Adventure Time has somehow managed to stay on fire for its fifth season’s double-wide 52-episode run. Episodes may only be 11 minutes long, but even if Cartoon Network aired the episodes at the rate of two a week, that would still be half a year of non-stop adventuring. The fifth season of Adventure Time aired from November of 2012 to March of 2014, an astounding length of time in the TV landscape. But even more astounding: At 155 episodes in the series so far, the show hasn’t hit a rut yet.
Episodic television, for the people writing it, can get incredibly claustrophobic after a few dozen episodes. Writers are handed a set of boundaries when a show is greenlit and then have to work within those parameters for years. If big changes are possible at all, they usually happen at a glacial pace. But on some shows that were creatively ambitious from the start—like Adventure Time—the point at which the writers become comfortable with the show’s boundaries is when they get bored and start rattling the bars. That’s when things get either really good or really bonkers, or occasionally both. Adventure Time offers handy examples of all of the above.
It’s not like this is the first season of the show where creator Pendleton Ward and his staff have tried experimental things, and even in previous seasons, that experimentation has been delightful. As season five progressed, however, the show’s writers often seemed to be going stir-crazy within the “classic” format—that is, a first-season-style 11-minute, conventionally animated standalone adventure set in the world of Ooo that stars the show’s handful of regularly recurring players. In season five, the writers have branched out to other formats, like comics and video games, but within the limitations of a short cartoon rated TV-PG. Where other shows might experiment with one or two of their boundaries—format, episode length, visual style, characters, tone, and setting—season five of Adventure Time has been messing around with all of them, to the point where one might wonder what season six is even going to look like.
The thing the writers seem to be pushing at the most is the 11-minute length of an episode. They’ve tackled this with double episodes like “Lemonhope” and the season premiere, as well as even shorter stories in episodes like the season’s two “Graybles” episodes. The writing staff has also taken the less-obvious X-Files approach: expanding the length of the stories they’re able to tell by linking monster-of-the-week episodes into longer arcs.
The fifth season of Adventure Time has also expanded the series’ mythology and backstory, with more revealed about the history of Ooo, the Ice King, and the Mushroom War than had been in previous seasons. But the biggest story here, one that links the season together as a single unit more directly than past ones, is that of protagonist Finn the human growing up. Four episodes directly chronicle Finn’s first relationship and breakup with Flame Princess, with his feelings about that tonally linking in several other episodes. And that’s a subset of the bigger “going through puberty and discovering sex is weird” story, which is the longest one the writers have tried to tell so far. It’s what the whole show’s technically about, but in season five, it has become more of a story and less of a vague theme.
On some shows, the writing staff will deal with feeling hemmed in by the setting or premise by abruptly moving their cast of characters to a new one, with the only justification being an implicit “Because we said so!” (Recent examples include Archer and Eastbound & Down.) Adventure Time has also done this in season five, spending quite a bit of time ditching Ooo for parallel universes, whether the pillow-world of “Puhoy,” the alternate timeline of the premiere, the fan-fiction world of Fionna and Cake in “Bad Little Boy,” and the past in “Simon & Marcy” and “The Vault.” It takes self-assurance and tonal consistency to pull this off without giving the audience whiplash, but leaving Ooo behind made for some of the best episodes of the season.
The opposite of this approach is developing characters to the point where they can create new and different situations in the same setting. It’s not easy to do this on an episodic show, without a big serialized story to guide the progress. But it’s not impossible, as also demonstrated on this season of Adventure Time. The weird or negative personality traits of many of the characters have been getting more extreme over the fifth season, opening up new avenues for storytelling. In particular, the fifth season has depicted the surprisingly mature story of the Lemongrabs. Initially the candy creations of the series’ main female character, Princess Bubblegum, the Lemongrabs are pigheaded and intolerant—but have also been largely abandoned by their mistress. The episodes forming a loose arc around these characters are darker and creepier than anything in previous seasons.
Adventure Time’s writers could risk self-parody or burnout—after all, top-yourself character development only goes in one direction. But so far, the longer story arcs and character dissection have opened up possibilities for genuine poignancy—as seen over several episodes that have delved into the tragic past and potentially redemptive future of the series’ main antagonist, the Ice King. On the flip side of this, Finn has been allowed to go to darker territory than he had in previous seasons, and he seems to actually have learned something real and necessary from his screw-up with Flame Princess.
All of these elements have combined to make for a terrific fifth season of Adventure Time. On some shows, the creative team becoming sick of the format can lead to self-indulgence and increasingly desperate gimmicks. On Adventure Time, experimentation has allowed the writers to indulge their whimsy, yes, but has also led the series to push the characters and story in new and important directions. Adventure Time’s writers becoming a little sick of their format has been a great thing for Adventure Time’s viewers.