No worries; I am here to expand our already robust coverage of Adventure Time: Will ranked the 25 best episodes through Season 6 and Brian assembled an excellent primer on the show and its appeal. In fact, I suggest you go read Brian’s article instead of this one; his analysis of the show’s strengths and weaknesses is very on-the-money.
Over the past couple months, I’ve slowly worked through the 26 episodes making up the first season of Adventure Time. The premise is a simple and appealing one: Finn, a human boy, and Jake, his shape-shifting dog, spend every episode going on an adventure. Comic mischief ensues, often resolving with some sort of moral.
Above all, this is an imaginative show, with a fluid notion of reality and a truly childlike worldview. Everything is presented through a youthful, almost naive, version of a fantasy heroic story. In the world of Ooo, “adventuring” is a light-hearted, noble pursuit of horsing around and beating up bad guys. In this world, the highest ideal of peace and prosperity is “partying,” which is mostly people dancing around asexually like they’re action figures that an eight-year-old is shaking around.
From this simple premise comes a massive fountain of stories thanks to the immensely creative writing and animation staff. Uncomplicated, childlike fun blends with parody and structural creativity. Winking, adult joke and imagery and allusions are built into the fabric of the show. Tonally, Adventure Time occasionally bounces in weird directions, often resulting in surreal plot twists and dissonant endings.
You can tell the writers spent the first season trying to figure out what tones and stories work for the show, and which ones don’t. The average quality of episodes gradually increases as the season progresses, though admittedly some of that heightened enjoyment is simply developing familiarity with the characters and internal logic of Adventure Time.
Even as the average goes up, the quality of episodes bounces around a lot, and I think the uneven edges and unpredictability is part of what makes the show so immensely watchable. (The bite-size episode length helps too.)
The heart of the show through Season 1 has been the bond between the two main heroes. Finn is an enthusiastic, almost over-eager, hero. Sometimes he struggles externally, fighting off monsters and obstacles; other times, he struggles internally, learning what makes a good hero. Jake, his older, ostensibly wiser, dog-friend makes a great companion; many of the season’s finest moments come from some great exchange or fraternal moment between the pair.
In general, I found the first season’s strongest outings to be episodes that focused on the show’s most compelling side characters. So far, that mostly means The Ice King, one of two major recurring antagonists. The Ice King has a distinct personality of a broken, confused old man whose obsession with capturing and marrying princesses highlights the warped gender ethics of video game and fantasy tropes.
The other main semi-antagonist of the season is Marceline the Vampire. Though she only appears in two episodes, she’s immediately a strong presence. Her slinky aloofness and teenage girl deadpan patois (think April from Parks and Rec, but a vampire) are a striking contrast to hero Finn’s enthusiasm and forthright optimism. She gives her episodes a special energy.
The show takes on a bunch of identities this season: In its second episode, “Trouble in Lumpy Space,” the show traffics the annoying voices and over-the-top caricatures that you often find in Adult Swim-type animated comedy; “Freak City,” meanwhile, jumps deep into absurdity, as Finn is transformed into a giant foot who must unite with other body part freaks to get his old body back.
Brian highlighted two other strengths in his show overview, and they’re definitely worth emphasizing: Adventure Time has a preponderance of musical-style songs, and outstanding voice acting, especially from guest stars. Nearly every other episode has some catchy interlude — this season’s highlight perhaps the house-hunting song.
All of the regular voice actors do a good job, with a special shout out to John DiMaggio as Jake. But what’s impressed me the most are how much the show gets out of guest voices: from George Takei to Lou Ferrigno to Mark Hammill, lots of minor stars do great work this season. My favorite turn is probably Kevin Michael Richardson as the obnoxious bully ogre Donny from episode #21.
The show’s at its weakest when it relies too much on the type of comedy often found in bad kid movies: fart noises and butt jokes with little other framework for a joke. The show also occasionally leans too hard on what Brian calls “random humor” — a joke where the entire point is that something silly comes completely out of the blue with no context. In small doses, this heightens the show’s sense of absurdity; with even a little too much, it makes the show feel strained and overwrought.
My hope for next season is that the show a) takes more risks with unusual episode formats and subject matter, b) leans more into darker, more dramatic, more mature stories, c) expands the world of Ooo’s lore and backstory, and d) develops the relationship between various characters into more compelling dynamics.
If I keep watching and feel compelled, I might check in at the end of Season 2 and future seasons.
My 5 Favorite Episodes of Season 1
5. “Prisoners of Love” (#3)
The last spot on this list came down to a bunch of episodes that I liked but had reservations about: “Freak City” has a hilariously insane premise (Jake turned into a foot), but an anticlimactic ending. “Evicted” memorably introduces Marceline but is otherwise a scattershot episode. “Henchman” sees the delightful return of Marceline with a clever plot, but is super-rushed. “My Two Favorite People” is a much-desired Jake spotlight, but its typical sitcom plot is not too memorable.
So this slot really came down to “The Enchirideon!” (#5) and “Prisoners of Love.” The former is a fun, solid, action-based episode with no major flaws, but I went with the latter because of its great use of The Ice King. The episode develops him as a pathetically misguided romantic, and lets you sympathize with his loneliness just enough to make you care about what happens to him after he captures a half dozen princesses. Sure, “Prisoners of Love” features too much Lumpy Space Princess (easily the show’s most annoying creation yet), but it’s an early winner.
4. “Rany Day Daydream” (#23)
With Jake and Finn’s questing put on hold thanks to a rainstorm of knives falling from the sky, “Rainy Day Daydream” is a celebration of imagination both in its premise and its hilarious, breakneck execution. The writing reminds you once again of how in touch the show is with childlike logic and creativity by giving the characters a full-fledged adventure inside their house and their brains. Fun, well-done episode.
3. “Ricardio the Heart Guy” (#6)
After saving Bubblegum Princess and having a party thrown in his honor, Ricardio — literally a walking heart — becomes the center of attention, but Finn thinks Ricardio might be hiding his true motives. The tension between Finn’s jealousy and his legitimate suspicion, along with a solid slate of gags, make “Ricardio” my favorite outing from the first half of the season.
2. “What Have You Done” (#24)
Another Ice King episode, like “Prisoners of Love,” and another episode built around the dubious villainy of side character, like “Ricardio.” “What Have You Done” is a clever and well-written episode that sees Finn and Jake struggling head-on with their presumptions about villainy; specifically the Ice King’s. It’s a refreshing and funny episode that touches on the foundation of the show.
1. “Dungeon” (#18)
“Dungeon” is the most giddy episode of Season 1, a gleeful embrace of mischief and adventure, and it also packs a punch with its character work by showing how Finn and Jake really rely on each other. The plot is simple as can be — Finn tries to rescue a gem from the titular dungeon, but attempts to do it by himself, only to struggle without Jake’s help. But it’s crafted with energy, solid comedy(including a couple of meta-jokes about episode length and tacked-on morals) and a truly fantastic one-off character of a creepy cat who has “approximate knowledge of many things.”