Over the past several months I’ve been working my way through all of Pendleton Ward‘s Adventure Time, in part because it comes in 11 minute segments that are easy to squeeze into tiny cracks of spare time, but mostly because it’s awesome. There are lots of things to love about it – the humor, the weirdness, the clever allusions to art and literature – but I think the thing I enjoy most is how creatively they play with narrative. Watching all of the ideas they’re able to explore by ignoring the usual boundaries of time, space and consequences makes me realize how limiting conventions can be.
So how to describe Adventure Time? Hmmm. Well, Jake the magic Dog and Finn the Human boy live together in a tree house in the Land of Ooo, where they go on endless adventures, hang out with their friends, and play lots of video games. They also frequently help and are helped by a variety of princesses, including Princess Bubblegum, Hot Dog Princess and Lumpy Space Princess, and spend a great deal of time preventing Ice King from doing pretty much anything Ice King ever wants to do. Many things are never really explained (see above re: playing with narrative), but it doesn’t matter because we’re never set up to expect that they will be. Everything works within the crazy laws of the Candy Kingdom and whenever the writers want to explore something else they can just go to some other world where things work some other way.
For instance, they’ll present a problem that you’d normally expect the characters would have to deal with and Finn or Jake will say, “Should we…? Nah,” or just blow a raspberry and go home to eat sandwiches. Periodically they end episodes with a new problem that the writers never have to solve, and they’ll often resolve an inconsistency between episodes with an offhand remark like ‘Remember when that thing happened? Oh, yeah, and then we had to do this other thing so it’s not like that anymore.’ Usually that would seem like lazy writing to me, but in the context of the show it seems like a clever way of avoiding boring exposition. For instance, when Finn gets obsessed with playing match-maker for magically animated miniature versions of themselves and all their friends, it creeps Jake out so much he goes to stay with his girlfriend and comes back 16 weeks later to find Finn still playing with them.
They also do interesting things within episodes, like a lovely one about a friendship between a snow golem and a baby fire wolf where Jake and Finn have a storyline with the Ice King but you only see it in the background when the golem is walking past so you don’t know what’s going on. Or “Memory of a Memory,” the episode that made me want to write this article, where Marceline the Vampire Queen’s boyfriend tricks Finn and Jake into going inside her head and stealing her memory of him being mean to her so she won’t break up with him, but then Finn takes Marceline inside his head and shows her his memory of her memory, so she remembers what her boyfriend did and breaks up with him anyway.
Sometimes they’ll write something in and explore it for awhile, then write it out again when they’re done. There’s a story arc where Jake’s girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn, is going to have puppies, and since Adventure Time is about Finn and Jake living together in their tree house I kept wondering how they would handle Jake’s responsibilities as a dad. I couldn’t imagine how they were going to make it work, and the answer was that they didn’t even try. Jake is a dad for one 11 minute episode, where it turns out baby rainicorns grow up so fast that they were all already older than Jake and he was back on the sofa with Finn by the end of the episode.
Unlike shows that get off track but grit their teeth and follow the storyline through or clumsily abandon it, Adventure Time makes no pretense that they ever intended to follow through. They just build up, do what they wanted to, and then create some reason why it’s over now so they don’t have to deal with the fallout. It allows them to do pretty much anything they want while avoiding the problem of jumping the shark, because if they go overboard in one episode it’s already within the narrative expectations of the show that they can make it all disappear in the next one.
At the same time, they’re carefully consistent when it comes to character development. The next episode may start in a completely different time or place, but there are emotional consequences and the things that happen to the characters aren’t erased from memory. Having kids changes Jake. He’s still a dad, and his kids show up in his life from time to time, they just grew up and left home really fast. I’m also impressed with their attention to detail, like the way Finn cuts his hair and it painstakingly grows back over the course of seasons. Lots of things in the background stay the same and you never know when something that’s happened before might come up again. It’s like real life, which in my experience is kind of random and not so much a continuous, well-crafted story arc.
Adventure Time is for adults as much as for kids, but another interesting thing about the narrative structure is that it doesn’t address problems in a traditionally adult way. Finn and Jake’s solutions are clever and creative, but often they only work because there are no long-term consequences for the writers. Finn is very concerned with being a hero so the show does deal with ethics, but they’re more wild thing, childhood ethics. It’s the straightforward spit-and-promise morality of kids playing in the forest, which makes sense because Finn and Jake’s lives in the land of Ooo are basically like an endless summer vacation. I think it captures something about being that age better than most adult-written accounts do. Crazy as it is, somehow it’s believably what it would be like if a human boy grew up with a magic dog and no parents.
In the end, I think the reason that Adventure Time is so successful is rooted in how well-written it is. It’s a brilliant combination of bizarrely creative and philosophically clever. The stories have emotional and intellectual depth without being serious, and they’re full of complex characters who, despite being elephants or mad scientist princesses or animated pieces of candy, tend to remind you of people you know. Somewhere around season 4, I realized that Princess Bubblegum is basically my ex-girlfriend if someone ever gave her a kingdom to rule.
Throughout the show, Finn and Jake are true to themselves and each other and they try to do the right thing most of the time, but sometimes they just want to eat sandwiches and hang out on the sofa. Is there anyone who can’t relate to that?
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This is really nice: “Finn is very concerned with being a hero so the show does deal with ethics, but they’re more wild thing, childhood ethics. It’s the straightforward spit-and-promise morality of kids playing in the forest, which makes sense because Finn and Jake’s lives in the land of Ooo are basically like an endless summer vacation. I think it captures something about being that age better than most adult-written accounts do.”
Also, when I think about emotional consequences, I can’t help thinking about how the writers very much let Finn screw up a romantic relationship in a way he cannot come back from. And it’s interesting that while adult sit-coms might flirt with that and adult animation might focus on the tragedy of it, somehow Adventure Time manages it so that it feels very much like how screwing up a relationship or having your relationship screwed up by your partner feels.