Every time a live-action television series does an animated episode, it opens the door to so many possibilities. Here are some of the Subjectify staff’s current favorite shows that we think could creatively introduce an element of animation.
Welcome to our Staffer Subjectivities column. On Saturdays, we’ll cap off the week with a group post rounding up thoughts from some of our Subjectify team on a large variety of topics, both broad and niche. This week, Karen’s recent review of Locke and Key season 2 got her thinking about the fact that the show was perfectly placed to pull off an animated episode, and the rest of the team had their own spin on how and why a number of other properties were well-placed to also experiment with form this way.
When you watch a live-action television show, you don’t generally expect to tune in one week to find cartoon versions of your favorite characters. But if done right, animation can offer new story opportunities and really give the fans something to talk about.
In 2018, Supernatural did a crossover with Scooby-Doo called “Scoobynatural,” in which Sam, Dean, and Cas get sucked into an episode of the animated TV show and help the Scooby Gang to solve a mystery. On the surface, that might sound like an insane concept, but it’s by no means the weirdest, most reality bending, or most meta thing Supernatural ever did. The shared Warner Bros ownership and, more importantly, the very premise of the show (being, you know, supernatural) allowed for this to take place.
The same could be said for Lucifer. In “Yabba Dabba Do Me,” Luci and Chloe visit the Hell loop of one Jimmy Barnes. Having this part of the episode take place in Hell made it possible to introduce animation without breaking the reality of the series, but in this case, it was also a product of COVID restrictions, allowing for the cast and crew to keep creating while maintaining safe protocols.
The same thing happened with One Day at a Time, which very much was not a show with any sort of fantasy element to canonically push boundaries with. But it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, and due to the pandemic, that wasn’t a possibility. Eventually, the series relied on animation for one of their most poignant and topical additions to the series, “The Politics Episode.”
If you look hard enough, you’ll find several live-action series who branched out into animation for one reason or another. Community did it back in 2010 with “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” in which Abed starts having delusions and begins seeing the world in claymation.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Blacklist also introduced animation into the series, though this was more for practical reasons a la One Day at a Time. Unable to finish shooting due to the pandemic, they relied on a graphic novel-style animation to finish out the series finale, which let the show explore avenues they otherwise would not be able to, due to the constraints of live-action.
The same could be said for PEN15, which also mixed live-action and animation during season 2 of their show. After the main characters get their picture drawn by a caricature artist, it unlocks new insecurities about their bodies. This is not something that could have been as easily explored without the use of animation.
As strange as it might be to mix animation and live-action footage, there is room for the two to co-exist. Shows with magical elements have an easy way of introducing this element, while others might have more practical reasons for needing to rely on it to meet deadlines and complete their work in a safe environment.
And now that we know these shows have all done it to some degree of success, we have a whole host of other live-action series that we think could get away with doing an animated episode.
7 live-action shows that need to do an animated episode
‘Locke and Key’ – Netflix
Locke and Key is a relatively grounded show, but I also think it has one of the best premises for making a realistic animated episode. You already have an explanation as to why this could happen—the Lockes find the Animate Key and accidentally turn themselves into cartoon characters. Considering the show is based on a series of graphic novels, production could even borrow the art style from the source material. The show has gone off-book before, and this time, they could pay homage to the story that made this Netflix Original a possibility in the first place. Living in a cartoon world could present its own problems, too. What are the rules, and what happens when they stretch them too far? What kind of consequences could come from being animated, and how do they get back to the real world? Better yet, in what ways could they use the Animate Key to their advantage in order to either outsmart or disarm their enemies? The possibilities are endless for a show like Locke and Key, and giving us an animated episode would simply add a new dimension to this already incredible story. – Karen Rought
‘You’ – Netflix
You starring Penn Badgley already operates mainly off of Joe’s voiceovers, making an animated show a natural translation for the stalker/serial killer antihero we’ve all come to guilty pleasure love (I never get to say that word in reference to this show without it being ironic). Also, he’s now in Paris. Paris is an expensive city to film in, especially if you’re planning on showing the Eiffel Tower often. Maybe green screen makes that more feasible, but being in Europe would be quite the transition for the production team. Some of Joe’s stunts are quite extensive. It seems as though Badgley is performing a good amount of them, which must be stressful and exhausting for him and all on production to watch him do things such as lie on the floor with a craned neck for hours on end. Come season 4, Badgley is quite familiar with delivering a moving inner dialogue. For the sake of the high stakes and the expenses of You, transitioning to an animated episode, let alone season, would be seamless and natural. While You already did a drug-induced hallucination episode for the season 2 finale, they have yet to do a “bonk on the head” dream sequence. With how heightened Joe’s experiences are, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think of him falling into a cartoon land during his next inevitable dreamland. Who will bonk him on the head? Maybe Peach’s private investigator will finally circle around to track down her murderer. – Mitch Clow
