When Cartoon Network’s animated series Adventure Time premiered in 2010, it was destined to become a hit. The show arrived at the perfect time, when its bite-size doses of quirky humor, colorful characters with strange voices and magical abilities, and shades of queerness embedded into its characters’ backstories matched a changing culture that desired more than just one-off, episodic storytelling. Like the network’s other classic shows, Adventure Time further grayed the area between kids TV and adult programming. Its stories were contained enough to entertain younger viewers who weren’t looking for anything deeper than some fighting and giggling, while each installment quietly built the lore of the show’s universe atop one another, catering to the grown-ups intrigued by its enchanting mythos.
The show was also an ideal pick for dominating a new era of online fandom. Adventure Time’s singularity was reflected in a culture that craved the opportunity to tout their uniqueness at every chance they got. (The show’s “Bacon Pancakes” song matched the rising obsession with using breakfast food as a personality, lest we forget the age of bacon paraphernalia turning the world’s brightest young minds to mush.) Adventure Time fortified the early-2010s boom of Tumblr—the social network that dominated this new age of fandom and brought niche communities together with just a few keystrokes—and vice versa. As the years passed and the show progressed, it naturally begat what all beloved media has generated since man could read and write: fan fiction.
Well, sort of. In her off-time, Adventure Time character designer Natasha Allegri created Fionna and Cake, a human girl and a cat—gender-swapped versions of Adventure Time’s leads: the human boy, Finn, and his dog, Jake. After they gained traction on—where else?—Allegri’s Tumblr, Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward canonized the characters with their own episode in the show’s third season, where their story is revealed to be in-universe fan fiction written by the series’ main protagonist, the Ice King. They went on to re-appear several more times throughout the show, offering a gender-swapped twist to the story.
Given that the characters remain massively popular among fans—and that everything in our modern age must have every last possible cent of profit wrang from it—Fionna and Cake now have their own spinoff series, streaming Aug. 31 on Max. But while Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake might seem like easy money, the show is far from the nostalgia-baiting cash grabs audiences are used to suffering, particularly since their spinoff is arriving five years after Adventure Time’s end. Instead, Fionna and Cake is a marked expansion of the Adventure Time lore, one that is less raucous and more story-focused from the jump. While its worldbuilding might prove too abstract for totally new viewers, it’s a genuine surprise for longtime fans and any curious cartoon enthusiasts alike.
One of the biggest gripes among Adventure Time viewers was that, as time went on, it became more difficult to keep up with the series’ overarching story if you missed a few episodes. Scattered airing schedules, combined with increasingly intricate plotlines, made the story more work to follow than it was worth, alienating longtime fans of the show (myself included). Fionna and Cake blessedly eases its viewers in slowly before dunking them into the roiling surf and seeing if they can hack it.
The show’s first two episodes, which premiere together, are starkly different from each other. The first reintroduces us to Fionna and Cake, no longer fighting battles in their mystical homeland of Ooo. Rather, the duo is slumming it in the big city, where Fionna works as a beleaguered sightseeing bus tour guide, as Cake rides along with her in a cat carrier. The only memory either of them has of their adventuring days comes in near-nightly dreams, dissipating by the morning.
Even when the show briefly takes us to a world more reminiscent of New York City than a cartoonish Middle-earth, the charm of Adventure Time’s offbeat character design and voice acting isn’t too far in the distance. Delightful vocal appearances from original series regular Maria Bamford and perfectly cast newbie Chelsea Peretti welcome viewers into this world, while the series works on building itself anew around the franchise’s typically lively voiceovers. Fionna and Cake replicates the original series’ soothing character design and animation style, with rounded edges and a lack of harsh lines (not to mention proper human noses) acting as a sweet sedative to the discordance of our own reality.
But this pacification doesn’t last more than a single episode, and that’s when things become all the more interesting—and briefly grating. Cake accidentally falls through a mystical portal, as all cats are wont to do, causing the series to fold in on itself. Fionna and Cake switches gears, glimpsing the life of Simon Petrikov (the sane, non-magical, human version of Adventure Time’s Ice King), who has an integral part of Fionna and Cake’s existence that is no longer just fan fiction. As the series continues, it’s evident that the tonal pivot from kooky spinoff to dreary character study in the first two episodes is necessary, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring and, frankly, obnoxious.
Fionna and Cake’s first few episodes almost seem like a test of will, making the show initially seem to be impenetrable to anyone who didn’t watch Adventure Time. And while I can’t necessarily see too many non-fans seeking this out anyway, it is a show about a girl and her cute, vaguely magical cat—that’s not exactly a turn-off to someone casually scrolling Max looking for something to watch. But if unfamiliar viewers can make it through a massive dose of confusion, and longtime fans can be content with a bit of head-scratching at the start, Fionna and Cake will reward anyone intrigued enough to keep watching.
It’s not until Episode 4 that Fionna and Cake really starts to make any sense at all, when a healthy dose of exposition is served up on a silver platter. The episode is far from information overload, though, alluringly weaving the secrets viewers have been craving throughout its captivating, highly original story. The series pokes some meta fun at its own history, before introducing a few petrifying new characters in the form of all-powerful Gods and those who keep them in check, the God Auditors. With all of its pieces finally in place, Fionna and Cake takes off running, for a twisty—and, at times, genuinely tense—exploration of humanity, love, and friendship.
Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake boldly stands to piss a lot of viewers off, and not just those who were mad about having to watch the women-centric episodes of their favorite boy cartoon. The series is not nearly as accessible as Adventure Time, nor is it as outrightly humorous or ridiculously plotted. Fionna and Cake might be a spinoff, but it plays out far more like a reimagining, and that’s ultimately for the better. Trying to piece together the lore of the original series was frequently a frustrating experience, hampered by limited runtimes, wonky scheduling, and the writers’ reluctance to provide concise answers. While the first half of Fionna and Cake’s 10-episode season might be intimidating, the series succeeds where Adventure Time faltered, successfully prioritizing story over silliness without losing the big, ludicrous heart that captured the devotion of a whole generation, and stands to do so a second time.