I got into Adventure Time about a year ago. It was billed as a spiritual predecessor to Steven Universe, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The quality is pretty haphazard – individual episodes can be very good, but for most of its run it seems to throw consistent storytelling to the wind. There’s basically no telling what will happen in a given episode, or how much we’re supposed to care; maybe a given plot point be revisited and turn out to be vitally important a few episodes later, maybe a few seasons later, maybe never. It currently has a number of interesting ongoing mysteries and plotlines, but it jumps between them seemingly at random, which can be frustrating. It overall feels like a show that’s constantly trying and failing to figure out what it wants to be.
There’s one plot point that I found particularly baffling, however, and I think it ties into a recurring problem in shows like these that toe the line between episodic and plotty: they can’t decide whether they want to play a potentially serious topic for drama or comedy.
(Spoilers for episode 6×22, for those of you who care.)
I think the best example of this is with Princess Bubblegum, who is the best character. (Not everyone agrees with me on this, but they’re all wrong.) The basic premise of Princess Bubblegum is that she is a nonhuman creature spawned from a magical gum deposit at the birth of the world (it’s a weird show) who proceeded to create a race of “candy people” (anthropomorphic muffins, lollipops, bananas, etc.) and establish her territory as the Candy Kingdom, ruling over her people like a god for the better part of a millenium.
The thing is, she’s a nerdy shut-in who just wants to spend all her time doing science, so she’s actually pretty awkward at ruling. It’s unclear exactly how much ruling she actually does; she seems to delegate most of it to her subordinates and staff of guards. This, combined with her extremely logical, scientific mindset, leads to her doing some really questionable things in the pursuit of keeping the kingdom running. She rules with an iron fist, keeping an immense surveillance network over the entire kingdom (and beyond, as we later learn). When she finds something she deems a threat, she crushes it swiftly and ruthlessly.
The show plays all of this for laughs, however. It’s constantly implied she’s doing tons of incredibly shady things that the kid protagonist is just too dumb to notice… but it never actually hurts anyone, and she never seems to actually kill any dissidents – there are a huge number of recurring characters in the Candy Kingdom, and none of them mysteriously disappear between episodes. There is one episode where she spies on a hilariously incompetent group of candy citizens plotting rebellion against her, but she just seems amused by the whole thing and the rebels suffer no consequences.
This is the tone the show takes for five and half seasons: Bubblegum does stuff that looks horrifying on the surface, but it’s actually harmless and she’s not really an evil despot. Okay, sure, that works; it’s hardly the craziest idea in the show, I can roll with that.
But then out of nowhere the show decides to say NO ACTUALLY THIS IS SUPER SERIOUS YOU GUYS. Episode 6×22, “The Cooler”, centers around a political conflict between Princess Bubblegum and the neighboring Flame Kingdom. The Flame Kingdom is rapidly cooling down, endangering its fire-based citizens, so Flame Princess calls on Bubblegum for aid despite the fact she doesn’t like her on account of the whole iron-fisted tyrant thing. But in reality, Bubblegum manufactured the crisis just so Flame Princess would call her in, giving her access to the Flame Kingdom’s arsenal of nukes, which she proceeds to disarm, leaving them defenseless. And she only knew that the Flame Kingdom had nukes, and thought they were a threat to her, because she embedded a secret camera in the Candy Kingdom ambassador! (We also discover she is spying on basically the entire world, including the protagonists who are supposedly her dear friends.) Flame Princess catches her red-handed and calls her out on all of this, but forgives her for everything because Flame Princess is a saint.
But amazingly, this actually leads to character development! Bubblegum actually takes Flame Princess’ rebuke to heart, and when she gets home the first thing she does is shut down her spy network for good. And from here on out, especially in the next season, she does visibly change her behavior and try to become a better person. Yes, good! The show reexamined a recurring element from a serious perspective and achieved meaningful character growth from it. That’s good, I’m down with that. It’s fitting, especially in a coming-of-age story like this one, to slowly take things more seriously over time.
But then the show tries to throw it all away. 11 episodes later, we see that Bubblegum is back to her old tricks: a candy citizen is trying to escape the kingdom, and has to rip out a tracker embedded in his tooth to escape Bubblegum’s panopticon. This is never mentioned again and has no further consequences, even though it implies something much darker about Bubblegum’s police state than anything we’ve previously seen. It’s back to being just another throwaway gag.
And… no. You can’t do that. Once you choose to take a story element seriously you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. Playing this for laughs after we just had that extremely serious plot about it is incredibly lazy and does nothing but trivialize the whole thing. What, was I not supposed to take that extremely dark and heavy episode seriously? Was Bubblegum’s apparent character growth just another gag? And now that we’ve delved into the serious consequences of it, trying to use it as a joke falls completely flat; we’ve just established that no, this is wrong and does hurt people, so Bubblegum continuing to do it isn’t funny anymore. (The show does similar stuff elsewhere, too – the protagonist’s personality often changes on a dime to suit whatever’s funniest for a given episode’s plot, especially early in the show.)
And this turnaround pretty much vaporized any faith I had in these writers. Now I can never tell what tone I’m supposed to take from a given episode, or if they’ll ever address a given plot point seriously ever again. You can’t go GRIMDARK and then try to go LOL J/K without alienating your audience.
A lot of people are saying we’re experiencing a renaissance in cartoon storytelling as more shows are starting to realize that people want more serious elements like character development and overarching plots. And while that’s true to an extent, it definitely seems like some shows are still finding their feet, caught between the no-consequences storytelling of yesteryear and the new edginess people are clamoring for.
I think I’ve seen this before, actually, in The Big Bang Theory of all things – is Leonard’s abuse at the hands of his mother something serious, or are we supposed to laugh about him blowing it out of proportion? Was he justified in snubbing her from his wedding or not? The show often oscillated between the two positions even within the same episode, and it turned the whole thing into a farce.
It’s really neat when kids’ cartoons try to reach for something more, but they need to realize there are different rules of storytelling when continuity is involved. You have to decide what tone you really want to set, and you have to commit.