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by Eric Kohn
March 26, 2013 3:48 PM
24 Comments
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Why 'Adventure Time' Is the Best Sci-Fi Show on TV Right Now

Simon and Marceline in "Simon and Marcy," from the current season of "Adventure Time."

Sometimes you love a show so much it can do weird things to your head. I've gone out on a limb with Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" by deeming it a groundbreaking form of cartoon storytelling that fuses several eras of animation into a delightfully surreal and yet oddly familiar experience. I also wondered if the entire show was one big metaphor for sex. I stand by the former and wince a little when contemplating the latter as anything other than one more manifestation of the fun possibilities involved in reading into a show that has a deceptively simple surface and tangibly dark interiors. But after last night's wonderful flashback special episode, "Simon and Marcy," I'm convinced of one thing: "Adventure Time" is the best science fiction show on television right now.

"Simon and Marcy" picked up a thread initially introduced last season with the finest entry in the series' history, "I Remember You," which was also the name of a show-stopping tune unveiled in the episode's climactic moments. In a touching moment of musical narrative, the song revealed that the moody goth Marceline the Vampire Queen had a history with the nutty Ice King, whose role on the show up until this point was merely as a comically inept foil to the usual protagonists, Jake the Dog and Finn the Human.

It turned out that the Ice King, originally an archeologist named Simon Petrikov, gradually lost his mind after discovering an ancient crown with magical powers in Scandinavia. When the apocalypse hit -- a period of time in the world of the show deemed The Great Mushroom War -- Simon discovered young Marceline on her own and took on a fatherly role as the two wandered through a desolate landscape.

"Simon and Marcy" detailed the evolution of that relationship while fleshing out a few other murky areas of the show's mythology. It starts innocuously enough, with modern day Marceline playing a game of basketball with the loony Ice King along with Finn and Jake, who ask Marceline why she has invited their enemy to join them. "Because I love him very much," she replies, then launches into a survival story set precisely 996 years in the past. 

Up until this point, we've only had select peeks at the volume of destruction that wrecked the planet before its came together as the Land of Ooo, where the show's current colorful inhabitants live. Last season's "The Lich" showed an alternative tale of destruction and hinted at a nuclear-fueled massacre, but "Simon and Marcy" revealed a wasteland of junk barely populated by anyone other than the two characters' of the episode's title. In fact, after Simon puts on his crown and freezes a deer the duo comes across in the woods, Marceline wonders if its appearance indicates that other things live around them in the wilderness. This brief aside indicates the sheer emptiness of their environment, which epitomizes the show's ongoing ironic contrast between giddy playtime sensibilities and the dark feelings of solitude lurking beneath the surface.

Simon versus a mutant in "Simon and Marcy." Cartoon Network

But "Simon and Marcy" goes several steps further, not only elaborating on that idea but deepening the world in all kinds of morbidly fascinating ways. Simon and Marcy survive amid a grotesque, dangerous terrain, while Simon makes repeated attempts to look on the bright side. He jokes about a dead rat they find in a dumpster and pretends to "watch" a VHS tape they find on the ground before discarding it ("the book was better"). At night, munching on deer innards, Simon reenacts an episode of "Cheers" for his pal, somehow transforming their experience into a good time -- and a way for him to maintain a grip on his lapsing sanity.

The show is filled with this ongoing tension between extreme survival measures and curiously funny bits. A slapstick moment finds the duo attempting to ride a discarded motorbike into town and losing control of it; it crashes and bursts into flames below. That wry application of violent humor is matched by the next scene, when they come across a grocery store and burst through the window. "Vandalism is wrong, Marcy," Simon says, making a desperate stab at good parenting even in these dire circumstances.

From there, "Simon and Marcy" further realizes the iconography of the post-apocalyptic survival narrative to which it belongs. Up until now, the characters' placement in the scenario echoed the situation facing the man and boy in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," but whereas that story contained demented people, this one ventures much further into the sci-fi playbook by pitting its characters against oozing green mutants who chase Simon and Marcy from every direction. Simon's conundrum is a powerful one: He has promised Marcy not to wear the crown any longer, but it's essentially the only way he can keep her safe. There's a bracing moment in which Simon nearly betrays his promise as a mutant bears down on him only to figure out an alternative plan at the last moment.

More than anything else, the show illustrates the power of imagination in making dreary prospects into a challenge worth tackling time and again.

But eventually they're trapped and the crown must go on. It's here that "Adventure Time" once again shows a flair for original storytelling. Perhaps as a means of staying in touch with reality, Simon begins to sing an off-key rendition of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," the theme song from "Cheers," while donning the crown and blasting their assailants with waves of snow. The moment is simultaneously unsettling and absurd, a tangible balance that this show walks so well.

