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


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 alternate reality in "Adventure Time." Cartoon Network
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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39 Comments

  • 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

    No

  • 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."

    Correction.

    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

    Watchadventuretimeinhd.tumblr.com

    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"