In the modern iteration of pop culture, there are few television shows that have been as impactful as Adventure Time, and it is certainly not hard to see why. Whether it be nostalgia for a simpler time, where one only had to worry about finding the next “adventure” (spawned by the untampered imagination of childhood), the unique (and perhaps more daring in today’s overly-cautious entertainment industry) approach to storytelling and its characters, and/or the incredible likability of the characters within the show, Adventure Time has managed to garner millions of adoring and emotionally invested fans around the world.
But what exactly makes the show so popular above countless others? Perhaps in order to understand the success of Adventure Time, it is necessary to observe its inner workings.
Adventure Time is quite a peculiar series, as it is deceptively simple to passing onlookers. If one is to look at the basic synopsis on IMDB, you would find the description as, “A human boy named Finn and adoptive brother and best friend Jake the Dog, protect the citizens of the Land of Ooo from foes of various shapes and sizes.” Such a synopsis betrays the much deeper (and much darker) world that awaits the curious onlooker, as the show makes it apparent that the Land of Ooo is not as morally black and white as one would expect from a standard children’s show.
Underneath the rather cheerful exterior lies a depressing actuality: that the Land of Ooo is in fact a post-apocalyptic Earth in which humanity wiped itself out with the use of nuclear warfare. Such a concept was implied from the very beginning (the intro’s very first shot shows an undetonated nuclear bomb sticking out of the ground), showing only minor (yet very blatant) references in the form of old human technology strewn about haphazardly across the land. The later seasons, however, take no hesitation in embracing Ooo’s grim past, as the show dives deeper into the residual remnants of humanity, using the characters as a vehicle for relaying such remnants.
It can be said that Adventure Time is a character study in its purest form. In the majority of episodes, the plot plays second fiddle to the core focus of character interactions. Despite the dire implications spread throughout the seasons, there is actually no real narrative purpose to the post-apocalyptic setting and instead merely exists. If anything, the grim underbelly of Ooo acts as a parallelism for which the traits of each character are brought to light. Over a span of almost six seasons, all of the recurring characters have been thoroughly developed, a quality that many shows could only dream of.
Take the title character, Finn, for example. He is a boy/teenager who actively tries to be the hero and do the right thing, but his personal desires in later seasons have led to him harming those close to him (not physically, of course). He is capable of making mistakes and is not the perfect do-gooder that he aspires to be. Such personal and relatable character flaws are prospects that very few kid and adult shows alike even attempt to do.
Of course, Finn is not the only character with flaws, as we have characters such as the Ice King, a man whose fear of his own mortality caused him to accept the descent into insanity wrought upon him by his crown, and Marceline, a vampire whose abandonment by both her guardian and her father as a child made her incapable of confidently expressing emotions other than anger (and only able to comfortably express other emotions through her brand of mental escapism, music). Other characters include Jake, a magic dog (and Finn’s adopted brother) who is caught between a life of carefree adventuring and one of responsible adulthood, and Princess Bubblegum, a self-declared monarch (and a scientist) whose concerns for the safety of her citizens drives her to make decisions that disregard the lives of her allies.
All of this character development comes into play through the most important aspect of the show: character dynamism. As mentioned earlier, the plot is secondary to the character interactions, and it shows in the self-contained scenarios found in almost every episode. Almost all of the plots within the show are not caused by uncontrollable events, but rather by the multiple recurring characters (Finn, Jake, Marceline, Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, among many others) with their flaws and/or line of thinking being the primary cause of the conflicts. Yet, despite the detailed complexity of all of them and despite all of their faults, they remain extremely likable. It is incredibly easy to become invested in the characters, which is one of the biggest driving forces of the show’s popularity. When a new episode debuts, the fans look forward to the character interactions, excitedly anticipating how one of the characters is going to react once they witness or learn about an action done by another character.
While the development of the characters is an integral part of the show, Adventure Time is arguably defined by its minimalist presentation. The easiest example to identify is the art style itself, which is relatively simplistic compared to other cartoons of the past, yet it is still able to imbue a sense of charm and delight within the audience. If one is to look even further, they would see a minimalistic depiction of the setting itself. The world rarely attempts to explain itself, and perhaps that is what makes the show more appealing, in that it demands the viewer to insert their own imagination into trying to create explanations as to why certain environmental features exist or the history of characters and how they became who they are. There is no rhyme or reason to the Land of Ooo, but the show is stronger for it, as it gives the viewer the courage to think without feeling limited by the notion of plausibility. In a society that looks down upon creativity as “inhibitive,” Adventure Time allows for both teenagers and adults to let their imagination run wild, something that they were taught to lock away in order to be what is deemed “successful” in life.
Indeed, simplicity is the show’s greatest attribute, as the conflicts and narratives never go beyond the realm of innate human nature. The episodes don’t primarily rely on socioeconomic or political issues for the conflict at hand (although the allusions to modern day governments are certainly there), but rather such conflicts are a consequence to the character’s traits and expressions of emotions, whether that be stubbornness, pride, jealousy, aspiration, or the desire for control, among many others. The characters’ sense of morality is not connected to specific cultural standards, but rather purely by the universal and inherent understandings of right and wrong to which any individual judges themselves upon. Whether intentional or not, the creative team has made a series that avoids any reliance on region-specific cultural understandings with humor rarely relying on pop culture, with the show only making subtle nods to pop culture in ways for viewers to find amusement in, but never integral to the enjoyment of the episode.
The way in which the creative team is able to transcend cultural barriers so gracefully is a true sight to behold, as some of the best and brightest of the entertainment industry have come together to create a masterwork of non-traditional storytelling. Their ability to provoke a sense of wonder and intrigue from even the smallest of details allows for each and every episode, no matter how seemingly insignificant in plot, to feel like an integral part to the audience’s understanding of the World of Ooo and the lore that it entails. It is a series that any viewer can relate to in some shape or form, no matter where the viewer originates from. In this day and age, there are very few (if any) other pieces of American entertainment that have grown into a worldwide phenomenon like Adventure Time is, and the show serves as an inspiration to many folks in the entertainment industry as well as in the general population both inside and outside of the United States.