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Sliding Scale Of Idealism Versus Cynicism / Western Animation

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Manchester Black: You think that's it? It's not over, you poncy twit. If you think I'll just go to jail and rot, you're living in a dream world!
Superman: Good. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I'll never stop fighting. Ever.

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • The original series flip-flops on the scale madly... the mostly upbeat Season 1 gives way to the Darker and Edgier Season 2, with everything up in the air for the majority of Season 3 and the scale sliding like mad between idealism and cynicism. Finally, though, it lands hard on the Idealistic Side for the Grand Finale.
      • There's a line that parodies this flip-flopping (and the idealistic side) in 'The Phoenix King'.
    Aang: Do you really think that would work?
    Zuko: NO!
    • In fact, a large aspect of the last four episodes centers around deciding whether to end in an idealistic or cynical way. All of Aang's allies and past lives tell him that he needs to kill Ozai (Cynical Ending), but he's convinced he can find another way to end the war without murder (Idealistic Ending).
    • Sequel Series The Legend of Korra, in contrast, takes all the cynicism that its predecessor left behind and runs with it. The city Aang and Zuko designed as a center of peace and balance? It's as corrupt and crime-ridden as Gotham City. The criminal whose life Aang spared? He abuses his sons so badly in his revenge gambit that they grow into exactly what he wanted in spite of themselves. The sympathetic villainous brothers? They're doomed to hurt everyone in their way, and they die without hope in a murder-suicide when the one with a functioning conscience realizes it. The world-destroying villain? Korra kills him, and his kids don't care. Human nature itself? Violent, xenophobic, and insular note . The nature of the spirits? Essentially the same. Even the romance is designed to show how terrible teenagers are at figuring out relationships. Thankfully, it all works out in an Earn Your Happy Ending by way of putting the tropes back together. Korra can't solve everybody's problems and individuals won't always change for the better, but that doesn't mean the Avatar still can't make a difference. The greater sources of corruption have been reduced to a threat governments can manage, even if they won't go away. And an Avatar's work will never end even after the war's won, destined to struggle every reincarnation for peace. But that's exactly why they'll always return when the world needs them, and that friends and finding love can still provide a fulfilling life. The worldview is still one of the most cynical ever chosen by a serious work of western animation.
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  • Big Mouth relies on the same formula as The Simpsons, Futurama, and Disenchantment in this respect, even if its humor is considerably more gross than the work of Matt Groening. While much of the humor is cynical with its treatment of puberty, social satire, and even sexual politics, it ultimately ends up more on the idealistic side, with family and friends being treated as essential parts of a twelve-year-old's life, and the main characters generally seeking positive relationships with both of those.
  • Another more idealistic adult-oriented cartoon is Bob's Burgers. The Belcher family go through small, relatable dilemma's, but in the end they all have each other to get through hard times. They all love each other deeply and we love them because of it.
  • Bojack Horseman is cynically optimistic. Its a very interesting example because the tone of each season seems to shift from something that is overall Darker and Edgier than shifts to Lighter and Softer and then back to a season that is Darker and Edgier again. The started off as slightly more optimistic than Rick and Morty but by season 4, the show was established as a great mix of heartwarming optimism with harsh cynicism. The show's ultimate message is love and happiness are definitely obtainable but not easily so. Characters face such complex obstacles with others and their own emotions that they sometimes make hurtful emotional choices or reasonable good-hearted choices that affect other people greatly. Bojack is a self-loathing yet narcissistic horse who is constantly trying to find a way get better but finds it easier to stick to his own self-destructive habits which he still hates. By the end of season 4 however, he discovers in the midst of a drug-fueled epiphany that he's a good person worthy of redemption, and follows the others' lead in downtrodden expectations with a grain of hope. However, this doesn't exactly mean the show is going on a constant upward scale from here. Season 5 was much Darker and Edgier than the more colorful previous season revealing Bojack is still struggling to become better. By season 5 though he finally takes a forceful decision to go to rehab after he choked his girlfriend/co-star Gina not on purpose but due to drugs, felt horrible about it, and realized this is another wake up call to finally need help.
