Beneath Adventure Time’s weirdness lies surprising emotional complexity

Beneath Adventure Time’s weirdness lies surprising emotional complexity

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Once upon a time, a human boy and his magical dog saved a candy princess from a mad king and sparked an animation phenomenon. When Pendleton Ward’s first Adventure Time short leaked online in 2007, it became a viral sensation thanks to its smooth animation, simple yet striking design, and absurd sense of humor. The standard damsel-in-distress plot was something fresh and exciting when depicted through Ward’s part-Peanuts, part-Nintendo, part-Jack Kirby aesthetic, and moments like Finn’s meeting with Abraham Lincoln on the moon introduced the total unpredictability that would characterize the show through five seasons.   

Nickelodeon ultimately turned down an Adventure Time series after the first short debuted on the network’s Random! Cartoons in 2008, but Cartoon Network was there to help bring Ward’s vision to fruition. On April 5, 2010, Adventure Time launched with two 11-minute stories: “Slumber Party Panic,” the series’ first zombie-movie parody, and “Trouble In Lumpy Space,” an episode showcasing Lumpy Space Princess, a valley girl and purple blob voiced by the show’s creator. Like most Adventure Time episodes, both of these stories are morality tales that avoid being overly preachy by teaching values in wildly ludicrous circumstances, but the writers are still finding their footing in the first season when it comes to balancing the more bizarre story elements with the obligatory children’s TV lessons. 

Season one is a flurry of wacky ideas as Jake The Dog (John DiMaggio) and Finn The Human (Jeremy Shada) engage in stand-alone adventures exploring the vast world of Ooo, and while some concepts introduced during that manic stage have become essential parts of the series, much of those 26 episodes is the writers testing the waters to see what works and what doesn't. New characters like Lumpy Space Princess, Marceline The Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson), and Tree Trunks (Polly Lou Livingston) the apple-farming elephant would become regular supporting players, and it’s no coincidence that the three are women. The core relationship of the series is Finn’s best-friendship with his brother Jake—allegedly born in a cabbage patch, Finn was abandoned as a baby and discovered by Jake’s parents in the woods—but the series becomes something more when it begins to focus on Finn’s relationships with the women around him. 

The second season puts more focus on Finn’s awkward wooing of the considerably older Princess Bubblegum and begins to expose the history of the post-post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, specifically with references to the Rainicorn-Dog Wars, The Great Mushroom War, and The Lich. As the series digs deeper into the past of this world, it develops a bittersweet quality. The only reason Ooo is so magical is because Earth was irradiated and mutated after total nuclear annihilation, and characters like the Ice King (Tom Kenny) and Marceline have become tragic figures in the wake of major revelations regarding their shared past in the early days following The Great Mushroom War. 

The emotional high point of the series is the season-four episode “I Remember You,” which features the crushing reveal that before Simon Petrikov fully succumbed to his maniacal Ice King persona, he was the protector of young Marceline, keeping her alive as they made their way across a nuclear wasteland. The current fifth season has delved even further into the show’s mythology with episodes that spend considerable time in the past: “Simon & Marcy” takes inspiration from Cheers and The Road, and “The Vault” flashes back to one of Finn’s past selves who lived in the time when the Candy Kingdom was just being built. Season five is a whopping 52 episodes, and the writers have wisely started to flesh out the show’s history and push the characters in new directions to keep things from getting stale. For example, Jake has become the father of five puppies with Lady Rainicorn, a major status-quo change that has also added five adorable new members to the show’s cast.

Finn has had a crush on Princess Bubblegum since that very first kiss on Nickelodeon, and his dynamic with the princess has changed as he ages and learns the sad truths of young love. One of which is that age is more than just a number when it comes to the teenage years, and Finn is far too young and immature for the genius ruler of the Candy Kingdom. However, hope appears for this romance when Princess Bubblegum is de-aged to her 13-year-old self at the end of season two (“Mortal Recoil”), but once she reverts back to her adult form, Finn is forced to find love elsewhere. Despite not being able to touch her, Finn gets his first real girlfriend when he starts seeing Flame Princess (Jessica DiCicco) in season four, giving the writers the opportunity to start exploring more complex subject matter regarding pubescent feelings of attraction and intimacy. 

Marceline and Princess Bubblegum helped make Adventure Time a hit with female viewers, giving girls two distinctive characters to connect with depending on where they fall on the personality spectrum. Marceline is a breezy extroverted rebel with a hipster wardrobe, whereas Princess Bubblegum is the tightly wound nerd who loves control, but also wishes she could cut loose like Marceline. (Hynden Walch and Olson do fantastic work highlighting the characters’ differences in their voice work.) With greater emphasis on romantic plots, season three actively tries to appeal to a female audience, a strategy that is heavily bolstered by the introduction of Fionna (Madeleine Martin) and Cake (Roz Ryan), the gender-swapped versions of the show’s central pair. But these episodes also speak to the importance of individuality and discovering self-worth without needing another person. 

