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by Eric Kohn
November 13, 2012 1:23 PM
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Why 'Adventure Time,' Now In Its Fifth Season, Is More Groundbreaking Than You May Realize

The season five premiere of "Adventure Time." Patricia Collura http://zerovice.tumblr.com/
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.

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  • Wev | October 29, 2013 5:43 PMReply

    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.

  • I disagree. | February 2, 2014 11:45 PM

    I have to disagree. While it would be interesting to see more world-building about Ooo, half of the "serious" episodes amount to relationship drama and shipper-bait.

    I'd hate to see them sacrifice what made the show great, for a mindless deluge of "OMG WHICH GIRL DOES FINN LOVE TEH MOST?! ARE MARCELINE AND PB IN AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP! OMG SEXY TIMES!"

  • Odotry | July 13, 2013 10:23 AMReply

    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?

  • Oh? | February 2, 2014 11:46 PM

    One of the worst cartoons of all time?

    Were you suddenly struck blind, deaf, and dumb for the years of 2000 - 2009, so as to miss the ocean of uninspired, psuedo-anime horse-shit that was everywhere in that decade?

    Although I will thank you for stopping at "Standards sunk", I was worried you'd go into a "90s kid" suck-fest for a second.

  • wat | October 8, 2013 10:24 AM

    What are you talking about?

    The show isn't only good BECAUSE of its tragic backstory, that is the way in which it has depth -- it has goofy, innocent, nonsensical adventures for children (of all ages) while mixing in themes that are NOT suitable for children (post-apocalypse, heart-wrenching backstories).

    You say it has awful jokes, which I suppose is a fine opinion. I enjoy its jokes. I find its jokes are often subtle and trolly, so I wouldn't be surprised if they were going over your head. Are you the kind of guy who watches Family Guy and laughs when Peter farts, as opposed to laughing when the creators make Amadeus references?

    The lazy artstyle? You dislike a show over how it's drawn? It's drawn for children and meant to be cute/simplistic/goofy. In that sense, I adore its artstyle. Are you complaining that it isn't what you're used to? Poor guy, do you also complain that South Park isn't drawn the same way as everything else? The fact that it's drawn DIFFERENTLY than everything else is what makes it ART.

    "Unlikable [sic] characters" with "hideous character designs" and "non-existant [sic] personalities" and "unbelievably thin plots" is horrendous? Again, "unlikable" is your poorly backed opinion. "Hideous character design" is not only your opinion, but something you already covered ("lazy artstyle"). As for the non-existent personalities, I find the personalities are well established, albeit typically very basic (Finn being a very traditional Hero). Ice King's personality is more of an anti-villain or fallen hero -- not basic at all. Bubblegum's personality is something of an anti-hero as well. I could go on. As for "thin plots" -- on an episode-to-episode basis, it's a kid's show. What do you expect? It's only on the grand scale that it's worth watching if you want more comprehensive plot.

    One of the worst cartoons of all time? I fail to see how ANY other Cartoon's animation style is less "lazy" -- most of them either copy directly from the old H-B archetype or are just complete CGI nonsense. Did other characters' personality have more depth? I fail to see Shaggy and Scooby Doo having more personality than Finn and Jake, and that's oft-considered a cartoon hallmark.

    I could see if you were just someone who hated all cartoons and you're now saying you hate Adventure Time as well -- but to claim it's somehow worse than these other cartoons is silly. You seem to me like a guy who is too eager to be anti-mainstream. You hear a lot of people like AT? Better dislike it to be different.

  • CaptainBeanstalk | August 9, 2013 7:26 AM

    Finally someone starts to make some sense around here! Why do people like this crap so much? Teenagers and adult stoners can't seem to get enough of this crap and it gets passed off as some groundbreaking show of the millennia. Honestly standards have truly sunk.

  • kek | July 24, 2013 8:42 PM

    Sir, butthurt like this may be one of the signs of anal cancer. You may want to see a doctor. I'm sorry that I have to be the bearer of this grim news... I just thought you should know. Godspeed, friend.

  • Daniel | March 29, 2013 12:11 PMReply

    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.

  • Daniel | March 29, 2013 12:03 PMReply

    "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?

  • Penny | March 26, 2013 11:46 AMReply

    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 | November 14, 2012 7:49 PMReply

    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! http://zerovice.tumblr.com/post/35625991754/my-wishes-always-have-this-ironic-twist-to-them If not then I kindly request that you remove it. Thank you.

  • Al Bracken | November 14, 2012 7:35 PMReply

    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.

  • zeldarms | November 14, 2012 5:27 PMReply

    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).

  • Kristen | November 14, 2012 2:10 PMReply

    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.

  • Kon | November 14, 2012 1:15 PMReply

    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...)

  • brittney | November 15, 2012 2:30 AM

    technically, 'the Bubblegum Princess' is still accurate. Seeing as she is a Princess and she is made of bubblegum.

  • Kyle | November 14, 2012 11:59 AMReply

    Brilliant points, but you need an editor.

  • Derping | November 15, 2012 6:28 PM


  • Eli | November 14, 2012 11:46 AMReply

    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.