    • The season finales of each season in particular show how much of a swinging pendulum the show is with idealism vs. cynicism. Season 1 ends on a rather neutral note, Season 2 ends slightly idealistically with Bojack getting the "It gets easier" speech, Season 3 ends more cynically until the last seconds, as Bojack nearly commits suicide until he sees wild horses running through the desert, Season 4 ends very idealistically for Bojack, as he gives his first on-screen genuine smile when Hollyhock accepts him as a half-brother, and Season 5 ends pretty cynically, with Bojack going to rehab after he nearly commits murder while under the influence of drugs, though he also says aloud that he needs help, keeping Season 5's ending from being the most cynical one yet.
  • CatDog is very cynical in comparison to most Nicktoons. Despite its cartoony aesthetics, practically everyone on that show is a major league Jerkass (except Dog, who is more Innocently Insensitive), Nearburg is a Crapsack World with every business run by Rancid Rabbit, and the titular characters almost never win (and episodes often ended with them being beaten up by the Greaser Dogs).
  • Two of Cartoon Network's shows from 2008 to 2010, Chowder and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, show an interesting contrast. They both have the same core idea: "Main character is a naive kid who drags the older main characters into situations based off his naïveté/stupidity." The contrast comes from the fact that the two shows are on the opposite sides of the scale.
    • Chowder is an idealistic series. A bright and colorful world where people generally get along happily and the biggest problem is the next food order.
    • Flapjack, on the other hand, is very cynical. It takes place in a Crapsack World where pretty much everyone is bitter, abusive, and ugly, with Nightmare Fuel abound. The only optimist in the show, the titular character, is completely oblivious and naive to the world around him.
  • The two shows that Craig Gerber created, Sofia the First and Elena of Avalor , both lean heavily on the idealistic side. Though that's to be expected for Disney Junior shows. No matter how much the characters go through, they always have a happy ending, or for bittersweet endings, the happy elements are emphasized much more.
  • Daria is very much more on the cynical side but shows some optimism, especially in the final season. The bulk of the cast are concerned wholly with their appearance and popularity, though its due to their insecurities rather than complete selfishness and maliciousness. The Show Within a Show on Daria is called Sick Sad World.
  • This once again applies to Groening's Disenchantment where it is set in the Dark Ages and has a cynical sense of humor but has a fair amount of genuine heart.
  • Don Bluth films are usually heavily on the optimistic end of the scale even if the characters have to go through hell and back to achieve their happy ending.
  • F is for Family is a tricky one. Much of the show highlights the more politically incorrect aspects of the 1970s with the intention of allowing people who grew up in that decade to laugh and think about how they feel society has gotten better or worse and/or make younger audiences raised in more politically correct times feel both humor and discomfort with the commonplace behaviors of the time period. That should make it sound well more on the cynical side, though the show also has the Murphy family sticking by one another when the chips are down. It can lean pretty hard into both, but Bill Burr and Michael Price are not the kinds of people who would make a plain nihilistic and mean cartoon, even if one's dislike of the style of humor present in the show can lead some people to think that about Burr and Price.
  • The Fairly OddParents, much like SpongeBob, had gotten increasingly cynical over the years. At first, Timmy did have a hellish life, but his fairy godparents were eager to help him out. Come Season 4 or so, and much of the cast Took a Level in Jerkass (including both Timmy and his fairies, especially Cosmo). Black Comedy became much more frequent, and his parents went from overworked to downright neglectful. However, everything is usually made right by the end of an episode.
  • Family Guy is like Seinfeld compared to The Simpsons being Married... with Children. Some of the characters only serve to be chew toys for the others and like Seinfeld, no learning or hugging allowed and there are barely any heartwarming moments, and Peter is outright abusive towards Meg and at times Chris. To be fair, Family Guy's cynical phase is largely a result of Flanderization. Prior to that, despite it's obvious dark shades there was a fair amount of whimsy and innocence with the characters at least having visible lovable and sympathetic aspects. Peter was more a brasher Kindhearted Simpleton who genuinely cared for his family and nearly always felt bad for his actions in the end of each episode. There were also some vaguely realistic spotlighting in the relations of the family eg. Lois confronting Peter about his lack of passion and appreciation, which he merely thought she already knew.
