I’m going to be 23 in less than two weeks. I’ve been out of school a year, have undertaken a variety of adult responsibilities including paying rent and student loans, and in the near future will hopefully be starting a career that will define most of the rest of my life. I am, for all intents and purposes, one of those fabled “grownups.”
And yet my favourite television series at the moment is, for all intents and purposes, a kids’ show. Adventure Time, created by Pendleton Ward, has been broadcast on Cartoon Network since 2010 and is now in its fourth season. It follows the escapades of teenaged warrior/adventurer Finn and his intelligent, stretchy dog Jake in a fantastical land populated by a species of candy people, moderately intelligent penguins and a vast array of extraordinary creatures. It’s also surprisingly sophisticated for a show aimed at 7-11 year olds.
Moreover, the show can be just dark at times. Ward has confirmed that the series takes place on Earth centuries after society has been decimated by nuclear war, with remnants of our civilization—an abandoned subway station, for example—popping up every once in a while. And while Ward has also said this element will never be explicitly addressed within the series itself, there are enough little clues scattered throughout Adventure Times’ four seasons that anybody with problem solving skills can figure out what brought about this magical epoch.
But while there won’t be a Very Special Episode dedicated to the horrors of nuclear war anytime soon, Adventure Time nevertheless pushes the envelope for what’s appropriate for a kids’ show. Specifically, the two part second season finale, “Mortal Folly”/“Mortal Recoil,” wherein the long dormant Lich, voiced by Ron Perlman, is accidentally unleashed and attempts to bring about a second apocalypse.
In the second half, Finn’s “liking someone a lot” interest, Princess Bubblegum, is accidentally infected by the demon’s essence and over the course of the mini-episode’s 11-minute runtime gradually transforms into one of the most twisted abominations ever seen in children’s television. Speaking as an adult with a pretty high standard for what’s disturbing and what’s not, I can say without hesitation that it fits into the former category.
I mean, Jesus.
I don’t mean to imply that the show is all twisted gloom, however. In fact, Adventure Time manages to speak out to its adult audience without having to turn into a post-apocalyptic horror story. A shining example of this occurs in the third season episode “What Was Missing.” Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum and their girl vampire friend Marceline are required to compose an awesome song in order to unlock a magically-sealed door. Bubblegum criticizes the visceral nature of Marceline’s lyrics, and in response the nosferatette launches into a pretty rocking song that perhaps reveals deeper feelings for the Princess. Like, HBO’s The L Word feelings.
And I’ve got to say, that’s pretty awesome.
Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time easily ranks up there with Batman: The Animated Series as one of the greatest cartoons of all time. It’s beautifully animated, subversively smart, and kids and adults alike can watch it and appreciate it for entirely different reasons. And more than anything else, it’s just plain fun. It’s something I would like to watch with my future kids and I hope that I get the opportunity to do so one day.