“Oh, you should totally watch [insert show]” is a fraught statement in the best of cases. There’s a ton of great television, and, consequently, TV shows that everyone is proclaiming they’ll catch up on over the summer. (You know they never will.) But take into account completely reasonable differences in taste without being overzealous, and it becomes a lot harder to universally suggest anything. To take just a few examples, Breaking Bad is just too intense for some people; Mad Men has its fair share of detractors; and the The Americans and Hannibal take great pains to be prickly.
Enter: Adventure Time, which premieres its sixth season tonight. It's the only show on television I’d unequivocally recommend to anyone.
At first glance, Adventure Time (which already has a cult fanase) doesn’t seem like the best candidate for universal love. It’s a kids’ show, which is already a strike against it for boring, cynical adults. And while the premise—an adventuring boy (Finn) and his magical stretching dog/brother/best friend (Jake) traverse a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of candy people—is wildly attractive depending on your sense of whimsy, it’s easy to imagine getting turned off by a story that asks the viewer to emotionally invest in a talking cinnamon bun. But it’s hard to imagine who’d be an Adventure Time hater, assuming they had the right introduction to the series.
Honestly, writing anything about Adventure Time seems superfluous in the face of this astonishing Awl cover story on the show by Maria Bustillos (go read it and come back). In another fantastic essay, Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker admits to having taken a while to “drop the snotty attitude.” Nussbaum identifies all of the ways one can watch Adventure Time: as a somewhat pretentious, philosophical journey through childhood; as a fun, cool cartoon about a boy and his magical stretching dog fighting monsters; as a deep, mythology-rich look at a post-apocalyptic wasteland; or as the tragedy of the Ice King and Marceline, mirroring Finn’s lurching toward maturity. Writing to an audience of people who read The New Yorker, Nussbaum claims that, “Five late-season episodes should suffice” for those interested in the show. But there are so many tones contained in the show, and so many episodes, that it seems like Nussbaum’s recommendation raises a natural question: Which ones?
As an often-overzealous fan of Adventure Time, I've had a lot of practice trying to persuade different types of people to watch the show, with varying degrees of success. Here is that accumulated wisdom, the episodes that helped get me into Adventure Time and that I’ve used to introduce other people to the show. Some episodes worked to convert fans. Some didn't. Learn from my mistakes here:
“Slumber Party Panic”: I started out right, not with the Adventure Time short (though I saw that soon enough), but with the first episode proper. “Slumber Party Panic” might not be the most sophisticated episode of the show, but it establishes the central relationships between Finn, Jake, and PB (that’s its job, after all) well, and finds time to include some of the weird, surreal darkness that creeps into the show when the candy people start to eat each other. This isn’t going to convince fans of serious television to start watching the show, but it does the trick to pique their interest.
“Donny”: This was the episode that got me hooked on Adventure Time, mostly because of the episode’s unabashed love of terrible wordplay. The titular jerk Donny emits a pungent gas called “obnoxygen,” that in turn serves as a repellent to a pack of wolves who transform into scientist wolves wearing lab coats: whywolves. (This is still one of my favorite dumb jokes from the show’s run, because where else will you find creatures possessed with the spirit of inquiry… and bloodlust?)
“It Came From The Nightosphere”: This was the first time I tried to explain Adventure Time to someone who was completely uninitiated, way back when season two first aired, but I hadn’t seen this episode yet and didn’t know what was coming. If you're easily scared, avert your eyes: the episode focuses on the vampire queen Marceline’s father Hunson Abadeer, the Lord Of Evil, ruler of the Nightosphere, and Ooo’s version of the devil. Abadeer spends the episode sucking out the souls of cute little fluff people and generally raining terror down on Ooo, with only minor humor to cut the creepiness. My friend was more than justified in being freaked out. Tell the newbies to skip this one.
“Hug Wolf”: Okay, maybe this is the worst episode I’ve ever tried to use to introduce someone to the show (and maybe I just love weird jokes with wolves). “Hug Wolf” is an odd beast, even for Adventure Time. It’s basically a parable about sexual assault for 10-year-olds, which is not a thing that screams “accessible.” After the hug wolf hugs Finn, our hero develops “huglust” and goes around squeezing everyone in the Candy Kingdom. My friend was vaguely disturbed by this. However, for the more demented among us, there’s no better intro to Adventure Time than an angry mob of candy people chanting, “No more hugs!” followed by a whispered, “Without consent!”
“Finn The Human”/”Jake The Dog”: This two-parter is great at showing off the deeper mythology elements of the series, with its use of an alternate timeline in which the Mushroom War never happens and its heavy reliance on the Lich, the closest thing Adventure Time has to a Big Bad. The friend who walked in on me watching these had to watch, appalled as I clapped in glee at Jake’s insistence that he get the god-like Prismo a girlfriend and the appearance of the Cosmic Owl. She was intrigued, but a little put off by the two-parter’s sheer density. Save this one for advanced studies.
“Slow Love”: After vehemently arguing with someone that Adventure Time was accessible and delightful to everyone, I was challenged to present a few introductory episodes. (Prior to this, of course.) This season two episode, in which Finn and Jake try to hook up a giant snail, is slight but funny, and kicked off a regimen that included a few early-season episodes.
“Root Beer Guy”: This is the perfect episode to show some skeptical of Adventure Time's storytelling skills. Root Beer Guy, a salesman and would-be crime novelist trapped in a struggling marriage to a cream soda, is one of the best one-off characters the show has created. The episode showcases Adventure Time’s ability to create singular, immediately developed people in its universe while also toying with the narrative boundaries of Ooo to tell different types of stories. Not to mention, it’s adorable.
With so many tones to juggle, it’s incredible that Adventure Time manages to take such a plastic, malleable world and imbue it with so much life. Ooo is full of fleshed-out characters, from fan favorites like hopeless romantic valley girl Lumpy Space Princess to one-off guest stars like would-be crime novelist and struggling salesman Root Beer Guy. For the more serious set, there’s deep emotional grounding in both Finn growing up (and his flame-ridden road to sexual maturity) and the Ice King’s tragic relationship with vampire queen Marceline.
Dig in, and Adventure Time is full of diverse, heartfelt quirks, at least one of which is bound to warm the heart of even the biggest skeptic. The show has created a world in which anything is possible, which means there should be something for everyone. Just remember to grab your friends.
Written by Eric Thurm (@EricThurm)