I wasn’t planning on doing a best/worst end of year list, which is partly why the episodes here are all relatively recent. I still feel strongly for them though, and I’ll definitely have a more “year summary” type of list for next year. For now though, you should seek out these episodes post-haste.
5. Phineas and Ferb – “Night of the Living Pharmacists”
No one really talks about Phineas and Ferb, which is strange, but at the same time, it allows the show to really have fun and mess around with genres without having the marketing pressure that Nick pushes with Spongebob or Cartoon Network pushes with Adventure Time. Phineas and Ferb is somehow both immensely popular and under the radar, which seems impossible, but that’s how Disney works its TV properties (Fish Hooks has been on the air for years now with nary a peep).
Honestly, it was a tough call between this episode and the Star Wars special. Both are wildly entertaining and immensely funny, but I’d give “Night of the Living Pharmacists” the edge. Despite the goofy set up, where Doofenschmirtz’s Repulse-inator actually transforms its victims to look just like him, the episode leans hard into the horror premise, becoming a genuinely tense experience (as opposed to the Star Wars episode, which was more of a parody/homage to the franchise). The pacing and atmosphere of the hour-long special is air-tight, balancing the show’s usual comic sensibilities with a fairly scary zombie-like scenario. Coupled with the sweet, endearing admission of Isabella’s affections for Phineas, the whole episode really clicks. Unfortunately, the episode ends with a superficial “reset button” development, but even that’s undercut with the show’s rare but pointed moments of surrealism.
4. Gravity Falls – “Into the Bunker”
The already excellent Gravity Falls continues into its second season strongly, pushing forward with its overall mythology while working on its tightly-woven characterizations. While there are some minor issues (mainly that it seems adverse to addressing Mabel’s crush-driven motivations), Alex Hirsch’s show continues to be a high-mark for the Disney Channel.
“Into the Bunker” is the series best episode. Similar to “Night of the Living Pharmacists,” “Into the Bunker” is a genuinely creepy, tense episode while also dealing with Dipper’s crush with Wendy in a mature, direct way. Dipper’s heavy-handed attempts to woo Wendy was always a weak element to the show; the fact that the writers finally dealt with it means we can truly move on. It also helps that Wendy gets a lot of solid characterization and some great ass-kicking moments, and the shape-shifters’ animation is fantastically unsettling. I’m less concerned about the show’s overall plotting than most, but even I’m fascinated in learning what comes next.
3. Steven Universe – “Space Race”
Steven Universe is one of the most charming and endearing shows on TV right now. The unique relationship Steven possesses with his Gem guardians is both wonderful and questionable, allowing the show to play around with the ambiguity of literal out-of-this-world beings and their attempts to connect with the most delightful members of humanity. The contrast between these alien beings and mortal citizens of Beach City keeps things weird but engaging, the show careful to dole out bits of information along with bits of warmth and growth.
Nothing epitomizes that goal quite like “Space Race.” Following the revealing two-part episodes “Mirror Gem” and “Ocean Gem,” and the thematic fallout of “House Guest,” “Space Race” pits the natural paternal instincts of Pearl and Greg (Steven’s biological father) against each other. Or, more accurately, those instincts are set up in contrast to each other — Greg’s uses Steven’s interest in space to fake-build a spaceship mostly to bond, while Pearl does the same thing, but gets caught up in the moment to build a real one. Both “parents” truly want to connect with Steven, but Pearl’s passion to bond Steven to his Gem side goes overboard as she almost rockets herself and Steven into space within a ship that’s not even close to being ready. There’s love, and then there’s understanding, and both Greg and Pearl struggle with that concept when it comes to how best to approach Steven’s upbringing, but it’s that struggle that makes it the show’s most ridiculous events truly heartfelt.
2. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Man”
There was no way to predict the amount of growth and substance that has been added to The Amazing World of Gumball. What began as a visually-interesting but character-lacking show with mostly lazy gags has transformed into a fantastic blend of animation/graphic-rich aesthetics, crack comic timing, and powerful, distinct insights into surprisingly real characters with real stakes. It’s by far the most impressive cartoon on the air right now, due to how dedicated the writers’ and animators’ commitment to the show’s world are.
Showrunner Ben Bocquelet expressed his passion for “The Shell,” which is indeed a game-changing episode, in reference to the relationship between Gumball and Penny, but “The Man” is truly where the show is firing on all cylinders. Thematically following up on the events on “The Authority” (which revealed that Richard’s mother, Granny Jojo, overprotected him all his childhood, thus explaining his current “mental deficiencies”), “The Man” has Jojo finding a new boyfriend, which gets Richard really upset, since, mentally, he’s still waiting for his father to return from the store — 42 years later. Gumball treads some fairly heavy material with a deftness rarely seen on TV. Unlike, say, Bojack Horseman, Gumball doesn’t lapse into CTRL-ALT-DELETE seriousness by keeping the comedy coming and the characterizations strong; watching the Wattersons work with Richard to come to terms with that truth is a treat, utilizing strong, if wacky, family values.
1. Wander Over Yonder – “The Gift 2: The Giftening”
Wander Over Yonder is a creative smorgasbord, filled with massively unique planetary locales and a host of strange, versatile alien lifeforms. Wander and his partner, Sylvia, travel the cosmos and encounter a variety of beings — but all of that is really an excuse to come fast and furious with great jokes and even greater animated bits. While some of the various characterizations can be a big off-putting — the relationship Sylvia and Wander is strong but can sometimes be a bit unpleasant — at its best, the show is a fascinating visceral treat with some surprisingly pointed, clever commentary.
So how did “The Gift 2: The Giftening” win best episode of the year? By being structurally perfect. The art of the wacky cartoon is all but dead, with arguably, only Spongebob and Breadwinners really thriving in that field; the former is way past its prime, while the latter is merely an ugly, meme-centric knock-off of the former. This episode, by contrast, is a wonderful homage to the fast, loony shorts by Tex Avery, filled with wildly exaggerated expressions and break-neck insanity as Lord Hater zooms around the universe to escape Wander’s terrifying “gift.” It’s just hilarious, and chances are you won’t see anything like it unless you pull up a Droopy Dog short. As a bonus, the episode emphasizes the power of positive reinforcement, just at the expense of the show’s best character. There’s a real lesson behind the comedy, but the comedy itself is just that strong. (With a little tweaking, the episode, posited as a Halloween special, is inverted as a Christmas special in the following “The Gift,” which is the show being immensely clever and well thought-out.)