Ice Kings whose hearts escape and attempt to marry other unwilling hearts. A lumpy purple space princess sporting a wonderfully distorted voice. Unicorn wyrms that only speak in Korean—unless they’ve got a translator that makes them sound like an old man. And then there are our stars: Jake the dog and Finn the human, labels that prove necessary because in the Land of Ooo being human is rare and dogs are orange talking BFFs who also have the ability to shape-shift… because yeah. That’s a thing. I’m halfway through the first season of Adventure Time and I feel like I'm watching five continuous hours of someone’s heavily medicated fever dream.
It’s utterly fantastic.
On the surface there’s nothing to distinguish Adventure Time from any other oddball cartoon. Sure, Finn and Jake go on strange adventures with an equally strange supporting cast of friends and foes, but c’mon. You’re talking to a 90s kid. I grew up on a potent mix of CatDog, Rocko’s Modern Life, SpongeBob SquarePants, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and the utter trauma that was Ren and Stimpy. To say nothing of the anime I threw in there during Cartoon Network's Toonami block and the Adult Swim I was devouring long after my parents had gone to bed. I am well acquainted with weird, thank you very much. So why do I feel continuously off balance while watching Adventure Time?
Because it is a dream, in the sense that it follows a dream’s incredibly warped, unstable logic. Nearly every episode of Adventure Time drops you into a situation that is neither explained nor justified. For example, in “My Two Favorite People” we find Finn and Jake fighting a cat scientist who casts spells—turning Jake into a half dog butterfly—and a sentient shark wielding a sword who walks upright on two fins. Combat occurs at exactly 4:00pm every day and Jake is looking forward to when he finally manages to cut off both their heads. But don’t worry. They’ll grow them back in time for the next fight at 4:00pm tomorrow. This cold open (if we dare call it that) is almost entirely tangental to the rest of the episode’s plot. There’s a tiny hop skip in how it’s used to generate exposition on Jake’s current love life, but for the most part it just… exists. It’s just there. In the following episode titled “Memories of Boom Boom Mountain” Jake is faced with a number of beings who have problems as strange as their features: ogre-like marauders who want to keep roughhousing even though a nearby mountain doesn’t like watching that, mushrooms who are desperate to dance, an ice cube whose bathing water is too cold, cacti who want to pollinate, a dragon whose butt is itchy but he can’t reach it… Jake manages to solve all their problems through a cause and effect system that’s held together by crazy string and imagination glue, as only a cartoon can manage. While tying a number of ducks to a marauder’s hand Finn announces that now hitting his friends will be “like punching a dream!”
Even weird-ass shows like SpongeBob have consistent logic and pretty standard narrative arcs. SpongBob is horrified that he forgot pickles on a sandwich. He experiences a severe loss of confidence in his patty making abilities. He realizes the customer was tricking him the whole time. We return to the status quo. There are weird details along the way, but the actual order of events and the morals they’re meant to impart are pretty standard. Not so with Adventure Time. There are morals, yes, but they’re not imparted in any usual way. Let’s take a closer look at one of my favorite episodes so far: “The Jiggler.” Let’s really take a moment to break this down.
We begin with a shot of some sort of castle on fire in the distance. Is this the source of the episode’s conflict? No. Jake and Finn are already leaving that behind. Rather than give in to answering the most pressing questions—Why is there screaming? Why is everything on fire?—the episode focuses on a song that Finn is singing instead. For about a minute (so a full tenth of the episode) we listen to,
I know what you need
You want your little baby socks...
for your little baby feet!
I know what you crave,
You want to poop your pants all day long,
well baby behave!
while Jake interjects with comments between each line. All of this is sung in an electronic autotune voice. Jake asks how Finn can do that and we’re teased with an answer, “Remember that time I swallowed a computer?” No. Of course we don’t remember because we haven’t seen that. We’re left to fill in the How? and the Why? and the What? all on our own.
