Adventure Time season 2 ended with a cliffhanger – after the Ice King’s hilarious slip-up, Bubblegum ended up Finn’s age. The implications of this betrayed what has started to fuel Adventure Time into its third season: relationship drama. ‘Shipping’. The speculation about romantic relationships that is at the heart of most Internet fandoms, is often sneered at (especially when it causes ‘shipping wars’) and – big generalisation of course – tends to draw a lot of females to a fandom, where they tend to dominate those debates. It’s the fandoms that are big with girls that tend to have the most fevered shipping debates – Harry Potter was notorious for it, Twilight’s ‘teams’ are iconic, it scared quite a few fans away from the Avatar fandom and it’s basically all that drives Hetalia’s popularity. It’s even key to the success of The Hunger Games. It’s certainly there in male-dominated fandoms like Wakfu and (yes!) My Little Pony, but in general the fans there don’t seem to care very much, think their favourite would be cute with a whole lot of partners and don’t end up in fevered arguments with the supporters of different ‘pairings’.
I stress that this gender-based observation is very much based on trends and generalizations and there will be many exceptions in both genders.
I have to say, though, of all the cartoons I watch, Adventure Time was one of the last I would expect to have shipping debates and drama. But it has both, for there is that magic ingredient – a love triangle. Finn, that chubby-bellied, slow-witted 12-year-old adventurer, has a crush on Princess Bubblegum but is also intrigued and toyed with by the teen vampire girl Marceline. All, lest we forget, are basically blob-headed kids with dots for eyes, but that’s not really important.
Though there were plenty of episodes that show the old random silliness and brainless, colourful adventuring, with the likes of The Ice King and Treetrunks reliably being very funny, Finn has grown from being totally oblivious to being a teenaged boy for whom…y’know, the hormones are kicking in. His best friend Jake has a girlfriend, and the girls in his life are after all a bit older than him. And, perhaps after all the blushing in ‘Blood Under the Skin’, the writers seem to have realized he’s at his most compellingly watchable when he’s a bit embarrassed.
So the dominant episodes of the series have been about Finn’s first efforts to find love. He finds out more about Marceline, from flashbacks about an ex-boyfriend to sneaking into her house and seeing her about to have a bath – and tries awkwardly to express his crush on Bubblegum, only to be friendzoned because of the age difference, which was soon reinstated, quite possibly because any relationship with her younger version would seem a bit inappropriate (where for whatever reason, one with an older version does not). One that garnered some controversy involved the three of them forming a band, which not only put Finn between the two very different girls, but vaguely hinted the two of them had been in a lesbian relationship – which ended up causing some very unnecessary backlash.
There was also the episode of pure fanservice that was the genderswapped ‘Fionna and Cake’, at once an acknowledgement of fandom trends, a definite nod towards the possibilities of relationships between characters and, with its Ice King denoument, an affectionate swipe at fanfic writers. Even the season finale was the rather underwhelming introduction of a new girl that Finn can have a crush on – one that left viewers dangling only for a few weeks, especially those who knew where to look for leaked episodes online. Series 4 begins airing in a few days, less than two months since the end of S3.
I’ll keep watching. I do like the characters, the setting and the humour, despite it now reaching the difficult period in comedy writing. But I watch for the zany, random comedy in a fantasy setting – that’s what I want, fundamentally, and if it’s driven from the sides by a bit of relationship drama, no problem. But I don’t want it to entirely take over.