Television * Pendleton Ward * Post-Mushroom War * 2010
Adventure Time, as a whole, proves a great many counterintuitive ideas. It demonstrates that a post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t need to be dark and brutal to be effective. It shows that children’s television need not be dumbed-down to appeal to the target demographic, it turns out that kids like quality story telling as well. Adventure Time also understands that weird for weirdness sake isn’t a bad thing. To the contrary, if Adventure Time is about anything, it is about the joy of imagination. The saddest criticisms I hear about the show are when people say things like “man, they must have been so high when they made this,” or worse, “I like watching it when I’m drunk/stoned/in a fever-induced delirium.” It’s sad because people that revert to that understanding of Adventure Time have almost certainly forgotten what it’s like to actively use their imagination. That feeling of being a kid on a Saturday afternoon, thrust outside with maybe a friend to help bide the time, and the inevitable certainty that the backyard will become a dope spaceship, an irradiated wasteland, an alien jungle, or whatever, is the feeling that is captured by this show. When it comes to the exercising of the imaginative muscles, the more random and strange the fantasy, the better.
While it would be fair to say that the core of Adventure Time is in its gleeful exploration of imagination, which is felt in the (admittedly twee) music, the joyous use of color and whimsical character design, and the downright neat use of language itself, to imply that the show rests only upon the imagination would be selling it short. Adventure Time, unlike most other children’s shows (and to a large extent, shows in general), builds upon its base of boundless imagination with concrete characters and down to earth, relatable themes. Mostly. Yes, all of the characters are outlandish on their face. Aside from Finn, who is designated as Human because he’s only one, you’ve got Jake the magic dog, Princess Bubblegum, a “teenage gum golem,” Marceline, who is a half-demon Vampire Queen, and like, the King of Nuts. And Hot Dog Princess. And sentient mountains. In the end what they are doesn’t really matter. If you accept the show on its own terms, it’s who they are that makes the show what it is.
The first season only begins to hint at what’s going to come, but at the same time marks a fine starting point for the series as a whole. A remarkable thing about Adventure Time is that it is one of the few animated shows that allows its characters to age, and therefore to grow and learn as characters. In this first season, Finn is 12. His age is reflected throughout the various episodes and as a result Season 1 is more carefree and frivolous than in later seasons when Finn ages and life happens. Yet Finn’s character is never betrayed, even as he grows older and learns some unpleasant truths about life. The 16 year old Finn of season seven is the logical extension of the 12 year old Finn of season one. In other words, he’s a goofball romantic adventurer who tries his best to do the right thing.
Season one, then, is a rough introduction to all of this. Like many initial seasons to animated shows, there are plenty of aspects that have yet to be worked all the way out. Voices aren’t quite dialed in (like Cinnamon Bun, yikes), character models are a little sketchy (heh, drawing pun), and some character traits aren’t quite settled yet. As such, the early episodes can be a little rough to watch if you’re used to the later seasons. The “children’s show” aspect of the episodes are little more evident in that episode plots are a little more simplistic, characters are a little more flat, and everything is a little louder than later on once the show evolves. Still, the foundation is here. The world is bright and inviting, despite taking place 1,000 years after a cataclysmic, Earth-shattering event. The music and dialogue keeps the atmosphere light and delightful. And then the best part: knowing that it only gets better from here.
The first season begins with an episode entitled “Slumber Party Panic,” and we are thrown into the world of Adventure Time in media res. Either you accept that the world is comprised of candy-people who are ruled over by a scientist-princess made of bubblegum, or accept that such awesomeness is not for you. How anyone could not be charmed by Manfried the Piñata is beyond me, but whatever. We’re introduced to a number of concepts right away, most of which serve to purposefully undermine clichés. At its inception, Adventure Time is a about a Hero who goes on adventures to save the Princess from an evil Villain, except in this case the Hero is a flawed 12 year old boy, the Princess is a scientific genius who clearly doesn’t need anyone to save her from anything, and eventually the Villain is shown to be incompetent and not particularly villainous. Most of the episodes in the first season are dedicated to inverting the hero myth, which is all well and good, but is not the strong point from a story-telling aspect.