  • Final Space is very idealistic compared to most other adult-oriented animated comedies. There's minimal prolonged or mean-spirited Comedic Sociopathy among the main group, who all value and care for each other, or at least grow to, with the exception of KVN, who is generally more deserving of everyone's contempt than other chew toys in other media due to his insufferable nature, and Lord Commander, due to him obviously being the villain. While the first season ends with everyone scattered across space with no way of knowing who has lived and who has died, the show remains idealistic in a A World Half Full manner because even though the good guys don't always win in this show, it is still made clear that good can and should win out in the end.
  • Futurama tends to be down the middle. Several known species of animal are extinct, New York City has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, crack is readily available in vending machines, the universe is threatened on a regular basis, Richard Nixon is president again, the nation’s military is commanded by an incompetent, womanizing Manchild who is more than willing to sacrifice his own men for unnecessary reasons and start a war with a race he hates, hell exists, and is in New Jersey; and the world’s leading manufacturer in robots, starship fuel, and electronics is an evil, abusive, amoral old hag, it is legal to eat human meat, and racism still exists in one form or another. But there are episodes that show that some of the worst offenders (namely Bender) have a human side to them, that no love goes unrequited, that shows humanity can band together and make significant changes (i.e. being able to give mutants, who, for the majority of the series, were treated as vermin, regulated to living in shoddy conditions in the sewers; the freedom to move about the surface and (possibly) equal rights as surface-dwellers, legalize robosexual marriage, and come to a fair and equal consensus on controversial subjects like evolution).
  • Gravity Falls is Darker and Edgier than anything else on Disney Channel/Disney XD, but usually leans towards the idealistic side of the scale. Yes, the show borrows from Gothic Horror and is not afraid to shy away from the harshness of reality (especially when it comes to growing up), but the show teaches that good things can come out of bad moments. Dipper and Mabel face challenges, but their strong relationship is a testament to the show's idealism. Grunkle Stan and Great-Uncle Ford even manage to patch up their broken relationship in the Grand Finale.
  • Invader Zim is perhaps the most cynical kids cartoon ever created. Practically every single character, major, minor or otherwise, is a total and absolute moron with the self-preservation skills of a brick. Those that aren't are grossly apathetic and consider the world's troubles to be somebody else's problem. And the slim minority that aren't either are generally the universe's Chew Toy. It's a Crapsack World, indeed. That said, when the series returned as a comic book and a television movie over a decade later, it eased up a bit: it's still plenty cynical, but not intensely so.
  • it's such a beautiful day is a Black Comedy about a simplistically-drawn man dying of terminal brain cancer, but surprisingly winds up in the middle of the scale by the end, probably closer to optimistic.
  • Justice League Unlimited has some fun exploring this during the Cadmus arc - memorably, Superman turns out to be the Unwitting Pawn by taking the "realistic" option, but Batman manages to save everyone's bacon by doing same. In the end Superman refuses to kill a goading Luthor, showing both a triumph of Idealism and internal fortitude, as he is sorely tempted to avenge The Flash, who turns out to be Not Quite Dead.
  • All of Pixar's films are incredibly optimistic. They are about real characters dealing with problems anyone can relate to and are full of heart, humor, and emotion.
  • King of the Hill is a very mundane and realistic show. Not everything ends happily but there's still a fair amount of good things in life to appreciate.
  • The classic Looney Tunes shorts are all over the place. Some cartoons, such as "Feed The Kitty", "Martian Through Georgia" and just about anything with Buddy, are very much on the idealistic side. While others, such as "Fresh Airedale", "Hare Brush" and "The Ducksters", are very far on the cynical side. Some cartoons (such as "What's Opera, Doc?") even zig-zag from one end of the scale to the other.
  • The Loud House falls somewhere in the middle of the scale. Much of the show revolves around protagonist Lincoln Loud being at odds with his 10 sisters, and there’s some rather cynical humor at times, but it utimately leans closer to the idealistic end, as they ultimately all love each other and everything (more or less) works out in the end.
  • Monkey Dust is far down the cynical side of this scale. At times, takes Black Comedy Up to Eleven to the extent that it's barely comedy anymore.
