Animation Showcase

Critic's Notebook: Can Emmy Voters Look Beyond 'The Simpsons' and 'Family Guy' in the Animation Race?

Courtesy of Amazon; Netflix.Apple tv+

After 'Adventure Time,' 'BoJack Horseman' and 'Big Mouth' earned their first animated program noms last year, new shows including 'Big Mouth,' 'Central Park,' 'Tuca & Bertie' and 'Undone' offer voters the opportunity to clear the remaining cobwebs off the category this year.

A glaring Emmy injustice was rectified last year when Netflix's BoJack Horseman — easily one of the smartest, funniest, best-written, best-looking and best-acted comedies of the past decade — finally garnered its first outstanding animated program nomination. Centered on the eponymous washed-up sitcom star (voiced by Will Arnett), Raphael Bob-Waksberg's Hollywood satire was hardly a hidden gem; fans and critics were united in their resounding praise. Its conspicuous absence from Emmy contention led some commentators to wonder whether BoJack was too acerbic — or too honest — in its near-nihilistic depiction of show business for the TV Academy to warm up to it. Whatever the reason, BoJack's continued snubbing — save for a 2017 nod for Kristen Schaal's guest performance — said a lot less about the show than about Emmy voters' seeming inattention to, if not ignorance of, television's animated offerings.

How else to explain last year's animation winner, Fox's The Simpsons, whose artistic heyday and cultural influence waned over two decades ago? While the rest of the Emmys has mostly caught up to television's current halcyon era of more quality programming than any reasonable viewer could watch, the animation category seems stuck in the Modern Family epoch, when name recognition seemed to trump all other reasons for award recognition.

To be fair, the winners of the past five years have, with the exception of The Simpsons, been distributed among several zeitgeist-capturing shows: Fox's Bob's Burgers, FX's Archer, and Cartoon Network's Rick and Morty and Over the Garden Wall. But the nominations are still dominated by too many series well past their prime: The Simpsons (which has gone on for 31 seasons), Comedy Central's South Park (23 seasons), Fox's Family Guy (18 seasons) and Bob's Burgers and Archer (10 seasons apiece). Worse, those shows' overstayed runs in the Emmy race have squeezed out much more deserving contenders.

The 2019 nominations did herald a step in the right direction. Beloved, critically acclaimed series like BoJack, Netflix's sex-ed comedy Big Mouth and Cartoon Network's cross-generational fantasy hit Adventure Time made their first appearances in the category (though Adventure Time's situation is markedly different, with its 11-minute episodes garnering it eight Emmys, including several in the shortform animation bracket).

With the 2020 Emmys, voters have the opportunity to clear the remaining cobwebs off the category. Joining BoJack in the prestige choices should be two Bob-Waksberg-affiliated projects. The recent resuscitation of BoJack producer and production designer Lisa Hanawalt's Tuca & Bertie — via a move from Netflix to Cartoon Network — should help the chances of the bright, bouncy series about female friendship, sobriety and sexual trauma. Just as laudable, though sadly even lower-radar, is Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy's rotoscoped Undone, Amazon's first original animated series, starring Rosa Salazar as a struggling 20-something who, after a catastrophic accident, may have developed superpowers — or lost her connection to reality.

Also arriving with substantial pedigree is the Apple TV+ musical-comedy Central Park. Created by Bob's Burgers mastermind Loren Bouchard, co-star Josh Gad and Nora Smith, the series channels the current populist outrage by squaring off a park manager (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.) against an Upper East Side matron (Stanley Tucci) striving to sell the public greenery to developers. But the real draw of Central Park might be its songwriters, including Fiona Apple, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann, Alan Menken and Meghan Trainor.

And if the recent successes of Archer and Rick and Morty are anything to go by, Emmy voters aren't afraid to reward cartoons with cruder sensibilities. That might work out for the puberty-set Big Mouth, whose earnest, openhearted progressive politics are mixed with perhaps the most notable revelry in bodily grossness since Ren & Stimpy. It might also bode well for Harley Quinn, on DC Universe's streaming platform, a startlingly emotionally intelligent (and romantic!) superhero spoof voiced by Kaley Cuoco and Lake Bell that's the least likely of these shows to receive Emmy consideration but no less worthy of it. Voters certainly have an embarrassment of animated riches to choose from this year. Let's hope the nominees reflect the cartoon cornucopia.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.