Adventure Time is an antidote to commercial Yuletide cynicism

finn-n-jake

Ante-Christmas can be a dark time. The build-up to one of few moments in the year when people actually want to be happy is filled with people trying to make money from the fact that people want to be happy. And so the world invented the term ‘Christmas Creep’  to acknowledge this phenomenon. In the last few years the moneymakers, the evil cynical people who sit in boardrooms around tables carved from ivory and wearing suits made from the fur of the pets of poverty-stricken children and drinking crude oil from non-recyclable plastic cups, have been winning: people get excited when Starbucks issue their seasonal red cup; people get excited when the John Lewis advert comes out and they challenge themselves not to cry but it’s just too emotional. We blind ourselves to the fact that these petty ephemera exist only to make very rich people very richer. Ante-Christmas reminds me that the world is a cynical place.

Also, having been unemployed recently has given me time to wallow in this morass of cynicism. Being unemployed has led to TV watching, but it took weeks of watching repeats of Great British Menu, Tudor Monastery Farm and Pawn Stars before someone pointed out the channels that exist beyond number 300. Deep into the recesses of the high hundreds are the colourful, mesmeric and utterly incomprehensible worlds of children’s cartoons. It was on channel seven hundred and something that I discovered Adventure Time and it is probably one of TV’s greatest creations.

The freedom of creativity that the show embodies is incredible. First, it is very well-crafted comedy, with some excellent jokes; clearly the programme has a talented team of script writers. Then the design of the characters and their world is colourful and attractive and idiosyncratic. And each episode contains one or more songs that range from beautiful to bizarre with everything in between.

But Adventure Time goes far beyond this in many ways. The world that Pendleton Ward et al. have created is visually striking, and exciting, and cool and makes you want to be there. The cartoon is set in the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, after the mysterious Mushroom War, and revolves around Finn the human and Jake the talking, shape-shifting dog who fight the evil monsters that are bent on hurting the princesses who inhabit Ooo.

adventure-time-2The cartoon seem to be aware of its position of responsibility in being aimed at children, and of the oft-debated issue of the kind of messages that children’s TV should be teaching. Some episodes veer towards overt didacticism, but never in a trite way and never in such a way that it undermines the silliness or weirdness or stupidity of an episode. One episode is about Finn trying to solve problems without violence. It goes wrong. In another, he tries to make everyone happy at the same time despite people wanting conflicting things. It goes wrong.

For an adult viewer or a parent viewer the messages Adventure Time settles upon are ambiguous and, actually, this ambiguity is truer to life than any unnuanced, moralistic, monochrome message that other programmes might deliver.

The humour satisfies both adults and children, the messages are well-considered and complex, the creativity – in terms of artistry, music, imagination – is stunning: this cartoon has a multivalence that many programmes aimed at adults could only dream of.

The strength of the characters is part of what drives the show, too. Finn and Jake are a perfect incarnation of the relationship that a boy would imagine having with his dog – Jake is not only a partner in crime-fighting, but also a kind of teacher and guide for Finn. Some characters are outright funny, like Gunter or Starchy, but most have a well-developed backstory and a depth of character that make them instantly recognizable and very easy to love – Tree Trunks, Lumpy Space Princess and, the best of all, BMO. And yet, despite the panoply of fantastic characters, still the creators can create an episode consistently voted the best, with no dialogue in which Jake and Finn only appear for about three seconds and the rest of the time is given to two new characters, a Snow Golem and a Fire Wolf cub.

And that does not even take into account things like gender themes in the cartoon. Although Jake and Finn save Princess Bubblegum repeatedly she is pretty badass herself, a scientific genius who created her own kingdom and is continually unfazed by Ice King’s repeated attempts to steal her. Or Lumpy Space Princess who, with her rotund figure and male voice, certainly does not fulfil the conventional princess stereotypes. Or Marceline the Vampire Queen whose backstory reveals a deeply sad life that has stretched over 1,000 years. Her story contains real moments of beauty and sadness – like Marceline the lost child in the depth of the cataclysmic Mushroom War being given a teddy bear, Hambo, by the man who would later become the evil Ice King. Beneath the bright colours of this distinct and unique world is a persistent darkness.

These character stories are only ever partially revealed, and they show off the programme’s acute sense of continuity, even if it passes by the average viewer who may watch episodes in the fragmented and disordered way in which Cartoon Network broadcasts them. But that does not matter, because each episode (only ten minutes long) stands extremely well on its own terms.

Adventure Time may seem a little weird, but it’s weird in the way that people say Radiohead is depressing or Bruce Forsyth is a national treasure in that it’s not if you actually think about it. It may seem like it’s for children, and it is. But whereas adults who don’t read children’s books tend to be pretty boring people, children’s authors are usually the most interesting (Judith Kerr, Philip Pullman, Maurice Sendak, Michael Rosen). The preponderance of fart jokes may seem juvenile, and it is. But Stewart Lee explains far less eloquently than I ever could why that is the case.

where-the-wild-things-are-2Sainsbury’s are using Greg Lake’s I Believe In Father Christmas for their seasonal advertising campaign. The radio plays an endless, hellish loop of Christmas songs by Michael Bublé, singing with the voice of a bee drowning in its own honey, making money from songs that other people have written, all from that hateful Christmas CD – the one with a picture of Bublé on the front wafting a fart with a Christmas present. These occurrences in nature unavoidably provoke irritation into the hearts of the gentlest Christmas souls. But it can be tamed by engaging with the most original and creative force on TV – the endlessly astonishing, moving and peerless Adventure Time.

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