When “The Simpsons” premiered in 1989, it was an outlier. Animated shows in primetime were by no means unprecedented — “The Flintstones” broke that barrier in the ’60s — but never before had an animated series aimed at adults resonated so powerfully or had as significant an impact on a network as “The Simpsons” did for Fox. Three decades later, though, such series are having their moment in a big way.

Mike Moon, head of adult animation at Netflix, began his career as an artist on “The Simpsons.” What he’s seen in the years since has been a blossoming of adult animation on U.S. television.
“Adult animation [over] the last 25 years has been a really incredible story,” says Moon, who charts the format’s growth through shows such as “The Simpsons,” Comedy Central’s “South Park,” Fox’s “Family Guy” and Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” to a recent crop of new shows. “I think in those early seeds, you saw a lot of variety, a lot of different types of tone.”

Netflix, which Moon joined two years ago after the premieres of foundational series such as “BoJack” and “Big Mouth,” has been at the forefront of adult animation’s rapid recent growth. Much of that expansion has been driven by the entry of deep-pocketed streamers (including Netflix itself) into an area that for a long while had been limited to Fox’s longstanding Sunday-night “Simpsons”-anchored animation block, Turner’s Adult Swim and a smattering of cable shows.

But the proliferation of new platforms in the market translated into an insurgence of programmers unencumbered by the same forces that made adult animation a tough prospect for traditional networks.

Mike McMahan, co-creator of Hulu’s “Solar Opposites,” says the demands of the broadcast development cycle often discouraged networks from focusing on adult animated comedies, which take far longer than traditional live-action series to get off the ground.

“A lot of executives who are ending up at the streamers came from other places where they might have been fans of animation, but they weren’t able to fit an animated show into what the network was looking for at any one time,” McMahan says. “I would see this problem happen where they would say, ‘OK, here are our goals, here’s what we’re going to develop this year.’ But then all the live-action stuff would go through that cycle.”

Broadcast executives are accustomed to pivoting quickly from year to year based on successes and failures. “Since the animated stuff took longer, they wouldn’t be able to fit into those kinds of traditional planning sessions. And now with the streamers, you don’t have to fit something into the broadcast schedule,” McMahan says.

Because of that longer development process, what viewers may see as a sudden expansion in adult animated programming — including “Solar Opposites,” Netflix’s “Disenchantment” and “F Is for Family,” Hulu’s “Crossing Swords,” TBS’ “Final Space,” Fox’s “Duncanville” and DC Universe’s “Harley Quinn” — has actually been years in the making.

“It takes a couple of years to develop and write and animate and finish these shows,” McMahan says. “You’re seeing more of these adult animated shows cropping up right now because a couple years ago it was proved by the streamers that there was an audience for these kinds of shows.”

McMahan says the same programmers who began greenlighting adult animated shows at a faster rate a few years ago recognized that a newer generation of viewers had grown up “with more complex animated shows” for children. He cites Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which is enjoying renewed interest after Netflix acquired the rights to the series and recently began streaming it.

But linear networks remain very much in the adult animation game. Adult Swim continues to be a keystone for what is now WarnerMedia. ViacomCBS ordered revivals of “Daria,” “Beavis and Butthead” and “Clone High.” And Fox’s Sunday animation lineup continues to be a fixture on its schedule.

Last year, Fox Corp. purchased Bento Box Entertainment, the studio behind the long-running “Bob’s Burgers,” as it sought to strengthen its adult-animation brand.

“When ‘The Simpsons’ first came out, that generation didn’t grow up on animation,” says Bento Box co-founder and CEO Scott Greenberg. “We now have viewers who have grown up on more animation [and] on anime, and they have a more sophisticated palate.”

Greenberg sees the current crop of adult animated series not as the ultimate fruit of the format’s growth, but rather the most recent stage in an evolution that is ongoing.

“There hasn’t been a better time to be a producer of animation,” Greenberg says. “There are more buyers. And I think also animation straddles genres. In adult primetime, we’ve seen success in scripted comedy.”

But he points toward the success in Japan and Europe of other kinds of animated shows — shows that American audiences are now being exposed to by streamers such as Netflix and HBO Max, which set a landmark deal prior to its May launch to stream the library of legendary Japanese animator Studio Ghibli.

“We’ve always seen opportunity where animation is a way of telling stories, not a genre,” Greenberg says. “We can possibly do more hour-long dramas, we can do horror, we can do thrillers and do dramedy. So I think, in a way, I think there’s a great opportunity for us to really grow.”