The Adult Swim classic Harvey Birdman returns this Sunday night with a new half-hour special, reminding viewers that Cartoon Network’s late-night programming has more to offer than just Pickle Rick and reruns of American Dad.
The odyssey of a superhero-turned-lawyer who defends old Hanna-Barbera characters in court, Birdman was part of Adult Swim’s early 20th century golden era, though great shows are still very much a part of the lineup today.
Here’s a look at the 10 best-ever Adult Swim original series (Birdman included), accept no substitutions or pretenders. Some are still running, some concluded years ago. All are fall-down funny.
1. Aqua Teen Hunger Force
All the shows on this list embrace their own form of madness, but with the Aqua Teens, madness wasn’t just the mode, it was the medium: This series painted canvases of insanity. True, not every painting was a masterpiece, but across 11 seasons and one feature film, we were given hilarious Lovecraftian freaks including a half-mammal party bus that eats its inhabitants, a “Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future,” a rocket ship made entirely of penises, and a severed human head reanimated after being attached to a body made entirely of eyeballs. “Is he gonna be able to chase us?” a character inquired of that last one. “Cuz if I woke up lookin’ like that, I would just run towards the nearest living thing and kill it.”
Dismissed as stoner humor by people who have tried neither the show nor the drug, ATHF tangoed back and forth across the line between “vaudeville routine” and “LSD hallucination.” Frylock, Meatwad, Shake, and Carl Brutananadilewski were more influential than people realized at the time — it’s mainstream for TV to be at least a little crazy now. Shake would want me to tell you he started that.
2. The Venture Brothers
What started as a cheeky sitcom riff on Jonny Quest has blossomed over its 14-years-and-counting run into a compelling, brilliant, startlingly moving family-centric adventure-burlesque. With a mythology as deep and broad as that of Star Trek or Game of Thrones, Venture Bros. tells the epic tales of Hank & Dean, bumbling children of a (now wealthy again!) super-scientist asshole, as they cross paths with mutants, killer robots, ghosts, and a rogues gallery of bad guys so zippily well-imagined it would make Batman blush. The iron-jawed, German-accented despot? Yeah, that’s Baron Ünderbheit. The 60’s-style Dean Martin wannabe with Mystique-like powers of imitation? We call him the Copy Cat, baby. The heroes are just as colorful, which makes it all the more fun when the lines between them blur. This is comic-book storytelling as it ought to be; Marvel and DC should hang their heads in shame.
3. Rick & Morty
If last year’s third season is any indication, this will one day be at the top of this list. A cultural phenomenon for all the right reasons, Rick & Morty uses the infinite (universe) possibilities of science-fiction to explore a relationship so toxic, it leaves entire worlds poisoned and wrecked in its wake. Supergenius Rick Sanchez gets drunk to the point where he shits himself and passes out all over a damn conference table … before waking up to help solve the elaborate death-traps he himself set up while black-out. In the hands of creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick & Morty starts each episode with so much potential, you almost feel nervous sitting down for it. Not that there’s anything in the multiverse that could stop you.
4. Frisky Dingo
Before they achieved well-deserved success with FX’s Archer, Adam Reed and Matt Thompson created this delectable satire of rich, entitled superheroes and their misunderstood evil nemeses who just want to hurl the Earth into the sun. The push-and-pull between Killface, bent on the world’s destruction, and Xander Crews, whose only real goal is looking cool as his alter ego Awesome X, is what it would be like if Moriarty and Sherlock were old friends from summer camp. The animation is crude. The plot is bonkers. The show, which burned bright and fast at a slim, beautiful two seasons, is worth tracking down, and not just for all the proto-Archer joke set-ups you’ll recognize.
The finest live-action Adult Swim is a blood-drenched melee, mocking cop shows from Walker, Texas Ranger to Justified with fever-dream cases in episodes with names like “Exit Wound the Gift Shop” and “Death Punch.” Chris Elliot stars as a U.S. Marshall who never meet a problem he couldn’t shoot, with Maria Thayer and Brett Gelman tagging along as his beyond-hapless sidekicks. Metalocalypse and Superjail! mistook violence and gore for wit, but with Eagleheart, the staggering body count is often simply the fastest way to tell the story.
6. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law
It might be the lowest-yield TV program of all time: 39 episodes, each only 12 minutes long, that aired over the course of more than six years. That’s less than a hour and a half of content each year. The rapid-fire sight gags and vacuum-packed writing made each of those precious minutes worth watching, but the real strength here is the vocal performances. Gary Hart, Stephen Colbert, John Michael Higgins, and Paget Brewster have never been funnier, but dear god, the intensity of Peter MacNicol’s gonzo turn as X the Eliminator, a cartoon villain so pathetic he doesn’t even realize he’s a fan boy.
Incestuous, ignorant, drug-peddling land squids who live in (and occasionally destroy) the verdant hills of Georgia — what’s not to love?
8. Sealab 2021
Space Ghost: Coast to Coast is considered by many to be first great series in the Adult Swim lineup, but this repurposed undersea farce, the animated equivalent of found art, was what truly set the stage for all the others to come. From Thompson and Reed again, Sealab is like what would happen if you gave antique shadow puppets to a team that wants to blow them up in as many antic ways as they can think of.
9. Children’s Hospital
A terrific comedic cast (Rob Corddry, Megan Mullally, Lake Bell, Ken Marino, Henry Winkler) only enhances the dreamlike surreality of this Emmy-winning hospital show parody. It’s like Grey’s Anatomy as mocked by particularly clever high schoolers, or an episode of Scrubs where someone left the laughing gas on.
10. Robot Chicken
Claymation sketches for the zero-attention-span set? Sure, but it’s often really good claymation sketches for the zero-attention-span set. The Star Wars specials alone are enough to earn it a spot on this list.