There have been many great cartoons for kids that have run on cable TV in recent memory. Almost all of these shows run way under the radar because in this country, cartoons are considered kids' fodder, and adults, especially adults outside of dedicated fans, rarely even bother to take notice of what is being produced. This is sad because there is a plethora of great work out there. All coming and going—and no one is noticing. I'm here to correct that. To help you see the light. To steer you straight. And to give you a break from stuff marketed for adults and show you that kids' shows can and are often as fulfilling as adult fare.
The main reason these kids shows are so good is because of the writers and artists. The other reason, I'm speculating, is that the shows don't matter enough to be overproduced and edited by massive corporate committees. The writers of many current shows obviously grew up appreciating much of the same under-the-radar kids' shows from the 70s and 80s. Battle of the Planets, Thundarr the Barbarian, Space Ghost, Land of the Lost, Voltron, Robotech, Transformers, GI Joe, etc, etc, etc... The list is too numerous to cite in any complete way. Even The Howard Stern Show was referenced when the line, "I told you not to be stupid you moron" was said on the show. —That blew my mind. Someone tell Howard!
So now, people who likely grew up in the 70s or 80s have worked their way into writing and artist positions and are creating new, fantastic cartoon shows. A short list is as follows: Samurai Jack, Ben 10, Teen Titans (not Teen Titans GO!) Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Adventure Time, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Generator Rex, Sym-Bionic Titan, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Over the Garden Wall, Regular Show, Clarence, and now Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
If you are unaware what you are missing, please, sit up and take notice. A few favorites I'd suggest hunting down are: Samurai Jack, Teen Titans, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is still currently running, (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Over the Garden Wall, Regular Show, and Clarence are all still running too!) and churning out fantastic episodes every week.
Last night I sat and watched a few episodes of TMNT on my Apple TV to catch up with my son. We watched an episode called The Croaking. I was blown away. So many things were referenced in one show I could not believe it.
As far as old school references go, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles even had one episode entirely dedicated to old school Dungeons and Dragons. The episode was called, Mazes and Mutants. My blog post on that can be seen here.
OK, so back to The Croaking. The episode opens with Mikey watching and episode of Crognar the Barbarian. After that, Mikey gets into trouble for making a mess and runs off. Who does he meet? A frog named Napoleon Bonafrog, a frog mutant modeled exactly after Napoleon Dynamite and voiced by the same actor, Jon Heder, too. The character even wears a hip-sack like Napoleon Dynamite, and is basically that same character, aside from being a mutant frog.
But wait, there's more!
The episode then goes on to directly reference Jar Jar Binks and Boss Nass and their interaction from Star Wars The Phantom Menace. Napoleon Bonafrog brings Mikey back to his clan of mutant frogs much like Jar Jar brings Obi Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn to Boss Nass. The references do not end there. There are Apocalypse Now: Hearts of Darkness references. Colonel Kurtz-Marlin Brando-Don Vito Corleone references. And even a Wes Anderson-style montage.
The show has continually impressed me, not just with the writing and art, but with the multi-layerd approach the writers have taken that continually plays homage to one thing while still managing to stay entirely unique and engaging for kids and adults alike. My son gets none of these homages, (except for the D&D episode) and still loves the show.
But wait, there's still more!
Prior to the Turtles watching their Thundarr the Barbarian-style TV show, Crognar the Barbarian, they used to watch a show called Super Robo Mecha Force Five. This show managed to reference just about every 80s imported anime there was. The heaviest influences are Voltron, Battle of the Planets, and Robotech. See my comparison images below.
The homages I have pointed out are by no means an exhaustive list. The show has referenced many other things. Off the top of my head, John Carpenter's The Thing and Christine are just a few.
At least we have Season 5 to enjoy. Let's hope the show does not get inexplicably canceled like so many other great shows. Fingers crossed.
Get watching and enjoy!