The last nineteen years have been amazing for television. With us now living in the “Platinum Age of Television”, we saw groundbreaking shows from The Sopranos, The Shield, and The Wire in the early 2000s to Mad Men and Breaking Bad in the mid-2000s and beyond. These shows experimented with the visual language and narrative conventions of dramatic television, and ultimately changed how we viewed the medium, showing viewers and writers what television was capable of. What is less talked about are the other groundbreaking shows that aired during that time. These shows also introduced forms of storylines not normally used for its medium, and tackled subjects that were never truly dealt with before. These shows aren’t live-action, sure, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t important, and most of all not great. These animated shows will be given the spotlight they deserve in this article, where we write about the most important animated series of the 21st century and what makes them so special in the first place.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created a vibrant, rich world with their Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Over the course of 61 episodes, the series made a huge impact on audiences and gained a loyal fanbase that would follow the property through various tie-in comics and a follow-up series in 2012.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, influenced not only by anime, which can be seen through its animation style, but also by East and South Asian cultures, was set in a world where individuals have the ability to control the elements: earth, fire, air and water, and have kingdoms for those who were able to control these elements. These four nations lived in harmony until the Fire Nation attacked the other three nations, soon controlling the world. 100 years later, Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), an Airbender and the last of his kind, is discovered to be the Avatar: a reincarnated being with the ability to control all four elements, and the only one who can restore balance to the world. With his friends Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack De Sena), they set out to help Aang learn all four elements, and hopefully, save the world.
Back in its debut in early 2005, kids were introduced to a series with a fully fleshed out world, surprisingly complex characters, and incredibly animated fight sequences. The series also dealts with subject matter such as the effects of war, genocide, trauma, and whether violence is ultimately necessary to achieve victory. Despite these heavy themes, the series is able to balance this with humor and a sense of adventure and fun. Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most important animated shows of the 21st century because it shows that kids can easily follow a complex plot with a built-in and thought out mythology.
Written by Abel Aklilu
Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)
When it was announced that Rebecca Sugar, who was responsible for some of the best episodes of Adventure Time, as well as its best songs, was creating her own series for Cartoon Network, people were excited. She had written funny and emotional episodes of that series, so everyone was excited to see what this new series would be. But no one could have known that Steven Universe would be not only one of the most important animated shows of this century, but it would be one of the most important series.
Set in Beach City, the series follows Steven Universe (Zach Callison), an exuberant, empathetic kid who lives with the Crystal Gems: a trio of crystal beings who protect Beach City from otherworldly threats. Steven himself is half-human half-Gem, because his mother, Rose Quartz (Susan Eagan), was a Gem herself, and gave up her physical body so that he would be born.
This series is incredibly important for several reasons. Often, male protagonists, specifically in children’s animation, are depicted to be selfish, closed-off emotionally, and often instigators of conflict with enemies. When watching such protagonists, young boys believe that these attributes are virtues to live by. Animated shows and films are immensely important to the development of ideas and beliefs for children. So imagine how wonderful, how great, is the fact that Steven is none of those things. He is a profoundly empathetic kid. Instead of fighting with an enemy, he, incredibly, tries to see it from their side. He asks why, when presented with a new enemy, they immediately resort to combat. He’s a kid who is open about his own feelings, and he is never shamed for doing so. Whenever he cries, he’s never scolded or pushed to hold these feelings in, or told that crying is useless. Seeing these things, young boys will realize that these virtues of non-violence, empathy, and being open about your feelings are good, healthy, and right.
Steven Universe is most notable for its LGBTQ representation. Countless queer and trans kids feel shame or self-hatred for who they are, and whenever they don’t see themselves on-screen, this tells them that they are alone. Questions like “Is there something wrong with me?” are already on the minds of these kids, and such thoughts are reinforced through this lack of representation. The fact that this series has several queer characters, as well as a trans subtext, and that these characters aren’t shamed for who they are or are questioned or looked at with skepticism is monumentally important for kids dealing with their own self-worth.
Steven Universe has the type of heavy mythology that you could get lost in. This is one of those series where you could go online and discuss fan theories, and, in contrast with countless other popular properties, Steven Universe has one of the most inclusive and healthy fandoms I’ve ever seen.
