Listen, there’s a lot of great content out there, especially when it comes to animation. Every ten years or so a set of shows comes along that pushes the boundaries of the last and gives us more complex, interesting, and powerful shows that have unique and interesting concepts which is something I really REALLY look for when it comes to story. My main focus, I’ve noticed at least, was set between the late 90’s to the early 2000’s. For some reason I REALLY enjoy these shows and they’ve really stuck with me in my later creative endeavors.
The majority of this list has also inspired my own personal art style, the one that I pretty much dominantly use for anything from concept art, to personal art, and even my comics. There’s just something really clean and awesome about the art style of animation that really meshes well with my personality.
I also set up a few rules for this list; I will not include any anime, or anything that is directly related to DC Comics or Marvel Comics (because trust me, it would dominate this list).
So, saying all of that, here are my top ten Action Animated Television Shows.
10. Legend of Korra
The Legend of Korra is nearly the perfect television show. It also tops the list on many peoples ‘top 10 animated shows’ lists, so I figured I’d get this one out of the way first. I also didn’t put The Last Airbender on this list for the same reason; I wanted to give some other shows a place on here.
This is a follow-up series to The Last Airbender and is set 70 years after the events of “Avatar”. It follows Korra, the next Avatar after Aang, who is from the Southern Water Tribe. With earth, water and fire under her belt, Korra must master the art of airbending.
What I really liked about this show was Korra herself, her character is strong and independent. She has to find her own way to becoming the Avatar and is pushing the boundaries on what that means in a time where being a bender is starting to be looked down upon. Unlike the previous series, Korra explored a lot of mental and spiritual issues, as opposed to the physical side in which Aang seemed to struggle with. I love how they flipped the formula from the original series to provide something fresh to what could have easily been a retread of an old story line.
Another thing that will ALWAYS get me on board for something, is setting it in a 1930’s or 1940’s style period. I absolutely love the feel and vibes you get from that time period, so that only served to sweeten the deal for me when it came to this show.
09. SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron
SWAT Kats follows T-Bone and Razor, two law enforcement agents who were betrayed by their commander and taken down during a mission after they refused to let Commander Feral capture a notorious criminal. They decided to build their own jet and now fight crime on their own, vigilante style.
This is a real ‘villain of the week’ style series, but is a really fun concept made right smack in the middle of the time period where making anthropomorphic animal heroes was cool. This show has really stuck with me over the years and is still a fun way to spend the evening if you have nothing else to do.
08. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)
To me, this is the definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Aside from the ‘Fast Forward’ series (which was awful) this series was fantastic and I’ve recently started to rewatch it. It managed to explore and elaborate the entire TMNT universe, even when it came to space and alternate dimensions. This show expertly told an interesting and fun story with what was, kind of a stupid concept. Let’s be honest, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is very dumb, and recent movies show that if it’s not done right, it’s just going to suck.
Also, dat theme song though.
07. Big Guy and Rusty:
The series focuses on Rusty, the most advanced robot ever built, with a human emotional grid and “nucleoprotonic” powers. The plan is that Rusty will replace the Big Guy, a massive war robot that is the Earth’s last line of defense against all threats alien or domestic. However, Rusty is too inexperienced to stand on his own, so the Big Guy is re-commissioned to teach Rusty the way of trade. The twist is that Big Guy is actually a mech that is piloted by Dwayne Hunter (played by Jim Hanks) and that fact is kept a secret from Rusty, who thinks that Big Guy is a real robot like him.
This show has literally everything in it that I love. Giant robots, alien monsters, more robots, scientists, talking monkeys, a retro 1940’s style setting… Plus, I mean, the robots flex and guns appear from their elbows. THEIR ELBOWS. I love everything about this show, it’s hard for me not to instantly like it.
Plus the theme song. I guess I really like theme songs…
06. Samurai Jack
After being sent into the future by evil wizard Aku, young samurai Jack makes a quest to return to the past and undo the destruction caused by the wizard. Easy concept, massive story. This whole story is epic and just the concept alone provides a driving force and great motivation for the protagonist to continue forward. This series is rumored to have a movie style finale coming up, plus it has a comic series (which I haven’t read yet, but hear is amazing). I love Jack, he’s a powerful and interesting character and the overall Japanese vibe to the series gave the amazing animation a really unique flavor. It really felt like a legend, and still really holds up today.
Plus, dat theme song.
05. Generator Rex
Rex is infected by nanites and he has been turned into an evo. Now he has the power to grow machines out of his body, canons, blades, wings, boots, he can make it all.
