Keeping Fans On-Track: An Adventure Time Cautionary Tale

Over on Indiewire, Eric Kohn has written a very interesting (and comprehensive) piece on Adventure Time and how the show has grown far from its simple roots by expounding in all sorts of weird and nuanced directions. What Kohn touches on, but does not completely explore, is why the logical, complimentary relationship that should exist between creators and fans has gotten somewhat out of step and why that’s a thing that should be a concern.

Adventure Time Promo art
Adventure Time Promo art

Naturally, Adventure Time has been massively successful (it’s been written about on this blog many times in the past) and the existential weirdness of the show has done nothing whatsoever to temper spirits or, for that matter, specify the age or background of its legions of fans.

To that end, the show’s current position near the pinnacle of contemporary pop culture has, as Kohn’s piece exemplifies, been welcomed by the public and critics alike. However, as Kohn also points out, fans have tended to engage in the kind of behaviour that fans tend to do. That is, to narrowly focus on particular aspects of the show while missing the broader message.

Such behaviour is nothing new. Heck, Lucasfilm has on staff, one guy whose sole task is to log and classify the literally tens of thousands of characters that exist within the Star Wars universe. Why? Well, because fans pay attention to that kind of thing and Lucasfilm believes its important for them (moneywise of course) to make sure they get it right.

Is such behaviour by fans a problem or merely expected once a show reaches critical mass?

The answer is a bit of both, and while concentrating on narrow aspects of a show does not in and of itself harm a show in any real way, it can sow seeds of contempt amongst the fanbase if creators decide to go in a particular direction. That said, Adventure Time has managed to foster expectations of expecting the unexpected; a ploy that has kept viewers consistently entertained and hungry for more.

For the vast majority of animated shows, broad objectives are somewhat irrelevant given that continuity has long been discouraged by networks that want standalone episodes for endless reruns often shown in the wrong order. Adventure Time differs in that respect.

The issue at the heart of all this is that a show should embrace its fans, but should also encourage them to see all the themes and topics it represents. Shows that only pander to fans interests and desires have been proven to have short lives and small influences. Shows that are willing to push back a little and to risk alienation have proven to be more robust and resilient in the long term.

A key piece of evidence in this is The Simpsons; a show whose relationship with its fans has been long noted and often discussed as something that was essential to the shows success in its early and mid-life years. Creators popped in acknowledgements to the fanbase here and there but were not afraid to confront it either, or act in deference to what fans thought. Whether they’ve done this for better or worse as the years have rolled on is another matter.

Keeping fans ‘honest’ with respect to what show creators hope to achieve is a task that should require little effort from the creators and more from the fans themselves. Wild theories can be tolerated and discussed, but general discussion, appreciation, constructive criticism and even simple likes/dislikes can provide the valuable feedback that producers and creators rely upon to improve their output.

At the end of the day, it is this feedback that matters. In the case of Adventure Time, feedback has been overwhelming and has done much to augment the shows progression and ensure its sucess. However, if that feedback loop starts to break down as fans miss important information, then we’ll naturally start to see a shift in expectations from both sides and a decline in quality as a result.