There are many growth areas in television these days, but few are as busy or offer as much variety as adult animation. Already the format for more than a few of the recent past’s most richly entertaining shows — “Bojack Horseman,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Rick and Morty,” “Archer,” “Tuca & Bertie” — it has only gained momentum. New series arrive every week (and that’s not counting the quarterly infusion of anime), perhaps driven by a combination of evolving tastes and pandemic-induced production shifts.
They can take the form of superhero and science-fiction genre stories, like Amazon Prime Video’s “Invincible,” HBO Max’s “Gen:Lock” (premiering Thursday) or Adult Swim’s “Blade Runner: Black Lotus” (Nov. 13). Many still crop up in the broad category of wacky-family comedies, like Fox’s “The Great North” or “The Harper House” on Paramount+. Some lean into animation’s license for transgression, like Adult Swim’s “Teenage Euthanasia,” Netflix’s “Chicago Party Aunt” or Tubi’s “The Freak Brothers” (Nov. 14). Others, you suspect, might require too much courage to try to pull off with live actors, like “Fairfax,” Amazon’s satire of teen influencers and hypebeast culture, or “Q-Force,” Netflix’s irreverent comedy about a cadre of L.G.B.T.Q. spies.
Inspired by the return of Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” here are three excellent adult-animation series that take very different approaches to the same goal: Whether it’s through theatrical smuttiness, minimalist degradation or surreal fantasy, each has something to say about the real lives of young people.
The most unrelentingly and entertainingly dirty show on the small screen returns with a fifth season on Friday. Like neurotic New Yorkers in a Sondheim musical, its adolescent characters are endlessly talkative when it comes to their obsessions: masturbation, the dimensions of the organs involved in masturbation, the likes and dislikes of the classmates they think about while they’re masturbating.
The show continues to use the sexual and romantic panic of its perpetual middle schoolers as a frame for commentary that is earnest but mercifully unpedantic; early episodes of Season 5 take on subjects like body image and the shame-free universality of being a teenage perv. And the rapid-fire jokes are as sharp as those on many shows better known for their topical humor. (The budding activist Missy, voiced by Ayo Edebiri, leads a campaign against the school’s problematic mascot, the Scheming Gypsy.)
Nick Kroll, a creator of the show, and John Mulaney give vivid life to the central characters, the neurotic nerd Nick and the brash nerd Andrew. But what sets “Big Mouth” apart is its collection of shaggy hormone monsters, sleek love bugs and other beings sent from an alternate dimension to help guide the human teenagers through their difficult years, spicing questionable advice with insults and raunchy one-liners. It’s as if adolescence had a particularly gamy lounge act as its soundtrack, a conceit made literal in the Shame Wizard, a master of dispensing shame because he can’t feel it himself; David Thewlis wraps the character in glorious layers of smarm. (Stream it on Netflix.)
As coming-of-age allegories go, this recently completed anime series, on Funimation, is right on the nose. A school building suddenly drifts out of our world and is suspended in a black void; the 36 middle schoolers trapped inside must overcome their anxieties and jealousies and work together to find a way back, a process commonly known as growing up. The voyagers also acquire strange new powers, as teenagers tend to do. The coolest kid can fly; an antagonistic outsider can order whatever she wants from her own magical version of Amazon, and has to keep the community supplied with material goods.
The challenges they face are also easy to parse as Japanese social critique: the student-council types institute rules that keep everyone constantly working; students who freeze in place like statues turn out to have disappeared into “Twin Peaks”-style curtained rooms where they can play video games or lift weights in solitude. (A girl is chastised for calling them hikikomori, the Japanese term for extreme recluses.) Western viewers won’t have too much trouble following along, even though the story is told in the elliptical, fragmentary style typical of science-fiction anime.
A healthy appetite for teenage romanticism can get you through “Sonny Boy” despite the middling writing, but the real reason to watch the 12-episode season is the striking animation overseen by the director Shingo Natsume — minimalist but evocative in the character designs, and lusciously detailed and inventive in the psychedelic succession of worlds the travelers pass through. The animation studio Madhouse has a proud tradition in feature anime, and the work of Natsume and his artists (including the manga veteran Hisashi Eguchi) recalls some Madhouse landmarks: the elegant frenzy of Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika,” the languorous melancholy of Mamoru Hosoda’s “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.” (Stream it on Funimation.)
‘Ten Year Old Tom’
In 2008 HBO premiered “The Life and Times of Tim,” a roughly animated (the characters looked Etch A Sketched), quietly raunchy workplace cringe comedy that built a small but devoted following. Weighing the show’s insider cred against its paltry viewership, HBO canceled “Tim” after two seasons, changed its mind, and then canceled it for good after Season 3.
But that was before HBO Max, which is now the home of the first season of “Ten Year Old Tom,” the writer and director Steve Dildarian’s follow-up to “The Life and Times of Tim.” If you were part of the earlier series’ cult, you’ll be happy to know that “Tom” is largely the same show. The animation and the dialogue are as crude as you remember, and the 10-year-old hero is a mini-Tim, downtrodden and subject to constant embarrassment but more bemused than upset. Being slightly more sane than everyone around him is no defense against the elaborate scenarios of humiliation that Dildarian constructs.
Tom, voiced by Dildarian in a diffident monotone that slides into strangled alarm, is a wised-up Charlie Brown; he talks like an adult but his ignorance of things like condoms or how to start a fire without burning down the house gets him into trouble. His moral compass is wider than those of the adults around him, but he’s easily led astray. The cast of bad role models includes David Duchovny as a sketchy ice cream truck driver, Jennifer Coolidge (returning from “Tim”) as the loudly entitled mother of one of Tom’s friends and a highly amusing John Malkovich as Mr. B, the tyrant in charge of band, yearbook, the spelling team and who knows what else at Tom’s school. (Stream it on HBO Max.)