Animated television is drastically overlooked in comparison to its live-action counterpart. For a number of reasons, including but not limited to its association as children’s programming, animated television targeted at adults has struggled to receive the same recognition from critics and scholars. Especially evident is a strong tendency to incorrectly assume similar operations, formats, and styles between animated shows because of their shared medium. Animation is only a medium but with the significant variety in animated television available, it is worth discussing not only how animation differs from live-action television but also how animated shows differ from one another.
In an expanding television market with numerous formats with which to watch one’s favorite shows, each format has come to carry certain characteristics that help define the types of shows that air. The broadcast, cable, and streaming video on demand (SVOD) formats have followed different trajectories since their inception, and it will therefore be worthwhile to explore these differences as they relate to animated shows. Fox’s The Simpsons, Comedy Central’s South Park, and Netflix’s Bojack Horseman (representing broadcast, cable, and SVOD, respectively) are all immensely popular animated sit-coms, and their different formats have led to different topics, structures, variety, and invention. Animation already holds a number of key distinctions in storytelling capabilities from live-action, but each format only furthers these possibilities.
Much of the prior research surrounding animated television concerns itself with legitimizing the medium. For the sake of this argument, animated television will be assumed to hold many of the same capabilities as live-action television with regards to structure and complexity while simultaneously possessing a greater variety because of the freedoms granted by the medium. The similarities and differences across broadcast, cable, and SVOD have been of particular importance because of the rise of streaming services as a viewing format.
In “Upgrading the Situation Comedy”, professors Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine discuss the differences between modern “upgraded” sitcoms and older, more conservative and formulaic shows of the same genre. These upgraded sitcoms, according to Newman and Levine, follow the production practices of film rather than television, and this “cinematization” helps legitimize that which is often cast aside as less culturally important. Noting an extensive variety within the sitcom genre, Newman and Levine differentiate older and “upgraded” sitcoms by the number of cameras used, the audio design, dialogue, pacing, and story structures. Each style has its own advantages and drawbacks, including critical appeal, cost, and audience fragmentation and retention (Newman and Levine 78-79). Many of these traditional and “upgraded” sit-coms position themselves across the three types of television formats, with cable and SVOD especially leaning toward “upgraded” sit-coms.
Recent animated television follows these qualities of cinema as laid out by Newman and Levine. In terms of production, The Simpsons, BoJack Horseman, and South Park all ditch the laugh track and follow a storyboard format that more closely resembles single-camera shooting than multiple-camera shooting. These production choices, as well as favoring more mature and complex content over “least-offensive” programming, position animated television closer to the aesthetics of live-action cinema than of its own medium. Newman and Levine write, “Following the impressive influence of The Simpsons, many animated sitcoms have explored styles of humor diverging from those of traditional live-action comedies, and in turn have offered models to creators of live-action shows…” (60).
Animated sitcoms, in their stylistic and narrative complexities, have influenced the storytelling of a number of live-action comedies, such as Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006), Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009) and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-). Newman and Levine position television against cinema, but another important qualifier in the perception of “quality” is the dynamic of animation versus live-action. Many animated sitcoms, such as Netflix’s originals, push the boundaries of what is commonly expected of the medium, placing themselves on the same pedestal previously reserved not only for cinema but for live-action storytelling.
The quality of Netflix’s animation is discussed by professor Eddie Falvey in his essay, “Situating Netflix’s Original Adult Animation“, in which he expands on previous writing that regards Netflix original programs as “quality television”. Beginning with a general description of the ways in which Netflix animation fits the “quality” title, including characteristics such as “intertextuality”, “smartness”, “complex dialogue and themes”, he notes the greater visual humor as a marker of “quality” television that is unique to the animated format (120-121). Falvey offers two case studies of popular Netflix animated shows that achieve this level of quality: BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth (2017-).
Regarding BoJack Horseman, Falvey notes the complex storytelling and intricate characterization, something that plays on the traditional sitcom format but ultimately upgrades its form. (121-123). He puts animation in the same category of live-action television, even offering insight into the different opportunities animation has in storytelling. Overall, Falvey works to legitimize adult-oriented animation, specifically characterizing the ways in which SVOD programming represents the format’s potential. The complexity and originality of Netflix’s adult animation are witnessed in a number of episodes of BoJack Horseman, especially season five’s “Free Churro” episode.
In “Free Churro” (2018), Bojack (voiced by Will Arnett) delivers a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. With the exception of a cold open flashback in which Bojack’s father berates his wife and verbally abuses his son, the entire episode is delivered as Bojack’s eulogy. The only character seen or heard after the opening credits is Bojack, offering a stream-of-consciousness monologue about his relationship with his mother, his life as an actor, and a time he was given a free churro at a Jack in the Box. In the final moments, Bojack opens the casket, only to realize he is at the wrong funeral.
After discussing an episode of his television show Horsin’ Around, Bojack comments on the nature of sitcoms. He monologues, “You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms, not really, because if everyone’s happy, the show would be over, and above all else, the show has to keep going. There’s always more show” (“Free Churro”). This comment not only illustrates Bojack’s own unhappiness, but it also comments on the challenging nature of sitcoms in general. In his understanding of happy endings, Bojack is dooming himself to constant unhappiness—if he is to continue in his show, it is going to be unhappy.
Unlike traditional sitcoms, this episode (like many others in the series) does not offer an emotional resolution. Once the final joke is told, the episode ends, and viewers are left unsure about Bojack’s emotional state. Falvey writes, “Complex characters depend upon inconclusive readings… their actions and ideas do not provide total portraits of them, but rather offer the viewer slices of information that they can take in a variety of different ways” (123). Bojack is a difficult character. His toxicity brings down everyone in his life, but “Free Churro” highlights the inner turmoil and complexity of the show’s protagonist. This unresolved moral and emotional ambiguity is a marker of BoJack Horseman‘s cleverness and complex storytelling.
Whereas Bojack Horseman is marked by narrative complexity and ambiguous characters, The Simpsons is more consistent and formulaic. This should not, however, distract from the influence of the show and the commentary it offers. The show does not have the same freedom of complexity allowed in SVOD programming, but it offers a unique commentary on the nature of television. In her essay, “Reading the Ungraspable Double-Codedness of The Simpsons“, professor Simone Knox argues that The Simpsons can be considered both postmodern and revolutionary because of its (then) unique “double-codedness”. Knox takes particular interest in the popular episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1997) and the ways in which it provides a commentary on the show itself, the ways in which fans react to it, and the broadcast medium.
Utilizing the “show-within-a-show” format, The Simpsons critiques the nature and business of television. While meta-commentary is not unique to animation (or even to The Simpsons), the specific brand of commentary in The Simpsons highlights the functions of broadcast specifically (77). Although Knox argues that the show satirizes the consumerist interests of postmodern television, she points out the ways in which it is itself a postmodern consumerist broadcast show. The “double-codedness” of The Simpsons simultaneously comments on and satirizes itself while also following all the expectations of a primetime broadcast show (80).
Knox’s work highlights the constant pressure that relates to ratings and advertising. Although The Simpsons is quick to satirize the medium, it still must abide by the rules if it is to maintain the funding the station needs from advertisers. This conditional freedom sets the show apart from shows aired on cable and SVOD, which are less reliant on ratings because of narrowcasting, niche but dedicated audiences, and subscription-based funding.