Television has provided a haven for all kinds of experiments with storytelling, but few programs have explored the spectrum as widely as Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time," which wrapped its remarkable, surprising fifth season last week. Pendleton Ward's brightly colored animated series gets to have it both ways: Content to indulge in the nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons that provide its aesthetic with a starting point, the show is nevertheless tinged with adult subtext at nearly every turn, and sometimes overwhelmed by it.
Ward's deceptively simple tale of adolescent boy Finn and his rubbery talking dog Jake began as a trippy, irreverent short in 2007 and blossomed into a trippy, irreverent series in 2010. It's had plenty of room to grow: The fifth season spanned an impressive 52 episodes stretched across two years and more installments are only a month away. But like its characters, the show's plot and atmosphere has grown up in many ways since then even as it has retained the same goofy charm. With the sixth season scheduled to air in late April, now's the perfect moment for anyone unfamiliar with its appeal to catch up.
It doesn't take long to watch a single episode of "Adventure Time," which generally clocks in at around 11 minutes, but collectively they form a vast mythology involving the fantastical happenings of an imaginative post-apocalyptic world. Sometimes, Ward and head writer Kent Osborne push that mythology along with major events to provide reminders of the darker ingredients in play; at other points, they're content to simply hover in the vibrant Land of Ooo, with its off-the-wall ensemble of characters ranging from ebullient members of the Candy Kingdom to Finn and Jake's affable gaming system Beemo.
The network has turned the show into a franchise behemoth, and it's easy to get lost in the fan worship in order to see the incredibly sophisticated artistry that merits it. But make no mistake: "Adventure Time" remains of the most creative television shows around, and the last dozen or so episodes rank among the best examples of its narrative strengths.
As one watches "Adventure Time," its universe becomes increasingly absorbing -- for every irreverent aside, the writers drop clues to weightier story elements at play, deeper thematic content and complex emotional hurdles. Sometimes, it's more overt than that. If you only watch an hour of recent "Adventure Time" installments, make sure to prioritize the last five episodes of this season.
In "Betty," Lena Dunham voices the long lost girlfriend of the Ice King, who was initially set up as the show's cardboard villain before it turned out that he used to be a good-natured researcher named Simon Petrikov who lost his mind. The mini-narrative manages to introduce Dunham's character, the titular Betty, whom Simon manages to contact in the past while briefly his old self again -- only to find that the resourceful young woman can cling onto him and wind up in his less savory present just before he morphs back into a crazy old loner. Uncertain how to cure his dwindled state, she's last seen watching him from the window, the only seed of hope in his otherwise sorry existence.
But the bittersweet climax of "Betty" has nothing on "Bad Timing," perhaps the show's best visual achievement. The entire installment takes place within the frame of a "time bubble" that absorbs characters drawn into a time travel device, created by the show's reigning inventor Princess Bubblegum, until they're regurgitated later on. It's a brilliantly layered approach to the story that forces your eyes to swim around the screen selectively to pick up on tiny details.
Even so, it's the plot at the center that truly demands attention: At its core, the most ridiculous "Adventure Time" character finally receives her due. The world's most obnoxious diva, Lumpy Space Princess (voiced with nasally exertions by Ward himself) falls for an enterprising man from her past while grousing at the local bar, and even manages to form an innocuous relationship with him (the show navigates the waters of eroticism with remarkable diplomacy). Her abrupt decision to use the device on him when it seems as though their romance has turned sour leads to the kind of resoundingly touching climax that has become the pièce de résistance of "Adventure Time" throughout its run.
Still, even the resourceful "Adventure Time" team can't always work within the constraints of a single episode. "Lemonhope" is an epic two-parter that truly fulfills vocal performer Tom Kenny's assertion that the show has become a next generation "Yellow Submarine." Like many viewers, I always found the aggressively annoying Lemongrab character to be one of its weakest -- a whiny talking lemon candy who was Princess Bubblegum's worst creation, he was so grating that he overtook the tone of any episode he appeared in. But his ultimate transformation into a dictator run amok in his a kingdom of lemon characters made perfect sense, and capably brought this less enthralling narrative arc to a wonderfully kaleidoscopic finale.
"Lemonhope" revolved around the titular young candy character singled out as the only figure capable of rescuing the lemon kingdom from its mean-spirited ruler, whose horrible mistreatment of his citizens are revealed to Lemonhope in black-and-white prison camp footage with blatant genocidal overtones. After Lemonhope resists pressure from Princess Bubblegum to rise to the heroic challenge before him, he embarks on an odyssey that takes him across land, air and sea with a multitude of bleakly philosophical results -- most of which revolve around Lemonhope confronting his worst fears in a series of stark dream sequences. Ultimately, the show deals with responsibility, leadership and mortality in a profound fashion that's never remotely predictable, always hypnotically strange -- and, naturally, ends with a poignant finale as only "Adventure Time" can.
"Billy's Bucket List," the first of a two-parter that formed the season finale, doesn't have the same remarkable scope of "Lemonhope" or the visual daring of "Bad Timing," but it nevertheless consolidates many of their distinctive themes. More than anything else, "Adventure Time" excels at unearthing both a sense of beauty and fun from a world smothered in sorrow, and it does that best when dealing with death. Revisiting the passing of Finn's hero, the sword-wielding giant Billy -- who was abruptly murdered and impersonated by the demonic Lich last last season -- the episode finds Finn still mourning the loss of his inspiration.
When he runs into Billy's similarly grief-stricken ex, the pair decide to pay a visit to Billy's old cave ("Billy's crack," Finn calls it, a reminder that despite the wise twists of "Adventure Time," it's never too smart for toilet humor). It's there that they discover the eponymous list, which they decide to fulfill together -- until the mysterious woman bids Finn adieu, and finds one last item on Billy's list that he must accomplish on his own.
The episode's final minutes largely revolve around Finn's decision to confront his fears in tribute to his old pal, and his resolve -- battling off an anxiety demon that emerges from his gut so he can gather the courage to float in the ocean -- is as touching as it is bizarre. But once he triumphs, "Adventure Time" uses its closing seconds to toss in another welcome plot twist sure to expand the already massive universe of events in even more fascinating ways. Doggedly offbeat, intermittently sophomoric and silly, "Adventure Time" is also increasingly wise at playing with the storytelling rules its creators dreamed up, and keeps getting better at them as it moves along.