Do You Ever Wonder What Time It Is? Modern Media and Storytelling

Part of me is convinced that someone on the Adventure Time staff is a fan of Red vs. Blue. It’s more a gut feeling than what one might call ‘empirical evidence’ or ‘substantiated by a single shred of proof.’ Both are blazing successes, of course, characterized by a short and loosely linked episode format, but it’s the narrative style that I want to talk about today. In the bizarre mental land that this theory lives in, both shows are sterling examples of the new-narrative for internet long-standers (okay, AT is on TV, but it very much lives in the comedic stylings of the internet).

Back in 2003, RvB started a serialized comedy show and released it onto the wild west of the internet, hoping to attract consistent viewership with the idea that you could come back to one place on the internet each week to see an ongoing story. Well, duh, you might say, but this was back in the day when one-shots were the big thing – even stuff like Homestar Runner just had a core set of re-used characters without any particular interest in narrative. Rooster Teeth’s machinima (stories filmed using videogame engines) project was doing something pretty unusual for the medium at the time – I’d go so far as to say they were pioneers on the subject of narrative machinima (not the first, but formative for sure, not to mention an early work that’s still going). It worked, too. As the story goes, the first episode had more than a million downloads within the first week. It wormed its way into many a heart, though the decade spanning duration of the series means that you tend to find fans who stopped watching around the first three seasons and others who fell in around the sixth (the eleventh just finished airing).

As far as the content of the narrative it, uh…starts a little on the light side. It is a consecutive narrative, in the most basic sense – events that have occurred remain in continuity, and there’s dramatic climax from one season to the next (boy did they love their cliffhangers in the early days). It’s just that those plot events tended to be with a comedic focus, with the stories pursuing what Burnie found to be the best reaping ground for jokes than any kind of deep world building or character introspection. The first five seasons, known collectively as The Blood Gulch Chronicles, more or less stayed that way aside of a surprisingly bittersweet conclusion. When it started up again, things took a decidedly more plotty turn, if one that was content to move at its own pace.

How about Cartoon Network’s current darling, Adventure Time? It’s well into its fifth season now, and I at least would’ve never guessed from the outset that the deeply, deeply weird little piece of surreal children’s media the show started out as would later weave in an apocalypse and plentiful gut wrenching. What is it about the appeal that speaks to so many, and inspired such a similar trajectory?


The Lich is not funny

I’m not just talking about the two shows’ tendency toward Cerebus Syndrome, either. That’s a common enough occurrence going back through the generations, springing up for all sorts of reasons. The similarities go deeper. Behold:

Format? Both are (with the occasional exception) timed out in twelve-minute-and-under installments released on a week to week basis. AT’s more serious episodes remain more successfully stand alone than RvB’s, given that the latter is plotted as a feature film and broken into shorts for release, but the concept remains applicable from season to season. Both want to continue delivering the individually packed stories that originally launched them, but increasingly refer back to previously occurring events or characters as well.  The reason for this formatting has to do with playing on the audience expectation – RvB came about, as I mentioned, in a time largely before serialized web shows. The short length is an easy way to keep from intimidating new viewers, and by the time you get to the lengthier season finales the viewer is invested. With AT there is the format of the Saturday morning cartoon to consider, where two unrelated 11 minute shorts are jammed together in one time slot. The show plays with this as well as two parters, creating something that’s more akin to the short reels played in the early cinemas, be it a one-shot adventure or a thrilling Dick Dasterdly cliffhanger.

It also means that there is much more likely to be a tight, limited perspective on larger events – it lets the writer explain why certain things haven’t come to light before now, while also creating characters the audience sympathizes with as the focus (meaning that a shift in plot elements or outside style become more permissible).

Storytelling? Know what happens when you introduce your plot over time? It means your going to be doing a lot of comic book-style retcons. It also means that, depending on the length of what you’re drawing back on, you’ll have to do one of two things: spend a lot of time and energy reminding the viewer of what they’ve missed and inevitably forgotten, or letting them figure it out on their own in those ubiquitous fan forums. Both these shows favor the latter, almost to a fault. Burnie Burns (writer for most of RvB’s run) has stated his fondness for leaving puzzle pieces – little facts in the  background that can be put together to create implications of a larger story at work. Several fans puzzled out the big twist of Reconstruction before the season was even announced, for example. AT is much the same as regards the Murshroom War and most of the 1000 years before Finn and Jake went about adventuring.

