Both starting out as animated shorts created for short-lived showcase anthologies, both Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time and J.G. Quintel's Regular Show have become quite popular as part of the Cartoon Network's prime-time lineup. Representing something of a third wave of programming for the network, the shows -- a blend of the colorful, hyperkinetic animated style of the 1980s and the frenetic, anything-for-a-laugh comedy of the 1990s -- appeal to a somewhat different audience than anime or late-night stoner cartoons.
While they share with the Adult Swim lineup a tendency to feature rapid-fire, surrealist jokes, Adventure Time and Regular Show skew somewhat younger, in sensibility if not in age. They're definitely more like kid's shows than most of the late-night lineup, though run through a grown-up sensibility; they almost have a young-adult feel; they're for people too sophisticated for kid's shows, but who don't think 'adult cartoon' has to mean constant drugs, sex and violence. Of course, the retro appeal shouldn't be ignored. Adventure Time, in particular, often plays like a Dungeons & Dragons game (geeks will no doubt appreciate the 3.5-inspired logo of the show) run by a 13-year-old on a massive sugar high.
Tonight's episode, "The Eyes", certainly plays that way in its start and end; it begins with Finn & Jake recounting a week's worth of fantasy adventures (including when "we helped Peppermint Butler with his goblin problem") which has left them both exhausted, and ends with a magical battle with the unloved and underpowered Ice King, voiced by Tom Kenny. But it's the middle third that best shows off Adventure Time's resemblance to the classic Warner Bros. cartoons of the past, and illustrates that however much it might be padded to reach 15 minutes, it works best when it mines the area where absurdism and physical humor meet.
The adventuring pair, you see, can't sleep because they're being constantly stared at by a goofy-looking horse (inspired by the Fat Pony character created by the wonderful indie cartoonist Kate Beaton). The more they try to get rid of it, the more persistent it becomes, until Jake just decides they should kill it. It's this section that mines the most laughs: Finn seems to believe that diplomats speak in Shakespearean English; Jake uses some hilarious musical cues in his attempt to charm the horse away by playing the violin; and a scene where its eyes inflate and it makes a deflating-balloon sound for no reason gave me the biggest laugh of the episode.
All of which is to show that simpler is often better, but Regular Show sometimes seems a bit too simple. With its washed-out PBS animation colors and clever character design, it has a great look, but its rhythm, sensibility, and jokes are a good couple of years behind that of Adventure Time. Which isn't to say it's pure kid's stuff, but it plays a lot more like a show for clever children than adults looking for a nostalgic dose of fun. in "Grilled Cheese Deluxe", Mordecai and Rigby, after stealing Benson's grilled cheese sandwich, get into a lying competition that naturally spirals into chaos as they pretend to be astronauts to get preferential treatment. (The episode also delivers an entirely different burst of '80s nostalgia, in the form of a lengthy musical montage set to the Thompson Twins' "Lies".) It's got some very funny moments, and some great voice work -- including some by cartoon powerhouse Mark Hammill -- but it lacks the reckless kinetic genius of its lead-in, and most of the jokes are pretty predictable for a grown-up sensibility, making it a show that really is more for a young audience who aren't as likely to get bored by the fattening up of a thin premise.
Still, it's hard to imagine a better complement to the winning Adventure Time; it's a gap in animated programming that no one else seems interested in filling, and it should be a success with its intended audience, even though the scheduling is a bit questionable. (Then again, kids nowadays have their own TVs, not to mention computers, so I supposed it shouldn't seem odd to direct programming at them during the peak of prime time.) With these shows, the Cartoon Network may be laying the foundation for fondly remembered animated entertainment that today's kids will be talking about on whatever replaces the internet, 15 years from now.
Rating: B+ (Adventure Time); B- (Regular Show).
- "You're creepin' me the math out."
- "Uh, yeah, I know, Finn. I diagnosed this horse with wacked-out poo-brain five minutes ago."
- "Oh, my grodd!"
- "It's none of your business how nude I sleep, Ice King!"
- "I bought it. With money." "Nice."
- "That's a moon quarter."
- "I hope you're up for spending $2.5 million in taxpayer money, because we're driving!"