‘Miracle Workers’ – TBS
TBS’s comedy-anthology darling, Miracle Workers is one of the most creative shows on television, giving us everything from Steve Buscemi as God to Daniel Radcliffe strip dancing in a saloon. So, what could an animated episode possibly bring to a show that’s already given us a live-action version of the Great Beyond? As an anthology show that’s already established itself outside all reasonable realms of reality, animation would allow Miracle Workers to take even bigger leaps into the wild and weird settings that have kept the show feeling so fresh for three seasons. Alien overlords in space? Sure! Underwater adventures in Atlantis? I’m along for that ride! Miracle Workers is a show that lets the warmth and heart of its characters shine through, no matter what the setting, and with animation as a medium, suddenly all settings truly do become an available option. And of course, I can’t help but imagine the stunt casting possibilities that open up once Covid travel restrictions don’t have to present any issues. Emma Watson as a rival mermaid? Dame Maggie Smith as God’s ex-girlfriend? I’ll take those voice-overs, please. – Ariana Quiñónez
‘Hacks’ – HBO Max
By nature of its subject matter, Hacks—starring Jean Smart as legendary standup comic Deborah Vance, and Hannah Einbinder as Ava, a struggling former TV writer hired to work for her—is a prime candidate for an animated special. When the series left off at the end of season 1, we saw Ava confronted by the realization that her impulsive decision to trash-talk Deborah to a couple of producers could destroy all the progress the pair had finally made in their rocky relationship. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Ava will spend some time next season catastrophizing about the inevitable fallout before Deborah finds out what she’s done. What better way to explore her presumably oncoming panic spiral than through the medium of increasingly absurd animation? Even if we never get to see anything like it on screen, the image of a claymation Ava leaping out of Deborah’s private jet instead of dealing with her actions is vivid and perfect in my mind’s eye. A girl can dream. – Cass Cooper
‘Riverdale’ – The CW
At this point, I’m shocked that Riverdale hasn’t already attempted an animated episode. Both because of all the truly bonkers things the show has achieved, but also because it’s based on a comic! The Riverdale characters were born in simple lines and bright colors, so it would make perfect sense for them to return to that world for an episode. It would be so fun to see the comic characters people grew up with mixed up in the wild world of Riverdale. If they wanted to keep Jughead’s narration, they could even have the story take place inside of a story he was writing, just like “Killing Mr. Honey.” The one challenge Riverdale might have in bringing this episode to life is that many of the actors look substantially different from their comic book counterparts, but that’s nothing a little creativity can’t fix. No matter what, it’s always going to be less weird than the organ harvesting cult plot! – Kendra Cleary
‘Ted Lasso’ – Apple TV+
After restarting Ted Lasso season 2 with my sibling over Thanksgiving, I noticed that the Christmas episode intro was done with claymation, and that had me all a flutter considering the possibilities here. Ted Lasso could DEFINITELY get away with an animated or claymation episode, particularly because, after the Beard-centric episode, we’re aware that they’re willing to take a creative leap here and there, including a bottle episode or two. This could be a really fun way to incorporate another holiday themed episode, maybe New Years (or a British holiday us Americans are ignorant of), and not have it affect the continuing storyline in the long run. All I know is it would be hilarious to see angry Roy Kent in claymation form, as well as Dani Rojas, Ted, Beard, Keeley, Rebecca, and all the rest. Oh, and Higgins, too! – Kristen Kranz
‘Only Murders in the Building’ – Hulu
I’ve been fascinated by the animated credits of Only Murders in the Building ever since the show started. Sure, they’re chock full of clues and easter eggs, but they’re just so damn pretty. The traditional illustrative style, designed by artist Laura Pérez, is meant to, I believe, match Mabel’s own somewhat haunting artistic style that we see in her sketchbook, as well as on the walls of her apartment later in the first season. As much as I don’t want to miss a second of this show’s glorious cinematography – the colors, the costuming, the scenery it’s all just hit after hit – I feel like an animated episode would indeed still capture the very essence, the sensations, tones and even the uniquely moody palettes that Only Murders in the Building already delivers visually, while also letting us experience something new and fascinating. Only Murders is no stranger to pushing boundaries, episode structure wise – hello, dialogue-free “The Boy From 6B” – and I can very easily picture an unusual animated episode, perhaps diving through the pages of Mabel’s sketchbooks and looking at her past. – Natalie Fisher