While live-action productions were dealt a significant blow this year by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, the animation industry was in a prime position to step up to the plate and tell some of 2020's most riveting stories. Here are the ones that transported the io9 staff to far-off worlds and dimensions this year.
Whimsical as many of the shows on this year’s list are, they weren’t all invitations into straight-up escapism meant solely to take your mind off “things.” Often, these shows pushed us to think about what it is that truly makes a hero’s journey compelling—especially at a time when there’s a glut of solid television out there one can watch with just a few clicks of a button.
After sneaking its way onto Adult Swim late in 2019 to far less fanfare than it deserved, Lazor Wulf returned this December with more space to breathe on HBO Max and a new chapter of stories featuring Strongburg’s premier squad of misanthropic, anthropomorphic animals.
Despite literally depicting all of its main characters dying in the first season, Lazor Wulf came back with a much clearer sense of itself that puts things right back to how they were, in order to let its characters keep growing into even weirder versions of themselves. Oddly enough, the second season’s focus on pushing itself forward feels like the perfect vibe to internalize as we work through the last leg of this year and head into whatever the hell is around the corner. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
Big Mouth’s fourth season’s one of the first animated series that really makes clear that its production took place in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, but it also pointedly doesn’t try to be about the pandemic, which is a gift in and of itself. Instead, the series takes its cast of pubescent human menaces and their various hormone dæmons and uses them to touch on issues like the need for more Black on-screen representation in voice acting specifically and how we’re all dealing with a lot of unaddressed anxiety—which is a big problem. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
Because the original Steven Universe built itself toward so many natural conclusions in response to never quite knowing whether the series was going to be renewed, you always got the sense that no matter how high the stakes got, things could continue in the right circumstances. Steven Universe Future was a different beast from the jump because the coda was meant to bring Steven and the Crystal Gems’ story to a proper close.
Future did so beautifully with a return to Steven Universe’s storytelling roots that ended up centering just how far the series’ heroes and villains alike have all come. It also focused on how change is an ongoing process that sometimes requires us to let things go. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power will forever exist as a shining example of how modern reboots of beloved ‘80s cartoon franchises can work in the right creative hands, provided that the vision for the new project amounts to more than trying to tap into people’s nostalgic memories of the past. Right up until its final season, She-Ra found a way to pay tribute to its predecessor while unabashedly carving out a different, much queerer kind of space for its incarnation of Princess Adora. —Charles Pulliam-Moore
We were truly blessed this year to get the magical fucking romp that was DC Universe’s Harley Quinn. The last half of season one and all of season two aired in 2020 and the laughs it provided were invaluable in this crap time we’re living in. The series was able to tackle serious issues like abusive relationships, job security, memory loss, and long-overdue romantic entanglements with friends with the perfect balance of humor and heart. We even got meta-commentary on the “Snyder Cut”!
With Gotham completely messed up, supporting characters even got some time to shine in the sophomore season with Bane and the Riddler getting into hijinks, Batgirl and Catwoman making big impressions, and Kite-Man, a known himbo, as a clear standout. But we can’t forget poor Commissioner Jim Gordon who went on a whole ass journey from a depressed, down on his luck GCPD officer to saving Gotham (with a little help from Harley) at the President’s behest, and managing to make a truly great clay friend along the way.—Jill Pantozzi
Fans waited two long years between Rick and Morty’s third and fourth seasons, so the news that season four would be broken into two chunks stung more than a little. But the second batch of episodes arrived unexpectedly swiftly, giving us a little something to distract our brains from pandemic panic. The 2020 episodes started off hella meta (that story train!) and ended with the confirmation that Rick had indeed cloned his daughter Beth somewhere along the way.
