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Why ‘Adventure Time,’ Now In Its Fifth Season, Is More Groundbreaking Than You May Realize

Why 'Adventure Time,' Now In Its Fifth Season, Is More Groundbreaking Than You May Realize

While the vast enthusiasm for shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” have lead the argument that television has entered a golden age of mature storytelling, animation has always thrived in the format with broad appeal indicative of different expectations that liberate the form. Even before “The Simpsons” proved the viability of adult-oriented primetime animation, “Looney Tunes” demonstrated the ageless appeal of slapstick comedy and that visual humor has the capacity to entrance viewers of all ages with a more complex set of access points. (“What’s Opera, Doc?” can please everyone from a seven-year-old who may find it delightfully colorful to a 50-year-old who can appreciate its take on Wagner’s operas.)

READ MORE: The original ‘Adventure Time’ short on Criticwire

Both “South Park” and “Family Guy” fully exist in the modern framework of adult-oriented animation pioneered by “The Simpsons,” but Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” more clearly represents the progress of the medium: Irreverent and narratively engaging, it’s the ideal testament to animation’s glorious pliability in an commercial arena otherwise defined by restrictions. With the start of its fifth season last night, “Adventure Time” once again proves that it’s one of the most inventive shows on television.

Creator Pendleton Ward’s program began as a beguiling animated short that quickly went viral in 2008; the resulting show neatly expanded on the initial trippy appeal, and continues to evolve in surprising directions. The basic plot follows an adolescent boy named Finn and his stretchy talking dog Jake, who live in a fantastical post-apocalyptic world filled with odd, funny creations like the dyspeptic Ice King and the Bubblegum Princess. (I could list more of them here, but you’re better off sifting through the concise episodes to understand the bizarre creations Ward has developed.)

READ MORE: Is Adult Swim Stuck in a Rut of Nostalgia Bait?

While random, frequently adorable and effusive in that familiar Saturday morning cartoon way, “Adventure Time” also constantly — and with increasing frequency in its later episodes — toys with an incredibly sad subtext: The world has been destroyed in something called The Great Mushroom War. Everything in roommates Jake and Finn’s island the Land of Ooo is haunted by isolation and even death. Their parents vanished long ago, and while the boys apparently enjoy their showdowns with the Ice King, his backstory as a scientist partly responsible for destroying civilization hints at a much darker history that the spirited nature of their encounters only partially covers up.

The cheery songs and vibrant artwork remain sincere while challenging the backdrop at the same time. The subtext of “Adventure Time” calls to mind “Calvin and Hobbes”: Through friendship and playtime, the characters seemingly deny the bad vibes their surrounding world invites. The show’s a testament to the prospects of cracking jokes when nothing seems funny anymore. Needless to say, viewers can learn a lot here no matter how much life they’ve lived.

Ward’s playful, stream-of-conciousness approach to each 11-minute episode has turned his show into fodder for college stoners hip to its random exposition, but there’s a lot more at work in the steadily growing atmosphere. Last night’s season five premiere, entitled “Finn The Human & Jake The Dog,” provided an interesting creative challenge for Ward and his team: a prolonged running time of half an hour, which basically amounted to a double episode.

Ultimately, it wasn’t that much of a radical break from previous iterations, but it did allow the show’s writers to take a shot at slightly more advanced storytelling while introducing more complicated visual concepts and fresh characters. In essence, “Adventure Time” got to showcase a fully realized adventure without compromising its goofier sensibilities. The contrast between the two main characters helped maintain that balance: Finn, stuck in a bleak alternative universe of his own making, endured a greater battle than he’s ever faced before, while Jake made a new friend at the end of time and chilled out in a jacuzzi.

Picking up where the previous season left off, Finn and Jake chased the menacing undead villain known as the Lich into a time portal that provided access to the multiverse, a waystation between various worlds. In the middle of a floating nothingness, the Lich arrives at the bright yellow Time Room, where a lanky pink shadow figure known as Prismo (voiced, with an amusing amount of lackadaiscal charm, by the comedian Kumail Nanjiani) has the power to grant any visitor a single wish. Upon wishing the extinction of all life, the death-obsessed Lich promptly vanishes — but Jake and Finn, protected by their presence in the Time Room, remain behind. Prismo, just doing his job, quickly bemoans the Lich’s grotesque appearance: “Might be the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he whines. And just like that, another memorable “Adventure Time” character is born.

Finn’s wish that the Lich never existed whisks him into an alternate but still post-apocalyptic reality. The abrupt shift into this new world, which recalls “Mad Max” and other staples of the genre, marks what may be the most daring transition the show has attempted yet, but like the rest of “Adventure Time,” the details are polished enough to make it an immediately immersive experience.

While a now-altered Finn wreaks havoc on his new world even as he tries to protect it, upping the ante for gloominess, “Adventure Time” sets the stage for a hilarious ongoing contrast: Back in the Time Room, Jake watches the action unfold with an unbothered expression. Instead of using his wish to save his pal, he asks Prismo for a sandwich. Fortunately, Prismo knows better, leading to one of the show’s most memorable refrains: “Dude,” he says, “I can just make you a sandwich.” So he does, and Jake continues to pore over the possibilities of his wish while bonding with his newfound pal. Somehow they wind up in a hot tub. The Cosmic Owl, an enigmatic character who has surfaced in earlier episodes, drops by with board games. Eventually, Prismo just talks Jake through the wish he needs to make in order to restore things to normal.

Magically sent back to the Land of Ooo, Jake celebrates his achievement and plans to maintain his friendship with Prismo, while Finn barely questions any of the strange cross-dimensional events that just unfolded. But why should he? Jake’s final exclamation, when Finn mutters “What just happened?,” illustrates how “Adventure Time” manages to traverse an ever-expanding mythology while shrugging it off in favor of keeping the show’s exuberant playtime in flux: “It already happened!” Jake gasps. “Nothing happened!” What he’s really saying is that no matter what happens, the adventure continues.

