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How to catch up on Adventure Time before the new season

Adventure Time is back this week for its eighth season, which means it’s time to grab your friends and catch up on one of the most important animated series to come out in recent years. That’s not an overstatement; in just six years, Adventure Time, with its whimsical storytelling, mature themes, and complex world-building, has managed to create a template for how to tell stories for kids and adults.

Maybe you’ve fallen behind. Maybe you never got into the show at all. (Shame on you.) But with the show about to finally address some of its biggest mysteries, it’s worth diving back in the Land of Ooo before spoilers hit the web.

Refresh my memory: what’s it about? I know there’s a magical dog and stuff...

Jake the dog and Finn the human, yes. The show follows these two best buddies around the Land of Ooo, where they do indeed have adventures. Many of these revolve around Finn and Jake battling the Ice King, an old wizard who loves to kidnap princesses, or helping Princess Bubblegum, who rules the Candy Kingdom. But things get considerably more complicated from there as we learn more about each character’s backstory, and there’s a surprising amount of pathos working under the surface.

Adventure Time touts itself as a children’s show, but its humor and themes run much deeper than your typical kid-friendly fare. Over at our sister site Vox, culture critic Todd VanDerWerff called it “this era’s finest coming-of-age story.” I agree with this so much that I’m just going to shamelessly repeat it. Ooo is a post-apocalyptic world (albeit one filled with cute candy monsters and stuff) some thousand years or so after The Mushroom War, a catastrophic event that destroyed civilization as we know it.

Adventure Time Finn Jake 800

Hang on, what?

Oh, did you forget that part? Or, maybe you just never made it that far at all? Whatever, dude, I totally get it. There’s a lot to watch.

Yeah, that fan theory all those years ago about the world taking place post nuclear holocaust was actually pretty spot-on! The hints are all there, even before the show really takes the time to address this itself. Just look at the opening credits, where you can spot a few warheads just lying around.

Over the last few years, the show has given us a better idea of what happened in that fateful war, but we’re still unclear on facts like why Finn is one of the few surviving humans. Over the years, the show has explained to us how Finn and Jake ended up together, or why Finn is so focused on helping others, but the new season is the first time we’ll get answers.

So… that’s where “Islands” comes in?

Yes, exactly! Islands is an eight-part story in season eight that will finally give us the dirt on Finn’s past. If the mini-series idea sounds weird to you, keep in mind that Adventure Time has done this before with Stakes. Stakes was part of season seven and focused on Marceline the Vampire Queen’s past, as well as her relationship with Princess Bubblegum.

Islands sees Finn, Jake, and Susan Strong sailing away from Ooo and exploring different… islands. Straightforward naming. It kicks off on January 30th and runs until February 2nd.

Wait, who is Susan Strong?

If I had to guess (and I am), I’d say that Susan Strong will be important to the overall story of Islands. Susan was introduced way back in season two as a member of a tribe of humans living underground. It was a big deal at the time, because up until then Finn was the only human we knew of living in Ooo. (Most of the beings on Ooo are magical, mutants, or robots. Ice King, for instance, is human, but his whole being was twisted by his crown.) It turns out the tribe is actually made up of mutants, but Susan is… different somehow. We later learn she’s a cyborg — that’s a long story — but where she came from is never cleared up. Basically, Susan could be the key to understanding what happened to humanity after the Mushroom War.

So Adventure Time is close to ending?

Yes and no. The show will end its run after nine dang seasons, but it’s not actually coming to a close until 2018. The show’s eighth season starts today, January 23rd, which means you have two more long and (probably) beautiful seasons before you sobbingly send it off into the sunset.

Okay. So why is this a big deal?

Let’s take a second to look at what the show accomplishes. In a lot of ways, Adventure Time is Calvin & Hobbes mixed with Tolkien, Miyazaki, and that random webcomic you read in college about wizards starting a band. (I don’t know if that actually exists, but that’s the vibe you get here.) Under its happy-go-lucky veneer, there’s an incredibly complex mythology full of characters that have deeply human, even tragic problems. The show can tell stories that riff on film noir, post-apocalyptic science fantasy, and even teen romances. There just aren’t a lot of shows that can operate on so many levels so effectively, and Adventure Time manages to smash all those ideas into one place.

Fans love everything about this, but the show has actually folded fandom right back into itself in a way that’s organic and compelling. This is a show that incorporates fan art and fan fiction into its storytelling. That’s so fully of the moment that it’s no wonder it’s regarded as one of the best things to happen to animation in a long time.

Oh! Okay, this sounds like an incredibly influential show!

It absolutely is. It’s been said before, but Adventure Time really is a little like Saturday Night Live in that show’s golden era for its ability to foster and churn out talent. You can immediately see that on a show like Steven Universe, created by former Adventure Time storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar. That show takes the whimsy and world-building that make Finn and Jake’s adventures so fun and applies them to a little kid being raised by his three aliens “aunts.” Then you have Bee and PuppyCat, a web series by storyboard revisionist and Fionna and Cake creator Natasha Allegri, wherein Bee and her pet cat-dog hybrid do odd jobs to pay her rent.

And then there’s the recognition the show gets from its contemporaries. The Simpsons, inarguably the greatest American animated series ever no matter what you think of its subpar later seasons, paid homage to the show with a couch gag a few seasons back, with Bart and Homer replacing Finn and Jake. And then there was the time the duo appeared on Futurama (it’s worth noting that actor John DiMaggio is the voice of both Bender and Jake). The point is, Adventure Time has gotten props from some of the best creators in the business.

So what you’re saying is I need to watch every season of Adventure Time before it’s over?

Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying. I mean, if you’ve gotten this far and you’re not convinced, I’m doing a pretty bad job…

No no no! I’m not saying that. I’ll get on it.

You’re a good friend. I’d take you on an adventure any day.

Update: Oh hey! A bunch of you have been asking us where you can actually watch the new season when it debuts. Well, the new episodes will start airing tonight on Cartoon Network, so those of you with a cable subscription are in good shape. Everyone else can buy a season pass on iTunes, Amazon, or Google Play. And if you’re behind, feel free to binge everything you’ve missed on Hulu. Have fun!