Adventure Time has long been lauded as one of TV’s most progressive shows, a children’s cartoon that regularly flirts with some very mature material. Yes, the show has a Candy Kingdom, unicorn-rainbow hybrids, and a princess made entirely of sentient bubblegum. But a glimpse at the visual style and character design won’t give you an idea about the essence of the show—one that’s about the struggles of adolescence, out-of-body experiences, genetic mutation, and nuclear war. Adventure Time is a whole lot of fun, but it’s also bildungsroman of epic proportions.
The show, created by writer/producer Pendleton Ward, follows the exploits of a human named Finn (voiced by Jeremy Shada) and his best friend/adoptive brother Jake (John DiMaggio), who happens to be a magical dog with the power to stretch to nearly any size or shape. The pair lives in a treehouse in the Land of Ooo, the spectacular ruins of post-apocalyptic Earth repopulated by adorable mutants, magical creatures, and lab-developed beings. Show regulars include voice-acting superstars DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) and Tom Kenny (the voice of SpongeBob) and cameos from the likes of George Takei, Andy Milonakis, Maria Bamford, and Lou Ferrigno.
Adventure Time has been called the best science fiction show on television. But even if you disagree with that assertion, you can still count on it to inspire the next generation of artists who are watching this trippy, visual playground unfold while they’re still in their pajamas and munching on Fruit Loops.
So, c’mon. Grab your friends, whip up some bacon pancakes, and hang on for the ride.
Number of Seasons: 6 (187 episodes)
Time Requirements: Each episode is only 11 minutes, so with 187 episodes you’re in for just over 34 hours in the Land of Ooo. That means you could probably knock it out in a long weekend, if you wanted, but we recommend you spread it over a couple weeks.
Where to Get Your Fix: Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, the Cartoon Network web site (select episodes)
Best Character to Follow:
Finn is our story’s hero and, as his character becomes more complex over time, he becomes more and more worthy of his fan-favorite status. But the not-so-secret best plotline is between Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson) and the Ice King (Kenny). Ice King starts out as a one-dimensional and, frankly, pretty obnoxious villain fixated on kidnapping princesses, but over time his front starts to fade. We begin to learn more about his past and his special bond with Marcy. It’s a lovely story, plus any episode focused on punk rocker Marcy is sure to include a killer song.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Season 2: Episode 10, “To Cut a Woman’s Hair” Much like South Park’s Kenny, we’re unsure of what Finn looks like under his hat up until this point. Finding out is one of the few worthwhile moments of this episode.
Season 3: Episode 13, “From Bad to Worse” Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) accidentally creates a zombie virus that infects Cinnamon Bun (Dee Bradley Baker) and, quickly, the rest of the Candy Kingdom. Adventure Time is known for its spot-on genre parodies, but this is one that falls flat.
Season 3: Episode 23, “Another Way” After Jake and Finn hurt their toes while adventuring, Finn has to come to terms with the fact that he may not always be right. This episode features some seriously scary clown nurses with foot fetishes and an off-putting, Auto-Tuned song about being wrong.
Season 6: Episode 5, “Sad Face” Jake’s tail gets a life of its own once a month as a clown in a flea circus. The whole thing is pretty uneventful.
All of the Graybles Episodes: Adventure Time rarely feels like a kids’ show. But the Graybles episodes, which feature five super-short scenes with a shared theme (Get it? Fables? Graybles?), won’t appeal to adults.
Episodes that Focus on the Earl of Lemongrab: Lemongrab (Justin Roiland), a genetically modified (and very neurotic) lemon created by Princess Bubblegum to take over the Candy Kingdom when she dies, is probably one of our least favorite characters. His tagline (“Unacceptable!”) is funny at first, but his anxiety and shrill voice become more stressful than funny. Eventually, he’s exiled to rule his own kingdom of Lemon People where he becomes an exacting dictator. (Spoiler: His subjects begin to starve and wither under his rule. It’s hard to watch.)
