“Nobody belongs anywhere, nobody exists on purpose, everybody’s going to die.”
“When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses all the red flags just look like flags.”
“Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You b******s!”
My 10-year-old self would have never imagined that characters who look like they belong on Nickelodeon could say dialogue like this. Eight years later, it is commonplace for animated universes to be inhabited by foul-mouthed, existential, inappropriate, complex characters. Long gone are the days where cartoons were always family-friendly.
In a sense, those quotes (from “Rick and Morty,” “BoJack Horseman” and “South Park,” respectively) have become the “Hakuna Matatas,” “I’m Readys” and “Where is my supersuits” of a new era. I challenge you to find one college student who isn’t, at the very least, familiar with “Rick and Morty.” I guarantee anyone with a Netflix account has seen an advertisement for “BoJack Horseman.” I would even go as far as to say that anyone who owns a TV knows “South Park.”
But why? What triggered this budding fascination with adult cartoons? One of the biggest draws lays in the endless possibilities that animation provides. In cartoons, anything can be done. If Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon want one of their titular characters to transform himself into a pickle, it can be done. If Raphael Bob-Waksberg wants a horse-humanoid to steal the “D” from the Hollywood sign, it can be done. If Trey Parker and Matt Stone want Kenny to brutally die in almost every episode, it can be done. In our world of restriction, censorship and constraint, we are liberated by the adventures of these characters, vicariously experiencing their boundless possibilities.
Despite these cartoons’ absurdity, they are all, in some way, rooted in reality, exaggerating on life’s relatable problems. Thanks to the approachability of the animated style, intense, taboo subjects can be handled with honesty and a level of comfort. BoJack Horseman can tackle suicide, dementia and depression — the weight of these themes are masked by the adorable animals who face them.
These shows push the boundaries we always wanted the shows of our youth to push; they are happy mediums between childhood and adulthood. Subtle jokes in SpongeBob SquarePants, such as the phallic nature of Squidward’s nose, always left pre-teens yearning for more mature humor. Adult cartoons have capitalized on that desire. Reflecting on the hidden sexual innuendos of children’s shows is a universal pastime; now, there is a whole genre of TV dedicated to showcasing what was once discretely understated.