This show is incredibly unique and is one of the reasons I’m a major fan of the Man of Action team and what they do. It’s a really fun series with a great hook; everyone is infected with nanites and can turn into a monster at any time. Literally any time the action dulls, you can pull another monster mutant out of your ass. It’s genius writing. Also it has a fantastic hero who has to grow and learn, Rex has his faults and they often drive things from bad to worse, but that’s what makes it so great. He’s not a perfect hero, he’s a kid and he just wants to have a normal life… And also a super cool one.
04. Ben 10 (Whole Series)
Ben Tennyson, a 10-year-old boy, discovers an amazing device that can turn him into 10 different alien heroes, each with its own unique abilities. With this newfound power, Ben, Grandpa Max and cousin Gwen help others and stop villains and aliens.
This show is amazing. There’s no getting around it. I’ve recently started rewatching it all the way through and I’m really impressed at how they’re taking the time to build their universe out, taking the time to establish characters and ideas, then expanding and developing them. The characters grow and learn, plus, despite their struggles and Bens new powers, they really support and love each other like a real family would. Season two starts out with a big bang, a new alien, plus information on what Grandpa Max actually was in the past. Seriously, it’s a badass series you can’t afford to miss.
03. Daffy Duck – The Wizard
I’m not really sure if this counts, but it’s my list, so screw you. This short is from the incredibly well done Looney Tunes series that I love, but obviously isn’t action. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the Looney Tunes original series (probably more than the original Mickey Mouse shorts), so it wasn’t hard to fall in love with the main series that they gave us and that was cancelled all too soon.
This short is one that I constantly reference as to my frustration to the state of the animation that happens as compared to what we normally get. This also tickles my love of metal and the general nerdiness that surrounds it.
You can watch the whole short here:
02. Steven Universe
You’d be kidding yourself if you didn’t think that I wouldn’t mention this… Gem… Hahahahaha… Ha ha… Ha. Because they’re the crystal gems? I… Okay…
The Crystal Gems are a team of magical beings who are the self-appointed guardians of the universe. Half-human, half-Gem hero Steven is the “little brother” of the group. The goofball is learning to save the world using the magical powers that come from his bellybutton and he goes on magical adventures with the rest of the Crystal Gems, even though he’s not as powerful — or smart — as fellow group members Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl. Despite his shortcomings, Steven usually finds a surprising way to save the day.
This show has a LOT of heart and is a great example of how far animated stories have come since the 1980’s. This is REAL storytelling with a TON of heart. They take the time to explore the characters, how they feel, interact with each other, they explore a lot of grown up themes and ideas like sexuality, friendship, destiny… The first season blew me away, with the slow build to what was a mind blowing finale. Really, I would have been fine if they finished the series then and there, but they did continue on and I’m really behind on it. I’ve watch most of the next season and I have to say that I’m a little dissapointed, I really hoped they’d keep up the momentum and start revealing more secrets, but it seems like it’s really more of the same thing from last season. Maybe it gets better? Either way, it’s a really emotion and clever show with a ton of great songs and fun animation. It’s hard to hate this show.
Plus the theme song is pretty great.
01. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command
I know what you must be thinking, “Nathan. I think you picked the wrong number one. I think you made a mistake.”
Well I didn’t. This is literally my favorite animated television show of all time. This animated series, based on the Toy Story movies, features Buzz Lightyear’s adventures as he patrols the galaxy with other space rangers working for Star Command, battling intergalactic crime boss Emperor Zurg and other evildoers.
I’ve seen every episode at least fifty times, I constantly reference the show and even have several action figures from when I was younger. (They’re crazy destroyed though.)
You might not see it like this at first, but this series is actually a brilliantly done love letter to the sci-fi genre. It brilliantly takes and reinterprets the characters established in Toy Story and places them in a sci-fi universe where literally anything can happen. They fight energy vampires that control technology, they’ve transformed into monsters, fought evil toddler versions of themselves, there’s a psycho Frankenstein robot who goes around attempting to find better and better parts for himself because he’s got an Oedipus complex. This show introduced me to the sci-fi genre in a big way and for that it will always be my all time favorite animated television show.
There are a few honorable mentions to this list, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Rick and Morty, Street Sharks, Kim Possible and Viewtiful Joe. So what shows did I miss? What are some really great animated television shows that I need to watch? Let me know and I’ll check ’em out!
Nathan Seals is an independent filmmaker, artist, and author who has created various comic books, films, role-playing systems, and card and board games throughout the years. He’s either insane, or a genius. Either way he’s having fun.