Review: "Adventure Time: The Complete Second Season" Blu-ray is Algebraically Awesome
From its earliest episodes, I felt that Adventure Time was going to be a show that people either loved or hated, but I still have to admit some surprise at how fast the show built up its fanbase and how fervent that fanbase can be. In addition to showing no signs of slowing down on Cartoon Network, Adventure Time cosplay is now a fixture at comic and anime conventions across the country and the amount of licensed merchandise is growing steadily. The existence of Adventure Time: The Complete Second Season on Blu-ray is another data point in the show’s steady domination of modern pop culture mindshare, since conventional wisdom states that grown ups are the ones that care about season sets or DVD extras, while kids are perfectly OK with getting episodes of a show on shorter home video discs. Fans were left hanging for a long time to get the complete first season (and had to wait even longer for the Blu-ray), but Adventure Time: The Complete Second Season has comes to DVD and Blu-ray much faster, and with even more bonus features for the serious Adventure Time aficionado.
The plot summary and basic setup is well-handled by my colleague Todd DuBois in his review of sesaon 1, and I can only emphatically agree that it’s the ultimate children’s fantasy (or at least a little boy’s fantasy). The beauty of Adventure Time‘s setup is that it requires little to no explanation, while still giving itself complete creative freedom to establish scenarios and events. Just about anything to happen in Adventure Time‘s world of Ooo, and I’m sure the show’s creative staff has to labor long and hard and meticulously to make the show feel so spontaneous. There’s very little sense of continuity between episodes, which means it’s almost always a surprise and a delight to find out what bizarre corner of Ooo you’re visiting next. And really, some of those corners are exceptionally bizarre, to the point where you still can’t really explain the plot of most episodes without sounding like you’re completely insane or stoned out of your mind (as I noted when reviewing the first DVD). You can try to explain the plot of “The Silent King,” but you’ll probably have to give up the effort right off the bat when you try to explain the evil goblin king who gets his jollies spanking his subjects. By the time you get to the ear-clopses (giants with one giant single ear for a head) and the bizarro way Finn and Jake defeat them by clapping really loudly, you’re going to be well into “dude why are you looking at me like that?” territory. Suffice it to say that Adventure Time labors mightily and quite successfully to surprise at every turn, packing more sheer creativity into a single 11 minute episode than most shows can manage over multiple seasons.
I sense small but noticeable differences between season 1 and 2 of Adventure Time. As outlandish as they can get, most season 1 episodes will still have a fairly coherent, traditional three-act structure, with a distinct beginning, middle, and ending. There are still plenty of episodes like that in this season, including some of the best ones on this disc like “It Came From the Nightosphere” (which very much deserves its Emmy nomination), “To Cut a Woman’s Hair,” “Mystery Train,” and the two-part season finale “Mortal Folly/Mortal Recoil.” However, it feels like the show is a lot more willing to start messing with narrative structure, throwing neat resolutions out the window and embracing a loopier, stranger structure. Episodes like “The Eyes” or “Slow Love” ditch narrative to be little more than extended jokes, with the former pitting Finn and Jake against a mysterious, creepy cow and the latter featuring the pair trying to get a gigantic snail some sweet sweet gastropod lovin’. One of my favorite episodes this season is “The Chamber of Frozen Blades,” which does an extended riff off the usual Finn/Jake vs. the Ice King conflict that mixes in Shaw Brothers kung fu chop socky and doesn’t end as much as it just stops because it’s done with its joke. I also detect a little bit more continuity, mostly in characterization than in plot threads (although this season has the first direct sequel to any Adventure Time episode in “Crystals Have Power,” which resolves a dangling plot thread of “Tree Trunks”). Finally, it feels like season 2 pushes much further into the realm of potential nightmare fuel, throwing in more overtly grotesque characters doing really horrible things like Marcelline’s dad in “Nightosphere” or the Lich in “Mortal Folly/Mortal Recoil.” There are also characters or events that might be frightening even if they’re played for slightly spooky laughs, as in the murder mystery in “Mystery Train” and the journey into Hades in “Death in Bloom” (leading up to a meeting with Death himself, entertainingly voiced by Miguel Ferrer). Those with more sensitive children may want to pre-screen the season before sharing with the kids.
