When recently discussing the ranking of best dystopian television series, it was clear what came out on top: Adventure Time. In a genre that is often hopeless and tremendously dark, lead characters Finn and Jake offer whimsy, levity, and life to the audience. Never is this more apparent than when the characters break out in song.
Dystopian shows are often a profitable category, and one that builds a devoted fandom. Black Mirror, Dark Angel, Dollhouse, Fringe, Falling Skies, Man in the High Castle, The 100, and The Walking Dead are just a few options. Each of these shows is often bleak, and the main focus is on survival or rebellion. Animated shows have offered their versions as well with series like Aeon Flux and Samurai Jack.
In a time when nuclear weapons are a part of general conversation, and the reality of global warming is still debated by nation leaders as the world warms up and slowly drowns, these shows make sense to us. Things tend toward hopelessness and these series get it. Adventure Time takes it a step further.
Created by Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time (AT) focuses on Jake the Dog and Finn the Human and their journeys through the Land of Ooo. One of the strengths of AT is exactly what Ward points out in an interview with Art of the Title, “We don’t like stuff that’s overly gross. We like cute stuff and nice things, so we try to plug the show full of that. I mean, there is a lot of gross weirdo stuff in the show, but only because there are so many voices. When something gets too sick, Pat [McHale] usually gets grossed out and then I revise it, or we think about how we’d react when we were kids.”
Nowhere is the joy, the “cute stuff,” more present than in the show’s songs. While the show addresses everything from global warming to abandonment to how to be a better friend, it does so in ways that are both safe for kids to watch and meaningful to adult viewers. Now, at the end of a year where everything is feeling particularly bleak, and after Adventure Time creators announced the ninth season in 2018 would be it’s last, it’s a good time to take a look at the musical dystopia we all need and deserve.
Before we jump in, “come on, grab your friends…The fun will never end, Adventure Time!” That’s right, the theme song. While lyrically it doesn’t make the 20 second limit or the character requirement, it’s too good not to talk about. This is the theme song throughout the entire series (so far), altered only for very special episodes. Short and sweet, the video starts off with relics of the past (including a warhead) and then moves through the candy colored lands of Ooo. It’s perfect.
In season one so many of the songs focus on adopting people into the Treehouse and nurturing, and Finn as a adventure-nurturer is a running theme throughout the show. In season one episode six, “The Jiggler”, the song “Baby” shows how inclusive Finn is of smaller creatures. He is truly a hero (with an autotune box stuck in his throat), and his goal to is protect those who cannot protect themselves. This theme is investigated again in the episode “What is Life?” when Finn wants to create a never ending pie throwing robot, but instead births Nector who will become a beloved, albeit annoying, cast member. Much later in the series, Finn is protective of the giant baby Sweet P, even though this character is also the super evil Lich King whose very existence threatens the world. Finn is consistently forgiving of others’ faults and willing to accept reality as a constantly changing thing.
Family in a wider context is also a huge theme in Adventure Time: biological, adopted, and chosen. One of the first examples of how complicated Adventure Time would allow their characters’ arches to become was with the introduction of the conflict between Marceline the Vampire Queen and her father in season 2’s “It Came from the Nightosphere.” She sings in the “Fry Song” that her father stole her fries, which seems like a small conflict, but is truly a window into the manipulative and dangerous relationship Marcy has with him, the ruler of the Nightosphere. By contrast her mother is a lovely woman who introduces us to the for-some-reason-heartbreaking song “Everything Stays.”
Familial ties are further complicated for Marceline as the audience learns more about the Ice King, previously a man named Simon who was like a second father to Marcy. This dynamic and the way it has changed over hundreds of years is explored in “Maybe I’m the One Who’s Nuts” (which is a bit ableist in its language about mental illness) and “I Remember You.” Their relationship shifts necessarily as Simon becomes a different person, but Marceline continues to care about and for the old man.
Romantic love is also not shied away from, as evidenced by Finn’s debilitating crush on Princess Bubblegum, followed by his relationships with Flame Princess, his pillow wife, and several other flirtations. After realizing that nothing will ever happen between Bubblegum and himself—PB is very clear with him about not returning his feelings—Finn curls up on the floor of his treehouse lamenting how he is “All Gummed Up Inside.”
Following this display of relatable devastation, absolute-best-pal Jake attempts to cheer Finn up by finding him a new love, Flame Princess. In “All Warmed Up Inside” Jake serenades Flame Princess for Finn (which may be a little weird, but also pretty sweet), risking his own safety by entering the dangerous flame kingdom.
One of the reasons that PB and Finn could never work out (besides the enormous age gap) is that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline are ex-girlfriends. Ok, this may not be canon per se, but it’s heavily implied. What definitely is canon is that the two of them were very close previous to the first season and that they are repairing that bond over the course of the show. The rift is discussed in the episode “What Was Missing” during “I’m Just Your Problem” sung by Marceline in which she tells Bonnie she doesn’t feel important to her anymore. This song is incredible, and my new queer break-up anthem:
Sorry I don’t treat you like a goddess,
Is that what you want me to do?
Sorry I don’t treat you like you’re perfect,
Like all your little loyal subjects do,
Sorry I’m not made of sugar,
Am I not sweet enough for you?
Is that why you always avoid me?
That must be such an inconvenience to you, well
I’m just your problem,
I’m just your problem,
It’s like I’m not even a person, am I?
I’m just your problem
Well, I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I shouldn’t have to justify what I do
I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I shouldn’t have to prove anything to you
I’m sorry that I exist
I forget what landed me on your blacklist,
But I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I shouldn’t have to be the one that makes up with you, so
Why do I want to? Why do I want to…
Later, during the “Stakes” mini-series Marcy dreams that she and PB will grow old together.
The Land of Ooo, a post-apocalyptic version of our own world, is a nightmare landscape filled with danger at every turn. Adventure Time, instead of focusing on that aspect, depicts the life that thrives and goes on despite the land’s upheaval. It’s a musical tale of resilience, family, and, ultimately, friendship. It’s what we need to shine a light in these dark times.