Jake’s children don’t get very much attention on Adventure Time, but when they do, it typically results in strong, emotionally resonant episodes. Exploring the experience of being a parent takes this show in a very different direction, and “Wheels” adds another layer as it looks at Jake the grandpa, tasked with helping his son Kim Kil Whan deal with his daughter’s lack of academic ambition. The title of grandpa has a dustiness attached to it that is directly at odds with Jake’s teenage lifestyle, so when Jake tracks down Bronwyn and is immediately called “uncool” by his granddaughter and her friends at the skate park, he becomes fixated on proving that he’s actually the opposite.

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I don’t talk enough about just how great Jake’s stretching powers are, and this week’s episode has some really clever transformations. There are obvious ones like him turning into a giant square when the kids call him a square, but then he carries on with the “I’m old and uncool” theme by morphing into an old tree and an equestrian statue. He understands that an easy way to prove that he’s cool is by being self-deprecating and showing the youngsters that he’s not affected by their words, and it works. They acknowledge his inherent coolness until he brings up Bronwyn struggling grades, and trying to convince his granddaughter to do better in school immediately reminds everyone around him that he’s not one of them.

My favorite stretch of the episode is when Jake turns his arm into a rail that he then grinds on with his skateboard, muttering “ow” over and over as he drags the board against his flesh. He grinds his way back carrying Finn on his shoulder, the latest attempt to prove how cool he is by showing the skaters his 16-year-old roommate. Unfortunately, 16 is pretty old for this group of animals, so this plan fails. Finn playing the flute doesn’t impress them either, but they start to feel the cool again when Jake throws a beat behind the woodwind because kids love mash-ups.

It’s fun to look at Jake’s experience in this episode as a reflection of this show’s attempts to stay “cool” as it gets older and older and new Cartoon Network shows surpass it in popularity. Adventure Time isn’t the cultural phenomenon that it once was, but it hasn’t lost any of its charm either. The series has grown in major ways and is always expanding, and episodes like “Wheels” show that is still has plenty of new ideas to explore. One of the reasons the show has remained fresh is that it’s constantly adding exciting voices, and Adventure Time’s eighth season has featured some very promising new names as writers and storyboard artists.

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After Laura Knetzger’s excellent debut with “Do No Harm,” Charmaine Verhagen makes a big impression working with Adventure Time veteran Graham Falk on tonight’s episode. Verhagen and Falk put a ton of detail in the environments—Thrashland is particularly impressive—have a lot of fun with the aforementioned Jake transformations, and fill the screen with delightful character designs (I love the bunny with braces on her two buckteeth). The timing for the jokes is very sharp, but they also bring a lot of emotional weight to this story of three generations of family members bonding in unexpected ways.

Rae Gray is the voice of Bronwyn, and I actually saw Gray perform on stage quite a bit when I was a reviewing theater in Chicago. She has a talent for playing disaffected young characters like Bronwyn, and she nails Bronwyn’s standoffish attitude, but also brings a lot of compassion to the character in the final moments. That aloof quality disappears when she sees her grandpa attempt a dangerous jump that took her months to perfect, and there’s genuine concern as she watches Jake totally biff it and go flying through the air. Marc Evan Jackson is great at playing uptight characters (check out the amazing season finale of The Good Place for another recent example), but both Jackson and Gray soften up their voices as Kim Kil Whan and Bronwyn come to a mutual understanding at the end of the episode. In the end, it’s not about being cool and uncool, but about communicating with each other to find common ground that benefits everyone.

Stray observations

  • Finn and Bronwyn’s Thrash-Off gives me major flashbacks to the hours spent playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, especially with that propulsive rock guitar backing the action.
  • I love discovering the random superpowers that Jake’s kids/grandkids have. Bronwyn can turn herself into lightning!
  • “It looks like this round gramps…is a real square.”
  • “You—you’re the fart.”
  • Finn: “Dude, you’re really going to ban your own granddaughter from her own skate park?” Jake: “Man, I hope so.” Jake’s facial expression here is hilarious.

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