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 2, “Trouble in Lumpy Space” Lumpy Space Princess, affectionately known as LSP and brilliantly voiced by the show’s creator Pendleton Ward, accidentally chomps down on Jake’s foot, which gives him “the Lumps.” As Jake starts becoming a Lumpy being, Finn travels to Lumpy Space to find a cure for his best friend.
Season 1: Episode 12, “Evicted” In this episode, we’re introduced to Marceline, voiced by Olivia Olson (best known as the little girl who sings “All I Want for Christmas” in Love Actually), when she shows up at Finn and Jake’s treehouse and tries to kick them out. Oh, and of course there’s a song about Finn and Jake trying to find a new home.
Season 2: Episode 1, “It Came From the Nightosphere” After Marceline reveals her strained relationship with her father to Finn and Jake via a song about him stealing her French fries, Finn summons him from an alternate dimension known as the Nightosphere … without realizing that her dad happens to be the Lord of Evil.
Season 2: Episodes 24 & 25, “Mortal Folly” and “Mortal Recoil” In “Mortal Folly,” we’re introduced to the Lich (voiced by Ron Perlman), an undead sorcerer who serves as one of the few purely evil characters on the show—and who becomes important to the plot down the line. At the end of “Mortal Folly,” the Lich nearly kills Princess Bubblegum. Though she survives, in “Mortal Recoil,” it becomes clear that something’s, uh, a little different about her.
Season 3, Episode 9, “Fionna and Cake” This is the first of a series of gender-bender episodes, where each of the Adventure Time gang is replaced with their other-sex alter ego—in the case of Finn and Jake, they’re replaced by Fionna and Cake, a girl in a rabbit-like hat and a sassy, stretchy cat. Neil Patrick Harris guests as Prince Gumball. The episode is totally out of the blue, and totally amazing.
Season 3, Episode 17, “Thank You” Considered one of the best Adventure Time episodes ever, this one-off is about a Snow Gollum who befriends a fire wolf pup from a pack that is destroying his snowy world. As the Snow Gollum works to return the pup to his family, he risks melting. This episode shows off the true artistry of Adventure Time—and it’s done almost entirely without dialogue.
Season 3, Episode 18, “The New Frontier” The episode opens with Jake having a “croak dream,” a premonition of his death. Though Jake finds comfort in knowing how he’ll die, Finn panics. But, as Finn works prevent Jake from meeting the same demise he experienced in his dream, he seems to actually propel Jake closer to his foreseen fate. It’s like a modern retelling of Oedipus denying the prediction of the Oracle, without all the weird familial sex stuff and a bit more about the afterlife. You know, normal kids’ show stuff.
Season 3, Episode 27, “Holly Jolly Secrets Part II” Finn and Jake discover Ice King’s past as Simon Petrikov, an antiquarian driven mad by the magic of the Ice King crown after buying it in Scandinavia.
Season 4: Episode 10, “Goliad” We’re introduced to the immortal, genetically modified candy sphinx destined to take over the Candy Kingdom if Princess Bubblegum dies. We’re not sure why PB thought this was a good idea considering how Lemongrab turned out. And, of course, the plan to teach Goliad smarts and a sense of justice backfires. The episode features a glorious reappearance by Buff Baby Finn—we’ll get to that later.
Season 4: Episode 25, “I Remember” Ice King comes to Marceline to help him write a song to attract princesses. Marcy, disgusted with what the wizard Ice King has become, starts to reveal more about her relationship with Simon in the aftermath of the Great Mushroom War. This episode features an incredibly poignant duet—if you’ve been following the Ice King’s plotline, we dare you not to sniffle.
Season 5: Episode 6, “Jake the Dad” Jake and his girlfriend Lady Rainicorn, a Korean rainbow-unicorn hybrid, have puppies. They are, obviously, adorable, and become recurring characters (two are voiced by reunited TV-siblings Kristen Schaal and Dan Mintz, who play Tina and Louise Belcher on Bob’s Burgers).
