When people ask me what shows I’ve been watching, I never know what to say. It’s not that I haven’t watched anything good; it’s just hard to explain that all my favorite shows from this year are targeted at nine year olds.
The thing is, these shows are good, even from an adult perspective. All of the kids shows I’ve watched this year manage to pull off character arcs that put most adult dramas to shame. I’ve laughed more, teared up more, and just had more fun watching kids shows recently than I have watching anything age appropriate.
They’re not perfect. You have to put up with cheesy dialog, characters acting like, well, kids, and silly filler episodes. But if you think watching a kids show means you sacrifice things like horror, complexity, themes, or meaningful stakes, you’re absolutely incorrect. Some of these shows have the most subtle and most interesting messages I’ve seen on TV. Almost all of them have had moments that had me on the edge of my seat. And there is a surprising amount of dramatic, on-screen death. But because these are kids shows, all of that is handled in a context where you know everything will be alright in the end. I don’t always go in for that, but, well, this year I sort of needed it.The problem with feeling self conscious about watching shows aimed at a younger audience is that I really do want to recommend them to people. So here are four you might want to watch.
Avatar the Last Airbender
If you’ve seen one show on this list, it’s probably Avatar. It’s the cornerstone of the “kids-show’s-adults-like” genre, coming out in 2005, coming out five years before the next major entry, Adventure Time
Avatar is set in a world with four types of elemental magic, called ‘bending’, and follows 12 year old Aang and his two friends as they try and bring an end to a hundred year long war against the Fire Nation. It’s a thematically complex show, exploring the evils of war and the role violence should play in resolving conflicts. Almost presciently, the most compelling subplot in the entire show is one character’s struggle with toxic masculinity.
The characters didn’t grab me right away, but I got more and more attached as time passed. By three quarters of the way through the first season I was completely invested in them. The villains in the show are great too; the creators include an interesting, sympathetic antagonist for us to relate to along with a girl named Azula who is just the worst human being. The fight scenes are great. Bending is a combination of magic and martial arts, and each element is paired with its own distinct fighting style making each fight have its own unique character.
My one caveat if you’re going to check it out is that the first half of the first season is a little on the juvenile side; I got pretty tired of Aang’s twelve year old antics. That dissipates pretty fast towards the end of the first season as the characters are forced to interact with actual war. So if you’re interested, be sure to commit for at least that long.
Unfortunately, despite Avatar’s popularity, there are no spinoffs or movies.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
I know the title isn’t super promising, but bear with me, this is probably my favorite show on the list. I’m tempted to justify this by explaining all the technical strengths of the show, but I think it’s really just that I fell in love with the characters the second I met them. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten invested in characters as fast or as deeply as I did with She-Ra. It’s totally possible that the show happened to click with me in a way that it might not for you. But they all feel so vibrant and alive and fun that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting through the first six episodes and not wanting to see more of them.
Okay now all the other stuff. She-Ra is actually a reboot of an 80s show, in the sense that they took a bunch of the names and then changed almost everything about it. Which, thank goodness:
It’s set on the magic planet of Etheria, where the titular character and her band of magical princesses fight an army of bad guys using their various magic powers. Standard kids stuff. One nice thing about it is that a lot of the filler episodes still feel like they’re going somewhere, either teaching us more about the lore or further developing the characters and their relationships. If I had to pick an underlying theme I think it’d be something about friendship, but it doesn’t go nearly as deep as any other show on the list. It’s just cool, colorful characters beating up bad guys and undergoing satisfying character arcs and it 100% worked for me.
The Dragon Prince
Unlike the other shows on this list, The Dragon Prince is intense. If you want to relax and watch something morally unambiguous, watch She-Ra. If you want to be confused about what it even means to be evil, watch The Dragon Prince.
While Avatar’s main focus is on pacifism and the rejection of aggressive violence, The Dragon Prince (by the same creators) is a meditation on cycles of revenge and hatred. On one level it’s about two princes traveling through magical lands to reunite a baby dragon with its mother. On another, it’s the story of a younger generation trying to break free of hundreds of years of violence and distrust. The creators here are taking on something incredibly complex; the unstated villain in this show isn’t the human antagonist, it’s the broken trust and understanding between humans and elves.