But at the midway point of season four, we got “The Vat of Acid Episode,” which showed us exactly how far Rick, the smartest and most petty man in the universe, would go to put Morty in his place. It included homages to Futurama and plane-crash cannibal movie Alive, and gave us the ultimate Jerry blunder to boot. In September, the episode deservedly picked up the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program, the same prize it won in 2018 for the similarly genius “Pickle Rick” episode. —Cheryl Eddy
The title character of FXX’s spy series finally woke up from his three-year coma for the show’s 11th season, and it turned out that bringing the show back to its roots is what made it fun to watch again. We appreciated the creative effort behind Archer’s three “dream seasons,” which sent the characters into fantasy adventures in 1940s Los Angeles, 1930s South Pacific, and retro-future outer space, and the voice cast has always been one of the funniest on TV, no matter the setting. But bringing the story back to Archer’s version of “reality,” with the gang back to their trademark secret-agent shenanigans (peppered with ill-advised indulgences and interpersonal squabbles, of course...plus, the return of phrasing!), turned out to be the best reset the show could’ve made. —Cheryl Eddy
Netflix’s Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts came to a big and raucous end this year, wrapping up its story after three seasons. The final season wasn’t quite as impactful as the other two, but it still managed to envelop us in its colorful (and musical) post-apocalyptic world—and it ended on a flash-forward that still gives me goosebumps! Kipo remained as amazing as ever, choosing love and compassion over vengeance—even as her dreams of peace between humans and animals were starting to crumble around her. The moral of the story was that everybody is capable of good, and that beauty can be found in the darkest of places, people, and circumstances. It’s a life lesson we can all take into 2021 and beyond. —Beth Elderkin
Not a lot of shows have managed to do what Cartoon Network and HBO Max’s Infinity Train has, especially in such a short amount of time. Over the course of three pretty truncated seasons, it’s explored complex themes like coping with loss, the nature of identity, and the lies we tell ourselves to deal with our pain. Every one of those stories has been told masterfully—especially this year’s Book 3, which focused on the Apex, a cult-like group.
It seems like there are no limits to what this train is capable of and the kind of places it can take us. Unfortunately, the future of the series may be in jeopardy—the creator previously told io9 he doesn’t know if Infinity Train is coming back for Book 4. Hopefully, we get to board the train again soon, because there’s nothing else quite like it. —Beth Elderkin
Star Trek: Lower Decks had a lot to overcome heading into its first season—not just because it was Trek in a medium it hadn’t touched since the ‘70s, but, to the chagrin of some fans, using that medium to tell a story that, on the surface, seemed to mock Star Trek more than it wanted to be part of it.
Thankfully, Lower Decks didn’t just prove those doubts wrong but soared into the franchise with a love, sincerity, and joyful glee with what might be the strongest first season of any Star Trek show ever. It took a little while to find its footing, but a balance of knowingly Trek humor, likable, nuanced lead characters, and an earnest love of what Star Trek stands for and why its heroes love being part of that universe gave us a series that, in the end, was much more of a love letter to Star Trek’s ideals than anyone ever thought it would be. —James Whitbrook
This year saw the all-too-soon conclusion of the lastest Ninja Turtles reboot, but at least Leo, Raph, Donnie, Mikey, April, and all their friends went out on a stunning high. Building on the grander stakes that arrived with Shredder at the climax of the first season while further exploring the goofy jokes and earnest heart of the bond between the turtle brothers, Rise’s second season took what made its first so charming and polished them to a fine edge. That was even before chucking in some truly incredible action set pieces (you’ve all seen that Rise Clips Twitter floating around, don’t deny it). There’s a movie coming to Netflix next year, at least, but for now, we’re left to ponder just what further highs Rise could have risen to if given the chance it deserved. —James Whitbrook
In a year where access to movie theaters has been out of bounds for all but the most reckless among us, few movies that came out this year have made us miss the joy of a big, bright screen to watch these adventures on quite like Lupin III: The First. The lavish, CG movie debut for Monkey Punch’s beloved gentlemen thief is a sumptuous adventure, never losing the trademark style of the series at large as it translates it to slick, crisp CG animation that amps up the spectacle for one of Lupin and friend’s most delightful outings. It’s also about decking some Nazis, and that’s always good. —James Whitbrook
In 2014, The Clone Wars was done. Over. Co-creator Dave Filoni moved onto a new show and though he had other Clone Wars episodes and ideas planned, the show just kind of ended without an epic conclusion. Eventually, that changed—and six years later, 2020 gave us the big Clone Wars finale the show deserved and fans wanted.
The 12-episode final season dove deeper into the characters of Ahsoka Tano and Captain Rex, expanded connections to the saga films, and was filled with the kind of subtle, poignant emotions Star Wars is often sorely lacking. Not to mention the action and adventure were second to none, introducing a bunch of new characters (like the Bad Batch) that instantly became fan favorites. Twenty-twenty was a year of Star Wars TV and though most will focus on that Baby Yoda show, Clone Wars was just as good, if not better. —Gemain Lussier
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