There has never been a show quite like “Adventure Time,” which can be silly, wise and utterly mesmerizing within the confines of a few unpredictable minutes. The news that it will end its run in 2018, after eight years and nine seasons, may come as a shock to anyone invested in its unique pleasures. “Adventure Time” wasn’t just a well-honed animated program with equal appeal to viewers of all ages; that zany attitude delivered warm tidbits of life advice and an emotional purity with the concision of great folk music, and the same lasting power. It was the kind of perfectly conceived formula that suggested immortality. Even with the end in sight, its legacy is secure.
This may sound like hyperbole for a consumer-facing program about the exploits of a goofy adolescent named Finn and his talking dog pal named Jake. But “Adventure Time” deals with that fact in its DNA — it argues that a goofy, carefree existence can be deeper than it appears on the surface. Above all else, creator Pendleton Ward delivered a freewheeling portrait of one young man waking up to the wonders of the universe. In doing so, “Adventure Time” joined the ranks of groundbreaking television accomplishments.
Jake (Jeremy Shada, whose voice has cracked and deepened over the course of several seasons) begins his adventures in the mystical Land of Ooo by taking the bright, wacky fantasy world around him for granted. With time, Ward and his cohorts colored in the details around their young lead, with hints of a post-apocalyptic environment in which Finn was the only surviving human being. That changed when Finn encountered his deadbeat dad, an escaped prisoner who abandoned the boy in his youth, but Finn remains a solitary character learning to embrace his special role. Finding companionship from shape-shifting canine Jake (John DiMaggio, channeling a smarmy Bill Murray), Finn engaged in battles both literal and metaphorical, from his first heartbreak (with the fiercely individualistic Flame Princess) to a catastrophic medical emergency (the loss of a limb, which regrew as a plant appendage as his confidence returned).
Finn and Jake have been through a lot together. They’ve traveled through space and time, fought the menacing demonic threat known as the Lich, and saved multiple kingdoms from complete ruin. Jake fathered several children with a Korean unicorn and faced the challenges of fatherhood with mixed results. Finn lost his sword. But despite these numerous chapters in their time together, they’ve never been truly alone. “Adventure Time” casts a wide net, building out a world of possibilities in which its central characters sometimes only play a marginal role.
While it can be exciting to pick apart the timeline of the show — the Reddit forums loaded with fan theories about the formation of the canon go on and on — “Adventure Time” never feels weighted by any specific rulebook. Yes, a great Mushroom War supposedly caused the end of the world before this one came together, but those details matter less than the individual moments that have evolved from the fallout, and the sheer variety of possibilities they provide.
“Adventure Time” can strike a ridiculous note with sophomoric asides before shifting into melancholy or rage. Major developments often fall by the wayside for the sake of musical numbers that speak to the internal duress of a single character. And there are many of them. The scope of the show’s ensemble has given its humongous foundation of fans multiple entry points, which traverse a broad spectrum of identities more fluid than anything else in modern television. From the morally complex mad scientist Princess Bubblegum and her kingdom of candies to the manic, ostracized Lumpy Space Princess, many of the colorful creations in the Land of Ooo speak to precise mindsets that allow for multiple entry points.
Notably, the best dynamic on the show has less to do with Finn and Jake than one of their pals. Marceline, the brooding, Gothic, bass-playing Vampire Queen, eventually reveals her origin story in the extraordinary episode “I Remember You,” in which we learn that the mutant girl was discovered in the wreckage of the world by a scientist named Simon. Later, Simon put on an ancient crown that caused him to slowly lose his mind and transform into the show’s chief villain, the Ice King. With time, the Ice King has become less of a bad guy than a tragic nuisance, the senile grandfather whose annoying outbursts never fully eclipse his inherent good nature.
“Adventure Time” contains just enough details about its interlocking world to offer payoff for those who want to put the pieces together, but they’re often beside the point. Ward, who built much of his team out of the alternative comics world, foregrounded a gentle, expressive sensibility unhindered by precise storytelling conditions. He has often compared the show to playing “Dungeons and Dragons,” fusing fantastical ingredients with spur-of-the-moment decisions that just feel right. The result is an organic place where anything can happen.
“Adventure Time” is about that exciting feeling more than anything else. “If you want to see it as poetry, you can,” former show writer and “Steven Universe” creator Rebecca Sugar told me in 2013. “If you don’t, you can watch a fun cartoon.” It’s such a tricky balance that “Adventure Time” seemed almost too good for the mainstream conditions that brought it global fandom, and the sheer insanity of its popularity eventually led Ward himself to step away from the glare of the show for other pursuits.
Who can blame him? The ubiquity of the marketing efforts that sprang up as “Adventure Time” erupted into the zeitgeist, from toys to video games to comic books and trading cards, inevitably distracted from its subtle appeal. But even after Ward left, its inventive attitude remained in the healthy control of showrunner Adam Muto as well as writers Jack Pendarvis and Kent Osborne, whose creative efforts outside of the show (catch “Uncle Kent 2” if you haven’t yet) informed its ongoing originality. In 10 minutes, a lot can happen, and even a weak “Adventure Time” episode comes equipped with the exciting possibility that they’ll knock it out of the park next time.
And they’re still doing just that. Appropriately, the show will end its run exactly 12 years after Ward’s psychedelic 2008 pilot launched a phenomenon. That’s the same age as Finn in the show’s first season, and suggests an opportunity to close the loop as he finally reaches young adulthood. Land of Ooo may have an expiration date, but its mythology will live on. The strength of the show stems from experiences that defy easy categorization and yet collectively speak to the elusive nature of growing up. At its best, “Adventure Time” embodies what it’s like to laugh until you cry, and then cry because you forgot what was so funny in the first place.
— AsiaJane (@JaneAsiaLeigh) September 29, 2016