As an unmoored, listless twenty-something college student with a perennially messy apartment, “Fionna and Cake” is intensely relatable.
"Fionna and Cake" is a spin-off of the 2010 Cartoon Network show "Adventure Time", a show I did not watch when it originally aired. To my knowledge, it follows the sometimes nonsensical and frequently heartfelt escapades of a human boy named Finn and a talking dog named Jake in the post-apocalyptic, technicolor wasteland of Ooo.
“Fionna and Cake,” in contrast, follows gender-bent versions of those two characters: Fionna, voiced by a plucky and sensitive Madeleine Martin, and Cake, portrayed by a delightfully unhinged Roz Ryan. Prior to the spin-off, the pair existed solely in an in-universe fan fiction written by a key villain, the delusional Ice King.
But during the “Adventure Time” series finale, the Ice King is transformed back into his human form: a bookish, 20th century human named Simon, played with a pitch-perfect mix of deadpan depression and surprising warmth by Tom Kenny. As a result, sometime prior to the series, Fionna and Cake’s world is changed into a drab, lifeless city, with Cake now a normal house cat.
Executive producer and former “Adventure Time” showrunner Adam Muto immediately drops us into Fionna’s new life, in which our heroine runs from dead-end job to dead-end job, and her greatest adventure is getting a vet appointment for Cake.
The internal conflict of Fionna, a blunt, intelligent woman trapped in a world of sleepy bus tours and solitary nights, drives the beating heart of the show. When Fionna and Cake, who’s eventually gifted speech, come to the land of Ooo, Fionna’s desire for a world of magic and adventure leaves her questioning whether she can reinvent herself and create her own magic — even if she’s not supposed to.
‘Til the end, Muto and the creative team push back on any simple answer. Externally, Fionna and Cake are chased by the universe-maintaining Scarab (Kayleigh McKee), who sees their origin in fanfiction as an abhorrence. Internally, the pairing must confront the reality of a world with real magic and real consequences. Their adventure runs in tandem with that of Simon, who struggles with loneliness after losing his partner, Betty (Felicia Day), and being stranded in an unfamiliar, bizarre future.
It’s a lot for one show to handle — at times, the narrative threads can feel overly divided, especially during an overpacked climax. While touching, the slow-burn romance between Gary Prince (Andrew Rannells) and Marshall Lee (Donald Glover) — remixing the original series’ groundbreaking queer pairing between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline — becomes lost in the noise, especially as the two are perpetually stranded in the “normal” world.
But even as some episodes pack too much in their 22-minute time frames, knockout episodes, like one in which Gary and Marshall’s date at a blood drive is contrasted with Fionna, Cake and Simon’s hellish trials in a vampire dimension, showcase the creative team’s juggling ability.
The show is rendered in gorgeous animation harkening back to the classic cartoon series, replete with absurd character designs and a rainbow cornucopia of neon hues. The animators, though, aren’t afraid to experiment as the gang visits new places physically and emotionally: one choose-your-own-adventure game-styled segment toward the end of the series is a particular showstopper.
The music, too, carries the show through some of its most tear-jerking moments. “Steven Universe” creator Rebecca Sugar, who’d also worked on the original series, hammers home a melancholy elegy to Simon’s lost life in the second episode. Sugar continues to pepper gorgeous, genre-averse beats and musical interludes throughout the show’s run.
Like its protagonist, “Fionna and Cake” isn’t content to be just one thing. It’s one part meditation on depression and loss, another part frantic, candy-rush fever dream and another part exploration on the limits of identity and self-definition. As its protagonists hop through different worlds, it, too, morphs through different genres, tropes and tones — it strikes against formula and tradition in a way that sets it apart from so many recent shows.
Although its tight, ten-episode season comes to a quick end, it’s one rollercoaster that you absolutely shouldn’t miss.
The complete first season of Fionna and Cake is available to stream on Max.
Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.