Let’s be real: When you think of Cartoon Network right now, Adult Swim is probably the first thing that comes to mind, right? While Adult Swim is great and full of classics of its own (hello, Aqua Teen Hunger Force!), some of the very best Cartoon Network shows are actually the ones made for children. From pure chaotic kids energy to life lessons, LGBTQIA+ visibility, horror, comedy and superheroes, we’ve rounded up the very best old Cartoon Network shows that you’ll enjoy just as much as your little ones.
Best Cartoon Network Shows Ever
Steven Universe isn’t just a fun viewing for kids who love cartoons about superpowers, space and silliness. It also has an incredible amount of LGBTQ+ representation, becoming the first-ever animated series to win GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids & Family Program in 2019. Steven Universe also was nominated for five Emmy Awards and won a Peabody Award in 2019.
Though the title character is male, most of the other characters in Steven Universe (namely the magical Crystal Gems) are female, queer or androgynous, and Steven’s mother is in a lesbian relationship. This was all deliberate, series creator Rebecca Sugar explained to Entertainment Weekly: “My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys,” they said. “It’s exciting to me to play with a lot of that language, because everyone’s very familiar with it but it really doesn’t make much sense. I used to really enjoy shows that were aggressively targeted to boys when I was a little girl and I know the same can be true the other way around, so why not have something that everybody can watch? And at the same time, have something to say about the fact that that really is absurd.”
Also super sweet? Sugar created the show to honor their little brother, Steven, who also worked as an artist on the series.
Cow and Chicken
Surrealist and slapstick, Cow and Chicken is a Cartoon Network classic from Hanna-Barbera, the same team that brought iconic characters like the Flinstones, Jetsons and Yogi Bear to life. The show’s creator, David Feiss, created Cow and Chicken for his daughter, and the team for the show was pretty small: Charlie Adler voiced all of the main characters (Cow, Chicken and Red Guy, the villain who tries to trick them into shady business). However, the guest cast was often star-studded: Will Ferrell, Mark Hamill and Pamela Adlon were among voices heard on the beloved animated series during its three-season run.
The Powerpuff Girls
Girl power indeed! Heroes Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup (the latter voiced by E.G. Daily, who also voices Tommy Pickles in Rugrats) comprised the powerful Powerpuff Girls. Aside from kicking butt and taking names, the Powerpuff Girls also paid homage to another famous woman: Visual artist Margaret Keane, whose “Big Eyes” portrait style inspired their wide-eyed look and after whom the character Ms. Keane in the show was named. The Powerpuff Girls’ powers rendered them essentially invincible, but they demonstrated that they were still somewhat vulnerable to everyday dramas that young girls face.
The show’s creator, Craig McCracken, originally titled the feisty female fighting trio “The Whoopass Girls,” and the “secret ingredient” in their creation by scientist Professor Utonium was initially called “Whoopass.” The ingredient was changed to “Chemical X” and their name was changed to the Powerpuff Girls to make it more kid-friendly.
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Throughout its run, The Powerpuff Girls was nominated for six Emmys, and its 1998 premiere was the highest-rated debut of any Cartoon Network programming ever at the time. The show became a pop culture phenomenon, spawning soaring merchandise sales, a feature film and an upcoming live-action reboot. The Powerpuff Girls‘ success shocked even McCracken, who admitted, “I thought it would get on Cartoon Network and college kids would watch it and there would be a few random T-shirts out there in the rave scene or in record shops. But I had no idea that it would take off to this extent.”
Adventure Time was made for kids, but adults loved it as much or even more than children did. Set in the magical Land of Ooo, Adventure Time takes place in a post-apocalyptic future with noticeable Mad Max influences. The show follows Finn the Human and his magical shape-shifting best friend, Jake the Dog, in their encounters with the Bubblegum Queen (literally a sentient piece of gum who rules the Candy Kingdom), Marceline the Vampire Queen, the Lumpy Space Princess, the Ice King, the Flame Princess and a robot named BMO. BMO is gender-fluid and Marceline and Princess Bubblegum are in a romantic relationship, a development that only came to full fruition in the series finale. Writer Rebecca Sugar said their efforts to increase LGBTQIA+ representation in the show were initially met with some resistance, explaining, “We were told something along the lines of ‘don’t you understand you work for a company?’ So I began to see where the walls and ceilings were.”
