Darkwing Duck, Doug, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life, X-Men, Pepper Ann. The ’90s were the best time for animated children’s programming, right? But, of course, I was a kid in the ’90s, so I’m biased. If I’d grown up in the ’80s I’d probably cite Thundercats, Jem, and He-Man as examples of how that decade was killing it and think the crap that all of the little jerks in the ’90s were watching lacked soul or guts or whatever.
Until recently, my 20-somethingness had caused me to be totally dismissive of contemporary cartoons. I know, it’s a really odd thing to be pretentious about but in a lot of cases—in fact, most cases—it was warranted. But then I watched Regular Show and Adventure Time, two Cartoon Network animated series that have been getting a lot of love from kids and adults alike, and now I’m begrudgingly starting to think that I’ve been completely wrong about the ’90s.
Adventure Time has an amazing, diehard fan base—these people make costumes, fan art, and fan fiction like it’s their job—and if you knew nothing else about the quality of the show I think that that would be enough. But what’s the appeal here? What is about this cartoon that drives folks crazy? And why wasn’t there any Doug cosplay back in 1994?
Well, first, Adventure Time’s is set in a hyper-stylized, offbeat, fantasy world where zombie candy people rise from the grave, video game consoles are sentient, and where the show’s two heroes, Finn the human and Jake the dog, live in the pimped out tree house of every kid’s wildest dreams. In short, this place—the Land of Ooo—is a place you’d want to visit. Series creator Pendleton Ward clearly put as much energy into fleshing out the setting as he did the characters and that level deliberation elevates the show from being something facile and diverting to something that you can lose yourself in.
With most of the cartoons that I watched growing up, the setting was either incidental or, like Doug’s Bluffington, simply meant to be a slightly off-kilter version of the real world. But Ooo has its own sort of bleak and mysterious history—apparently, it’s a post-apocalyptic world formed after some catastrophic event called “The Mushroom War.” Even though this certainly isn’t the focus of the show, over the course of its four seasons, more and more information about Ooo has been revealed.
That kind of overarching story isn’t usually a feature of children’s cartoons but it’s something that kids appreciate just as much as adults do. As far as the big picture is concerned, when you’re introduced to this kind of layered storytelling at a young age, you’ll come to expect more out of the TV shows that you’ll eventually be watching when you’re an adult. So in a way, this weird show about a talking dog with magical stretching powers and his human BFF is pushing the culture forward.
Despite its title, Regular Show is also much more than your standard children’s cartoon in that it almost doesn’t seem like it’s intended for kids at all. Episodes have parodied things like Axe body spray and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore; the show often features music by ’80s artists like Kenny Loggins and Loverboy, who are absolutely alien to young viewers; the two protagonists, blue jay Mordecai and his raccoon bestie Rigby, are 20-something slackers with a thankless, minimum wage-type job, who have the sort of conversations that I used to have with my college roommate.
Like Ward, Regular Show creator J.G. Quintel doesn’t make the assumption that kids can only be drawn in by kid-centric situations. As a matter of fact, none of the characters on Regular Show are kids—Mordecai, Rigby, Skips the yeti, lollipop head Pops, and gumball machine man Benson are all leading adult, if a bit silly, lives. And this doesn’t diminish the appeal.
When watching both of these shows—which fittingly air back to back—you get the sense that Quintel and Ward are writing stories that they think are funny and not pandering to their young audience. They know that the moment that you try to create something for a kid that you wouldn’t be interested in, is the moment that you create something stupid.
At this year’s Wondercon, I went to the Regular Show and Adventure Time panels and the questions that these tiny children asked of the creators were so insightful and smart—they were all far more engaged with these cartoons than I had even been with the shows that I was watching when I was their age but that’s because these shows are operating at a level that allows these kids to be that engaged. ’90s cartoons were reaching toward the kind of irreverence that I think that Qunitel and Ward have achieved.