When the setting for a TV show is a post‑apocalyptic world in which a nuclear disaster has wiped out all humans, except one, you'd be forgiven for imagining a series that consists of dodging zombies (à la The Walking Dead) or is a made-for-TV take on Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Gory, or heartbreaking, or both, right? Not if you're watching Adventure Time, a children's cartoon with an unusually bleak-sounding set-up that is bright and bonkers, as well as bringing a meditation on gender politics, moral philosophy and love in the modern world.
Now in its sixth season, Adventure Time is about a teenage boy (Finn) and his dog (Jake) fighting monsters. It's also a doomsday fable about the difficulty of adult responsibility, an ensemble sitcom that's happy to end episodes on a fart joke and a rolling parade of the manic excesses of the imagination.
Having started out as a stand-alone short created by the American animator Pendleton Ward, it was leaked online in 2007, went viral, racked up three million views in a year and was swiftly commissioned. Now aired in 194 countries, it attracts more than two million viewers monthly, with adults making up a third of its audience.
"I've heard it compared to a kid's imaginary play," says Adam Muto, the show's co-executive producer, who's been on board since the pilot, variously as an animator and writer. "And we try to make it seem effortless but it's hard. There's so much work that goes into it."
At the first glance, the plot summaries read like exactly the sort of overly specific randomness that would have any sensible adult rolling their eyes pityingly. In one episode from season five, Finn gets hung up over a nascent relationship with Flame Princess (imagine a princess made of flames and you're pretty much there) and builds a giant pillow fort to let his mind "fester a bit". Crawling inside, he finds himself in a pillow world that he can't escape from and is forced to accept a new life, settling down with a pillow wife, raising a pillow family and eventually dying in bed before being zipped through the cosmos to emerge as his teenage self, pushing his way out of the same fort. Flame Princess rings and Finn forgets that anything happened to him. All this is crammed into an episode just 11 minutes long.
Adventure Time is full of oddballs and jerks. The show's haphazard mythos includes the god-like Prismo, an omnipotent two-dimensional being who gives the characters friendly advice and homemade pickles, and the straightforwardly evil, such as the Earl of Lemongrab, a totalitarian ruler whose only pleasure comes from eating his own clones. "It's usually just observation," says Muto, who is casual about the show's claims to emotional depth. "It's mostly about relationships and people can read into it what they will."
Adventure Time has been developing season to season. The early episodes established the bounds of the universe and the relationship of Finn and Jake (the former an irrepressible optimist; the latter a shape-shifting dog with the savvy outlook of an older brother). But in recent seasons a more sombre back-story has emerged, with the show's setting – the Land of Ooo – revealed as the post-apocalyptic earth and its inhabitants mutants.
If all this sounds a bit try-hard, or even just insane, you might need to experience for yourself a cartoon that manages, like all good art, to contain multitudes – encompassing highs and lows, visual gags and songs; creating something that's elegiac, sinister, and tender all at once.
"It's so hard to describe," Muto says. "On its face it's just a really simple show about this boy in blue and his yellow dog. People go into episodes expecting something very specific and they won't get that. The best way to approach is just not expecting anything; just let it be what it's going to be."
'Adventure Time' is on Mondays at 5pm on the Cartoon Network