Archive | May 2012

The best of “Adventure Time”: What Was Missing

Hey all. For my first post in more than a month, yes, I’m writing about “Adventure Time”, a show that has a legitimate claim for the title of “Best Comedy on TV”. I’m not exaggerating.

That sounds hyperbolic for a Cartoon Network show aimed at 11-year-olds. But “Adventure Time” represents the peak of a golden age of kids cartoons, one that has included some excellent television, including “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.

It’s a fully realized comedic vision, a tight, rapidfire, often surreal showcase of Pendleton Ward’s imagination. It contains one of the most memorable casts of characters on TV. Ward refuses to cater to traditional “kids show” requirements. Episodes absolutely never have a moral to teach. Finn and Jake, in fact, repeatedly resort to violence to get their way, usually to hilarious results (you have to cut them some slack, it’s a dangerous world they live in, and Finn is the last human alive). One of the most beloved supporting characters, Marceline the Vampire Queen, is delightfully (and most likely unknowingly) amoral, her ethical code having been warped by 1,000 years of vampirism.

Episodes often begin seemingly mid-scene, with no context, and end abruptly (often with fart jokes, though as Louis CK said, you don’t have to be smart to laugh at fart jokes, but you have to be stupid not to).  Adventure Time makes 30 Rock seem expository.

While Adventure Time is one of the funniest shows on TV right now, any truly great comedy cannot simply be a joke dispenser. Characters need to resonate. They need room to emote. Parks and Rec made the leap from mediocre to great when Leslie Knope changed from a one-note bundle of insecurities into a hyper-competent, humanistic optimist. Community made the same leap when the study group morphed from a standard bunch of eclectic sitcom characters arbitrarily thrown together into a passionate group of familial soulmates.

And as it has progressed, Adventure Time has taken a leap that most kids cartoons never do. As good as they were, the likes of Spongebob and Flapjack remained flat. Adventure Time continues to grow thematically, and it doesn’t shy from dealing with its characters’ deepest, weirdest feelings, often trekking into territory no show of its ilk has gone before. And no episode exemplifies that like season 3’s “What Was Missing.”

Like many other episodes, it begins abruptly, when a strong-legged mumbler storms through Finn and Jake’s, Princess Bubblegum’s, and Marceline’s abodes, stealing their most beloved keepsakes. After a brief but very entertaining chase through a series of magic doors (with more than a few shades of Monsters Inc’s climax) they come to a gate that can only be opened by a “genuine band”. Cue the group (with BMO!) trying to come up with a song on the spot that will satisfy the door’s eardrums.

Adventure Time episodes are rarely completely self-contained. A new element might be barely glimpsed in one episode, but if it appeared, it tends to become canonical (for a more recent example, see Tree Trunks’ romance with Mr. Pig, whose initial appearance lasted all of a few seconds in screen time). Usually these elements are played up for comic continuity, and to further flesh out the show’s ever-growing universe. But sometimes, the show can play them up for its stabs at our heartstrings. Finn, for example, acquired a piece (more like a wad) a Princess Bubblegum’s hair in an earlier episode. It wasn’t much of a story element then, but by this episode it’s clear that he cherishes it with all of his 13-year-old heart. It’s a surprisingly touching and astute example of the kind of heartache that teenagers sorting through their first romantic feelings go through.

In an even more effective demonstration of the show’s willingness to let the audience fill in the blanks, most of the episode’s drama centers on Marceline sorting through some very consfusing, volatile feelings towards Princess Bubblegum, which she expresses through her always awesome musical sequences.

Marceline is prone to lashing out, but over her feelings? We don’t need to know what she’s angry at PB for. That she’s this worked up is enough to make it resonate.

The show resonates with what is the best of its many outstanding songs, when Finn, distraught over the group’s fighting, confesses that PB, Marceling and Jake are his best friends in the world. In any other cartoon, this would seem like the “moral moment”, something the episode has been building to. But Adventure Time never telegraphs its storylines. It’s far too sophisticated for that. Instead, it comes across as completely genuine, a 2-minute outburst of adolescent insecurities, confessions from his heart, and the joys of just hanging with his three best friends. And when the group are reunited through song, it’s pretty damn moving.

“What Was Missing” isn’t the funniest 11-minutes of this show, or the most ambitious. But like Community’s “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”  or Parks and Rec’s “Andy and April’s Fancy Party”, it sacrifices a few laughs for moments that will resonate much longer. Episodes like these are necessary from time to time. They remind us why we love the show in the first place, and just why they’re so funny. We love these damn characters. They’re funny because they’re familiar, like friends. And like friends, we want them to be happy.

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