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.)
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.)
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.
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 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.