Arriving at a tiny house Finn leaves the watermelon and various other fruit he’s been carrying by the door, admonishing “Stanley” for needing to be saved again, presumably from that fire. Notably though Stanley and the other fruits don’t respond, animate, or have any features drawn on them. They appear to just be a normal (if slightly charred) pile of fruit. We assume that they’re sentient… though we see no evidence of that besides our protagonists holding a one-sided conversation and the fact that they apparently own a house. By episode six Adventure Time knows that we’ve grown used to weird characters—clouds, candy people, cute green blobs—and is very much subverting that assumption here. You expect the watermelon to have a personality and crudely drawn features?
Sorry. We’re all about the unexpected.
As the episode continues Jake and Finn encounter a… thing that is attracted to their singing. It really is a thing. I’m pretty sure we don’t have a word for this precise creature.
Finn and Jake call him the Jiggler though and decide to take him home. Because after ten seconds of dancing together he’s a “pal for life.” This is one of the joys of Adventure Time; it understands how its target audience thinks. Kids really are that straightforward. We met on the playground? We’re friends now! Yay! From a child’s perspective it’s entirely logical that this is the direction the episode heads in and admittedly from here on out there’s something resembling structure. The three new pals dance the day away in a montage of animation that I find enthrallingly creative. There’s noodle limbs and handstands and the breaking of furniture; splitting toothbrush’s in half for hygiene’s sake and Finn curling on the end of his bed like a dog so Jiggler can have the pillow—with the real dog, Jake, passed out downstairs. As the episode continues the boys slowly realize that the Jiggler is getting sick and they need to find some way to help him. Straight forward conflict, right? Except what’s actually said is,
Jake: Slam-a-cow! That fool looks rumped.
Finn: What do you mean?
Yes, Jake. What do you mean? That’s an entirely nonsensical string of words that rely entirely on context to even begin to make sense of them. The point though is that the Jiggler doesn’t look good. So let’s feed him purple whatevers! Meaning grapes. Why won’t Finn use their name? Again, we don’t know, but I find the concept of him eating grapes at all within an episode where fruit may or may not be sentient incredibly disturbing. Especially when Finn lists a number of foods the Jiggler might like and includes Stanley the watermelon.
(Someone protect Stanley.)
Grapes aren’t well received? We’ll feed Jiggler drawings instead, and what starts as a fun revelation quickly devolves as Jake balks at the idea of Jiggler eating a drawing of him. He eats the drawing himself saying, “I taste awesome.” The boys try dancing some more—“Go nuts, Jiggler! Go nuts like there’s bugs on your butts!”—but he starts spraying pink liquid everywhere, horrifying Finn with the fact that he might be dying. This long scene alternates between humor and what edges towards something like horror, the Jiggler gray and limp as he desperately tries to keep whistling, Finn letting out raw shrieks of despair that actually succeed in making me uneasy. All he can think to do is kiss the Jiggler over and over, one of the many ways Adventure Time happily undercuts Western gender norms. Why shouldn’t a boy express love for his friend?
By the time they think to return the Jiggler to where they found him—aided by a picture made out of multicolored kisses smooched across the boys’ wooden floor—the episode is nearly over. All that’s left to do is re-introduce the Jiggler to his mother using the pink liquid she sits in, since by now he no longer smells like home. Before realizing this Finn has an emotional outburst at the mother’s rejection: “Why doesn’t she love him? I love him. You love him. It’s not fair! Mama’s supposed to love Baby. She’s supposed to love Baby!” and braves her techno-wrath for the sake of his friend. Throwing the Jiggler like a deflated balloon into the juice leads to a happy end and we’re left with the episode’s moral that Finn will “never kidnap again.”
Which is a pretty damn weird moral.