  • Even before the massive Cerebus Syndrome, Moral Orel is pretty firmly planted on the cynical side, playing both for laughs and for drama the Stepford Suburbia of Moralton and the dysfunctional and depressing lives of its residents. Despite this, the show keeps a few bright spots most notably in the episodes "Dumb" and "Closeface," as well as the ending.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is all things considered a very idealistic show. The My Little Pony franchise as a whole is extremely idealistic, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. By comparison, FIM is a little more cynical in relation to earlier incarnations of the franchise.
    • This comes inevitably as the lead characters are portrayed as flawed individuals, each bearing personality quirks that give them obstacles to overcome before they reach an episode's optimistic resolution. Nevertheless, these are mostly present to be overcome with the show's fairly idealistic morals and aesops, Easily Forgiven is the most commonly played card, and values The Power of Friendship über alles. Still, it does occasionally go out of its way to point out that many problems cannot be solved with sunshine and smiles. Some things take hard effort to resolve and might take a long time to fully fix. However, It's still firmly idealistic in the aspect that there is always an optimistic, happy ending, no matter what, and if there is a shot at redemption for someone (including bad guys, even the worst ones), it will always work out for them in the end.
    • It usually falls on the cynical side of the spectrum when it comes to the big bads. Out of the six of these over five seasons, only Nightmare Moon, Discord (via Fluttershy in Season 3), and Starlight Glimmer in Season 5 have proven redeemable by The Power of Friendship. The others have been either destroyed, banished, or escape punishment. Smaller, one-episode bullies usually just take off without learning a lesson, with The Great and Powerful Trixie and Gilda as the only ones to turn up again and undergo some character development thus far.
    • Starlight Glimmer is a unique case, being cynical before circling around and shooting off into the idealistic side. She is the only seasonal villain to escape and return to fight another day, the second go around however, she is truly defeated, but she is not imprisoned or punished, instead, she is befriended by the Mane Six and even becomes one of the group.
    • The Grand Finale turns this trope on its head: After their plans to Take Over the World have failed (again), Grogar's Legion of Doom (consisting of previous baddies Chrysalis, Lord Tirek and Cozy Glow) are not given another chance for redemption, especially after they have previously rejected their second chances and refuse to change their evil ways. They are officially declared irredeemable, and are turned to stone for eternity for their crimes. Showing that even the extremely idealistic world of Equestria has their limits on what they will tolerate.
  • Phineas and Ferb is possibly the most idealistic cartoon Disney Channel aired. The writers adhere to the rule of "no evil characters", meaning that the show's biggest recurring villain is the resident Butt-Monkey/partial Woobie whose biggest wishes are to rule the tri-state area and be a good father, and the worst one, a Drill Sergeant Nasty who pretty much brainwashed the main characters was just a dream. However, this comes off as clear proof of Idealism is not Bland, because this is where it gets all its charm.
  • ReBoot. Bob was always the idealist, strongly against deletion, believing viruses could be turned. Enzo originally idolised him, but after being forced to grow up in the games, he became the cynic of the show. The contrast between them was most noticeable when brain washed guardians were attacking Mainframe. Bob wanted to contain them, Enzo wanted to kill them.
  • To call Rick and Morty simply "cynical" or "nihilistic" is a drastic oversimplification of the show as a whole. The Smith family is made of deeply flawed, shallow, and abrasive people, made worse by Rick's corruptive influence, and, as Morty says in "The Rickshank Redemption," a life with Rick is one that he will force you to center around him with the constant reminder that you know nothing and he knows everything. The infinite nature of the multiverse renders an individual's identity completely disposable, attempts to do the right thing generally end in causing even more destruction than would have already happened if one doesn't even bother helping at all, and tropes are almost always deconstructed without even giving the viewer a moment to take in what they just saw. And yet, series creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland insist that the knowledge of nothing mattering, while accurate, does you no favors, and that even if happy moments are fleeting and often built on lies and/or ignorance, it's better to live happily and with and for other people than to surround yourself with negativity and contempt, even if that makes you smarter. The show makes it clear that Morty, Summer, and to a lesser extent Beth and Jerry can reconcile intelligence and nihilism with the ability to at least try to love your family, whether biological or by choice, and live a happy and pleasing life, while Rick cannot. Rick and Morty is not an idealistic show per se, and even mocks the idea that it should be categorized as idealistic or cynical by subverting most of its heartwarming and depressing moments as they happen, and thus indirectly acknowledging the mental manipulation tactics necessary for emotional investment in works of fiction, but the people making the show do want the show to have more meaning than to just take the piss out of the world's stupidly happy people, and believe that nothing mattering is the perfect reason to surround yourself with family and friends and be a good person, not the perfect reason to avoid doing those things.