Season 5: Episode 13, “Simon and Marcy” Marcy tells Finn and Jake about the beginning of her friendship with Ice King 996 years ago, when Simon and was the caretaker of 7-year-old Marcy in the ruins of the war.
Season 5: Episode 16, “Puhoy” Finn accidentally finds himself in an alternate pillow world. Unable to find his way back home to the treehouse, he meets a pillow woman named Roselinen, gets married, has children, and starts a whole new life. The episode features guest voicing from Wallace Shawn.
Season 5: Episode 17, “BMO Lost” BMO (Niki Yang) tries to find her way back to the treehouse after being snatched up by an eagle. While wandering, BMO meets a bubble (named Bubble) and a baby that they name Ricky. Come for a Rube Goldberg-like chain of actions that Bubble uses to save Ricky and BMO, stay for BMO and Bubble’s gender-ambiguous love story.
Season 5: Episode 29, “Frost and Fire” Finn eggs on Flame Princess to fight Ice King after a previous conflict between the two sparks some, er, pleasant dreams. Unfortunately for Finn, it marks a serious betrayal of Flame Princess’ trust and the dissolution of their relationship.
Season 5: Episode 31, “Earth and Water” Flame Princess and Princess Bubblegum’s tumultuous past is revealed (and indicates a rocky relationship to come between the Flame and Candy Kingdoms), and an unlikely friendship is forged between Flame Princess and Cinnamon Bun.
Season 5: Episode 34, “The Vault” Finn revisits his past life as a one-armed bandit named Shoko, who has a strange encounter with Princess Bubblegum (who is way older than she seems—or, as Finn says it, “PB, you’re like a bazillion years old! You’re not freaking 19, what the heck?”).
Season 5: Episode 48, “Betty” Ice King is briefly changed back to Simon Petrikov. Though he starts dying without magic keeping him alive, he asks Marceline, Finn, and Jake to help him time travel to communicate with his fiancée, Betty Grof (voiced by Lena Dunham).
Season 5: Episode 51, “Billy’s Bucket List” Skip the awkward rap contest at the start of this episode. You’re here for the incredible ending and, of course, to see Finn race through the desert on a motorcycle while being chased by a dinosaur.
Season 6: There are some mediocre episodes this season, but not many. Season 6 is when things, generally, start to get very real. Don’t miss the first three episodes, which are key to the plot (and feature the amazing Prismo, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Some other standout episodes include “Breezy,” in which a seriously depressed Finn tries to make out with tons of princesses to fill an emotional void; “Evergreen,” in which we get a strange, cosmic explanation for Ice King and Gunter’s relationship and Ice King’s magic crown; and “Astral Plane,” in which Finn has an out-of-body experience, contemplates the meaning of life, and watches Glob sacrifice himself to save Mars from a comet … that is diverted toward Earth.
Why You Should Binge:
Most of the episodes are easy enough to follow that they could be watched as one-offs. But part of the joy of Adventure Time is how much detail is packed into each short episode. Binge-ing is the best way to follow the narrative arcs and watch the characters change, sometimes very literally. As Finn ages, you can see him slowly become taller. (And as Finn’s voice actor Jeremy Shada matures, you can hear the character’s voice crack and deepen.) Once Season 6 wraps up, there will be a miniseries focused on Marceline—we have a feeling it will be worthwhile to catch up on the series before that gets started.
The Best Scene crown has to be split in two for Adventure Time. The first half goes to Buff Baby Finn, as first seen by Marceline while traveling through Finn’s memories (long story):
The second half goes to Jake’s encounter with a dancing bug:
“I was just playing around with my imagination. And then everything got intense.”—Jake the Dog
If You Liked Adventure Time You’ll Love:
Regular Show, created by Pendleton Ward’s CalArts friend J.G. Quintel, follows the antics of a blue jay and raccoon working as groundskeepers at a park. Also check out Steven Universe, created by Adventure Time alumna Rebecca Sugar, writer of many glorious AT songs, including the aforementioned “Bacon Pancakes.”