There is too much good stuff on television at the moment. Well, when I say television, I really mean streams and torrent sites. There is a lot of shit as well, but it’s easier than ever to just filter it out completely and live in a carefully curated fantasy land where there is no filler, everything is brilliant and Keith Lemon is something you only hear of in passing, like Voldemort.
Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Girls and Louie* are all doing things that television has never done before, bringing filmic production values and close-to-novelistic depth, whilst enabling a much more communal experience than you would get from reading a book (I finished War & Peace two years ago and have discussed it with basically no-one (other than advising people not to read it), after watching an episode of Breaking Bad there is no shortage of people to exchange (mostly justified) hyperbole with).
Despite living in something of a golden age for live-action drama and comedy, I have recently come to the conclusion that the best show currently on television is probably Adventure Time, a simplistically drawn children’s show about a boy who goes on adventures with his magic, stretchy dog.
(2008 Pilot Episode)
To the casual adult onlooker, tidying up the mess of their children as they gormlessly stare at a repeat on Cartoon Network for the 14th time, Adventure Time’s bright and colourful hyperactivity and propensity for characters shouting about maths might initially appear obnoxious. What they would learn if they stopped tidying up for once, and did something useful like paying attention to cartoons, is that Adventure Time is deceptively deep.
Unlike the aforementioned A-list of HBO/AMC adult fare, which use subtle, portentous build-up to make larger points. Adventure Time uses relentless imagination and maximalism to make subtle points about characters’ psychology, romantic/familial relationships and storytelling.
The universe of the show is a weird amalgamation of fantasy/historical epics, Nintendo games, table-top RPG’s, Monty Python’s The Holy Grail and a hint of The Perry Bible Fellowship. The show is partially a parody; completely taking apart the ubiquitous ‘chosen one’ epic quest structure, that is basically the only story that video games and films can be arsed to tell any more. There seems to be an endless amount of completely arbitrary quests that Finn & Jake go on that rarely have any lasting consequence (aside from some Macguffin added into the background of Finn & Jake’s treehouse in subsequent episodes).
Like the best parodies, it is enjoyable even if you aren’t that familiar with what it’s playing upon. There are basically no overt pop cultural references. Some people describe the show as ‘random’, which I increasingly see as a pejorative term, usually meaning that someone has just referenced something obscure from the 80’s (or cheese or spoons or something equally rote). Adventure Time is actually the opposite of random, it is too well designed. The artists behind the show come up with dozens of previously inconceivable characters every episode, use them sparingly and then they are scarcely seen again.
It is also, easily, the funniest show on TV. The lack of limitations and the potential to do almost anything means they frequently go the other way. The show constantly sets up a trope, that you think is going to go one way, only for it to quickly undercut your expectations. This counterintuitive spirit that makes the show so enjoyable is summed up by this end of episode exchange that takes the piss out of stories with tacked-on morals:
Jake: “I’m sorry about what happened, let’s never be stupid again.”
Finn: “Wait; let’s always be stupid, forever!”
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to Adventure Time is that it instantly makes me happy when I see a picture of Finn & Jake, I feel such goodwill towards them. They are a great bunch of lads!
I shall address that matter. The ingenious and subtle way that the back story for the Adventure Time universe is handled, and the shock that you get from slowly realising the nature of the history of the land of Ooo is one of the great pleasures of AT; one I’m careful of spoiling.
I’m going to talk about the tragic aspects of the show, which are addressed most overtly in the Christmas special ‘Holly Jolly Secrets’. If you would rather remain pure, disembark from the tear blog this instant.
HOLLY JOLLY SECRETS
It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that Adventure Time is taking place on earth, in our universe, millions of years in the future after the (human) apocalypse. The point where I suddenly realised what was going on was the final episode of season 2 with the uncovering of the Lich’s lair. I was struck by the fact the entrance looked remarkably like a New York subway entrance, once down there Finn sees ruined trains and fights with the skeletal remains of commuters. It was then that I found out about ‘The Mushroom Wars’ and the extent of the hidden allusions within most episodes, such as detritus from contemporary times like bombed out police cars and empty houses underneath the water.
Once you are aware of the back story, the significance of the first shot of every episode becomes clearer. In the credit sequence the first image is a load of bombed out wreckage, nuclear bomb casings and bones. The camera then pans away so quickly you don’t think to dwell on it because soon you’re looking at the bright colourful land of Ooo with all the penguins and Marceline and the catchy theme song.
This aspect of the show is so obvious when you finally notice it, but you can easily watch all the episodes and not pick up on it. I doubt many children who watch the show will be fully aware of the nature of AT’s universe. What is exciting is that a lot of kids will grow up seeing the show one way; then as they get older they will begin to understand the dark history that underpins it, renewing their appreciation.
Creator Pendleton Ward has said that they will never address ‘The Mushroom Wars’ directly in the show. The history of the Land of Ooo is going to be slowly drip-fed for the show’s duration but never dealt with definitively. Which I am very pleased about, because that is the perfect way to do it.
Holly Jolly Secrets concerns Finn & Jake discovery of a stash of (their impotent arch-enemy) the Ice King’s VHS tapes, on which he records his video diaries, his weird monologues and dreams.
In the pilot episode, The Ice King is designed to be an incredibly generic villain who Finn & Jake face off against. Over the course of the series he develops into, probably, the most psychologically complex character ever to have appeared on a children’s tv show. Voiced by Tom Kenny (who also voices SpongeBob), The Ice King inappropriately kidnaps all the different Princesses (of which there are a seemingly endless variety) in a permanently doomed effort to get one to marry him. He has a constantly shifting mental state, and oscillates between sometimes seeing Finn & Jake as his best friends and frequently as his enemies. The fact that he is clearly mentally ill is touched upon, one episode shows a glimpse of what the Ice King sees with his “Wizard Eyes,” his vision clouded with a vast array of bizarre creatures and imagery.
I think it is interesting to see Finn, Jake and the Ice King on a continuum of the inevitable evolution of manhood. Finn represents the innocence, self-belief and naivety of childhood; Jake represents adulthood as he is more worldly than Finn and supports him with his extensive abilities; The Ice King represents the senile irrelevance of old age.
One of the videos in the Ice King’s collection reveals the sequence of events that led to him becoming the deranged villain he is. It is poignant to a degree I never could have anticipated from the show when I first discovered it.
The references to Scandinavia and the plane flying past the window in the background show that The Ice King used to be a part of the world pre-apocalypse; and that his obsession with marrying a princess is just a psychological remnant of his love for his (presumably long dead) ‘princess Betty’ before he was driven insane by his cursed crown. What is so amazing about this scene and it’s ramifications for the show, is that it makes rewatching so many previous episodes with the Ice King more terrifying and sad. He used to be a normal person, but his mind has unraveled. He continues to live on, relentlessly making a fool of himself, with no remaining trace of who he was originally. Not many children’s shows have a character that is a metaphor for dementia.
What is exciting is that Adventure Time surely still has years left to run (pending on how deep the boy who does Finn’s voice becomes). I am looking forward to seeing how they explore the rest of the characters and the history of the land they have set up. The best thing about Adventure Time is that despite all the dark elements, and the sad things you know about the land and its characters; the show seems to have an almost inexhaustive supply of invention and humour. It’s hard to dwell on the sadness of the show too much when just looking at a picture of Finn and Jake makes me very happy.
*Annoyingly USA/New York focused list. I think the only UK show I’ve loved this year was Grandma’s House series 2, The Thick Of It is warming up nicely though.