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"Adventure Time": You Can Believe the Hype, Sort Of

by on April 5, 2010

San Diego Comic Con 2006. Fresh off hitting what felt like countless panels, I happened to check out a session on Nickelodeon’s upcoming shorts program, Random Cartoons. I had already been looking forward to it, having talked earlier in the month with Jerry Beck about his pilot for the program, and after the amazing results of previous shorts initiatives at Nick and Cartoon Network, I was eager to see what this program might yield. After all, a lot of the talent that defined animation from the late 1990’s through today got their first wide-exposure via those initiatives.

Anyway, it was at that panel I first saw Adventure Time. It was a mixed crowd of hardcore, long-time comic nerds and young kids. If there was any trepidation on the part of the audience when the pilot started, it was obliterated by the end of it. Everyone in the room was in hysterics by the time it was done. It was like nothing else, effortlessly achieving crossover appeal in only seven minutes. I wanted to see more of Finn (then Pen), Jake and their world. When the pilot hit the internet and went viral, it became pretty clear that lots of other people wanted to see more of that world too. Cosplayers dressed as Finn started turning up at anime and comic cons long before Cartoon Network ever announced they were going to pick it up, and the words “meme” and “cult-classic” were already being ascribed to the show. Not since The Powerpuff Girls pilots stood out so clearly from their other What-A-Cartoon counterparts has there been so much advance interest in a series.

Once Adventure Time finally did get picked up, the hype only increased. Besides the incessant ads that Cartoon Network has been pushing since the start of this year, Frederator has been exceedingly transparent with the production process. The hardcore fans could see backgrounds, storyboards and even animatics long before any of it was slated to air, and the forum buzz even dared posit that it might be the next Spongebob. Furthermore, people had been able to see Pendleton Ward’s storyboard work on Flapjack, and from that it was clear he wasn’t a one-trick pony. Ward gleefully squashed, stretched and tweaked the characters to whatever yielded maximum comedy. Additionally, he was taking a lot of brilliant staffers from Flapjack with him, and most of the work they’d been doing was fantastic as well.

So, what am I getting at with all this? Adventure Time has a huge amount of hype and definite talent going into it, and the huge ad push is probably a sign that CN has a lot riding on it as well. It’s CN’s first show with Frederator; it’s their first TVPG comedy; and it’s yet another visually ambitious and uncompromising show from a network that always seems to lead on that front, yet lag in the ratings. So, with the first real episodes of the series to air in a few short weeks, you have to ask “Has it lived up to the hype?” Well, let’s talk about the episodes first.

We lead off with “Slumber Party Panic” where we find Princess Bubblegum and Finn attempting to make a De-Corpseinator Serum so they can raise the dead of the candy kingdom. Predictably, this goes wrong and creates sugar-craving zombies. Finn and the Princess quickly call all the sweet citizens of the kingdom to the castle for a slumber party. Why the ruse? Well, candy people explode when they panic, and nothing would create panic like a zombie uprising. Thus, a slumber party. However, after Finn is sworn by the Princess to a royal promise to tell no one, Jake’s incessant need to know what’s being kept from him by his “bro” makes a tricky situation that much more difficult. I’ll spare you further spoilerific details other than that Finn does save the day with the help of the candy citizens, but as much he should learn some lesson from all this, he may be taking away the wrong ones. Very, very wrong ones.

Next up we have “Trouble In Lumpy Space” and this time we join our heroes in the middle of a marshmallow tea party with the Lumpy Space Princess and Princess Bubblegum. After getting accidentally bitten by the Lumpy Space Princess, Jake is infected with the Lumps, and if they don’t go to Lumpy Space by sunset to get the antidote for Jake, he’ll be Lumpy forever. Well, getting to Lumpy Space is easy. Getting the Lumpy Space Princess to get over her various teenage dramas (parents, boyfriend-stealing friends, mouthing off to various people) long enough so they can get a lumpy space car, so they can then drive to the antidote— Well, that’s easier said that done, and even once achieved things don’t go as expected at all.

Now, these episodes are funny, and they have a lot of the same charm as the pilot. The insane visuals, the awesome, chiptune-driven soundtrack, the knowing non-sequiturs, and the beautifully subversive mix humor targeted at adults and kids alike are all in full effect. The show looks like and sounds like nothing on TV, and perhaps nothing that has ever been made previously. However, people expecting it to be a little more on the kid of things may be taken a back. Not thirty seconds into the first episode we get to hear the words “explosive diarrhea,” and in general, there is definitely a more teenaged feel to the humor. “Truth or Dare” involving a cupcake man taking off his wrapper? Check. Seven minutes in heaven with Jake and The Rainacorn? Check. The existence of a “make-out point” in Lumpy Space? Check. Scathing satire of vapid valley girls? Double check. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still awesome and sharp, but not the exact same kind of awesome. Those expecting stuff like the Abe Lincoln cameo from the pilot may be a little disappointed, at least by these episodes.

In fairness, it’s the same kind of transition we’ve seen with other previous pilot-to-series, but other pilots didn’t have millions and millions views on YouTube before they aired either.

I would say it lived up to my expectations, but I wonder if other people, after living with four years of seven perfect minutes, will be similarly satisfied. Still, this is one of the strongest starts Cartoon Network has had with a series in a while, and if nothing else, they’ve made a cartoon that defies comparison, and that alone earns it the term “cult classic.” Shoot, it should be huge with counter-culture minded teens and twenty-something hipsters almost by default. The next Spongebob? Honestly, we won’t know that until 2020, but don’t rule it out.

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