I remember, the first time I sat down to watch Adventure Time, remarking to my friends that I wasn’t drunk enough to watch this show after only the first episode. For those of my friends who are adults and trying to start the show, I usually recommend sitting down to it with a strong drink because while I adore the show, it starts off a little weirdly. It also continues weirdly, but it isn’t jarring once you’ve made the mental adjustments required to enjoy the show. They’re not strenuous, of course. It just takes a bit of time to adapt to the over-the-top action and characters before you start to see past the surface to the surprising depths of the story and character development arcs.
Like a lot of “children’s shows,” Adventure Time can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At the most basic, there are good lessons about how to be responsible, what it means to strong, how to deal with emotional problems, and how to treat people who are different from you, to name a few. These lessons are delivered through fairly straight-forward plots and the colorful fun of an action show with heart, making it an instant hit with most kids. For those looking for a bit more, there’s actually some complex emotional and interpersonal problems that happen through the various seasons that are resolved slowly. It can be difficult to watch if you want the sort of cleaner wrap-ups of most adult shows since, for example, some things are introduced in season 1 that aren’t addressed until season 5. Emotional development takes a long time, in terms of seasons and shows, but it happens at a rate that lets the adults watching the show appreciate what is going on beneath the surface but also lets the kids slowly see the changes happen in a way they’ll understand as they go through similar (if somewhat less fantastical) situations in their own lives.
For instance, a lot of the earlier episodes are non-sequiturs, with nothing to place them inside the show’s overarching timeline, but there are details that slowly fill in the world around the protagonists, Finn the Human and Jake the (magic) Dog. Finn’s sword is an easy indicator of when an episode takes place as he has a tendency to go through them a lot faster than you’d think. His behavior and age are much more subtle ones since they don’t mark most of his birthdays or give a number to his age that frequently. Instead, you can follow the show’s continuity using plot markers and shifts in character relationships. Old enemies become friends, allies reveal ulterior motives and become enemies, and background characters rise to sudden prominence before establishing a firm place in the long list of secondary characters.
The way information is revealed to the viewer can make it a difficult show to watch haphazardly. While understanding most episodes isn’t dependent on having watched all previous episodes, a lot of foreshadowing or important subtext can fall between the cracks in your understanding of the show. As information is slowly revealed, one small bite at a time (bites that increase in size as the show goes on as the first two seasons are particularly light on details), so much that you suspect is confirmed. If you pay attention to the background in almost any episode, you could reasonably draw the conclusion that Adventure Time occurs in a post-apocalyptic world. You could also conclude that humans are rare, magic has risen in the place of most of the sciences, and there’s an incredible danger present in the world that most people see as ordinary because of how screwed up the world became following whatever apocalyptic disaster befell it. Eventually, you get enough information to assemble a picture of the past on your own. Full reveals or complete pictures are super rare, but they become reference points for the show that help shore up the history you assemble as you watch it and you can usually tell where you are in the show’s timeline by references to these points.
My favorite part of the show is the way the writers use the same method of small hints and details mixed in with a few big reveals in the emotional development of the characters. Finn, as the primary protagonist, deals with the most as he grows. Jake, the secondary protagonist, has his share as well. Even a lot of the secondary characters (who occasionally have small arcs featuring them) have complex emotional journeys throughout the show. The best example of that is probably the Ice King, a certifiably insane wizard with ice powers given to him by a magic crown he wears. Not only does he feature in a lot of Finn’s emotional growth, he changes throughout the show from a pathetic villain to a tragic villain who can’t help himself, seeing as he’s been driven insane by the magic crown he wears. Some of the most powerful and emotional moments in the show come from his stories and the way people start to treat him as they grow to understand and somewhat accept him. There’s a whole list of other characters, some with their own special mini-seasons, that undergo growth and change, and each one gets their moment to shine, even the pesky whiny ones you want to just disappear.
Throughout it all, aside from the big reveal or big change moments, the show manages to keep an upbeat sense of humor and a positive look on even the most difficult situations. The characters rely on each other to get through their weak moments and humor is a constant aid as they try to cope with the world they actually live in as it pushes aside the world they want to live in. Even the most resilient characters are sometimes knocked down and we get to watch them struggle to their feet again. The entire show is a lesson in getting back up after failure until you succeed and learning to accept change and growth into your life gracefully.
I’ll admit the pacing can be weird early on and that it can be difficult to accept some of the asides the show makes as it slowly works its way through a difficult problem, but every episode has something important to say if you’re willing to look for it. A lot of these messages are repeated many times, but they’re usually important enough that it’s worth hearing them again. Plus, with how human they all act, even Jake the Dog and Princess Bubblegum (who is made of gum), it can be incredibly refreshing to see people struggle to deal with lessons they’ve already learned and taken for granted.
I recommend watching it. The seasons are pretty cheap on Amazon or Best Buy, but I wouldn’t recommend getting them on a streaming service as they are sometimes in weird orders and the season-by-season breakdown in the later seasons gets super wonky. It is way cheaper to get them on DVD or Blu-Ray than to buy them on Amazon or iTunes. If you want a show that will make you laugh so hard you cry and so sad you just have to laugh, that will take you on an incredibly complex emotional journey through the eyes of a wide range of very (mentally and emotionally, since “diverse” means very different things in our world than it’d mean in their world) different characters, and will leave you constantly wanting more, I cannot recommend Adventure Time strongly enough.