warned, where applicable these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.


Adventure Time

The Road So Far: Adventure Time (CN, Mon 7:30 PM) stars Finn the Human, a 14-year-old boy, and his adoptive brother Jake the Dog. Finn and Jake roam the magical, post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo—the earth about a 1,000 years after the Great Mushroom War and climate change wiped out most of civilization—having grand adventures and getting into trouble. On their journey they encounter other strange creatures and semi-humans like the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen, Princess Bubblegum and her half-unicorn, half-rainbow cohort Lady Rainicorn, Flame Princess, and Lumpy Space Princess, and no, I’m not tripping on acid right now.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I’ve heard comparisons of Adventure Time to The Ren & Stimpy Show, but I’d argue it’s more like the next generation of Spongebob Squarepants. The biggest way I’d say it’s indebted to Ren & Stimpy is the animation style. It’s unusual and bizarre with a strange “high school doodles in biology class” flavor to it. Basically, it’s like an animated version of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. The show is gleefully adorable, wondrously childlike, and surprisingly witty for a kiddie cartoon. It’s not my favorite kid-aimed cartoon on TV right now (Gravity Falls coming right up...), but it’s weirdly enjoyable and enjoyably weird, and that’s pretty darn great in my book. There’s a lot to love about the show, and even more to love about the people behind it. The show gets even funnier when you realize the guy who voices Bender from Futurama (John Di Maggio) is voicing Jake and you start pretending that Finn is hanging out with a beer-soaked robot from the future.

Adventure Time has also grown up over the years, and not just in the case of Jeremy Shada, the teen who voices Finn. The characters in the Land of Ooo are oddly complex for a show rated TV-PG, and there’s almost always a hell of a lot more going on than meets the eye. In the season premiere double-header, Finn gets sucked into a dystopian alternate reality that descends into a hellish ice pit when he gets hold of the Ice King’s destructive crown. It’s sad and sweet and everyone dies and it’s up to Jake and his new non-corporeal buddies to save the day. It’s not heavy thinking, but damn if it isn’t a great show. Just because your target demographic is tweens doesn’t mean you have to talk down to them. Adventure Time is brazen enough to create a show that kids and adults can watch without alienating either group.

TL;DR: Bring me my fuzzy animal ears cap!


Gravity Falls

The Road So Far: Twelve-year-old twins Mabel and Dipper Pines’ summer vacation is ruined with their parents ship them off to live with their Great Uncle Stan in Gravity Falls (DIS, Fri 9:30 PM). Dipper finds a mysterious book full of clues about the weird little Oregon town, and he and his dorky sister use it to fight marriage-obsessed gnomes, zombie boyfriends, clones, alternate realities, and robotic sea monsters. In between supernatural adventures, the kids work for Grunkle Stan in his tourist trap, The Mystery Shack, home to Rock-That-Looks-Like-A-Face Rock (which is not an actual face, mind) and the world’s freakiest wax museum. The kids team up with unpaid maintenance man Soos, Dipper’s crush Wendy, and other strange locals.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: If you asked me a month ago what was my favorite cartoon currently airing, I’d talk your ear off about Adventure Time. But now Gravity Falls has Mabel’ed its way to the top of the list. Gravity Falls is a frakking fantastic show. Even its less-than-stellar eps shine over just about everything else in its category. It is a clever, witty, sweet, bizarre show that manages to be both mature and childlike simultaneously without condescending to either group. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Pixar films and The Iron Giant (by Brad Bird who later moved to Pixar). Gravity Falls is about growing up, about losing things you’ve always known and gaining shiny, scary new things, about friendships and relationships, about realizing your family is weird and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The last episode, “Summerween,” is about the fake Halloween the townsfolk celebrate in the summer. Mabel wants to dress up in cutsey twins costumes and go trick-or-treating and Dipper wants to go to a house party and hit on the chick he has a crush on. Plus there’s a monster threatening to eat them. For tweens, the show is about that tricky space between being a kid and being a grown-up, where you want to do teen stuff that sounds so mature and cool (A party without adults? Yay!) but you also want to do kid stuff like trick-or-treating. Being a tween is confusing in today’s world, and Gravity Falls gets that in spades. For adults, the show makes us remember those seemingly complicated times without getting bored or annoyed.

On top of all that, it’s really damn funny. When I first looked it up, I was surprised to discover Disney behind the wheel. The quality, breadth, subject matter, and edginess of the jokes is pretty far out there for Disney, what with its non-reliance on bad puns and overly long pauses for canned laughter. The jokes are rapid-fire and hit the mark 95% of the time. Granted, this isn’t George Carlin or Louis CK-level humor, but where the other shows on this list made me snicker, Gravity Falls induced laughs so loud my neighbor pounded on the wall to make sure I was okay. It’s a cross between the crazy humor of Invader Zim and the Important Social Issues in Teen Titans.

TL;DR: It’s like Supernatural but for kids. And a cartoon. Hey, you know what’d be cool? A cartoon episode of Supernatural.


