In general, television has, over the past decades moved away from episodic storytelling in favor of increased serialization. While this has, for the most part, allowed for long-running plot and character arcs that make the stories told on TV more sophisticated, it is somewhat common these days for TV shows to disregard the single episode as a unit of story. An episode of Game of Thrones, for example, is an hour-long segment of a bigger story, but not a story in and of itself. That said, an unlikely contender, Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with Finn and Jake, serves as an example of how a TV show can tell a concise story each episode without sacrificing the depths of character- and setting- building that serially plotted shows like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad offer. Each 10-minute episode of Adventure Time is its own one-act play set in the fantastical world of Ooo, centered around an ever-growing but consistent cast of characters. And yet, as tight as the show’s episodes are in isolation, the story of Finn the human, Jake the dog, and the rest of Ooo exists undiminished across the whole of the show.
The central mechanism by which the show builds its story is what I’m going to call conscientious consistency. It’s a fairly basic element of telling a story through multiple installments, but it’s worth breaking down. First, from episode-to-episode, what we, the audience knows does not change, down to the last little detail; that’s the “consistency” part. Second, the show checks in, via cameo appearances or “throwaway” lines, on world and story elements it’s set up previously; that’s the “conscientious” part. For example, the season 4 episode Dream of Love centered around the uncomfortably PDA-filled romance between Tree Trunks the little-old-lady elephant (herself a recurring character first established and seemingly killed off in the fourth aired episode, only for a season 2 ep to visit the crystalline dimension to which she was sent after apparently exploding.) and Mr. Pig. In subsequent episodes, we see them from time to time, still being squirm-inducingly cute.
Series creator Pendleton Ward has said himself that, for a lot of the show, the writing and animating team are making things up as they go. In an IndieWire interview he states that, “The way I explain it so it’s not disappointing that the world isn’t already figured out is that we’re playing Dungeons & Dragons as we’re writing it. We’re with those characters and figuring things out alongside them.” And watching the show, episode-to-episode, it’s clear that once a person or place is on the map the creators are making, that part of the world is there to stay.
Perhaps the defining early example of this mapmaking approach is the Emmy-nominated second-season premiere It Came From the Nightosphere. A majority of first-season episodes centered around Finn and Jake exploring some part of the land of Ooo. When the show returned, all this exploration paid off. As Marceline the Vampire Queen’s estranged and literally diabolic father rampages across Ooo eating souls, the locations he attacks are all taken from those first-season episodes. He’s not just attacking nameless extras, he’s going after the fluff people we remember from Business Time and the rough-housing marauders from Memories of Boom Boom Mountain.
An undoubted aid to this approach is the fact that Adventure Time is animated rather than live-action. To revisit a part of the world, the storyboarders need only refer to drawings from previous episodes, and the only obstacle to creating recurring characters is ensuring that their voice actors can come back to the studio. As such, an overwhelming number of guest stars reprise their roles. Among many others, Lou Ferrigno’s legendary warrior Billy, Andy Milonakis’ N.E.P.T.R (NeverEnding Pie-Throwing Robot), and George Takei’s Ricardio the heart guy, all of whom were one-episode guests in the first season, have returned in episodes of the recent seasons. The upshot is that the audience can now expect future episodes to revisit characters from episodes they are currently watching. These are not ‘guests’ at all, but established residents of Ooo.
All of this serves to enable continuing arcs across multiple episodes. For example, season three’s Too Young established Princess Bubblegum’s failed candy creation, the too-sour Earl of Lemongrab.
In the conclusion, he is given his own castle to make a home of his own less dissonant than the sweet Candy Kingdom. The story of the Earl continues through seasons four and five in the spread-out episodes You Made Me, All Your Fault, and Too Old, as well as a short segment in Another Five Short Graybles. Each episode checks back in on the Earl’s own kingdom, extrapolating from changes in the status quo set up in previous episodes. For example, You Made Me ends with the making of a second Earl, and All Your Fault returns to a jointly-ruled earldom fully populated by this same mechanism. And it’s not the only such arc that’s been spread over seasons—several episodes of seasons four and five, beginning with the season 3 cliffhanger finale Incendium, focus on a youthful romance between Finn and the allegedly evil Flame Princess. These are running plots much as any mystery in LOST is, even if the show might hop to other stories, elsewhere, for several episodes.
So what does all this mean for TV as a whole? To start, I’d point to the way in which, in my experience, ten minutes of Adventure Time can satisfy in the way an hour of cable drama cannot. A friend of mine once commented, in reference to Breaking Bad, something to the effect that some of the cruelest words in TV being “created by Vince Gilligan” because of their place at the end credits. The frustration he pointed out is not simply that there’s not more show to go, but that in many current dramas, the lack of resolution in each show means that a single episode serves to whet the appetite of viewers far more than it satisfies. To extend the metaphor, while I have binge-viewed both Adventure Time and shows in the Breaking Bad/Game of Thrones mode, only the former has proved a filling meal week-to-week.
While the best of intensely serialized shows are satisfying simply on quality—the portions are small and not to be mistaken for stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, but taste excellent and are made of good stuff, like a good sushi restaurant or tapas bar—Adventure Time illustrates that lack of resolution is not a requirement for sophisticated storytelling.
It’s not one long story, but it’s no procedural either. While the early episodes focused very much on the adventure of the week, it’s used the mapmaking approach to zoom into some corner of a lived-in world for some funny and, more often than not, emotionally resonant slice of that world. While there are running plot and character arcs, they are put on hold and revisited to such an extent that one can’t call Adventure Time a plot-driven or a character-driven show. Rather, it serves as an exemplar of a third sort of storytelling that does not get talked about much by television critics: it’s a setting-driven show. The arcs of the show come out of the fact that all the characters, major and minor, are part of Ooo. In this sense, the exploratory nature of the show giving way to more recurring characters and plots makes perfect sense, as it’s an act of revisiting. We don’t need to know what happens next as soon as the episode ends, but it enriches the show to know that we’ll be traveling on over and checking up eventually.