  • Matt Groening's other show The Simpsons is also down the middle. The jokes tend to run on cynical, pointed Take Thats at society and popular culture, but the plots and characters themselves tend to to be idealistic and with a lot of sincere heart. There are some meaningful episodes which shows the bonds of the dysfunctional family and how despite how bad Homer's life is, he will never truly betray Marge and their marriage.
  • In spite of being Darker and Edgier than its predecessor, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power manages to still be idealistic. Sure, it's not always easy, but its main themes are The Power of Friendship and how anybody could be a better person if they wanted to. This is evidenced by the numerous villains who perform a Heel–Face Turn or get some form of redemption by the series end.
  • Interestingly Spongebob Squarepants is a similar concept that slowly drifted from one to the other. The show was originally cheerful and vaguely sentimental with SpongeBob being somewhat relatable and most of his bumbling being treated sympathetically or as Laser-Guided Karma to meaner spirited characters. After the creator Stephen Hillenburg left the series, however, the humor slowly became darker and SpongeBob also became more insane and the consequences of his constant stupidity often shown to be harrowing and life destroying for innocent people. Other characters like Mr Krabs also became far more malicious (and unlike before didn't always fall victim to karma). However, some of the series' old charm is clawing its way back and working its way to the idealistic Movie finale.
  • South Park is, believe it or not, quite far down on the idealistic side of the scale, Despite it’s moments of darkness, it's worth noting that there are several instances that shed optimism and hope in the world. The Movie, "Stick of Truth" video game, "You Have 0 Friends", "Crack Baby Athletic Association", and a few other examples all contain a happy ending showing that while the show is raunchy, dark and vulgar there does lie a number of instances that are heartwarming. The creators themselves have stated that the show isn’t cynical and that they do believe in the goodness of people.
  • Steven Universe is very much on the idealistic end of the scale, reflecting the protagonist's All-Loving Hero personality. As revelations are made as to where the Gems come from and why they came to Earth come to light, it quickly becomes apparent that the Crystal Gems defected from the Homeworld Gems to protect the planet, and that the Homeworld Gems are intending to return and suck its resources dry. What's more, the caretakers he's always looked up to have very real flaws with psychological hangups they've not gotten over. Despite the narrative's continually darkening plot, the show remains steadfastly idealistic with many lessons the characters learn about trust and enduring relationships together, and even most of the jerks and villains have sympathetic sides to them. In short, despite the innocent surface being revealed as a complex and tragic event, the characters keep their good hearts, with sobering reminders of how cynical the world can be but being a better experience because of it.
  • Even though Teen Titans can be Darker and Edgier in its themes, even going towards subjects of paranoia and racism, its still leaning towards the optimistic end of the spectrum...
  • ...Though this is entirely averted with Teen Titans Go!. While the series is definitely a Lighter and Softer incarnation of the first show, this series is heavily irreverent and cynical. The Titans go through a Adaptational Jerkass phase where they boarder Comedic Sociopathy and treat each other similar to how The Gang from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia treat each other
    • This again changes though in the feature length film where it shows that the Titans are better than those guys because they really do care about each other.
  • Total Drama started out as a fairly idealistic parody of reality shows in its first season, with a few cynical moments and individual Downer Endings. In its second season, though, things took a turn for the cynical end. Tropes like the Satellite Love Interest were deconstructed, and the cast turned into a pretty good example of Black-and-Gray Morality. Season 3 can be considered somewhat a Reconstruction, returning to the formula of the first season with some things from the second lurking in, and the series now lies at the center of the scale.


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