My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic

The Road So Far: Unicorn pony Twilight Sparkle is the main protagonist of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic (Hub, Sat 10:30 AM). She’s a bookworm living in the town of Ponyville in the magical kingdom Equestria. She’s compelled by her mentor Princess Celestia to learn about friendship and eventually takes up with Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy, each with their own unique personalities and qualities. The friends go on wacky adventures and help their neighbors as their friendship grows.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: As a woman born in the early 1980s, I was the target demographic for My Little Pony and My Little Pony Tales. To this day I still count my My Little Pony toys as my prized possessions. There is a clause in my 1980s-1990s Childhood Contract stipulating that I must first complain loudly about any remake from my youth, then watch and either become an angry or obsessed fangirl. This is the show that every single geek I meet tells me I should be watching. When I tell them it doesn’t interest me they look at me like I just told them I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not true, of course. I have seen the show, quite a bit in fact. But I tell them I haven’t seen it because that shocked reaction is easier to deal with than the utter horror they experience when I tell them that although I do sometimes like it I also really kinda hate it. Hold on, don’t go, just hear me out, alright?

In spite of its grammatical incorrectness, My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is a cute show. A very cute show. It’s so cute that every time I watch it I feel like I’m coming down with a severe case of cuteness overload. And it’s full of musical numbers. Some of which are pretty cool. Others make me want to jab pencils in my ears. Look, I have a lump of coal where my heart should be. I am dead inside, and my soul is a shriveled, cold, hard piece of anti-social grumbling. Twilight Sparkles’ eternal cheeriness doesn’t make my heart grow three times larger, it just makes me even grinchier. Despite all this, I still seek out the show. Why? Because it’s genuinely good. The characters are deeper than in those many adult live action shows (looking at you, The Walking Dead). There’s a ton of smart humor squished in and around the happy-go-lucky songs. And, like every other show on this list, adults and kids can watch it together or apart, and each can get out of it something different yet still enjoy it (more or less).

TL;DR: Ignoring my personal grievances for a moment, if you can stomach the relentless twee than this is the show for you.


Regular Show

The Road So Far: A blue jay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby are the stars of Regular Show (CN, Mon 8p). They are a pair of slackers who are groundskeepers at a park who spend more time avoiding work than actually doing any. Season four opens with the duo suffering grave consequences for their lazy-ass behavior.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Regular Show is an obvious kids’ show for adults to watch, what with its twentysomething leads. It’s also a lot more surreal than the other shows on this list. Sometimes I feel like it belongs more on Adult Swim than Cartoon Network, and I think, generally speaking, adults get a lot more out of it than kids do. It’s full of irreverent humor, probably more than most kids get, and its intense level of off-color absurdism hasn’t been seen in the kiddie pool since Rocko’s Modern Life. Honestly, there’s not much more to say about an 11-minute slice of animated heaven.

TL;DR: Watch it. Just watch it. Trust me.

Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

1. wandering-dreamer
"A cartoon episode of Supernatural." Actually they made a full, 26 episode season of a Supernatural anime last year and it's out in the US now, you can find it online or probably at a local Walmart (I think that's where my roommate got her copy in any case).
Scott Silver
2. hihosilver28
I'm going to throw in my vote for The Legend of Korra. It's my favorite animated show on the air.
3. darke
It's not My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, it's
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Nothing grammatically challeged about it. xD
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
4. Lisamarie
I haven't actually seen these shows, but this made me laugh: "But I tell them I haven’t seen it because that shocked reaction is easier to deal with than the utter horror they experience when I tell them that although I do sometimes like it I also really kinda hate it."

My husband and I had a similar reaction a few year ago at a con where somebody started humming the Firefly theme and we were not familiar with it (we don't actually watch TV in our house - we do have 'the box' that lets us get some PBS type channels but we just aren't TV watchers in general, aside from a few beloved series we watch on DVD). I am not even kidding, I thought they were going to throw us out of the convention.

Then, we got somebody to lend it to us and...we were underwhelmed (I wouldn't say that I 'hated' it, but it just was nowhere as good as Veronica Mars, which is the show we're both total fangeeks over and that we compare everything to). The friends of ours that loaned it to us practically stopped talking to us for a week!
treebee72 _
5. treebee72
My favorite thing about Gravity Falls is the relationship between Mabel and Dipper. Siblings who don't hate each other! It's a television miracle!
Kevin Persiko
6. lanistheman
I second the vote for The Legend of Korra. It is fantastic. I would also say Phineas and Ferb is one of my favorite cartoons on television right now.
Cathy Mullican
7. nolly
What, no Phineas and Ferb? That's what I hear about most from cartoon-watching geeks.
Alex Brown
8. AlexBrown
@wandering: Yeah, those are in my Netflix queue :)

@hiho, Lanis, nolly: Totally forgot about Korra! And I honestly didn't realize Phineas and Ferb was still on the air. One more rec and you've got yourselves a follow-up post...

