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The ‘New Yorker’ Discovers ‘Adventure Time’ After Five Seasons

This week’s issue of The New Yorker does something that they rarely ever do: review an animated TV series. The show they elected to discuss is Adventure Time. With 156 episodes already aired, the magazine’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum had her work cut out for her. Here are the different ways that she attempted to explain the show to the magazine’s crusty non-animation viewing crowd:

  • “It’s a post-apocalyptic allegory full of helpful dating tips for teen-agers, or like World of Warcraft as recapped by Carl Jung.”
  • “[It’s] a cartoon about a hero who fights villains, with fun violence, the occasional fart joke, and a slight edge of Bushwick cool-kid hipness.”
  • “There are moments when Finn’s story feels suspiciously like a compensatory fantasy, invented to disguise a trauma that can’t be faced head on—as if it were the Mulholland Drive of children’s television.”
  • “[It’s] one of the most philosophically risky and, often, emotionally affecting shows on TV. It’s beautiful and funny and stupid and smart, in about equal parts, as well as willing to explore uneasy existential questions, like what it means to go on when the story you’re in has ended.”

Unfortunately, Nussbaum falls into the usual trap of cartoon viewers who resort to drug comparisons and analogies to describe animation. She does it twice, first saying that, “It’s also the type of show that’s easy to write off as ‘stoner humor,'” and later on, referring to Pen Ward’s creation as ‘a druglike experience.’

If Adventure Time is a druglike experience, what would the New Yorker make of the average Fleischer, Harman-Ising, or Iwerks theatrical short from the 1930s? These reductive statements, which are almost never used to describe fine art, do a disservice to the creativity of the artwork by suggesting that animation is an indescribable art form akin to being in an altered mental state. They fail to acknowledge that the animation art form’s uniqueness stems, in large part, from its ability to transcend reality and indulge in the realm of the fantastic and the impossible.

By the last paragraph of the piece, Nussbaum assumes an almost apologetic tone, acknowledging that her description “may leave you cold,” because “like any trip, Adventure Time has a definite ‘you had to be there’ quality.” Admirably, she refuses to give up and concludes with an exhortation to her readers to give the show a chance:

But that’s part of the show’s most freeing quality: childlike, nonlinear, poetic, and just outside all the categories that the world considers serious, it’s television that you can respond to fully, without needing to make a case for why. Here. Have a taste.

  • J

    Call me stupid, but I actually found that article quite nice and helpful to explain the series to people who don’t consume “cartoons”. Considering those are the ones who read The New Yorker, I think it does its job to sell the series. Don’t be so bitter about it, be happy Adventure Time is such an amazing series it is reaching people who wouldn’t even give it a chance without these kind of articles.

    • zac leck

      Whaddya mean? The New Yorker has been printing those hilarious cartoons for years and years! I think if anyone knows funny dot dot dot

  • DangerMaus

    I guess I’ll finally have to watch a full episode of this series. Not because of a New Yorker article, but due to constantly reading positive views of this show.

    • Finn

      I can’t fathom how you haven’t watched a full episode already.

  • Revy

    Interesting to note that Pendleton Ward has stated that he specifically does NOT use drugs when creating the show to sort of force himself to literally BE that creative without external substance use. (Source: The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast interview with Pen)

    That said, Adventure Time is the first American TV cartoon series to truly capture my imagination since I was a child. It really is that deep when you get down and think about it, and it really is that trippy, and it really is that hilarious! Totally recommended to anyone and everyone.

  • Tony

    Comparing cartoons to drugs says more about the writer (and the intended audience) than it does about cartoons.

  • Sean

    I read cartoon brew for two reasons: 1) It’s the greatest source of animation journalism and commentary on the internet. 2) Amid freaks out at the strangest things. His overreaction to the arrival of a new My Little Pony series was the catalyst for the formation of the entire Brony community.

    I get what you’re saying here, that mainstream media sources generally don’t take animation at face value, they have to approach it from a kind of once-removed safe distance in order to take it at all seriously. That’s a valid point and something that’s very worth discussing. At the same time, I actually really liked this New Yorker article and It made me want to go watch Adventure Time, like, right now.

  • Bruce

    I have known Pen Ward since he entered Cal Arts. My inability to agree with his design concepts or his story lines was always an issue that separated us.
    He was fully formed from the start. I wanted to see expansion of design, he hung tough. To his credit he has, as with any successful artist, sustained his vision without compromise until it is understood and appreciated. Throup was another artist that had those abilities.This article allows non viewers of his series to find out what else is available to them. It may take five years to establish enough substance for a magazine like the New Yorker to consider it a cultural influencer.It helps establish a credibility and substance to the material. The influence on art through animation sources is very prevalent in the fine arts currently and will remain. KAWS, Murakami, and the exhibit “High & Low” are just some evidence of this. Both art forms reference one another in today’s world and have come closer together in breaking the past boundaries between them. It is a good thing.

  • iamsam

    I love Adventure Time. I always wondered how corny and stupid could the show get. I mean the style is weird and simple and I hate anything with fart jokes but then you watch this show a couple of times and you realize the creativity and the absolute depth it has. IT has some of the best character development ever and is really immersive. It is surreal and a wonderful take on a POST APOCALYPTIC world. I don’t know about you but I was tired of the old boring dark and dingy apocalyptic worlds. Also is it just me or is Finn growing up on the show. LIke the older he gets the more mature the show gets. He went from not liking girls to having his first kiss. I like that sort of development.

  • Confused Now

    I don’t think it has much in common with Johnk, other than madcap, off-model poses.
    The character designs are veryy simplistic
    I think my favorite thing about this show is its Nickelodean-like use of color

  • Funkybat

    The character designs is what initially kept me away, that, and the reputation it seemed to develop as a “hipster cartoon.” A lot of friends, including some who are very picky about their film and TV choices, have strongly recommended it, so I overcame my initial resistance and am glad I did. I know it’s not how *I* want to draw, but you know what? It’s good to have some visual diversity in animation. I just get annoyed at me-too types who try to emulate his look.

  • Delysid

    Okay, I love Adventure Time and I happen to like the psychedelic experience. When you have a character named Lumpy Space Princess that they commonly refer to as LSP… I’m jus sayin.

  • DangerMaus

    Well, I bought the first season on Blu-ray and marathoned all 26 episodes. I’ll have to watch it again at a more leisurely pace, but I do have to say the thing kind of grows on a person once you get past the character designs. I could see a definite improvement as the season progressed. There was some pretty good dialogue in it and some quirky characters. I’d have to say, in my case, that the episodes involving Marceline were the best ones.

    I’d have to say that the simple designs require the writing and dialogue to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting in the show, so in that regard it reminds me quite a bit of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show; although, the animation quality in AT is quite a bit above that show. Still, both shows feel like the writing carries the can more than the visuals.

  • Ben

    I ended up here because of that article. Should I not watch the show because I read The New Yorker or because I am not part of your exclusive world of cartoon viewers who watched before every one else knew about it? By streaming on Netflix is the show selling our or am I finding something that was cool until it became mainstream and left the avant-garde?