Cartoon and a comedian: how Adventure Time and Louie are revolutionising TV storytelling for different generations
Adventure Time and Louie are, on the surface, vastly different shows; one's a kaleidoscopic cartoon, the other a Woody Allen-esque sitcom about a middle-aged comedian. So how is it that they have come to be so fundamentally similar in a way that is radically reshaping TV storytelling?
An article in the archives of The Atlantic, dated August 1st 1969, bears the title, ‘What’s Good About Children’s TV’. Its author, Norman S. Morris, assesses the state and value of children’s television at the time, discussing Mister Rogers, The Friendly Giant, and prognosticates the impact of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), established one year before in 1968. The CTW, of course, is now known as Sesame Workshop thanks to the recognition afforded to it by the show it was founded to produce, Sesame Street.
For those of us who have grown up with television, which by now is most people, it’s difficult not to feel nostalgic for the programming of our youth. Programming from Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, which began in 1968, to Tom and Jerry (which made its TV debut in 1965 after winning 7 Animated Short Film Oscars as theatrical cartoons beginning in 1940), to the aforementioned Sesame Street, all shows whose ubiquity has allowed them to remain a cultural touchstone for millions of people worldwide.
The most interesting thing about Morris’ piece (which is a wonderful time capsule and an all-round fascinating slice of TV history) was this part, the original aim of CTW in creating its first show:
In its program proposal, the Workshop describes as its objective the development of a television series that will “promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers. Not only will it attempt to teach specific information, such as language and mathematical skills, but it will strive for the broader aim of getting children to learn how to think for themselves.”
It’s fairly common — exhaustingly rote, even — for hysterical Helen Lovejoy types to claim that TV is the enemy of an educated child. Since then, any number of studies has concluded this to be false, including a University of London study which posits that “children who watched television for three or more hours a day showed better cognitive abilities than their peers who watched less than an hour a day.”
That’s a pretty grain-of-salt summary, but it should not be news to anyone that TV is not a medium where intellectuality goes to die. All of the TV we watch as children, and possibly more so as teenagers, has a major effect on what we go on to enjoy as adults. I’ve written before about how TV is a curatorial medium, and this is truer than ever; the success of kid’s TV on cable and streaming platforms is giving parents more and more options when it comes to what their kids watch.
Now, this isn’t to say that watching dumb cartoons as a child means you’ll only like dumb sitcoms as an adult, not at all. But it’s undeniable that the earlier we are exposed to complex stories and different modes of storytelling, the more prepared we will be when we encounter them in more adult forms.
This brings us to the two shows in the title: Adventure Time and Louie. One is a 15 minute Cartoon Network show about a young boy, Finn, and his brother, Jake, who happens to be a dog with stretching powers. The other is Louie, a quietly game-changing, shape-shifting ‘sitcom’ about a divorced, middle-aged comedian with two daughters. They really couldn’t sound more different, but of all the shows on television, each is the most significant point of comparison for the other.
The reason why is rooted largely in their unpredictability. They are the two current TV series where predicting what will happen in any given episode is nigh impossible and they are each committed to breaking the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Each is hugely critically-acclaimed and a phenomenon in their own small ways — Adventure Time is a massive ratings success with pan-generational appeal, and Louie has become the first basic cable show to score an Outstanding Comedy Series nomination at the Emmys (alongside several other nominations for its writer/director/producer/star, stand-up comic Louis C.K.).
Now, I wouldn’t be talking about Adventure Time in this context if it weren’t so much more than the tale of a boy and his dog-brother. The show, set in the Candy Kingdom in the Land of Ooo, has a sprawling cast of supporting characters and a remarkably terrifying, intense history; set on a post-apocalyptic Earth in the aftermath of The Mushroom War, the show has thus far waded only knee-deep into the waters of its story. It’s also worth noting that Finn is, as far as we know, the last remaining human on Earth (he was adopted by Jake’s parents after being found by them as a baby).
The three-parter that concluded the fourth season and opened the fifth concerned malevolent antagonist The Lich possessing the body of Finn’s hero Billy, then killing him and using his body as a horrifying costume. Finn and Jake follow him through a wormhole to the Timecube at the centre of the universe, where The Lich wishes for the extinction of all life. Finn wishes The Lich had never existed, and is whisked away to the new reality he has created; a reality in which he becomes the one who releases “mutagenic” (yes, the show uses that word) radiation, destroying the world.
This is heavy stuff. In the show’s real timeline, the atomic bomb which destroys the Earth is stopped by the Ice King, the show’s recurring villain in the early seasons, who further down the line has been integrated more fully into the ensemble. This is due, in part, to the revelation that he used to be a man named Simon Petrikov, whose mind has been corrupted by an evil crown which gives him power over ice but drives away his wife leaving him desperate and alone, attempting to kidnap princesses just to have companionship.
Simon’s memory loss is a deeply moving element of the series’ serialised narrative which turns a villain into arguably the show’s most sympathetic, pathetic character, while concurrently exploring the connection between memory and identity. For those of us whose families have been affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, the episodes “I Remember You” and “Simon & Marcy” are essential viewing, imbuing one of the series’ trademark off-kilter songs with all the heartbreak of watching a loved one’s mind deteriorate.
