Still from Adventure Time, “Slumber Party Panic” (Season 1, Episode 1, 2010).
I was very tempted to take Gary Kenton’s remarks on the cultural influence of the music of the 60s and run with it, hashing out a pretentious and self-righteous post about the golden age of music, now long-dead, and the abysmal state of the current music industry…but this is a sitcom class, so I will spare you all my snobbish inclinations, in regards to music, at least.
Instead, I’ll take his more relevant claims on magicoms and see what I can argue from there. Though music may have gotten steadily worse since the 60s (ok now I’m done), the same cannot be said of television, which has gradually improved, technically, thematically, representationally, take your pick. Kenton argues that the magicoms of the 60s take escapism to an entirely new level. Rather than depict an alternative reality, these shows abandon reality altogether. Yet, I would argue (at least based on my admittedly limited knowledge of these shows) that these magicoms are actually rooted in the reality of the time, at least attitudinally. Sure, there may be a witch or a genie or a talking horse to remove the series from the real world by a few degrees, but the ways in which these shows engage with social issues (or ignore them) is arguably reflective of the time: traditionalist values fighting off the encroaching threat of progressivism.
But instead of drawing a comparison to a modern show in regards to its retrogressive tendencies, I would like to speculate as to how the magicom has evolved to embrace everything it was lacking half a century ago. I can think of no other show that abandons the planes of reality as gleefully or beautifully as Adventure Time, the Cartoon Network series following the antics of Finn, the last living human, and Jake, his shape-shifting magic dog. It’s got witches. It’s got genies. It’s got talking horses. And so much more that has never been seen on other television shows before. But unlike the magicoms of the 60s, Adventure Time does make many comments on the human condition, it is strikingly relevant, and it is fantastically progressive. As Emily Nussbaum writes for The New Yorker, “Adventure Time is one of the most philosophically risky and, often, emotionally affecting shows on TV. It’s beautiful and funny and stupid and smart, in about equal parts, as well as willing to explore uneasy existential questions.”
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to label Adventure Time a “magicom,” as it is its own unique thing with very few parallels, but the show does fit a number of the technical definitions applied to the series of the 60s. What has been updated is the progressivism, relevancy, and commentary, which Adventure Time deals in spades. Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie both presented female protagonists imbued with incredible powers, but both desired and actively practiced subservience to their husbands and were denied agency, dignity, and often half of their clothes. Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car both featured non-speaking or inanimate objects granted the ability of speech and consciousness, but neither seemed to have a purpose for existing. And none of the magicoms of the 60s offered any sort of commentary on the social, political, or cultural landscapes of the time.
Adventure Time could not be further from these pitfalls. It provides a plethora of empowered female characters exercising agency over their own lives. One such character is Princess Bubblegum, who not only rules an entire kingdom single-handedly and regularly makes life-changing discoveries or groundbreaking inventions, but who refuses the romantic advances of Finn and often inverts the “damsel in distress” trope to rescue the male heroes. The show’s relevancy and social commentary are also both abundant, from its engagement with depression in the form of the lonely, isolated, and misunderstood Ice King, to its empathetic portrayal of the awkward growing pains Finn encounters, to its depiction of a complicated and difficult relationship to family as experienced by an anthropomorphic talking lemon.
The show is relatable, inventive, and above all, humanist (despite only having one human character). While it seemingly ditches nearly all traces of reality, it holds tight to the relevancy and commentary the magicoms of the 60s seemed to drop. It’s a series Gary Kenton would love, and for that matter, that everyone would love because frankly it’s impossible to dislike this show (excuse my hyperbolism, but if you do dislike it, I’m convinced you must have no feelings). Sure, in a way, the show is a vehicle for escapism. It will often make you feel like a child again. But at the same time, it is also quite grounded. Adventure Time will appeal not only to your worry-free inner-child, but also to your anxiety-ridden, miserable grown-up adult self, and you will often find yourself struck by how touching and deep it gets.
Excuse me while I go re-binge this entire series.