This is a double edged sword, in some ways. A casual viewer might have zero reaction to a line that would cause a deeply invested fan to burst into tears, or they might dismiss the show entirely based on its surface elements or seemingly crazy over-interpreting fans. On the other hand, this type of narrative style is made for the modern age of fandom, where obsessive nitpicking and theorizing are more or less de rigueur for shows of any genre and audience. If you put it in on purpose you have the fun of watching your viewers scramble for it, and even interacting with them over what scrap to release next (elating or crushing their carefully made-up dreams). It does pose a danger if the audience comes to like their explanations better than yours, but that’s the nature of fandom all over. Why not play the positives when the negatives are going to happen anyway?

Theme? Both shows deal heavily with ideas of the self, identity, and memory. They exist in the aftermath of horrible offscreen events (Project Freelancer and the Mushroom Wars) from which the main characters are detached as far as they know, excepting one or two grizzled survivor characters like Washington or Marceline. They revolve around main characters unwittingly connected to the past (the last human, the Alpha AI and its fragments), and a question of whether those characters are defined by the families of choice that shaped who they are now or what they were genetically disposed to/engineered for. And at the core of some of their most tragic stories are memories – bonds that are important to one and forgotten by another, whether they are better or worse for losing their memories of who they were before madness, and where the meaning of human interactions fit in if they are no longer recognized as important. Who am I? Were the evils committed necessary ones? Which Church is the Ice King, in the end, most like? I could go all day with this.


Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot…

All fine and well, but if the question ‘so what’ can’t be answered, then it’s just a lot of pretty observations. So what, indeed? I wasn’t particularly married to the line I started with. While it’s pretty likely that at least one of the internet savvy folks of Adventure Time’s creative staff know RvB, I don’t think it’s the driving force behind their similarities. It goes back to something embedded in us by Harry Potter, if not earlier. Countless shows – your MASH, your Gunsmoke, any of the endless procedurals that shamble on across the years, and even my beloved Lupin III – have scratched the audience’s itch to see continuing adventures. But they’re largely static things. The situations change and maybe the emotions of the characters do too, but they’re adults. They’ve reached the form and basic personality that they’re going to face the world with. Harry Potter let a generation grow with its protagonist, seeing their own emotional struggles mirrored in a fantastical world. Adventure Time strikes the same chord, giving the audience a kind of ownership to Finn and who he’s becoming, how he might shape the world. Red vs Blue answers the uncertainty of early adulthood – why are we here, what am I doing as a cog in this larger machine, and how much am I responsible for my own actions? There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing a bunch of bickering slackers, our bickering slackers, take hold of their own agency in the shambles of a big and terrifying world that’s dismissed them. The best themes are often ones that come about accidentally, born from the writer’s unconscious mind rather than a burning desire to Say Something. Now and again they offer a truly raw portrait of a time and place in society, of their audience and what we’re all searching for.

I find the change in venue interesting as well – the idea that in less than a decade, one show was the purview of the internet while the other was able to find an audience for its audience participatory format on cable (emphasis on the cable because cartoon network makes it bleeding difficult to stream the show online). The fact that our culture has become more inclusive of internet culture is not a revolutionary one, but it is interesting to see it in practice. After all, this is a media that still can’t figure out that girls like comics and videogames, or that there are audiences (especially geeky ones) outside of Straight White Dude. Adventure Time is going even beyond what Red vs. Blue accomplished in terms of interface, and given the thriving social media platform Rooster Teeth introduced that’s no small accomplishment. It’s a careful balance, acknowledging and playing with the fans without creating something that seems ‘fannish’ or overly pandering. It’s hard to see where the lines of creative purity, cultural plaything, and consumer product begin to blur together. But those are questions that are going to require even more careful contemplation going forward. We’re all in the same sandbox now.

As an aside, I’m SO VERY SORRY about the lack of Lupin recap last Friday – travel and holiday schedules made the kind of time those posts require simply unavailable. I most humbly beg your forgiveness, dear readers, and will attempt to make it up as soon as I am able. I do hope your holidays were and continue to be grand!

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