With its bright colors and crisp hand-drawn animation, Adventure Time is incredibly visually stimulating, but it’s equally sharp on the sound front thanks to spectacular voice work and earworm musical sequences. There are few actors that do lovable, yet morally questionable sidekicks like DiMaggio, whose voice work for Jake has the same everyman quality of Futurama’s Bender except it’s far more relaxed and jovial. His carefree happiness makes it even eerier when his dark side comes through, and Jake has shown on multiple occasions the selfish part of him that craves control. Shada’s Finn has a similarly nonchalant attitude, and he excels at capturing Finn’s confusion when he begins to encounter new problems in adolescence. Finn doesn’t have any fellow humans to guide him through the physical and mental changes he’s experiencing, and Shada’s voice work reveals a young man who has no problem fighting monsters in a dungeon, but is racked with fear and uncertainty when it comes to expressing emotions.

Adventure Time has become deeply entrenched in the comedy community for its voice cast, boasting an impressive list of guest stars including Maria Bamford, Andy Samberg, “Weird” Al Yankovic, Marc Maron, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer, Brian Posehn, Paul F. Tompkins, Kumail Nanjiani, and Donald Glover. (One of the show’s most inspired casting choices reunites Bob’s Burgers siblings Kristen Schaal and Dan Mintz as two of Jake’s five children with Lady Rainicorn in season five.) That’s an astounding lineup of talent, and while those names don’t mean much for kid viewers, the involvement of these comedians has helped make Adventure Time a massive hit among adults. 

Beyond television, the Adventure Time brand has expanded to the world of video games and award-winning comic books (Boom’s ongoing Adventure Time series won Eisner and Harvey Awards this year), and it’s a merchandising gold mine, from action figures and school supplies for kids to clothing and tech accessories proudly flaunted by adult fans. Any attendees of Comic-Con International over the past few years have seen the flood of Adventure Time products, and that doesn’t even include everything made by the series’ passionate viewers. There’s a reason this show garners such strong reactions, and this most recent season has had a streak of exceptional cartoons that calls to mind The Simpsons in its heyday. 

There are a lot of similarities between early Simpsons and Adventure Time, from the sprawling casts of Springfield and Ooo to the way both series address down-to-earth human problems while taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by animation. In The Simpsons, that means Homer can protect his son by taking a Wile E. Coyote-style fall down the side of a cliff. In Adventure Time, it means Finn struggles with sexual desire by being in a relationship with a girl who he can’t touch because she’s literally on fire. The Simpsons’ charactershave remained static and frozen in time, but the cast of Adventure Time has had the chance to grow and evolve, creating a captivating emotional narrative to fill the space between fart jokes. These 10 episodes show the steps Adventure Time took to reach that point.

“Memories Of Boom Boom Mountain” (season one, episode 10)
Any episode in season one works as an introduction to these characters and their world, but “Memories Of Boom Boom Mountain” is the closest thing Finn gets to an origin story. It’s the first time the series delves into the past, flashing back to show baby Finn abandoned in the woods, stuck in a pile of his boom boom as others ignore his plight. When Jake’s parents rescued him, Finn vowed to help anyone in need, which causes a lot of problems when he finds himself faced with a growing group of different people who all want different things. It’s a lesson in limitations, but in the end Finn is able to make everyone happy anyway.

“Dungeon” (season one, episode 18)
Gaming is a major inspiration for this series, whether it’s old-school video games (Finn and Jake live with walking, talking handheld videogame system BMO) or tabletop RPGs, and that influence shines through in this episode packed with Dungeons & Dragons references. It’s also a story that reveals how much Finn and Jake rely on each other, following them as they individually venture into the dangerous restricted area because of a bet. There are some great action sequences and horrific visuals courtesy of Finn’s guardian angel, but the highlight of the episode is the Demon Cat (Clancy Brown) with “approximate knowledge of many things,” a hilarious character that sets the bar high for future guest stars.   

“Her Parents” (season two, episode 12)
A major theme of this series is changing one’s identity to become more attractive to others, and there are multiple episodes in the second season that address this idea. Ice King abandons his crusty old self in “Loyalty To The King,” and Finn tries to become a science genius when Princess Bubblegum asks him to speak at her conference in “The Real You.” Jake tries to pass for a rainicorn when Lady Rainicorn’s parents visit, but what makes “Her Parents” stand out is how it expands the history of Ooo by introducing the Rainicorn-Dog Wars. It’s the only mention of this conflict, but it establishes the planet’s war-torn past before The Great Mushroom War is referenced 11 episodes later. 

“A Memory Of A Memory” (season three, episode three)
The third season of Adventure Time quickly moves in a more psychological direction than its predecessors, and this trippy journey through Marceline’s memories provides character insight while fleshing out more of Ooo’s backstory. Like “Her Parents,” this episode is written and storyboarded by Ako Castuera and Tom Herpich, striking a similar balance of mythology, personal drama, and visual spectacle. Finn and Jake travel through Marceline’s memories to find out what is causing her mysterious ailment, which leads to the show’s first glimpses into the dark period after The Great Mushroom War. The drama between Marceline and her ex-boyfriend Ash sets the stage for a season that will spend more time on romance, introducing more mature relationship concepts that will be further explored. 