See what I mean though? Under the veneer of plot Adventure Time feels like a dream, meandering from one weird place to another with only very tenuous bits of logic holding things together. It’s the embodiment of its opening, moving from ice caps to rolling plains, through dark forests into candy lands and a tree that’s a house rather than an actual treehouse… There’s very little internal logic to Adventure Time’s world which all-in-all is an excellent creative choice. After all, if your story is bound by no laws other than “and then this cool thing happened” then you’re free to write anything—absolutely anything at all. Want the boys to look for treasure in icebergs and find a bunch of trapped businessmen instead? Sure. That can be a thing. What about an elephant friend that explodes after eating the apple of her dreams? Why not! Trying to reconstruct an episode is like trying to explain to your friend why you were dreaming about being naked in math class and then suddenly everyone had pancakes for heads, syrup dripping down their shoulders. Wait. You’re not following? It’s because math is right before lunch and I’m always hungry. This totally makes sense. Keep up, Susan.
One of the reasons why this instability works so well though is because there’s stability elsewhere in the story. Cartoons, to put it simply, have become staggeringly more complex in the last decade. If you watch any of my childhood shows you’ll note that each episode is its own, self-contained text. There’s consistency in terms of characterization—Squidward is depressed and cynical, Patrick is an idiot, Mr. Krabs loves his money—but that consistency comes at the cost of no one ever changing. By the end of the episode things are back to normal and those events rarely, if ever, have an impact on future episodes. It’s why you can watch any episode of SpongeBob and never get lost. However, we saw changes occurring in television more broadly from the 60s to the mid 2000s, moving from things like Original Series Star Trek where everyone reset by the episode’s end to Star Trek: Discovery where there are multiple narrative arcs spanning the whole season. Creators are beginning to realize that modern kids can handle that same structure. Nowadays we have shows like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe, fantasy tales that yes, tell a silly story each week, but also inch towards a larger conflict that will be resolved by the series’ end. Gravity Falls isn’t just a collection of short stories revolving around siblings who spend the summer with their weird uncle, it’s also the story of how two kids help mend a broken family and in the process fend off a dream demon hell bent on taking control of their reality. Similarly, Steven Universe can absolutely be read as a show about a kid going on whacky adventures with his adopted space moms because yes, from week to week that’s largely what we’re watching. But the show also has some of the best world building I’ve ever seen, throwing us into the politics of an alien race, showing us the devastating effects of a drawn-out war, and questioning what responsibility (if any) the next generation has in fixing their parents’ mistakes—to say nothing of the absolutely phenomenal foreshadowing. This is the genre of shows that Adventure Time rests in, one where there’s so much more going on beneath the surface, more than you’d guess based on the butt jokes and whacky animation. It’s the kind of show that demands that you stick with it. Anyone (particularly anyone already under the impression that cartoons can’t be appreciated by adults) is likely to watch one episode and sneer because honestly, what’s the point of all this? The one willing to give a full season a chance is going to understand that the point is patience. No, that fart joke might not be aimed at anyone out of elementary school, but the development of the characters’ relationships is. The child is going to look at a strange getup like this and laugh because it’s silly and weird and weird is good--
---but the adult is more likely to put those odd stylistic choices in a mental back pocket and then feel a rush of satisfaction when we see this a hundred and seven episodes later.
(Goddamn, Rebecca Sugar)
This is what I’m waiting for with Adventure Time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving these dream-like plot-lines and the charming characterization of Finn and his friends, but I’m also well aware that eventually elements will start stitching together into something better appreciated by an older audience. I’m not blind. You can’t browse fandom spaces during the eight years a show is on air and not pick up on a few things. There are beloved moments I can’t wait to see within the show’s context and mysteries whose answers I’ve thankfully managed to avoid. I know there’s depth to this show—even if its innovative structure hadn't told me that already.
283 episodes with the final one airing just a few days ago. Adventure Time’s end is what finally kicked me into high gear and got me watching. I recommend that you do the same. After all, who doesn’t love a good story about a boy and his dog?
No matter how wonderfully weird the rest of it might be.