It was only a matter of time before music left a dent in this episode: "Simon and Marcy" marked the final installment co-written and storyboarded by Rebecca Sugar, who composed that heartbreaking song in "I Remember You" and has since left "Adventure Time" to work on a show of her own creation entitled "Steven Universe" (she's now the first female cartoon creator in Cartoon Network's history, according to the "Adventure Time" wiki). Though "Simon and Marcy" contained no original compositions, its use of a cheesy pop song in a gloomy situation spoke volumes about the tragedy of Simon's transition into the Ice King, a clear-cut metaphor for the onset of senility. By applying imaginary circumstances to such credible human conundrums, "Adventure Time" gets at the essence of great science fiction, which tends to imagine alternative worlds grounded in a credibility of their own making.

By the end of the episode, the fates of Simon, Marcy and the rest of the world remain uncertain. A series of quick events that, like ABC's "Lost" in its heyday, establish more questions than answers: Simon spots a pink ooze with a creepy smile that suggests a primitive version of the show's Princess Bubblegum, hinting at her mutant origins. Simon discovers the chicken soup he's been desperate to find the under-the-weather Marcy and happily feeds it to her. The whole episode he's been worried that she has come down with a fever, but is it possible that he's getting colder?

"Adventure Time" may or may not address some or all of these questions further down the line, but its willingness to contemplate them at all while sticking to its unique combination of silliness and haunting beauty routinely transforms the show into a wondrous genre experiment. More than anything else, the show illustrates the power of imagination in making dreary prospects into a challenge worth tackling time and again. 

24 Comments

  • Michael | February 27, 2014 11:52 AMReply

    It's interesting to see an 11 minute animation show slowly become so complicated with a rich back story.
    I'm writing this almost a full year after this post so I've seen even more, although Pendelton does enjoy stringing us along by giving us many questions but just a little bit of back story at a time. In this way he's made the show a lot like Lost.

    I get the feeling that the crown has everything to do with everything. I think it's the reason for the bubblegum becoming sentient and growing into Princess Bubblegum. Did anyone see that Simon had a Scientific Parasite? It looked mostly like a pen at the beginning of Simon and Marcy, by the end of the episode it was looking much more like a parasites. The bubblegum wasn't in the dead end ally when Simon and Marcy arrived in it. I think it was following them after it came into contact with the Ice King Crown which gave it sentience.

    So where did this crown come from? We know the area on earth where it was found, but not it's origin. I think we may see it become a circular object, one in which the crown is created in the land of OOO then sent back to have it's terrible effect on human history. It not only created the land of Ooo, but is a creation of the land of Ooo, or someone in the land of Ooo.

    We've already seen the impact of the crown when Simon forestalled the explosion of the mutagenic bomb. Can Simon be saved by Betty? Will she find a loophole in the crown? Or will her arrival make things worse, like when Finn wished the Lich never existed.

  • Mike | May 10, 2013 3:49 AMReply

    honestly, I think Pendleton Ward's other work, Bravest Warriors, is an even better sci-fi show. check it out! all 11 episodes are legally on youtube

  • MAX | July 15, 2013 11:06 PM

    Bravest Warrior is indeed created by Pen but is written and directed entirely by Breehn Burns the make of DR Tran (a pretty fun cartoon serie on youtube.). Which explain the different humor tone (some voice actors from DR Tran are also in BW). Just wanted to give some credit to the guy. I'm glad Pen recognized the dude's talent.

  • Andre | April 15, 2013 9:38 PMReply

    AT is a common word in my household, My kids and I have speculated that Ice King and Marceline definitely had history since the "memory of a memory" ep: I was touched by the "Simon and Marcy" ep. Reading this article confirmed my belief that non linear, non commercial writing can thrive in the biz of cartoons. .... thanks for keeping the faith.
    ( Rebecca Sugar left??? What's gonna happen to the music?)

  • Izzy | April 4, 2013 10:29 AMReply

    You've got a brilliant article here my friend. Don't listen to anyone who says otherwise. I'm proud to say I enjoyed reading it, and I'm glad I'm not the only person in the world that can watch a great story, and love it for what it's worth. Without having to question or comment or vilify the series as a whole just "because I can." Unlike several of the comments I've seen under this article.
    Anyone who doesn't appreciate the immense amount of planning and dedication put into this series, has no reason to be commenting negatively. If you can't enjoy it? Then simply walk away.
    Alas, it is not to be. However, despite it all. I'd still like to say thanks. For bringing a bit of light, to a great story. Maybe you've inspired someone to pick up the episodes and watch them? Who knows. Fact is, you did right by me, and by the fans of this series. Kudos.

