DISCLAIMER – I am not responsible for spoilers you read towards the end of this.
Serialized cartoons are one of those things that, in context of society, never really has secured an especially good foothold, except by the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia that everyone in the Goddamned universe has. While I have fond memories of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers, they weren't especially story-driven cartoons, and usually ended in wacky hijinks with a non-ending that did little besides maintain the status quo. Shredder and Megatron ended half of their episodes pointing off with a cry of, “Decepticons, retreat!” as if to whisk away before anybody died permanently.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has its own charms, but aside from the season premiers, never ascends to much more beyond simply being cute and fun. Not that it's a bad thing – that's what it's comfortable with, and I like it as it is. There's been a chain of successful cartoons that can carry excellent story, most notably in absolutely Goddamn anything Bruce Timm comes up with, or my personal favorite, Beast Wars, but they frequently lack the ability to be as funny or charming as the former. Up until Adventure Time, I didn't think it was possible to combine the two into a single cartoon. I have been proven wrong.
Season 1 felt like any other ordinary cartoon, at least at first. I've seen plenty of cartoons that were equally as wacky, though lacked in the imagination department, and if nothing else the constant introducing of bizarre elements was what kept me going, such as the Knife Storm (where it rains downward-pointing knives). But after about twenty episodes I was starting to note that, as goofy as this show could be, the established world rules from previous episodes carried on without so much as a hiccup.
In one episode, Jake the Dog and his girlfriend Lady Rainicorn are spending a romantic evening, and while he plays the violin his girlfriend turns all sort of buildings and objects random colors (non AT fans - just go with it, this sort of thing is normalized after a while). It started off as a one off joke, but when Jake has to meet Lady's parents and he acts like a rainicorn to impress them, they suggest playing traditional rainicorn games, which turn out to be changing the color of things nearby.
It's only one example, too. Lady Rainicorn only speaks Korean through the first season, but the in later episodes not only does Jake write letters to the rainicorns in Korean, but once he even cooks Korean food and said, "My girlfriend taught me how to make this."
The resulting fusion of a gag-driven, zany show with a world built with such well-established continuity, while simultaneously making all appearances of just making shit up on the spot and rolling with it, is something that I have honestly never seen before. The only thing that strikes me as anything close is MS Paint Adventure's ludicrously huge webcomic/adventure game...thing, Homestuck. But even that feels like an ill-fitted comparison, since Homestuck doesn't occasionally end with a non-sequitur fart, and the idea that he's really planning it is a dubious one at best.
The sight gags cement this even more soundly. Frequently, one-off gags are tossed out, such as skeletons tucked into the corner of Princess Bubblegum's study. They appear and are gone before you even have a chance to react, and always cement the kind of absurd goofiness. That's not even to mention half of the jokes that I cannot believe they get away with. “This'll be easy as...hm. Dunno what it'll be like, but it'll be easy!” “Yeah, as easy as childbirth!”
I think the main thing that attracts me so much to Adventure Time is surprising amount of wordless storytelling. I've spoken at length on this subject before, most notably at the triumph of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's, so it comes as no surprise. From the intro to simple scenery art to entire episodes, it makes it clear – Adventure Time is post-apocalypse. Ruined 20th century objects litter the scenery everywhere, and even Jake makes mention of it in one episode when they sit to watch a movie. “These are all from before the Mushroom War!”
The most standout episode is when Finn leads a pack of mutants to their homeland in a deep sewer, and he ends up in a desolate city block, with shops and houses in aged disrepair. It's both eerie and beautiful. The Fallout games have all been really good about this kind of scenery construction, and yet Adventure Time has not officially stated post-apocalypse to be the case once. Nor do they plan to.
Were this all, it would already be a noteworthy cartoon in building a world full of candy people, witches, farts, an Ice King villain, and a post-apocalyptic world, all while keeping a focus on swashbuckling adventure and comedy. But it feels like, about halfway through making Season 2, the writers were all sitting around a table, and all at once just threw up their hands and said, "Out of jokes! Time to work on story and characters," and gave a great heaving sigh, “I guess.”
Season 2 hit a sudden and incredible shift of providing miles and miles of fascinating characterization, fleshing out their motivations, vices, and aspirations. Finn has always been referred to as "Finn the Human," but we never saw any humans in the show; this was tapped in one episode where he believes he found more people like him, and tries to integrate them into the world so he wouldn't be the only one. Jake, despite his laziness and absentmindedness, caves easily to peer pressure and can be easily swayed to push himself, as discovered when he pushes his stretch powers to his limit and nearly dies for it.
The curious relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Finn is often left at a one-way crush, but it's given surprising depth when she's turned into a thirteen year old and she really likes Finn. It's not just that their young, adorable romance is well written* – it's that too – but instead it comes off as bittersweet and tragic for the plucky kid when she has to become eighteen again. In a vain hope, he asks if she wants to do stuff together, and she laughs good naturedly, calling him a “silly boy,” leaving him on the balcony by himself. It's the entire subplot of 'we can never be together', but in all of ten minutes.
I think the most mind-blowing part of it is when the Ice King, a longstanding comedic relief/villain hybrid along the lines of Black Mage from 8bit Theater, is given a backstory. For three whole seasons he has been the weird, mad king of the frozen north, with a bizarre obsession with his penguins, being friends with Finn and Jake, kidnapping princesses, and possessing a magic crown that gives him his powers. Half of the time he's not even nefarious – he just shows up and tries to spend some fun time with the duo.
And then Finn and Jake discover a tape he kept from before the Mushroom War – he was an antique collector who came under the possession of a magic crown that gave him horrifying visions, driving his wife away, twisting his mind, and making him immortal. The bare parts of his sanity he kept were warped, explaining his fixation on princesses (a nickname for his wife) and his sociopathic behavior.
A evil and wacky comic relief character is given a backstory tragic enough to make you feel sorrow for him. And the next joke is made all the more both hilarious and terrible, as the Ice King covers his face with his hands. “Oh no! Now you know my secret! I used to...wear glasses!”
In Saint's Row 2, there was one mission that stuck out to me, where a budding gangster named Carlos screws up, and for his mistake he gets chained to the back of a truck and dragged around, and you have to save him. But by the time you get there, it's too late, and you only have enough time to grip him by the hand, as if in apology, before you mercy kill him. The whole game was as wacky and goofy as it could possibly be, and this one moment stuck out so hard because of that.
Similarly, Adventure Time's one moment of immense tragedy and sorrow sticks out all the more powerfully when you have not just one but several episodes that end with someone farting before cutting to black. The Ice King, tragic victim of mind control and a power he could not understand**, had stopped in the middle of an episode to rock back and forth on his butt, grabbing his feet and muttering, “I'm a banana.”
This is why I'm becoming so obsessed with this show, now. I have never seen a cartoon operate on a level that Adventure Time does. What was initially a silly pilot about a boy and his talking/stretching dog saving a princess from an evil king of the Ice has moved onto a level I cannot fathom in a way I never predicted. It has depth of character while noodle arms wiggle in a fancy dance, world-consistency when they literally make up all-new monsters and creatures any time they need it, and sorrow and tragedy next to the wacky and wild.
I can do little but applaud Pendelton Ward for making this show as brilliant as it is.
* Comments suggesting that a romance with thirteen year olds is creepy will be shot
** This is the kind of thing that makes my brain want to work on new fiction so I can create villains a quarter as brilliant as this.