This week marks two decades of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s programming block that pushed the channel from Hanna-Barbera reruns into something significantly more vital.
Consisting of shows made on the cheap at the Williams Street studios along with Home MoviesHome Movies, which program director Mike Lazzo had picked up after the show was cancelled by UPN, the late-night programming block soon grew to a multimedia juggernaut with dozens of series, video games, and more.
To celebrate, we decided to dive into the deep end and pick the top 20 must-see episodes, without repeating series, that defined the block’s aesthetic. Both animation and live-action are represented here, and we expect you to argue long and hard in the comments.
China, IL—’The Perfect Lecture’
Brad Neely came to fame through his bizarre, tuneful web animations, so when he signed a deal with Adult Swim to bring his genius to the airwaves, we were elated. The result, China, ILChina, IL, still stands out in the list of shows. Set in the titular college town, home of “The Worst College In America,” it’s a neverending parade of sad sacks and weirdos. The second season opener, “The Perfect Lecture,” is noteworthy for its Byzantine plotline, involving levitation and energy bars, as well as a host of quotable lines.
Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law—’Sebben and Sebben Employee Orientation’
The first season of Harvey Birdman: Attorney At LawHarvey Birdman: Attorney At Law was funny if formulaic, using the Space Ghost formula of recycled animation to power an absurd courtroom comedy featuring Jabberjaw, the Scooby gang, and more. But as it progressed, it began constructing a fictional universe of its own. In the third season, we got the masterpiece that was “Sebben and Sebben Employee Orientation,” where one of the partners at Birdman’s law firm walks you, a new employee, through the chaotic office environment.
Perfect Hair Forever—Pilot
The anarchic vibe of Adult Swim extended itself into the block’s very scheduling, and no show capitalized on that quite as much as Perfect Hair ForeverPerfect Hair Forever. In November 2004, the network heavily advertised the premiere of the hotly anticipated Squidbillies, only to yank the rug out from under the viewers with the surprise debut of something completely different. The incoherent anime spoof Perfect Hair Forever ostensibly told the tale of a young boy seeking the cure for baldness, but spun off into numerous absurd tangents. After a brief first season, the network continued to whip it out as an April Fool’s joke whenever fans got too complacent.
The Brak Show—’Brak Street’
Generally considered the weakest offering in the initial Adult Swim lineup, The Brak ShowThe Brak Show still managed to deliver some gems. In “Brak Street,” our mush-mouthed alien protagonist enters a rapping contest in order to win a vacation. Needless to say, things definitely don’t go according to plan as our guy has an…idiosyncratic rhyme style, to say the least. What makes it work is the way it uses different styles of rap as a way to explore comedic delivery, from Zorak’s Kool Keith-esque verse to guest star Cee-Lo.
Primal—’Plague Of Madness’
Straight-up dramatic shows are few and far between on Adult Swim, despite the block running anime in the early years. But Genndy Tartakovsky’s brilliant PrimalPrimal shows that they’ll still take chances on unique material. The creator of Samurai Jack pulled out all the stops with this series about a T. rex and a caveman battling against a hostile prehistoric world. It’s gorgeous, dynamic, gripping and fun. The seventh episode, “Plague Of Madness,” pits the duo against an Argentinosaurus crazed by a flesh-eating virus to brilliant effect.
The terrifying thing about the Adult Swim lineup is that even if you’re a dedicated viewer there are probably shows you missed out on. EagleheartEagleheart never seemed to get the attention it deserved, but the Chris Elliot series about a US Marshal is one of the real hidden gems. It’s impossible to appreciate series finale “Honch” without the three seasons of worldbuilding that led up to it, but it’s an incredible, wildly ambitious climax that pays off dozens of jokes and bits while also jabbing at the trope-laden nature of the series.
“Uneven” might be the most common word to describe shows in the Adult Swim lineup, and it’s a fair criticism. But when the shows hit, they hit hard. SquidbilliesSquidbillies married an oddball premise—a family of “mud squids” living in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains—with some stellar voice casting to create a cult hit show. First-season episode “Chalky Trouble” sees the show tackling race in America in brutal style as an anti-white rally unveils surprising truths about Rusty’s parentage.
One of the best things about Adult Swim is how it allows its creatives to take risks and grow. Dino Stamatopoulos’s Moral OrelMoral Orel started life as a relatively shallow take on Christian moralizing, but with its second season grew into something much richer and more disturbing. The two-part season finale, “Nature,” gets incredibly dark as Orel ventures into the wilderness on a hunting trip with his alcoholic father. Using stop-motion puppets to delve into the true nature of manhood is a tough lift, but Moral Orel pulls it off with aplomb.
The Boondocks—’The Story Of Thugnificent’
When The BoondocksThe Boondocks debuted on Adult Swim in 2005, people were skeptical. The newspaper strip that it was based on was often preachy and unfunny, and the animation style was very different from the network’s prevailing aesthetic. They shouldn’t have worried, because The Boondocks quickly carved out a spot as a consistently funny and innovative show. Second-season episode “The Story Of Thugnificent” is a great peek at how good it could get, with dozens of quotable lines.
Rick & Morty—’Total Rickall’
Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s Rick & MortyRick & Morty is certainly a divisive show with a nightmarish fanbase, but when it’s on, few can match it for deranged imagination. Second season episode “Total Rickall” is a masterpiece of brain-bending hilarity, as an interdimensional parasite that creates false memories takes over the Smith family home and reproduces itself through flashbacks. It’s an instant classic with multiple twists and turns and a gruesome climactic joke that pays off in spades.
Joe Pera Talks With You—’Joe Pera Takes You On A Fall Drive’
For a while, Adult Swim coasted on its reputation for outrageousness. But we all must mature, and one of the most endearing shows in the lineup is Joe Pera Talks With YouJoe Pera Talks With You, starring the gentle comedian as a choir teacher living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who just wants to share his thoughts on the world with you, only to get distracted by intrusive thoughts. In “Fall Drive,” the burial of a loyal jack-o-lantern is the impetus for 11 minutes of pure pleasure.
Although Brendon Small’s MetalocalypseMetalocalypse revels in the absurdity of heavy metal music, it also has a deep love for the subject matter that shines through in how much the show commits to the bit. One of the most notable examples comes in the season one episode “Bluesklok,” where the group delves into the foundations of rock and roll by studying the blues under Mashed Potato Johnson, who urges them to sell their soul to the devil (voiced by King Diamond). It’s funny, it shreds, and…
Read More:Adult Swim Turns 20: The 20 Best Episodes