Many people think of me as somewhat of a “prickly pear” as it were. I’m not someone who generally tends to enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them. I think that My Little Pony is bad for you and rots your brain. Mario is mostly a platformer that doesn’t control particularly well. Twee things like Wes Anderson movies make me cringe and feel as though my soul has been dipped in battery acid. Even though all of this, I cannot help but love Adventure Time; something about it has a sort of undeniable charm.
I’ve spent the last several weeks watching the show with an obsessive fervor I tend to reserve for reading Chuck Klosterman novels and making people on the Internet feel bad about the things that they like (seriously, The Big Bang Theory is just nerdface.) I’ve sat down to try and figure out what makes the show so damn enjoyable. For the uninitiated (see also: people who aren’t twelve, stoned, or both) Adventure Time is a show that follows a boy, Finn and his anthropomorphic, shape-shifting dog, Jake as they have “adventures” in their fantasy Land of Ooo… throughout “time.” It seems like fairly normal stuff, when put in the context of a children’s show, really. None of the characters, at first glance, seem as though they would be out of place in any other children’s program. And that’s the first way in which Adventure Time begins to charge headfirst in front of it’s competition.
Many years ago, like many nerdy white kids approximately my age and older, I enjoyed SpongeBob SquarePants more than just about any other show on television. It was frightfully silly, and actually demanded quite a bit from its audience, especially compared to other shows at the time. Plankton, in particular, was a character who seemed to have a certain amount of depth. Sure, he was the villian, but there was something else there. You actually had a certain amount of sympathy for him. He wasn’t all bad, and in the first season there is an episode called “F.U.N.” where he’s shown to have simply never had any friends. He never knew how to have fun, to be loved, or even love. It’s really a tender moment, encapsulated within a very silly 11 or so minutes. Spongebob’s betrayal feels genuine, but not to the point that the episode loses its comedic punch. It was a fascinating peak into what animation can do, so long as it’s got strong writing to back it up. Sadly, this approach was dropped quickly and by the third or so season, we’re left with this. MISTER CRABS IS CHEAP. I GET THAT JOKE. FOOD THAT’S BEEN SPAT OUT DOESN’T BELONG IN SPONGEBOB’S MOUTH. Or something. I don’t know. Watching that made me depressed.
It’s this most important moment where Adventure Time takes the time to break away from the pack. In its first few episodes, we meet a few side characters here and there. Their back-story is hinted at, but never stated implicitly. I started to think that the show was nothing more than Finn occasionally walking around speaking auto-tuned. Which, might I add, is a spectacularly stupid bit, that kind of works, but I digress. Marceline is a vampire queen, and at first, she’s evil and kind of a dick, plainly put. She doesn’t even seem to have a reason for being a dirtball, she just steals Finn and Jake’s house, tortures an old man, and does other dastardly things. Then, season two starts off with a bang. In it, Finn goes over to Marceline’s house to help her lay down a sick track. Rather than it holding the phat hip hop beat that Finn lays down, she dejectedly sings about how she feels as though her father doesn’t love her. I’m not kidding, the first season is almost entirely jokes based around being weird and silly, and then they jump right into “hey I have unrequited love for my father.” Heavy stuff.
Then a few episodes later Finn almost dies due to the fact that Jake attempts to excise the fear of his (seemingly) abusive father. Then there’s Marceline’s emotionally abusive boyfriend, former friends confronting past grievances, the death of a best friend, mental illness, and more. Rarely have I seen any television show try and tackle Alzheimer’s disease, much less a silly kid’s show.
And that’s not to say that it’s all a depression-fest. No, it’s much more like real life than that. You’re supposed to have ups and downs. There are times when the show stings. I’m not afraid to admit that one episode, “I Remember You “(this is not the entire episode, I recommend watching it in its entirety rather than just watching the song!) There’s an episode where Finn swallows a “little computer” and then he can sing auto-tuned for the rest of the episode. Ice King, the chief villain of the series, tries to hire a hit-man to literally “hit” Finn and Jake. Hotdog knights being stupid, because of course hotdog knights are stupid. Out of context, I admit that these kinds of things might seem silly, but it’s the earnest way with which these jokes are presented. No attention is drawn to them. They just happen. Party bears. They’re bears that love to party. In the stomach of a beast monster. Because, like the stupid hot dog knights, of course they party in a stomach. They’re party bears.
Going along with that, there’s the way in which some of the implicit story beats are presented. Rarely are thing that relate to anything but the central plot spelled out overtly. The Land of Ooo may or may not be Earth following the Great Mushroom War. Through some sleuthing, you can find stills from episodes like this one that appears to be Earth with a massive crater on the side of it. There are also moments where newspaper clippings show up, books that hint at history, the implication that Finn’s the last human ever, and Martian Lord Abraham Lincoln. Ya know, normal stuff.
Speaking of things that have become normal over the course of the series that I thought would push me away from the show, characters in the show sing. Like really often. I’m usually pushed away from the twee things, so the singing bit is something that I grew to love. There’s a quote that I found for this very spot here that I cannot find so, “Singing is for when a character can no longer restrain themselves’ emotionally. It just comes bursting forth.” -Abraham Lincoln. You get the gist. And it’s something that, at first, the show doesn’t necessarily accomplish. Sure characters sing and it’s catchy, but they don’t do it for a good reason. They’ll just be walking along and start singing. Sure it’s infectious and fun, but it doesn’t really build into anything. It’s the thing that Spongebob’s “F.U.N.” nailed just over a decade ago.
Characters aren’t singing to pass the time, to take up a minute of screen time, they’re doing it to actually let themselves go, to become free from the constraints of the situation at hand. It changes from making bacon pancakes , to a character growing to understand that his love for someone much older than he is will be forever unrequited. That’s not to say that bacon pancakes isn’t fun or catchy, it is! Combined bacon pancakes has many millions of views, and it’s just sort of a throw-away joke in the middle of an episode. Adventure Time properly shines when the songs go deeper than that. When the songs that they sing are borderline heartbreaking and earnest. They’re sometimes real in a way in which people rarely are.
All of this is sort of the theme of the entire show. It’s not just about the terrific cast, writers, and art design. It’s not the fact that they’ve got a gender-swapped fan-fiction-based episode. It’s not that I find myself wondering what Freud would have to say about all of their storylines. It’s much more than that. It’s about being able to relate to the show. There’s a reason that the show is such a resounding success, not just with the kids watching it, but the parents and people like myself, who might otherwise consider themselves just a bit too old to actually sink their teeth into the show.
It’s about evoking a strong feeling of what it was like to be a kid. In the most recent episode, a porcupine tries to shove it’s spikes into Finn’s bottom, thinking that this will allow Finn to be propelled to the top of the tree. This is, of course, utterly ridiculous and will never work, but I can guarantee that you or someone you know wound up breaking some limb at one point or other jumping off of a roof using an umbrella, thinking that it’ll slow your descent. The show is supposed to remind you of being young, unrestrained. You tried stupid things constantly. You went on an adventure. You were always the hero of your own tale. It was full of glee.
But not always. I fell in “love” with a girl significantly older than I was, without knowing how or why. Only later coming to realize that it’d never be. The loss of friends, family. The story of a character losing his mind slowly to creeping dementia was something that I knew was upsetting at the time, but not why. No one bothered to explain it to me. I get the emotional brunt of it, without getting any of the explanation as to why. It might as well have been a magical crown, for all I knew.
Adventure Time isn’t just a story. It’s my story, and yours too if you let it be.