On the more practical side, Dragon Prince’s plot drives forward, avoiding filler. The characters feel real, and while I didn’t fall in love with them at first sight I’m certainly invested now. I’m absolutely invested in seeing more human dark magical clash with the Elves’ primal power. The only major failing is the animation. I don’t know if they didn’t have a budget or were only passingly familiar with the whole “pictures that move” thing, but the first three episodes look like garbage. If you make it through those, it graduates to looking bad up until season 2, where it manages to lodge itself around “okay”.
If you have a low tolerance for goofy but still want something animated, The Dragon Prince is probably your best bet.
I don’t actually recommend Adventure Time, despite the fact that I’ve seen the entire thing. I’m including it in this list because odds are that if you tell an adult you’ve been consuming kids shows and they don’t react with confusion, they will ask if you’ve seen Adventure Time.
Adventure Time came out about five years after Avatar, making it one of the earliest cartoons that was wildly popular with adults. Cartoon Network didn’t intend it that way; in fact the network seemed mostly bewildered at its success. Set in the fantastical Land of Ooo, the show follows 12 year old Finn and his magical dog Jake as they explore a truly bizarre universe.
Like a lot of kids shows Adventure Time starts silly and gets more serious. But unlike the others, Adventure Time doesn’t find a thing and stick to it; it pinballs back and forth from serious to silly to character driven to mind-bendingly surreal. You might get a cute episode about Finn and Jake being teleported into a video game right next to a tear-jerking episode where you watch someone deal with a loved one’s dementia. To make matters worse, the two main supporting characters, Marceline the Vampire Queen (a horrifically powerful entity with impulse control problems) and Princess Bubblegum (an adorable pink autocratic tyrant) are way more interesting than Finn and Jake. The writers seem to know this, and the show is at its best when they find an excuse to hare off and follow their adventures. But it’s never long before you’re forced to return to Finn and Jake making fart jokes. Unless you have a high tolerance for things at both ends of the spectrum, I’d give this a skip.
Steven Universe manages to be a lot of different things over its nearly 200 episode run. The show is about Steven, a 13 year old boy living with what appears to be three magical girls who protect Beach City from monsters.
I didn’t much care for the first episode. It was childish, with not much in the way of plot. The second episode went down the same way. I pushed through, and a few episodes in, I started to really like it. The characters grew on me, I wanted to find out more about the lore, and as a bonus, there are some pretty fricken horrifying moments buried inside the kid fluff. In the first ten episodes Steven tries to learn to shape shift and accidentally turns into a writhing mound of cats in front of his crying father.
This looks upsetting, but the show’s tone throughout the early episodes is happy and upbeat. If you don’t think too hard about what’s going it feels like a wacky adventure and the weird combination of cutesy and dark kept me engaged long enough to get hit by the real hook. I’m struggling with what I want to say about it though. I had a delightful experience with this show, and I think part of that involved going into it knowing nothing, with no expectations. I think what I’ll say is that after the first dozen episodes it kept pulling me along, changing from one thing to another and keeping me from having any idea where it would end up.
I know that’s vague, so I’ll try and add some more concrete details. The cast is a set of likable, compelling, deeply flawed characters that grow and evolve as the show goes on. The lore is sure something. It contains my single favorite TV moment in it (Jail Break, obviously, if you’ve watched it and are wondering). And it’s a musical, with some pretty legit songs along the way.
There are some decent criticisms of the show. The pacing is wild, bouncing from intense plot oriented episodes to little introspective ones focused on the town. The animation isn’t for everyone, and I think the show’s at its strongest in the first half, which can be unsatisfying. It’s by no means perfect. But there’s a solid core of emotional truth that the creators manage to shoot like an arrow from the very first episode all the way to the last. The characters are great, the lore is cool, the writers knew how to tell a story. But this is the only show on the list that I wish I had seen as a kid. It’s about love. Loving others, but more importantly loving and accepting yourself. And that’s something worth being reminded of at any age.