We watch... so you don't have to.

Some of My Best Friends are Two-Dimensional

You and I are living in a golden age, my friend, unless you're a fan of minor league football or ER. Other than that, it's a grand time to be alive... especially if you like cartoons. Today's animators and falling-anvil-gag writers are churning out more top-quality product now than at any other time in history. It's not just for us animation fetishists either. The cartoon genre as a whole is a better group of series than any other of prime time's weary old collections.

Tally up the number of good cop shows left. There's Law and Order, which only counts for half, and CSI, which isn't really about cops. Lawyer TV? Again, half Law and Order. Decent sitcoms? Raymond, Malcolm and maybe Drew Carey fill a pretty short list. Meanwhile, Fox's Sunday night cartoon block alone offers three of the best shows on television.

Animation has long been a staple of human entertainment. From the very earliest cave drawings depicting a Neanderthal getting a piano dropped on his head, crudely drawn characters have amused commoner and king alike. Recently, archaeologists discovered strange hieroglyphics on the base of the Great Pyramid. Turns out, if you run around the structure really fast, you'll be treated to the uproarious story of Giza Bob and Stinky the talking scarab beetle.

If you're about my age, you attended middle school believing Scooby Doo was the pinnacle of animated achievement. We were idiots. Have you actually seen a Scooby Doo episode lately? The only redeeming quality to the show is that it was a cartoon before it had its own line of action figures.

Even the vaunted Superfriends was pathetic. The Wonder Twins? Saps. Their pet monkey was a far better superhero than either of the twins. Or Aquaman, for that matter. Besides, the Superfriends always seemed incredibly inefficient and bloated. What's the point of having an entire group of superheroes if one of them is Superman? Somehow I doubt Robin's going to kick the crap out of some hideous space mutant that beat the hell out of the Man of Steel.

Aquaman may be able to talk to fish, but unless you're looking for lunch, what's a sea bass going to do that Superman can't? At least Wonder Woman has some minor super powers. Batman, on the other hand, is just a regular schlub. How did he ever get invited to the party?

Today's cartoons are so superior to years gone by, it's not even worth mentioning Underdog or The Transformers. Fox's Sunday night offers the best 90 minutes of pencil and ink people that anyone has ever seen. Futurama stepped out of The Simpsons' shadow last year, King of the Hill just finished its best season since its second and The Simpsons is quite simply the greatest television show the world has ever known.

Network series are just the tip of the iceberg. Everybody knows South Park is the reason cable television was invented, but Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network are cable's real animation heavyweights. The best Elvis on TV is actually Johnny Bravo, the idiotic, buffed-up, skirt-chasing star of his own show. Nickelodeon's SpongeBob Squarepants just might be the goofiest show on the air. You simply can not call yourself a couch potato until you've seen a talking sponge transmogrify into a sea snail that meows like a kitten.

Cartoon Network's biggest stars are the Powerpuff Girls, a trio of crime-fighting sisters named Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. These kindergartners probably couldn't take out Superman, but they'll sure as hell open up a can of whoop-ass on the Wonder Twins. Created from sugar, spice, everything nice and a dash of Chemical X, the Powerpuff Girls spend their mornings learning cursive writing and their evenings saving the city of Townsville from super villans, monsters and Satan himself.

While Blossom is the group's leader and Buttercup is the toughest one of the three, everybody's clear favorite is blonde, blue-eyed Bubbles. Bubbles is the Powerpuff equivalent to Cartman, minus the swearing and obesity. She's the character with the best lines who is destined to steal every scene she's in. It doesn't hurt that she's gifted with the best voice in prime time, a voice she sometimes uses to talk to squirrels.

The Powerpuff Girls are about more than cute and cuddly. Its simple animation style might remind you of Flash-enabled web sites, but the stories have an almost Simpsons-like sophistication. One recent episode, entitled "Meet the Beat-Alls" featured villains that would be very familiar to anyone who knew the names John, Paul, George and Ringo.

One of the show's best episodes is about an inept jewel thief who loses a huge diamond in a box of breakfast cereal popular with certain large rabbits. The box ends up in the Powerpuff home and the thief spends the episode recreating a famous series of commercials where a certain rabbit tries to trick children into giving him cereal. Unlike the ad campaign, each and every time this happens, the girls knock the snot out of the rabbit while joyfully reciting the mantra about how certain cereals are meant only for youthful consumers.

With the exception of the Sunday night Fox cartoons and an occasional South Park, no one on television does a better job of skewering adult pop culture than the six-year old Powerpuff Girls. It's obvious series creator Craig McCracken spent as much time in front of after-school TV as the rest of us.

While SpongeBob may be king over at Nickelodeon, the Nick cartoon those over 12 will get the biggest kick out of is Invader Zim. Created by underground comic book artist Jhonen Vasquez, Invader Zim tells the story of an alien sent to Earth to prepare our planet for invasion. In order to facilitate his plans, Zim dons blue contact lenses and a jet black pompadour in order to masquerade as an eighth grader. Apparently his school is near a nuclear power plant since no one seems to mind his skin is still green.

Zim's nemesis is a middle school Mulder named Dib, an obnoxious brat who knows what Zim is up to but can't convince anyone else of the truth. Our conquering hero is aided in his quest by a robot named Grrr who is dressed in a dog costume, complete with zipper up the front. Also assigned to the invasion effort are two low-quality robots disguised as Zim's parents. In the series' best episode, Zim takes his parental droids to parent-teacher night, where they immediately go berserk in front of the real parents.

The writing on Invader Zim is very sharp and the acting talent is top-notch, especially Zim himself, whose frequent proclamations of Earth's impending doom are delivered in the best cartoon voice this side of Bubbles.

What really sets Invader Zim above the crowd is its artwork, which is a style the likes of which you've never seen before on TV. Zim and his classmates all have watermelon-like heads on top of tennis-ball size bodies. They have foot-long tongues for slurping and rows of squared-off fangs instead of normal animated teeth. Frankly, if I were six, the show would terrify me.

Especially Zim's teacher. In a stroke of pure character design genius, the old lady is shaped like a snake. She slithers standing up and rattles when she talks. Often times she'll magically appear by blotting out the scene, leaving just a pair of glowing eyes peering out from a black cloak while her body slowly materializes like some kind of demonic cheshire cat.

It's a brilliantly conceived and completely addictive look. From darkened cityscapes to Zim's mechanical spider legs to radical camera moves, Invader Zim leaves older cartoons such as Scooby Doo looking like a four year-old's attempt at paint-by-numbers.

There isn't a whole lot to love about TV these days. Plenty of critics and industry insiders talk about a sudden drought of good television people. They blame the lack of good prime time fare on some sort of show business Bermuda Triangle that sucks up all the good writers and producers and dumps them in some parallel dimension, never to be heard from again. Take a closer look, Hollywood: your most creative people aren't disappearing into some mystery dimension, they're working in cartoons.


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