The best parts of the first season are, for me, at least, the episodes where the characters begin to come into their own. Finn, as a naïve 12 year old in love with white knight hero mythology, learns some shades of gray in episodes like “The Ocean,” in which he discovers he has an irrational fear he can’t really handle, and “Donny,” in which he is told “it’s about how Finn will betray you just to save lives” by a petulant grass ogre, and learns that man, some people are just jerks. Finn learns a lot of lessons in season one, most of which are pretty self-evident for an adult, but it helps to remember that he’s 12. Of course you can’t solve everyone’s problems, and sometimes you probably shouldn’t even try. Perhaps the best example of this is “Freak City,” which introduces Magic Man, who is the jerkiest jerk who ever jerked. The crux of the episode, in which Finn is turned into a giant gross foot because he tried to help a disguised Magic Man, is stated plainly: “maybe don’t give your sugar to jerks.” Over the course of the episode, Finn battles with depression over the violation of his rosy world view, but eventually overcomes this by accepting that hey, some people suck.
More often, people are both good and bad. Moving forward, two of the most important ancillary characters in Adventure Time are Princess Bubblegum and Marceline. Season one features episodes that highlight the character growth (or at least the beginning of it) for both. First up is Marceline, who is introduced to be an angsty teenage vampire vagabond who evicts Finn and Jake from their house and is otherwise a possible murderous jerk. Later, in “Henchmen,” we find out that she’s less evil and more mischievous. Further, she might just have a heart of gold. While at first Marceline exists as a foil to Finn’s more goody-goody proclivities, she does grow. By the end of the episode the two are friends, and a mutual respect has grown between them.
Princess Bubblegum, meanwhile, runs things. Finn might be the Hero, but the Land of Ooo is a matriarchy, and is governed by a loose system of Princesses. Paramount among them is PB, monarch of the Candy Kingdom, the largest and most advanced of these assorted Kingdoms. In the episode “What Have You Done?” we learn what kind of ruler Bubblegum is. Turns out that while she has a noble heart and a determined nature, she will not hesitate to go full despot if she deems it necessary to protect her people. The episode centers around Finn and Jake being tasked to essentially kidnap the show’s first villain, the Ice King (and we’ll get to his character development next season), and imprison him so that Princess Bubblegum can torture him at her leisure. Eventually the Ice King convinces Finn that maybe such a thing is wrong, or as he puts it, “I’m rockin’ your world view!” We then find that PB has a good reason to enact the course of action she has chosen, but her first impulse is still to impose her will without hesitation. There is a darkness to the Princess that is referred to here, and is a large part of what makes her such a compelling character going forward.
Finally, since this show is such a treasure of language, I will close with a random assortment of quotes. Indulge me, I just love how Adventure Time sounds.
“I’m not playing dodge-socks with you until you stop dodging my question.” – Jake, “Slumber Party Panic”
“You’re a sociopath.” – Cosmic Owl, to the Ice King, “Prisoners of Love”
“You’re going to get it, Wall of Flesh!” – Finn, “Tree Trunks”
“Let’s just give him some purple whatevers.” “You mean grapes?” “Whatever.” – Finn and Jake, “The Jiggler”
“I’m not jealous, I’m weird!” – Finn, “Ricardo the Heart Guy”
“You look like a big pink baguette.” – Jake, referring to PB, “Ricardo the Heart Guy”
“I’m kicking your care-sack, dudes!” – Finn, “Business Time”
“Come on darling, wrap your legs around me.” – Lady Rainacorn, in an old man voice, “My Two Favorite People”
“You just kissed a boom-boom baby. Don’t expect any sugar from me until you clean your filthy, filthy face.” – Joshua the Dog, “Memories of Boom-Boom Mountain”
“He still cries when he poops. Thanks for being cool, guys.” – Jake, “Memories of Boom-Boom Mountain”
“Woo yeah, force that enthusiasm!” – Jake, “Wizard”
“No worms on the bed!” – Jake, “Evicted”
“I’m gonna beat my purity into them!” – Finn, “City of Thieves”
“Does it please you to watch me struggle?” – NEPTR, “What is Life?”
“Thanks, guys. Your blood oath is fulfilled.” “YAY! To the mesosphere! Finally we can die!” – Finn and some sentient balloons, “What is Life?”
“Somebody come pick up your freaky cat.” – Finn, “Dungeon”
“I’ve got to jet up on my swan to take care of some royal junk.” – Princess Bubblegum, “Dungeon”
“The eyes! Cut him in the eyes!” – Trudy, “Freak City”
“You are not an outsider. You wear cute little blue shorts.” – Jake, “Donny”
“Imagination is for turbo-nerds who can’t handle how kick-butt reality is!” – Finn, “Rainy Day Daydream”
“You have destroyed my faith in canned peanut brittle.” – Ice King, “What Have You Done?”
“And you did it with violence, like a true hero.” – little old lady to Finn, “His Hero”
“I’m not cute! I mess you up….” – Jake, “Gut Grinder”