It’s rare for comically-minded television to have its best season be its sixth. I think this is something inherent in the form – comedy is built on surprises, after all, and after five seasons of a show it’s difficult to find ways to surprise your audience outside of totally up-ending the status quo. But here we have Adventure Time, offering in its sixth season – recently released on Australian home entertainment – perhaps its strongest season yet.
In part, that’s because Adventure Time – while often uproariously funny – is far from a sitcom, or even a plain ol’ “comedy”, so it can avoid some of the pitfalls of its live action sitcom brethren. But you can’t really credit the success of Adventure Time’s season six by pointing to serialised dramas, which can leverage seasons of character development in unexpected new directions.
Sure, at this point the show has a pretty deep backstory, a foundation mined and developed extensively throughout this season. But it’s hardly the focus of the season, whose best episodes tend to be irreverent and absurdist with little interest in expounding upon an increasingly-labyrinthine mythology. Maybe it’s just me, but at this point I’ve pretty well lost interest in the particulars of Adventure Time’s history, and I’d argue that season six’s weakest episode is “Evergreen”, which flashes back into prehistoric times to flesh out Ice King’s backstory while foreshadow a climactic comet that becomes the centrepiece of the season finale. It’s not bad because of the mythology, but because it tends to sacrifice the show’s spark and spirit in favour of world-building.
Thing is, the reason that this season works so well is that Adventure Time’s world has already been so well-built. The first couple seasons felt improvisational in the best way, as though creator Pendelton Ward was tossing out half-thought ideas that his writers and animators were gleefully crafting into reality. But this defiantly weird world has become a base for remarkably diverse storytelling. That Land of Ooo is densely populated with magic, characters and adventures that facilitate pretty much any kind of story you can imagine.
The show still allows for broad experimentation, of course, evidenced here the likes of “Food Chain” and “Water Park Prank”, where Ward hands the reins over to guest animators Masaaki Yuasa and David Ferguson, respectively. This season’s best episodes work with the established character base, however, exploring and innovating within the rich confines of the existing universe.
Take Jake (the dog), for instance. His transformational abilities are a neat idea that let writers offer imaginative twists on Finn and Jake’s adventures early on, but they’re explored to the full in season six. It’s not just that visual gags increase in frequency – though they do – but it’s in episodes like “Sad Face” and “Everything’s Jake” that the potential of his shapeshift is truly realised. The former stages a silent comedy with Jake’s tail – playing a circus-clown-worm (yes) – while the latter sees Jake trapped in a world constructed of his own flesh. (Where every character is voiced by Billy Fry riffing on his Futurama characters, in one of the series’ many neat in-jokes.) Oh, and he’s just a brick in one episode.
The season’s forty-some episodes are packed with similar examples of character exploration, whether it’s “The Cooler” pairing Flame Princess and Princess Bubblegum in a political crisis or “Little Brother” centring on Shelby the worm. There’s so much space for storytelling in this universe, and it feels like season six explores every last crevice to mostly delightful results. I almost regret binging through the season over just a few days: the pleasures are so varied and creative that it’s better suited to spacing the viewing out over a few weeks or even months.
Even if we do disregard the mythology – or that, say, Finn is now carrying a sword that’s actually an alt-universe version of himself – there’s plenty of depth humming along under the surface. Children’s television characters tend to be flawed in broad, obvious ways that can tie into lessons at the end of an episode, but Adventure Time continues to reveal even its most charismatic characters’ deeper faults, whether it’s pride, hypocrisy or a predilection for kidnapping princesses.
Adventure Time bucks the trend by making its sixth season one of its strongest. Well worth your time.