Mar 17, 2014

Adventure Time: Season Five

By Josh Oakley

Adventure Time may be the most ambitious program on television, with no qualifier of its genre or network necessary. In its long, constantly mutating fifth season, the show grasped at numerous styles, themes and emotions, consistently delivering great stories and wonderful experiments. With 52 episodes, it’s a little unruly to try and take as a single piece, so let’s look at some of the best facets of the show as it matured and deepened while remaining visually inventive and hilarious.

The Emotional
Examples: “Simon & Marcy”, “Bad Timing”, “Sky Witch”

Given my predilection for tear-jerkers, this may be my favorite subsection of Adventure Time episodes. Of course, almost no episode falls squarely into one camp. “Simon & Marcy” dips into the world-building of post-war Earth, and “Bad Timing” focuses on someone normally only seen as a side character, LSP. But these episodes in particular dig into an emotional maturity rare on even the most acclaimed programs. See the end of “Bad Timing”: Johnny watches from a parallel dimension as his true love forgets his existence. As he fades away, his head hung low, Princess Bubblegum pours a drink in an empty bar. It’s a haunting story, one that explores the psychology behind LSP’s habit of obsessing over a man. “Simon & Marcy” comes from the acclaimed story of Ice King’s origins, back when he was a human named Simon. This tragic tale began in season three’s “Holly Jolly Secrets”, where the Ice King’s desperate need for companionship began to grow a bitter edge (while remaining quite funny, thanks to Tom Kenny’s great voice work). The season four stunner “I Remember You” introduced his connection to Marceline, and “Simon & Marcy” digs even deeper. The use of Cheers as a cultural reference brilliantly becomes the emotional core of the episode. Adventure Time never overdoes its attempts at developing a deep, sad heart, and that makes these glimpses that much more impactful.

The Thematic
Examples: “Puhoy”, “Frost & Fire”, “Jake the Dad”

One of the most ambitious angles of this fifth season was Adventure Time’s deliberate focus on the aging of its central characters Finn & Jake. The idea of dog years meaning that Jake would age faster could be a joke, but it’s played fairly straight, at least thematically. Jake has concerns such as his wife and children. Finn, on the other hand, is experiencing puberty in the context of a world that doesn’t have parents and teachers to explain what exactly is going on. “Frost & Fire” is about, at least to some degree, sex dreams, as Finn doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on in his body when he thinks of Flame Princess and Ice King fighting. His obsession with this turn-on leads to the dissolution of his relationship. There are lessons here, some subtle and some less so, about what it means to become an adult. Some of these ideas revolve around the responsibility Finn has as a hero, but others focus on him as a person, and the baggage that the body and the heart intrinsically bring. “Puhoy” is a fascinating episode of television, one that looks at what Finn’s future could be. Seeing this glimpse of an older Finn gives more weight to the actions he takes in the present. Adventure Time often pivots between the past, present and future of the land of Ooo, but Finn’s future, as a solitary being, is given just as much importance here.

The Side-Characters
Examples: “Be More”, “Root Beer Guy”, “Lemonhope”

Finn and Jake are a great pair of friends at the center of Adventure Time. Then there’s the second tier of characters, those like Princess Bubblegum and Ice King, who are often given focus. But one of the advantages of animation that the show utilizes perfectly is the ability to have a wildly expansive cast. Occasionally the show will spend an entire episode with these figures, whether it’s establishing a new face like in “Root Beer Guy”, or giving the origin story of a more consistent figure like BMO in “Be More”. “Lemonhope” may have been the show’s biggest triumph in this sense. We see so little of any of the main players of the show and are left with yet another character looking for their own definition. This episode proves that while the lead cast is terrific, what makes Adventure Time truly great is that the world and sensibility is so established that it can take a sharp detour and still feel of a piece with the rest of the show.

The Inventive
Examples: “Shh!”, “A Glitch is a Glitch”, “Five More Short Graybles”

That ability to pivot yet retain a familiar atmosphere may be even more obvious in the show’s rare but engrossing episodes that play with structure or form. The “Grayble” entries don’t always work, and adhere to a somewhat familiar anthology template, but the bookends and puzzle-based nature still give them an air of originality. “A Glitch is a Glitch” is a visual departure, tapping into the aesthetic of glitch art, much more common in weird corners of the Internet than children’s cartoons. “Shh!” is one of my favorite episodes the show’s ever done. By stripping Finn and Jake of the ability to speak, the visual jokes are emphasized, like when Jake explores a previously unseen world hidden in the walls. I hope the sixth season of Adventure Time has even more visual indulgences. They don’t always produce the show’s best episodes, but they’re often unlike anything else on television.

The Funny
Examples: “Candy Streets”, “We Fixed a Truck”, “James Baxter the Horse”

Despite all of these avenues that Adventure Time has conquered, it’s never forgotten to be funny. Even the darker episodes are hilarious, and on top of that the show often takes breaks from its weightier subjects to solely focus on the humor. “Candy Streets” is a parody of Law & Order, something that should feel overdone at this point. But placing those tropes in the fantastical world of Ooo is magnificent, and shines a light on how ridiculous both this show and cop shows often are. The language of Adventure Time helps this, whether it’s the visual language of oddly built sentient beings, or the slang tossed around by the characters (maybe my favorite new saying from this season: “What the Bjork!?”). Then there’s episodes like “James Baxter the Horse” which are able to tap into a unique reserve of confounding oddity. Ooo operates on a completely distinct internal logic, and the use of that logic informs much of the great humor of the show. Also, the magnificent John DiMaggio’s vocal work as Jake never hurts.

The Mythology-Building
Examples: “The Vault”, “Blade of Grass”, “Billy’s Bucket List”

The final image we get from this season of Adventure Time is the silhouette of a creature that may indeed be another human being. And not only that: this human seems to be Finn’s biological father. “Billy’s Bucket List” is just as much about emotional catharsis as it is concerned with opening new paths, but that cliffhanger is a doozy. The mythology of Adventure Time often arrives in dribs and drabs. At the end of “Lemonhope”, the title character walks through a futuristic, abandoned Candy Kingdom. In “Puhoy” we glimpse yet another hint that Finn’s arm, currently adorned with a magic sword from “Blade of Grass”, is not long for this world. Rarely does the show drop major mythological developments, but this seems to be the new standard for season premieres/finales. The opening of season five saw alternate universes that lent some explanation to the main narrative, and “Billy’s Bucket List” hints that even more changes are on the horizon. I don’t know if we’ll ever get a full explanation of every mystery that the show has begun, but it looks like season six will have more to say about Finn’s arm and the existence of other humans.

To attempt to tie the beginning to the end here, as we learn more about Ooo, it only seems to grow more tragic. This may be a kid’s fantasy, full of monsters to battle and princesses to befriend, but the underlying truth is that Ooo only exists because some apocalypse destroyed what came before. This sadness rarely pervades the actual show, but it can often be hard to shake even in the funniest episodes. The world of Adventure Time has always been captivating and expansive. Yet this fifth season was able to take that framework and construct new settings, characters and stories that now seem limitless. This is one of the great shows on TV at the moment because it’s a dozen different shows stuffed seamlessly into one.  Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, but sometimes you’d rather be whisked off to somewhere you could have never imagined.

Grade: A

  • According to the commercial after the episode, we’ll be getting new Adventure Time in April. Thank god, because I don’t know how long I could sit on that last minute of “Billy’s Bucket List” without going crazy from the possibilities.
  • Or, as Finn said: “’Tell Finn that thing.’ Well that’s gonna bother me forever.”

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