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Venture time needs to be 30 minutes and stick to tellin a story. These fillers that give you nothing need to be gone. Was fine the first few seasons but they've grown past that now. Wish they'd get serious with it.


You can add a tragic backstory to a show all you want, it doesn't change the fact that the show is utter garbage from beginning to end. Everything from the awful jokes, to the lazy artstyle, to the unlikable characters with their hideous character designs and non-existant personalities and the unbelievably thin plots is horrendous. Adventure Time is one of the worst cartoons of all time, it's boring, boring, BORING. The fact that it has a massive fanbase in my age range astounds me, how low have people's standards sunk?


Also, aside from the caption, which some people may ignore, you seem to be promoting that opening image as being from the show itself. It's not. Finn gets attacked by Jake as the Lich, then the screen cuts out. We never see anything even remotely akin to the Lich's head being pulled off or whatever that fanart seems to be suggesting, and Jake never goes over to the screen.

To re-emphasise what I wrote below: The Ice King was not a scientist, and he sure as heck wasn't responsible in any way for the destruction of civilisation in the Mushroom War or at any other point. He tried to /save/ civilisation in the alternate future that you're supposedly writing about in this very article! The fact that it subsequently got frozen into an ice age wasn't his fault because he died and the crown did it after he was crushed by the bomb from which he had saved everyone. I don't know how you can miss any of this.


"the Ice King, his backstory as a scientist partly responsible for destroying civilization hints at a much darker history that the spirited nature of their encounters only partially covers up."

Do you even watch the show before posting completely incorrect and highly misleading things as though they were fact?


Absolutely fantastic article. Googled reviews on Adventure Time after keeping up with Season 5 to see if anyone else felt the way I do about the show, and it seems so! Would love to read more commentary on Adventure Time if you had any inclination to continue writing about it.

Patricia Collura

Hi there, just wanted to say great article. By the way, I was wondering if it was possible for you to credit me or link back to my art that you used in the title of this article. I did that art the other day when the episode premiered and as glad as I am that it's getting all this attention People may want to know the source of it! If not then I kindly request that you remove it. Thank you.

Al Bracken

I remember I would flip through the channels with the remote looking for something to watch,
and in my haste, I would eventually flip past Cartoon Network and this weird looking show (I know know to be Adventure Time) would be on and I immediately dismiss it as foolishness. THEN, one day I was sad and bored as hell so I plopped down in front of the tv and was so drained that whatever appeared on the screen when I pressed the remote's 'on' button, I would be watching. Luckily, it was Adventure Time and I sat there and gave it a chance. It turned out to be a marathon and I walked away thinking how brilliant,clever and infinitely silly it was!!!!! I'm hooked forever.


I enjoyed this article somewhat, but would have preferred it if you'd stayed on topic rather than turned the majority of page two into an episode recap. Still, it's great to know that someone out there – and more judging by the comments – gets it. Simply the most refined cartoon on television, and the messages it gives to young and old alike it something that many programs have failed on (See: Princess Cookie for one example).


Hm… The Ice King seemed to be more of a historian/researcher (in the show, he says he's an "antiquarian") than a straight-up scientist. And when was it said that he is responsible for the Mushroom War? Although he was a survivor (saved by his crown), it's never hinted at that he is the cause of the disaster. Unless you mean because he didn't stop the mutagenic bomb in the regular timeline, like he did in the Lichless timeline.


Alright, but PB is 'Princess Bubblegum', not 'the Bubblegum Princess'. She's the one who strays from the norm (with ___ Princess being the norm – Slime Princess, Raggedy Princess, Ghost Princess, Princess Princess Princess…)


Brilliant points, but you need an editor.


Finally someone else gets it! Adventure Time isn't just any old Saturday morning cartoon like SpongeBob Squarepants, it's a show with a deeper meaning, with a somewhat linear storyline that continues to expand with each episode. The characters' comedy up against such a sad, emotional backdrop of the post-apocalyptic world they live in is what really gets me.


Animation in America is an often wasted medium. Japan and now France are get it, the value of the format and how you don't have to create shows that are just for adults or just for kids. There is not only the potential for art but an entire universe that is unique compared to television or film. Adventure time is pushing the boundary, where you can have a wide range of emotional responses and have seriousness tucked in with all of the jokes and characters. As an animation fan it's so frustrating to see so many cartoons that are completely disposable due to their appealing to the lowest common denominator. They lack heart and character, which shows like Adventure Time are overflowing with. Networks need to understand, you create a show with a universe and the fans will come. In the present internet age where episodes are re-watched and dissected constantly the tiny details adds infinite value and speculation and that's great! we need that.


if anyone is interested in this show


Eric: I love this show. My wife loves this show. It is art and commentary… We thank you for this review


Eric: I love this show. My wife loves this show. It is art and commentary… We thank you for this review


I don't like Flame Princess……

The show is still awesome.

Fred Seibert

Eric, I'm the executive producer of Adventure Time. I've been waiting for someone the write this commentary for five seasons. Thank you.


More people should be watching Adventure Time. Everyone dismisses it as Cartoon Network kids' stuff, but it's just plain good. If only "intellectuals" cared as much as about this well-crafted, well-written show as they did about their soon-to-be-cancelled NBC sitcoms that use "funny" pop culture references in place of quality storytelling. I feel completely comfortable saying Louie and Adventure Time are the only good comedies on American television right now.


great piece


This is well researched,thoughtful review. I am a big fan of animated films one of the few redeeming features of commercial Tv. is "grownup cartoons"

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