Also, I would be remiss not to point out that season 2 of Adventure Time pulls off some of the funniest fart jokes I’ve seen on a TV show in years. They’re not just crassness for its own sake, since every single one pops out of nowhere and draws the same kind of laugh you’d have when you were a kid and just saying “fart” could trigger paroxysms of laughter. The problem with most fart jokes on kids TV today is that they’re the equivalent of a kid thinking that the concept is so self-evidently funny that you don’t need anything more than that. Adventure Time‘s fart jokes use them as the punch line in a variety of ways, mostly as pungent punctuation or truly hilarious non-sequitur. For all the praise it gets from critics and fans, I don’t think Adventure Time gets enough credit for elevating the art of the fart joke so far above, “Fart! Hahahahahah!” — a problem I have now much more than adequately remedied.
Adventure Time: The Complete Second Season fits all 26 episodes on a single Blu-ray disc, but there was no visible impact to packing so much material onto one Blu-ray. The anamorphic widescreen image is always bright, clear, and colorful, bringing the world of Ooo into beautiful, vibrant life. I’m a little surprised to find only a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack rather than some kind of 5.1 mix, but the soundtrack to the set still does just fine in rendering dialogue and music. I also have to single out the menu as being especially good on this Blu-ray, allowing for speedy and accurate navigation through the disc’s content. Too many Blu-ray menus that are slow or cumbersome, so the efficiency of the one on Adventure Time: The Complete Second Season is appreciated. If I have a complaint about presentation, it’s that the Blu-ray offers no “marathon view” mode, even when selecting “Play All” on the Blu-ray menu, meaning you’ll get an intro sequence and a credits sequence every 11 minutes or so. It makes for a bit of unnecessary tedium, especially when the exact same end credits are always repeated once. I also love the packaging, which repeats the layering trick from the season 1 set except using the Ice King instead of Finn. In addition to the running theme for the discs, it’s also an amusing bit of whimsy that perfectly matches the show.
As bonus features go, the good news is that every single episode gets a commentary track involving series creator Pendleton Ward and some subset of the creative staff. The bad news is that these commentaries are a little disappointing, since they are relatively light on content. Admittedly, I think some of the charm of Adventure Time is that explaining it is so unnecessary, but while the participants in these commentary tracks seem to be having a lot of fun, they really don’t end up communicating a whole lot. Before getting to a commentary track, Pendleton Ward pops up holding two handwritten notes telling you that some bits of the commentaries had to be replaced by ukelele music because it was inappropriate or something they couldn’t really get into. It’s a cute idea in theory, but a lousy one in practice that feels more annoying than anything else. Almost inevitably, the crew will be right on the cusp of saying something really interesting or funny, only to be cut off by Ward’s ukelele. At least once, the sound mix seems to have left the commentary intact under the ukelele music and nothing horrible or untoward was said, so I wonder if the editing is the result of corporate meddling or over-sensitivity (or whether the ukelele in this case was just Ward messing with his crew). I’ll admit that I gave up on listening to these tracks after listening to about a third of them, but nothing I heard in those 8 to 10 commentaries suggested I’d hear anything much better in the rest, let alone something as appealingly daffy as the commentary track between Tree Trunks’ voice actor Polly Lou Livingston and Pendleton Ward’s mother on the season 1 set. The fact that Ward’s handwritten disclaimer pops up before every single episode if you opt to play them one at a time or jump around on the menus is another minor annoyance. There is also a quick featurette where Pendleton Ward interviews the crew of Adventure Time, which is to interviews what the show itself is to adventure cartoons. It’s quirky, offbeat, and thoroughly unconventional, but ultimately isn’t anything but an extended fart joke (and not even one that’s quite as funny as the fart jokes the show pulls off regularly).
And, with all that said, complaining about bonus features feels pretty ungrateful, especially for a show as consistently delightful as Adventure Time. It’s a really good time to be weird on kids’ TV, as evidenced by shows like this or the Hub’s Aquabats Super Show!. The quality of the season makes Adventure Time: The Complete Second Season an easy recommendation, at least if you’re one of the people who likes the show. If you’re not, I’m afraid there’s nothing here that will change your mind, but I do have to commend you on your determination that you got this far in my review. Considering how many series on Cartoon Network were abandoned part-way through on home video (Chowder or The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack), and how others are entirely MIA (Sym-Bionic Titan), I’m extremely happy that Adventure Time is getting such high-quality season set releases at all. Here’s looking forward to season 3, if only to resolve the cliffhanger plot twist at the end of this season.