Well this is awkward.
Here I am talking up how spoilery my TV blog’s going to be and yet that just isn’t the case this week. Why?
Because Adventure Time doesn’t really have a plot to spoil. Sure, it has its episodic plots but they’re usually synopses recycled over and over again – in line with Plankton’s failed attempts to steal the Krabby Patty recipe in Spongebob Squarepants, or the happy endings to Tommy and friends’ misadventures in Rugrats. On paper, Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time is really just like any other cartoon program ever made. Episodes are generally eleven minutes long, televised in pairs and plopped on either end of commercials to fill a half-hour timeslot. Yep, right down to the aesthetic of the title cards introducing an episode, everything about this show suggests it’s tailor-made for children.
But if you’ve heard positive reviews of Adventure Time, you probably know it’s not just for kids because you’re recounting a much older audience member’s first-hand experiences with the show. Funnily enough, I’m not the only one in college with an Adventure Time poster on their wall, and I do experience beanie envy when I see a friend walking around with Jake on her head. Few other cartoons can elicit this kind of public display of affection to be deemed okay, and though I did wear my Yoshi slippers literally to death, video games are an entirely different can of beans. The hysteria around Adventure Time is impressive in its own right.
I’m a tough, tootin’ baby…
According to this terrific video by the PBS Idea Channel (seriously, what it covers in the first five and a half minutes is brilliant stuff), the idea of nostalgia is pivotal to Adventure Time’s appeal. This is a no-brainer when I consider how the show casts me back to a younger version of myself. The aforementioned episode title cards are just one part of the program structure and form reminiscent of a bunch of cartoons I watched as a little fella. At a content level, references to my childhood are seen in Finn and Jake’s side-scrolling sequences and 8-bit escapades that featured in many a 90’s video game. However, the guys at PBS see all this as a simplified reading of the grand nostalgia Adventure Time evokes in adults. This nostalgia is a ‘classical nostalgia’:
“… a pain or an ache for a time passed that you can’t recreate.”
– Mike Rugnetta, PBS Idea Channel host
When you watch Adventure Time then, it’s as if you’re opening one of those time capsules you buried in primary school, and inside is a text frozen in a time you simply can’t return to (which reminds me: I never recovered mine. What did I write? I’m sort of curious but not enough to warrant a frenzied digging act under the watchful eyes of a hundred freaked-out children). As Don Draper’s fascinating pitch on the ‘Carousel’ demonstrates, this romantic nostalgia is primarily found by re-examining artefacts from that utopian era – essentially meaning that Rugrats and a host of other childhood cartoons could already do what Adventure Time tries to do, right?
Not quite. For one thing, I think that the timing of Adventure Time’s arrival is crucial to its effect on kids who grew up with the advent of cult media. I’m at a point in my life now where relationships, career prospects, and other important facets of my being are experiencing significant change all the time. This can all be very overwhelming and sometimes I wish things were much less complex/daunting/frustrating/[insert negatively-loaded word here]. That Adventure Time should pop up at a time when I’m feeling like this means that Pendleton Ward must be calling out to me – the viewer looking to momentarily escape the trappings of adulthood. TV shows have the effect of moving the viewer to an alternative space where their problems faced in reality don’t exist. On its quasi-adult audience who grew up on a diet of shows like it, Adventure Time has an added temporal effect, where the longing for a childhood still easily recalled is evoked through visual and auditory signatures of that bygone period.There is, however, no age limit to who can experience the show’s nostalgia and subsequent appeal. The folks at PBS identify Adventure Time’s “nostalgia-within-nostalgia” where Finn, Jake, and a host of other characters are constantly experiencing this emotion themselves (the PBS video gives a series of in-show examples that allude to a period of time preceding the events of Adventure Time. You really should watch it). Adventure Time offers a family-friendly mirror-image of ourselves when we see Finn and Jake tackle standard moral and ethical dilemmas pertaining to themes such as friendship (‘Video Makers’) and doing right by others (‘Another Way’).
However, the scope of problems encountered is simply too broad for the cartoon to be labelled a kid’s show. The most poignant and heartwrenching episodes of Adventure Time are those linked to the past, wherein characters deal in themes of identity (‘Susan Strong’) and mental illness induced by painful experiences (‘I Remember You’). The confronting meanings in these kinds of episodes hits home with older audiences while it whistles right over the heads of children who can’t relate to the nostalgia being conveyed. In an era where television bombards us with entertaining plots that nevertheless remain removed from our own fairly ordinary lifestyles, Adventure Time could be the TV show that begs the most introspective response from a coming-of-age viewer.
We are in the computer world
That all got a bit sad, eh? Let’s rein this one in with a look at how Adventure Time could shape an alternative and, in specific cases, better method of serial television storytelling.
A uni friend of mine has a theory about the direction TV is heading. If my time at uni has taught me anything this semester, it’s that a sustainable mode of watching television on the Internet is inevitable (here’s a very… hmm… “text-dense” group project of mine for those who feel okay about mixing pleasure with pain). We’re consuming stuff online like never before and there’s no way we’re going to revert to our old ways of watching television at any point in the future.
Anyway, my friend’s theory: Short-form content viewed through channels such as YouTube is catering to an on-the-move audience who readily find the time to watch videos lasting a few minutes over those that run for an hour. Television networks have embraced this prospect by releasing webisodes – relatively short online videos that act as subsidiaries to a regular television program. This mode of viewing is quickly becoming the norm and here’s where we arrive at the crux of my friend’s argument. He believes that television will become a series of episode ‘chapters’, released in weekly batches and lasting roughly ten minutes per chapter. The plots within each chapter are self-contained but weave themselves into the seriality of chapters within and beyond the episode it belongs to. A central idea or character POV could be the unique axis around which each chapter revolves.
It’s some revolutionary thinking, but not far from what we’ve seen in the multitude of cartoons that have been around for decades. However, the popular contemporary television at the centre of my friend’s theory concerns mature themes and seriality, much unlike the comparatively simple cartoons of ye olde days. Adventure Time has begun to bridge that gap. While I can’t necessarily spoil a plot of sorts, I can tell you that – unlike its primarily kid-orientated cartoon counterparts – Adventure Time does convey a sense of seriality one can only experience through watching it (perhaps because it can be read so personally at times). A short-form model of making and distributing television is unlikely to work with some programs (particularly those with complex ensemble casts reminiscent of HBO classics) but it does beg some looking into. Audiences willing to consume this format have made themselves known with the advent of many short-form digital platforms such as Funny or Die and the aforementioned YouTube.
Come on, grab your friends
Never mind the fact that the top two names I’ve wanted to give my future sons have been Finn and Jake since before Adventure Time was even created, the real weirdness from the cult cartoon series comes from every episode that’s as oddly endearing and unique as the last. The unbelievably strange gags and constant experimentation with audience expectation make this show a spectacle before you even arrive at its deeper and more personal meaning. It’s really something best experienced in groups, so grab a buddy or two and escape to the Land of Ooo every once in a while.