One of the other unique elements of Adventure Time is the use of music and original songs, even releasing soundtracks due to popular demand, as well as where they find their guest stars: The show’s creators mined the casts of The Office and Star Trek: The Next Generation for voice talent, which included Rainn Wilson, Creed Bratton, LeVar Burton and Jonathan Frakes.
Adventure Time won eight Emmys and a Peabody Award throughout its run. Adventure Time specials called Adventure Time: Distant Lands are available for your viewing pleasure on HBO Max.
The beloved Dexter’s Laboratory is a fan favorite of kids and adults. The sibling love (and pestering) between the titular Dexter and his sister Dee Dee is super sweet and makes their bickering relatable, and simply just figuring out the origin of Dexter’s accent can keep you entertained for hours. Also fun? The recurring themes of parent and guardian obliviousness: Just as Dexter and Dee Dee’s parents have no idea that their genius son has a lab hidden behind a bookcase, Dexter has no clue that his pet monkey has superpowers and fights crime.
Fans of the DC Comics Universe love Teen Titans. Focusing on teenage superheroes Robin (yes, that Robin!), Cyborg, Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy, the main characters didn’t have secret identities on the show, something creator Glen Murakami said was deliberate for its young audience.
“It was really important to me that little kids watching it could identify with characters. And I thought that the minute you start giving them secret identities then kids couldn’t project themselves onto the characters anymore. And that was important to me. I know it’s kind of important to have secret identities and stuff like that but we wanted everything to be really, really, iconic,” he said in a 2004 interview. “Like, ‘Oh, there’s the robot guy. There’s the alien girl. There’s the witch girl. There’s the shape-changing boy. There’s the…’ We just wanted it really clean like that. We wanted it like old Star Trek. We just wanted it simple.”
A blue jay and a raccoon brave all sorts of trials and tribulations, from the mundane (avoiding work as groundskeepers at a park) to the supernatural (hanging out with ghosts, going to space). With voice talents including Mark Hamill, Regular Show has jokes for kids as well as adults, the show also features fantastic songs from bands including The Replacements and The Velvet Underground. It’s gloriously weird and has something for everyone crammed into mere 11-minute episodes.
Ed, Edd n’ Eddy
You know the slogan “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” Ed, Edd n Eddy explores, among other things, what three preteen boys would do for Jawbreakers. Ed, Edd and Eddy are outcasts from their cul-de-sac, but they don’t care much, so long as they’re able to scheme (and oftentimes humiliate themselves) their way to get their favorite candy. Anyone who’s ever been an awkward preteen or just had a major craving for a specific sweet will find the show relatable, and its vintage-style animation makes it one of Cartoon Network’s most visually interesting offerings as well.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
Being courageous doesn’t mean you’re never scared. It means you overcome your fear to kick butt in whatever way is needed, and that’s exactly what the adorable Courage the Cowardly Dog does. Courage and his owners (a sweet woman named Muriel and her often cantankerous husband Eustace) encounter supernatural monsters and ghosts, and he braves some seriously spooky things to protect them. The show mixes horror elements with the silliness of cartoons to wonderful effect, though some of the more violent moments may not be appropriate for super-young kids.
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Winning a Primetime Emmy during its three-season run, Chowder is about a lovable chef’s apprentice whose appetite and absentmindedness often get him into trouble. Aside from its endearing storylines, the show’s character names alone make it fun and worth watching: Panini is a girl with a huge crush on Chowder, his caregivers are named Mung and Truffles Daal, Shnitzel is Chowder’s rock monster buddy, and he has a gassy pet cloud named Kimchi. Listen for voice talent from Paul Reubens and George Takei as a cat!
Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, created Samurai Jack, partly inspired by David Carradine in the classic Kung Fu series. Mad TV alum Phil LaMarr voices the titular samurai, who time-travels to battle demons. He encounters aliens, monsters, robots and every other imaginable obstacle along the way to save the world. The series ran four seasons from 2001 to 2004, then returned for a darker, more grownup fifth season in 2017. Samurai Jack was incredibly successful, winning eight Primetime Emmys throughout its run and spawned video games and other merchandise.
Johnny Bravo is great for adults and kids in teaching how not to date: The narcissistic title character, loosely based on Elvis Presley and partly inspired by Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, lives with his mom and desperately tries to get women to date him, often to no avail despite his good looks. The show famously drops pop culture references and has celebrity guest stars providing voice talent, including Adam West, Donny Osmond, Shaquille O’Neal and Seth Green. Reports circulated that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was set to star in a live-action Johnny Bravo feature film, but it’s unclear if it’s still going to happen.