@darke: Check their website. No colon at all. I go by Hub.

@Lisa: Sometimes we fans can get really intensive about our preciouses...

@tree: I know, they genuinely love each other. Even when they disagree, they never scream horrible things at each other or hurt each other emotionally/physically/psychologically.
treebee72 _
9. treebee72
@Alex - the closest Dipper came to really hurting Mabel was in the Time Traveler's Pig (that ep is soooo frelling awesome), but in the end he did the right thing. It's just so nice to see siblings on TV that really care for each other all the time, instead of only the 'very special episodes'.

I'll add the recs for both Korra and Phineas and Ferb (though I do have some issues with that show's family relationships & general treatment of Candace).
10. joelfinkle
What, no love for TRON: Uprising? There's a fairly deep story, great voice work (including Paul Reubens and Lance Henriksen as well as the leads of Bruce Boxleitner and Elijah Wood), trippy visuals adding up to a weekly half hour each one of which beats the TRON: Legacy movie.

And when's Korra coming back anyway?
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
OK, Korra is out because it's not currently on air (presumably doesn't return 'til mid-spring). I can add Phineas and Tron to the list, but I need at least 1 - preferably 2 - more show to review to round out the post...
George Brell
12. gbrell

I'm calling you out. If you're going to cover Community, a show that isn't on air currently and doesn't come back till February, you should also cover Korra, which is scheduled to return in 2013 as well (hopefully in the April to June timeslot it occupied this year).

You could also use the space to connect it to the original Avatar.
treebee72 _
13. treebee72
@gbrell - I second this! And under these rules, add Futurama to the list. :)
Alex Brown
14. AlexBrown
@gbrell and tree: I'd like to do this series again in the spring, albeit on a much smaller scale, so Korra will get covered then. And I did Community because it was supposed to be on and I'd already started writing it and the more we talk about it now the more chance we have of saving that show. Korra's not going anywhere anytime soon.
George Brell
15. gbrell
Fair enough. It sounds like I'll have to start watching Gravity Falls now, though. Thanks for that.
Alan Brown
16. AlanBrown
The last episode of "Don't Touch That Dial?" That would be a shame because I was starting to look forward to your posts, Alex!
From my own perspective:
- Adventure Time is just a bit too strange for me, but my granddaughter loves it.
- I have heard that Gravity Falls is good, and have a few episodes waiting on my DVR--this review makes me look forward to watching them.
- My granddaughter and I both love My Little Pony. In fact, the family accuses me of being a brony, and liking it even better than her. She recently lined up all the ponies I have given her, and the parade went all the way out the door and into the next room.
- Can't comment on the Regular Show, as it doesn't appear to be my cup of tea.
And count me as another fan of Phineas and Ferb. I was home recovering from surgery for a month last year, with a lot of time on my hands, and after recommendations from my son, decided to give the show a try, and found it was great. Even my wife, who doesn't care for cartoons, has been drawn in, and looks forward to watching new episodes.
17. wizard clip
I'm not sure that Regular Show is more surreal than Adventure Time. In fact, I'm not sure that anything in existence is more surreal than Adventure Time.

But Alex, you neglected to mention what might make Regular Show especially appealing to readers at this site. Every episode starts out as a standard slacker comedy, but Mordecai and Rigby's actions quickly take them into bizzaro scenerios that will be familiar to any SF, fantasy, or horror fan. What makes this especially hilarious is that the tropes they parody are barely exaggerated, reminding me af the Tick's approach to superhero satire. In other words, there seems to be a lot of genuine affection for the genres they're sending up.
Alex Brown
18. AlexBrown
@Alan: I am far too vain to ever stop wanting to shout my opinions from the rooftops, so I'm not going anywhere anytime soon, but this mini-series is intended to go with the television season...

@wizard: You're right about Regular Show. It definitely loves its SFF tropes, and I don't mean that in a negative way.
19. Cybersnark
Don't forget Young Justice (which would be on the air, if DC weren't the spawn of Trigon --it's supposed to be back next year ). It's easily the best thing DC has produced since Justice League Unlimited, and is fully comparable to Avatar & Korra.
Shelly wb
20. shellywb
Don't watch the anime version of Supernatural. It will just make you cry. They took out everything good to condense it into 20 minutes of "There's a monster; kill it."

My favorite animated show remains South Park. They're hit or miss, but when they hit (like the Dr Seuss episode a few weeks ago) they skewer all our foibles mercilessly in a way most shows on television don't dare.
Chuk Goodin
21. Chuk
Seconding the comment on Young Justice -- I'm like a season and a quarter behind but so far it's excellent.
I also like Gravity Falls and you didn't even mention all the Easter eggs in it, like the secret cypher in the beginning credits. I was kind of watching both those shows with my seven year old but I think she's outgrown them and I'm going to have to steal some TV cartoon time for myself.

And what's grammatically wrong with My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic? Her little pony friendship is a kind of magic. (Or so I assume, haven't watched more than a clip or two here and there.)

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