  • Olivia | March 29, 2013 1:40 AM

    I agree, but you know there’s a theory that Bikini Bottom in Spongebob is set beneath Bikini Island, the site of Nuclear testing in the past, which caused all the creatures to mutate. It would explain a lot.

  • Olivia | March 29, 2013 1:39 AM

    I agree, but you know there’s a theory that Bikini Bottom in Spongebob is set beneath Bikini Island, the site of Nuclear testing in the past, which caused all the creatures to mutate. It would explain a lot.

  • Galen | November 14, 2012 11:46 AMReply

    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.

  • Final Correction | February 2, 2014 11:58 PM

    Oh, and some of our Internet animators are amazing.

    If you gave Harry Partridge strong funding and a good team, he could produce a cartoon that would could go toe to toe with the best from around the world. (Again, whiney little prats who refuse to believe anything after 1999 was good would disagree, but that is because they are shit heads stuck in a fairy tale world)

  • Continued Correction | February 2, 2014 11:56 PM

    If I may quote Don Bluth to express my attitude towards this...

    "We're waiting for the pendulum to swing back again, which I am absolutely confident it will."

    I believe it is swinging back. We are seeing great creator-driven content these days, and we are, thank god, stepping out of the psuedo-anime horseshit of the 00s.

    Yeah, I feel safe in saying American animation is doing fine.

  • Correction | February 2, 2014 11:52 PM

    "Animation in America is an often wasted medium."


    Animation in America was often a wasted medium over the course of the Animation Dark Age.

    Don Bluth was quite accurate when he compared American Animation to a big grandfather clock with a swinging pendulum. We are currently taking the first steps out of a dark age to rival that of the 70s.

    If we compare the best of American Animation from the Golden Age, the Silver Age, or the Animation Renaissance, with the best of Japan, I think anybody but some gigantic Weeaboo who imagines Japanese is better simply by essence of being from Glorious Nippon, will realize that they are pretty well equal.

  • Galen | November 14, 2012 11:47 AM

    *getting it. Editing augh!

  • lel | November 14, 2012 11:42 AMReply


    if anyone is interested in this show

  • vladimir | November 14, 2012 9:43 AMReply

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

  • vladimir | November 14, 2012 9:43 AMReply

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

  • Chris | November 14, 2012 2:53 AMReply

    I don't like Flame Princess......

    The show is still awesome.

  • Fred Seibert | November 13, 2012 10:33 PMReply

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

  • Joe | November 13, 2012 9:55 PMReply

    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.

  • Sigh | February 3, 2014 12:00 AM

    See, a lot of people here are making the same damned mistake that people who hate on Adventure Time make, in their rationale.

    "I don't like it. Therefore it is objectively horrible."

  • Chance | November 17, 2012 6:24 AM

    What? How can you get down on Community? The show is just as careful with the complexity and interactions of its characters as Adventure Time is! It deals with interesting conflicts and themes that other sitcoms don't bother to touch. The Big Bang Theory relies on Sheldon's apparent-but-never-directly-addressed-Asperger's as a well of comedy! Community's Abed has Asperger's, but they address it seriously numerous times. The show should also get a badge for the best use of meta-humor and homages. I mean, c'mon! Give it another chance! I know it starts out sorta MEH, but it gets really damn good. Like one of the best sitcoms of all time good!

  • Tim | November 16, 2012 11:16 AM

    yeah, Community is horrible. I watched 5 episodes of that show and only laughed at a single joke. I'm utterly perplexed by its popularity. every "joke" on the show is just a reference, just pointing at something, and that's supposed to be funny in and of itself. it's not. that's not comedy, that's just pandering. it's designed to make the viewer feel culturally informed and part of some in-group, even though all the references are mass culture staples that have been parodied and referenced a billion times before. also, every character is just a horribly written stereotype with no depth whatsoever. I've never been genuinely surprised by anyone or anything on Community, and I think part of the reason why Louie and Adventure Time (I'd agree with Joe that those 2 are the only truly great comedies on TV right now) are so amazing is because they have really well developed characters yet they're always surprising.

  • Joe | November 14, 2012 10:25 AM

    Hey, I'm all for deconstruction, but how about constructing something first? Make a good normal sitcom before you go about breaking it down. That's a total college student "I know better than you, professional" mentality, and I say that as someone who had that same mentality in college.

    That said, I admit I'm someone who would rather watch a great, traditional sitcom like Roseanne or even Fresh Prince than a now-beloved deconstruction of the sitcom format like Get A Life. Yeah, I get that subversive shows are being "edgy" or whatever, but I'd also like to laugh even once in the process.

    I know I sound like an old man, but I'm really only 27, I swear!

  • J.L. | November 13, 2012 10:55 PM

    I agree with the first sentence but I couldn't help but notice the slight dig at Community (Let's face it, that's the only show that fits the description) and while it does have pop culture references it can go deeper just like Adventure Time. The show deconstructs the characters from their usual sitcom style, has them grow, and even question the story telling process of sitcoms.

  • theresa | November 13, 2012 8:00 PMReply

    great piece

  • tom | November 13, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    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"