Codename: Kids Next Door
Codename: Kids Next Door (sometimes called Kids Next Door or abbreviated to KND) follows five 10-year-olds who fight crimes against children, which can include anything from forcing them to floss or making them do their homework. Action movie fans will enjoy the series’ references to franchises including Rambo, Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, Predator, Robocop, Star Trek, James Bond and even Dragon Ball Z, and Star Wars fans will appreciate Mark Hamill voicing a villain.
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Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends
Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken is also behind Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, which he conceived after adopting two dogs: The home is a retirement center for imaginary friends whose humans have moved on; some of the imaginary friends can be adopted by new kids. The show was one of Cartoon Network’s most popular and beloved during its run from 2004 through 2009. McCracken told The Boston Globe that he was inspired by The Muppet Show when he created Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends because it appealed to both kids and their parents.
“I wanted to make a show that was universal for all ages,” he said. “We give kids more credit than some people, and we also realize that adults aren’t so grown up and stuffy. By hitting that middle ground you appeal to the maturity in the kids and goofiness in the adults.”
Ben 10 is Cartoon Network’s longest-running franchise ever, clocking in at 14 years (so far). Ben 10 won three Emmys throughout its run, and it’s composed of five separate TV series, one special and five televised feature films. The original Ben 10 premise from 2005: Ben Tennyson, grandson of an intergalactic traveler, finds what he thinks is a watch, but is actually The Omnitrix, a device that gives him the ability to transform into different alien life forms, each with different individual superpowers and abilities. Of course, with such powers also come obstacles like villains and maintaining his own identity. The series follows Ben’s development as a superhero and the trials and tribulations that come with it.
Young Justice ran for two seasons in 2010 and 2012, but was so beloved it was revived in 2019 for a third.
The show focuses on DC Superheroes coming of age: Batman, Green Arrow, Superboy The Flash and Aquaman mentor teenage Robin, Kid Flash, Miss Martian (voiced by Danica McKellar), Aqualad, Artemis and Speedy to eventually join the Justice League. Later members include Zatanna (voiced by Lacey Chabert), Blue Beetle, Beast Boy, Wonder Girl, Batgirl, Cyborg and others. The storylines are complex and mature, but nothing kids shouldn’t be able to watch, and superhero fan parents will be similarly engrossed by the series.
The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy
What would you do if the Grim Reaper was your personal servant and pal? In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, the delightfully dumb Billy and his borderline sociopathic, cynical sister Mandy beat the Grim Reaper (known as just Grim) in a limbo match (by cheating!) and thereby get Death himself as their slave. Billy and Mandy take advantage of Grim’s powers to explore the Underworld and encounter monsters like Dracula, the Bogeyman and the Wolfman. You also don’t have to worry if you miss an episode, because the show generally lacks continuity—which is good, because Mandy and Billy’s schemes often end up killing some characters. Due to the violence and dark themes, however, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy is probably best suited for kids 8 and up.
The Amazing World of Gumball
The Amazing World of Gumball evolves over time to become more satirical and darker, but the British series stays fun and silly throughout. The consistent elements are the titular Gumball, a 12-year-old blue cat, and his beloved goldfish brother Darwin, as Gumball navigates the world and middle school life. In Season 3, The Amazing World of Gumball introduces The Void, another dimension that houses essentially all of history’s errors, as well as Rob, a background character who becomes a self-aware villain when the show gets particularly meta.
Equal parts silly, sweet and surrealist, Uncle Grandpa focuses on its title character, a Santa Claus-like figure who’s an Uncle-Grandpa to everyone in the world. Uncle Grandpa checks in on kids all over the world and helps them with their problems, often to hilarious results. Uncle Grandpa is joined by a sentient fanny pack named Belly Bag, a sentient slice of pizza named Pizza Steve, a dinosaur named Mr. Gus and a living photo of a tiger aptly named Giant Realistic Flying Tiger. Come for the adorable absurdity and stay for Mark Hamill, Adam Devine, Lena Headey, Pamela Adlon, Shaquille O’Neal and Brian Posehn in the voice cast.
Sheep In the Big City
They’re sheep in a big city, and there are a lot of really cute puns. Not everything has to be deep. Sheep In the Big City is absolutely perfect for being unapologetically exactly what it is.
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