This is patient, considered, and insightful storytelling that is difficult to find in most adult television, yet this is merely one example of how much trust Adventure Time‘s creator, Pendleton Ward, places in kids’ ability to comprehend complex narratives. Other episodes deal with anything from implied queer female sexuality (the relationship between Marceline and the Candy Kingdom’s hyper-intelligent head of state, Princess Bubblegum, though this point is contentious among fans) to sexual assault (an anthropomorphic heart lures Princess Bubblegum and Jake’s wife, Lady Rainicorn, to an uncharted cave full of disembodied, grabbing hands and the heart’s muscular, golem-esque new body).
Adventure Time is not the first kid’s show to aim higher, obviously. Anything from Spongebob Squarepants to Rocko’s Modern Life to Captain Planet to Pee-wee’s Playhouse and, yes, The Simpsons is an example of great kid’s television. And the reason these shows stick in our mind, or stick around today, is because they challenge the structure and themes of typical children’s television.
There are assuredly other shows doing the same today. My Little Pony has a massive fan base (though it has bumped up against some controversy as a result), and The Legend of Korra (a sequel to the non-Shymalan iteration of Avatar: The Last Airbender) is regarded by many to be one of the best shows currently on TV. Gravity Falls, which just completed its first season on the Disney Channel, is another which feels poised to become a generation-defining kid’s show.
Louie is much less fantastical, but arguably just as surreal as any of the shows mentioned thus far. The series, returning to ABC2 on August 19, has little concern for serialisation; satellite characters in Louie’s life, like his mother and sister, appear in different episodes portrayed by different actresses, while in the third season his ex-wife is revealed to be an African-American woman despite the certifiable whiteness of his two daughters.
C.K.’s comedy, well-known for a genius kind of vulgarity combined with acidic social commentary and self-deprecation, feels like the withered, blackened version of Adventure Time, their shared love of body humour a definite link. In the second season episode “Subway/Pamela”, Louie fantasises in black and white a moment of subway heroism, mopping up a pool of liquid on an empty seat:
It’s nothing particularly revolutionary on the surface, but it’s the boldness of form which connects the two shows. This is likely most evident in the hour-long episode “Duckling”, in which Louie goes on a USO tour to entertain troops in the Middle East to find one of his daughters had placed a class duckling in his backpack to keep him safe. The duckling, and Louie’s efforts to keep it safe, prove a source of joy in sparse terrain and unforgiving situations. Fittingly, the idea for the episode came from C.K.’s actual daughter, Mary Louise, because the childlike beauty of the idea fits perfectly with the blend of exuberance and melancholy Adventure Time has nailed, and it’s the only other show one can imagine pulling off such a story with such aplomb.
One of Louie‘s recurring motifs is the bizarre dates he goes on; in many ways this parallels the Finn’s burgeoning sexual desires in Adventure Time. Louie’s attempts to date post-divorce feel like he is going through a second puberty much like Finn’s first, rife with awkward encounters and misinterpreted intentions.
“Daddy’s Girlfriend Pt. 1″ and “Daddy’s Girlfriend Pt. 2” feel like an adult version of Finn’s difficulties; in these high watermark episodes, Louie meets a fascinating woman (played by a phenomenal Parker Posey who was bizarrely overlooked for an Emmy nomination) who subverts the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, taking him on a whirlwind journey through New York City in which he tries on a dress, helps a homeless man, and hikes up multiple flights of stairs. On the roof of the building, her mood suddenly changes overlooking the skyline, and Louie becomes overwhelmed by fear she will fall.
The reason these disparate shows link so well is because they feel like simultaneous occurrences in completely different worlds. You could never show a 10 year old child Louie, and nor would they understand its Woody Allen and French new wave influences; you could, however, show them Adventure Time, all bright colours and butt jokes, and point them down that path when they’ve grown up. Great TV at a young age will expand the mind just like any book, and given how much TV so many kids are watching these days, the importance of a show like Adventure Time only increases.
With each new episode, I wonder what kinds of shows the kids raised on Adventure Time will create, or if they’ll start watching Louie in a few years’ time and realise that this kind of madhouse surrealism doesn’t have to end with youthful cartoons. Much in the same way Twin Peaks smashed the TV drama format to pieces in 1990 (a common influence on Louie, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls, with Lynch appearing in the former and the latter two being indebted episodically and as a direct reference for the series respectively), shows as varied as ER, 24, The Sopranos, and Buffy have reshaped how television stories are told.
Part of the luxury afforded by the end of what some critics have (somewhat arbitrarily) deemed a ‘Golden Age of Television’ is the chance to change the type of shows that get made. What the television landscape looks like in a few years time is anyone’s guess, though most of us hope it looks more like Louie. The value of Adventure Time and shows like it is that there will be a generation of new creators who have been exposed to perhaps the most adventurous kid’s television we’ve ever seen. That kind of influence is vital, much like how the shared experiences of M*A*S*H, Cheers, and The Simpsons have impacted upon all succeeding sitcoms.
Neither show may ever live up to the quality of those towering series, but the simple fact is that they are there to aspire to. When Morris described the educational importance of children’s TV in the late 1960s, he may not have anticipated that it applies as much to adults. What we see on our screens now is the product of cumulative innovation and influence, an ongoing cultural exchange with icons of the past to try to advance the medium as far as it can be taken while pushing viewers to accept new realities on a massive scale. It’s a perpetual stretching of storytelling’s limits, and if what we see now is any indication, TV has a bright, bright creative future ahead of it.