Adventure Time opened the door for other animated kids shows, yes, but Steven Universe broke ground. It changed the landscape and pushed other inclusive shows to exist as well, shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Steven Universe, for me, is one of the most important shows in TV history.
Written by Abel Aklilu
Pokémon (TV Tokyo, 4Kids Entertainment)
Growing up in the early 2000’s, it was hard not to know the name of at least one Pokémon. First airing in 1997 on TV Tokyo as “Pocket Monsters,” the video game-based anime very quickly took the world by storm and is often credited as a major component in the rising popularity of anime series’ around the world at the time of its release, especially in the United States. Even now, a whole 22 years later, the anime series lives on and the characters have found new life in 2019’s live action/animation hybrid film Detective Pikachu.
So what is it that made (and continues to make) Pokémon so popular? Its success today is surely based, in part, on nostalgia from now grown-up fans of the original series, but what made the original series so addictive and why has it managed to thrive in the modern age, while copycat successors like Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh continue to fall into relative obscurity?
Maybe the popularity was due to the combination of cute fuzzy creatures and epic battles, which easily appealed across genders, or maybe it was due to the fact that the show’s protagonists were around the age of the target demographic and one could fantasize about starting their journey as a Pokémon Master the day they turned twelve. As much as the series did have a good, unique formula for a children’s television series, however, there was one key element outside of the literal show that most certainly helped it to maintain its status in the mainstream: its marketing.
So-called “Pokémania” in the late 90’s and early 2000’s pervaded every aspect of a child’s life. There were obviously Pokémon toys and clothes, but also Pokémon cereal and Pokémon poptarts, and multiple weeks in a year Pokémon cards and figures were included with a child’s Burger King meal. Pokémon promotional events happened across the United States for the theatrical release of each of its movies and, of course, there were the collectible cards and video games.
The marriage of children’s cartoon and video game seems so natural, especially in the 90’s when handheld GameBoy systems were new and exciting, and yet the concept had never really achieved success to such a momentous degree as it did with Pokémon. Whether you were a big fan who could name all 150 “pocket monsters” or a casual fan who thought Pikachu was cute, you could go on your own Pokémon adventure and “catch ‘em all” at home, on the bus, or just about anywhere you wanted. Mini battles with trainers and wild Pokémon meant that kids could garner satisfaction from the game without necessarily having to beat it, and the Pokémon show (as well as the more show-based game Pokémon: Yellow) reinforced the idea that your collection of Pokémon were your friends.
While some may look back at the 2000’s series and decide that it doesn’t always hold up by today’s standards for children’s animation, there’s no denying that Pokémon was extremely influential in both bringing modern Japanese art style and culture to America and in completely changing the game for how children consume media. The original run of the show will surely become a “classic” of children’s media if it isn’t considered one already, and there’s no question that the effect it continues to have on pop culture will be long-lasting.
Written by Beca Dalimonte
The Proud Family (Disney Channel)
Animated children’s television opens up a whole world of storytelling possibilities that are completely non-existent within the constraints of live action sets and, as a result, there tends to be a lot of cartoons focused on talking animals, robots, or otherwise inhuman protagonists. The very nature of the medium allows creators to push character designs and shape their hero into any form they so desire – whether that be a neurotic wallaby or a joyous sea sponge. Despite this, there has always been a worrying trend amongst cartoons that do choose to cast human beings as their central characters: almost all of those characters are white. Occasionally, as is the case in shows like Rugrats, Hey Arnold!, Fairly Odd Parents and Recess, the show will have one designated “black friend” who exists as one of (if not the) only person of color in the show’s universe. In all of these cases, they are certainly the only main character who isn’t white. The more adult-oriented MTV show Daria often satirized and commented directly on this well-known trope with its two black characters, Mack (various) and Jodie (Jessica Cyndee Jackson), the latter of whom often expresses feeling pressure from others to represent her entire race in a majority white school and neighborhood.
