There's no shame in a little TV eye candy -- it worked for "Baywatch" and it's the CW's sexy, young, six-packed bread and butter. Television is a visual medium; it's totally alright to answer "Why are you watching this?" with a tried-and-true "Because it looks pretty."
It's even more alright when the show in question is a moving work of art. Some cartoons, like "Gravity Falls," skew toward kids and still manage greatness. Others, like "BoJack Horseman," cater to grown-ups with an emphasis on substance over flashiness. And then there are those that marry style and substance like deliciously animated peanut butter and jelly. Here are five of those brilliant substance-and-style sandwiches from TV animation's present and past.
'Attack on Titan' (2013 - )
Within the first 20 minutes of the first episode of "Attack on Titan," the choir swells and 60-meter high skinless humanoid titans ravage the defenses of the safe haven, Wall Maria, in a manic fever dream of writhing tendons, bloomy lighting, billowing dust clouds, and blood floating on the breeze like rose petals. Two things become immediately clear: This is not for the young or faint of heart, and its production values are just as high as its dramatic tension.
You could watch "Attack" for the uber-cinematic, hyper-violent, and nightmarishly surreal animation alone, and you'd be just as happy as as a Colossus Titan munching on human flesh. But there's no reason to content yourself with style alone when the substance stacks up too. Imagine your favorite dystopian zombie show, but every zombie is suddenly a grinning, naked giant who likes to pop people in half. It's the stuff of "just-one-more-episode" nightmares.
'Samurai Jack' (2001 - 2004, 2016 - )
What do "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Hotel Transylvania" have in common, aside from hitting that sweet spot of watchability that sucks in both kids and adults? They share a wild-eyed creative force in a man named Genndy Tartakovsky. His thick, bold outlines and angular style was imitated on kids' TV as soon as he hit the scene -- and "Samurai Jack" is his Mona Lisa, combining equal parts Art Deco, Japanese kakejiku painting, and '70s kung-fu flick into a pop-cultural punch to the brain. There's a reason that Nerdist calls the show, "very possibly, along with 'Batman: The Animated Series,' the finest American-produced action cartoon ever made."
Good news: You get to find out what that reason is when Jack returns to TV in 2016. Maybe 12 years is just a regular vacation for a samurai?
'Star Wars: Rebels' (2014 - )
Fans who love the original trilogy will want to watch "Star Wars Rebels" for appearances from galaxy-trotting Lando Calrissian and enough Darth Vader to make Kylo Ren geek out -- complete with Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones voicing. Fans of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" will want to watch "Rebels" to tie up the loose ends left behind by ass-kicking apprentice Ahsoka Tano and the resurrected, Obi-Wan-obsessed Darth Maul. Everyone else will want to watch "Rebels" because its Lucasfilm Animation-produced visuals are like watching a miniature Dreamworks movie on TV every week, from the streamlined character designs to the soft, realistic lighting. And let's not forget that the show's art direction channels the vision of iconic Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie -- father of everything from the Stormtrooper helmet to the arrowhead-shaped Star Destroyer -- which lends "Rebels" a fittingly pulpy vibe.
Let the prequel healing commence.
'The Legend of Korra' (2012 - 2014)
Before 2005, American TV basically had two kinds of cartoons: Cartoons without swearing and cartoons without four-letter words. Then "Avatar: The Last Airbender" came along and, shall we say, bent the rules. Sorry. Couldn't help it.
Like its predecessor, "The Legend of Korra" is still safe for kids, but it draws on everything from ancient China to Joseph Campbell to Buddhist philosophy. It just happens to wrap all of those heady themes in an amazingly choreographed, anime-inspired visual package that moves more fluidly than a waterbender.
'Batman: The Animated Series' (1992 - 1995)
Remember that Nerdist quote about "Batman: The Animated Series" being the best American-produced action cartoon ever made? Let's talk about that one.
It's hard to believe such an intricately crafted work of art aired during a kid-focused animation block in the '90s. While Robin-aged viewers will be happy to watch Kevin Conroy's Batman slug Mark Hamill's Joker, more mature viewers will revel in a hand-drawn style absolutely dripping with atmosphere. This Batman's Gotham City exists in a time out of joint, where villains wear fedoras and shoot lasers, the Art Deco style rules all, the men look like Cary Grant, and the women look like pinups from the nose of a WWII bomber. Artist Bruce Timm's masterwork is so film noir, its backgrounds had to be drawn on black paper. Somewhere, Batman's smiling about that -- but only very briefly, and definitely not in front of anybody.
- Why You Should Be Watching 'Attack on Titan'
- Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack to Return in 2016
- 'Star Wars Rebels': Ralph McQuarrie Legacy on View in Animated Series
- Three Shows that Changed the Way Networks Think About Viewership
- 'Batman: The Animated Series' Is the Best Adaptation
- The 14 Best Title Cards from 'Batman: The Animated Series'