“Fionna And Cake” (season three, episode nine)
Adventure Time changes its opening sequence for the debut of the gender-swapped versions of Finn and Jake, loudly announcing from the start that this is a genuine event for this series. It’s the most aggressively girl-friendly episode of the series, featuring a musical ride through the clouds ripped from Aladdin and a closing fight scene indebted to Sailor Moon), but it doesn’t sacrifice any humor or action as it caters to female viewers. Through Fionna’s experience with Prince Gumball (a delightful Neil Patrick Harris), the Adventure Time writers considerably expand the show’s fanbase while showing how the series can juggle romance and adventure moving forward. 

“Princess Cookie” (season four, episode 13)
Adventure Time has done a lot of spoofs, including two zombie-movie parodies, a black-and-white crime noir, a Law & Order-style procedural, and a locked-door mystery, but none have been as strong as the hostage crisis drama starring Donald Faison as an orphaned male cookie with a vendetta against Princess Bubblegum. Finn and Jake are sent in as negotiators, and while Finn takes out the cookie’s chocolate-chip henchmen, Jake finds himself sympathizing with the criminal and helps him escape. It’s a tense episode about a cookie whose crushed dreams push him to a life of crime, providing strong character moments for Jake while showing glimpses of Princess Bubblegum’s dark side.

“I Remember You” (season four, episode 25)
Make sure the tissues are handy when watching Adventure Time’s great tearjerker, an episode that builds to a heartbreaking climax that completely changes the relationship of two previously unconnected characters. When Ice King asks Marceline for help writing a song that will make princesses want him, the tune he receives is something far less romantic: a tragic ballad about a man who lost his mind to magic in order to protect a little vampire girl. It’s the first time the audience really gets a sense of the loss and devastation felt by survivors of The Great Mushroom War, and the voice work by Olson and Kenny is exceptional, with Olson capturing all of Marceline’s pain while Kenny’s voice gleefully ignores Ice King’s. He’s gone senile and completely forgotten their time together, but Marceline remembers everything and uses that to mourn the Petrikov she knew—the man who brought her a ratty stuffed animal that became her most prized possession in the world. 

“All The Little People” (season five, episode five)
Adventure Time isn’t afraid to venture into dark places, and this episode showcasing the series’ extensive cast looks at what happens when Finn gets the opportunity to play God. Spoilers: It’s not pretty. When Magic Man drops a bunch of figurines in Finn’s bag, the hero finds himself in control of mini versions of Ooo’s inhabitants and uses them to act out his increasingly disturbing adolescent fantasies. Seeing all those figurines shows just how big the cast of this series has grown over five seasons, and the meta-plotline continues the fifth season’s shift into more experimental territory after the two-part season opener

“A Glitch Is A Glitch” (season five, episode 15)
While Adventure Time’s most experimental episode isn’t a full-fledged triumph, David OReilly’s completely 3-D animated installment reveals just how far outside the box this series is willing to go. It’s the first and only time a single individual takes complete control of the script and animation, putting the world of Ooo through OReilly’s unique filter of glitch video effects and existential, abstract storytelling. The story comes second to the stunning psychedelic CG visuals, and the script ignores much of the show’s character development to bring them back to season-one status for what is essentially an out-of-continuity one-off. It’s an episode that shows how important this show’s regular creative team is to its growth, but also looks at the opportunities afforded by outside voices. 

“Frost & Fire” (season five, episode 30)
The first episode of a three-part mini-arc spotlighting Finn’s romantic issues, “Frost & Fire” features one of this show’s most overt puberty metaphors as Finn starts having sex dreams for the first time. Well, more like intimacy dreams. There’s no physical element to Finn’s relationship with Flame Princess because he’ll get burned if he touches her, but after getting aroused by watching his girlfriend fight Ice King, Finn dreams that Flame Princess engulfs him in flames that don’t burn. It’s a good feeling and he wants more, so he manipulates her into fighting Ice King again, resulting in incredibly animated Dragon Ball Z-style fight sequences between the two elemental fighters. Finn’s lies lead to the destruction of the Ice Kingdom by Kaiju Flame Princess and the end of Finn’s first real romance when his girlfriend finds out what he’s done, teaching him a tough lesson about heartbreak that significantly impacts his adolescent mindset. 

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Evicted!” (season one, episode 12); “What Is Life?” (season one, episode 15); “Guardians Of Sunshine” (season two, episode 16); “Too Young” (season three, episode five); “What Was Missing” (season three, episode 10); “Sons Of Mars” (season four, episode 15); “BMO Noire” (season four, episode 17); “Mystery Dungeon” (season five, episode eight), “Simon & Marcy” (season five, episode 14); “The Vault” (season five, episode 34)

Next: Kevin McFarland hops in the Mystery Machine for 10 episodes of Scooby-Doo.

Filed Under: TV, Adventure Time

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