The first two episodes of the sixth season of “Adventure Time,” which premieres on Cartoon Network tonight, include the death of a major character, more than one icky dismemberment and one very deadbeat dad. And yet the show remains littered with bright colors and hilarious site gags at virtually every turn. This balance has always been key to its appeal, but in recent weeks — the sprawling season five finale just wrapped a month ago, and now here we go again — “Adventure Time” has shown an increasing confidence at realizing its finest traits. Pendleton Ward’s imaginative creation is one of the most remarkable sources of innovation on television today not only for its trippiness but the process by which it constantly smuggles incisive observations and disturbing events into its goofy mold.
Consider, for instance, the season five cliffhanger in which human Finn sits on his back and gazes at the stars while the ghost of his long-dead hero tells the adolescent that his father still lives. It’s not a startling revelation that shakes the foundations of the show’s mythology so much as a validation of Finn’s emotional life: Yes, he’s a floppy-armed kid who lives in a post-apocalyptic world with his flexible talking dog pal adjacent to a kingdom made of candy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a history in that context.
The same wry device comes into play at the start of this season, the second half of the two-parter “Wake Up” that began last month, which finds Jake the dog hanging out in the cosmic inter-dimensional bachelor pad of his party-loving pal Prismo, a lackadaisical genie voiced by Kumail Nanjiani. Bizarre figures of various shapes and sizes hover around Prismo’s loft, but the dialogue is resolutely human: We’re only seconds into the episode before a many-faced polygonal creature attempts to pick up a female character by describing her as “an interesting and conventionally hot woman.” In the corner, the perennially evil Lich — a monster intent on destroying existence, voiced by Ron Perlman — sits in the corner in a state of suspended animation due to earlier events. A handful of presumably intoxicated party guests hurl detritus in his direction, gleefully yelling, “Eat it, Lich!” If you set aside that these impossible characters are hanging out in the strangest of contexts, it’s just another fun night at Prismo’s.
Back in the land of Ooo, Finn remains haunted by the Lich and the possibility of discovering his father. Always the concerned pal, Jake encourages his friend to turn to the wish-fulfilling Prismo to help them locate Finn’s old man. And so begins a constantly surprising two-episode quest to a remote space prison called the Citadel, where Finn’s dad lies in suspended animation along with several other “space villains” — although right up until Jake and Finn arrive there, Finn remains in denial about his dad’s morally ambiguous past, wondering aloud if he’s a prison guard. It’s a funny defense mechanism, particularly since we’re watching a boy and his dog fly through space, but it’s still a defense mechanism.
Of course, Finn has some issues to discuss with pops, mainly why he abandoned the child as an infant in the middle of the forest. But even as each 11-minute “Adventure Time” episode crams in many alternately absurd and intriguing events, as an epic story arc it remains thoroughly patient: Finn has plenty to sort out with his dad at the conclusion of these episodes, but the fate of the Lich takes an amusing new turn, and Finn’s cursed sword arm — an ingredient that has festered in the sidelines for weeks — reaches a beguiling new state. The pink-hued Citadel and its regenerative liquids provide yet another physically inventive set piece; the use of wacky slapstick alongside melancholic asides gives the impression of a Buster Keaton movie funneled through an alternative comic lens. Sometimes, “Adventure Time” gets too wound up in its zany developments for its truly astonishing intelligence to shine through. But that’s exactly what makes it such a savvy cultural achievement.
No matter how silly its twists, “Adventure Time” always slips in a certain wise gaze. In these new installments, we hear about Prismo’s origin story, which involves a 1,000-year waiting period — not unlike the 1,000-year journey that the lemon character endured in last season’s two-part odyssey “Lemonhope.” The recurrence of this duration provides another reminder of the way the show explores the fog of time — everything about it feels weirdly familiar and distant at once, evoking the uneasiness of the present when both past and future hover in the background, threatening to complicate a seemingly balanced picture. There are scary forces hovering in the details of “Adventure Time,” but even during the strangest, eccentric moments, it’s never less than a welcoming experience.
Criticwire Grade: A-