  • Matt | March 29, 2013 2:28 PMReply

    The Ice King's crown is a metaphor for drugs, I'm nearly certain of it.

  • Mike | February 27, 2014 11:26 AM

    I think it's more likely it's about power. Simon's descent into madness is much like the separation of those with power from those who don't have power:
    Isolation
    Selfishness
    No concern for others
    Surrounded by yes men (pengiuns)
    Narcissistic

  • Chris | May 10, 2013 8:38 AM

    I took it to mean Alzheimers earlier but now I think he just represents outcasts in general.

  • sean | May 10, 2013 7:51 AM

    its more of a metaphor of power

  • Bootnig | March 29, 2013 3:44 PM

    So you're saying drugs will give me magical ice powers? Well my friend, you just inspired me to go do drugs.

  • Robert | March 29, 2013 1:58 AMReply

    Love this Eric. Good Stuff.

    Also, the word "idiot" does belong in the previous poster's name.

  • YoureAllIdiots | March 29, 2013 12:29 AMReply

    "I Remember You" was show-stopping? No, it was the usual dreadful music they write for this over-rated show. Marceline's dreadful, forced "meaningful" voice, lyrics running over bar breaks, weak melody generally....

    Also, it was hinted much earlier who the Ice King was, in a much more satisfying fashion that being beaten around the head with it. No wonder Adventure Time is getting so awful with retards like you watching it.

  • Jason | February 20, 2014 9:17 PM

    Your comment is the prime example of an ignorant troll. This was a great episode you moron.

  • Matthew | April 7, 2013 6:44 PM

    No, I'm sorry but, you're an idiot.
    I Remember You was show stopping because we got a look into Simon and Marceline's history, in which we find out how truly emotionally tortured she must be by the fact that someone who she loves and looks up to like a parent, doesn't even remember her or the time they spent together.
    It's a look into the life of someone that, although they have been alive for over a thousand years, are part demon, part vampire, and "lost track of their moral code", it is heart wrenching to see her crying because all she wants is for her father figure to remember her.

    Also, Marceline has a gorgeous voice, and you are wrong.

  • DurrHurp | April 1, 2013 3:36 AM

    You're just awful.

  • memebag | March 28, 2013 11:59 PMReply

    Simon sings the "Cheers" theme because making his way in the world today is taking everything he's got. And he wants to go where everybody knows his name, because he can feel himself forgetting it.

    And the Mushroom War wasn't just nuclear, it was full of mutagenic chemical weapons. That's why the Land of Ooo is so ... colorful.

  • Me | March 28, 2013 9:00 PMReply

    Adventure time is my life

  • Dann | March 28, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    I think the real reason Simon was singing the Cheers theme in that final battle was to anchor himself to reality and remember Marceline and that moment they shared while the crown ate away at his sanity. The fact that it was goofy to sing that during the battle is just gravy.

  • Sannna | March 28, 2013 2:45 PMReply

    I continue to be amazed by the places Adventure Time goes and incidentally all of my favorite episodes were written by Rebecca Sugar. This back story adds more too, to the relationship between Marceline and Bubblegum. Even though Sugar has moved on I hope they revisit the past for Marceline, the Ice King and Finn and Jake.

  • RaeRae | March 28, 2013 12:04 PMReply

    OK, first of all, seriously guys, get rid of the spammers. All it takes is for you to click delete by the comment.

    Second, I love this show. I just got into it within the last year. Seriously obsessed.

    Princess Bubblegum ooze was cognizant, it GAVE the soup to the ice king. Or do you think it was just hanging out there conveniently?

    They haven't just "hinted" at nuclear war. When they show shots of Earth, there's a huge chunk blown out of it. And in the intro, you can see shells half buried in the earth. And I think "mushroom war" is pretty clear about what it means.

    The background episodes are the best parts of the show. Finn unable to discover his human origins, seeing as he was found in the woods. We believe that there are no other humans, until Susan Strong episode #2 where she lets Finn know she's not one of the fish people she lives with. It's heartbreaking to know that the Ice King lost his mind defending Marcelene, even though we have no idea where she came from out of the ooze, even though she has a father.

    There are just so many good things about this show.

  • Tess | March 28, 2013 9:37 PM

    I also think it is important to know that Finn is most likely susan's son. This is seen through their same colour hair as well as when he first meets her he says,"I can take you to see the sun, suuuun." whilst gesturing around himself. I think this is more than enough evidence to support this theory.

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  • Salty Bill | March 26, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    Just discovered this show. It is beautifully strange. I have a thing for Princess Bubblegum. ;-)

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