It was revolutionary then when, in 2001, the first episode of Bruce W. Smith’s The Proud Family aired on Disney Channel, featuring a predominantly black cast at its center. Although, as with a lot of children’s television, the episodes did not have an overarching plot, each season of the show was a loving marriage of cultural education and typical childhood woes, featuring lineups such as an episode where the show’s protagonist, Penny Proud (Kyla Pratt), helps to give one of her friends a makeover alongside a holiday episode where she and her family learn about Kwanzaa. The show would go on to receive many accolades for its character design and voice acting talents – many of whom were African American like the characters they played – as well as receive the 2004 BET Comedy Award for Outstanding Animated Series.
The Proud Family is, at times, universally relatable and, at others, very specific in its representation of culture, but through it all the series always manages to be consistently enjoyable across races and demographics no matter what hurdle its characters are facing.
It’s no surprise that, in an age where more and more people are speaking out about a lack of representation in all forms of media, Disney has decided to bring back a show that was at the forefront of children’s animation’s step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the Disney+ reboot handles its characters and storylines differently in this new age, if it does handle them differently at all.
Written by Beca Dalimonte
Kim Possible (Disney Channel)
Mark McCorkle and Robert Schooly’s four season series Kim Possible is an early 2000s staple in many American households. The titular character, voiced by Christy Carlson Romano, and her best friend Ron (Will Friedle) live double lives, balancing high school with being secret agents who go on missions to save the world.
Kim Possible is a Disney show that makes many look back and think, “Ah, I have always been bisexual.” Kim, the hero, and her nemesis’ sidekick Shego (Nicole Sullivan) were strong women who embodied many tenets of bisexual women’s culture: goth girlfriend energy, fanny packs and an “I do what I want” attitude, to name a few. Canonically, the characters are not bisexual, but the hints were not lost. Kim is oozing with futch energy, AKA a mixture of femme and butch energy. Shego embodies all the essentials of the goth girlfriend: dark lipstick, jet-black hair and moody energy to match.
Beyond her strong bisexual aura, Kim Possible is an amazing role model for kids, especially young girls. The show is about her saving the world, albeit with the help of her friends Ron and Wade (Tahj Mowry), but she is the leader of the efforts. And sure, her spy duties aren’t always the most relatable for the kids watching the show, but half the time Kim is focused on the day-to-day issues of being a teenager. The show is relatable and inspiring while still being extremely fun. It boasts an absolutely iconic theme song and it heavily features Ron’s pet naked mole rat, Rufus. Even so, prior to its release in 2002, critics worried it wouldn’t be able to attract a large enough male viewership to stay afloat. They were wrong. The show was hugely successful and even inspired a made-for-tv movie and an upcoming reboot. Not to mention its influence on fashion — Kim practically invented the tiny shirt and big pants outfit. Kim Possible is a memorable show that uplifts a young woman’s story and gives her the power to save the world.
Written by Jenni Holtz
Danny Phantom (Nickelodeon)
Danny Phantom tells the story of a teenage boy who becomes part ghost and must use his ghost powers to save the city. Like Kim Possible, Danny (David Kaufman) has to balance his missions with regular issues like dealing with friends and school. The show only ran for three seasons, but it has over fifty episodes that allowed the characters to become fully fleshed out. In the twelve years since it ended the show has developed a cult following online and is often referred to as the best of creator Butch Hartman’s work.
Danny is a unique male character because he isn’t hypermasculine. He’s an unusual hero. In his daily life Danny is shy, insecure and pretty quiet. He’s a smaller, lankier teen and doesn’t always fit in with the jocks or other popular kids. Because of this, many people have read his character as a transgender man. Danny isn’t transgender in the show itself, but many trans men have discussed their connection to the show through Danny’s physical appearance and the transformation narrative woven throughout the show. Danny lives a double life, one as a teen boy and the other as a supernatural ghost-being. When he’s a ghost, Danny’s black hair turns silver, his blue eyes go green and his suit switches colors. This swap that happens when Danny phases is a kind of transformation that transgender people can relate to, especially when they feel like they want to or need to appear a certain way depending on the space they’re in.
Because the transgender reading of Danny Phantom is not canon, there are other ways of reading the transformation. It can be understood as a metaphor for growing up, not fitting in and so many other experiences. The multiple readings and creativity in the show’s concept make Danny Phantom a staple of early 2000s animated series.
Written by Jenni Holtz