As a narrative medium, TV valorizes stasis. Most shows rely on maintaining a narrative status quo in order to tell ongoing stories within a comfortable framework for an audience. The Friends live in the same apartments with largely the same jobs for almost a decade. The characters of The Office dream of leaving Dunder Mifflin but rarely do. And every difficult antihero makes the same mistakes ad nauseum until it’s time to end the show and collect syndication money.
So it makes sense that TV tends to be, at best, skeptical of new technology—and, in particular, skeptical of virtual reality.
At best, TV depictions of VR take it as a useless curiosity. Take the Community episode where the Dean wastes a boatload of money on an outdated VR system, a purchase that serves as a vehicle for visual spectacle without making anyone’s life easier. At ther times, VR is mildly threatening — Star Trek created an entire sub-genre of holodeck-gone-wrong episodes, though there VR mostly exists to create a sense of adventure. And often, it’s outright murderous, as in Black Mirror’s recent VR “Playtest” episode (which is closer to augmented reality, though the technology is presented in a way that blurs the distinction).
Adventure Time, the beloved Cartoon Network show, is a strange candidate for a complex take on VR. But then again, Adventure Time has always had a strange relationship with the future. The show is frequently simple and childish, befitting its subject matter and intended audience (several of the characters are talking pieces of candy). But it has consistently maintained a darker side, and a skeptical view of technology stemming from its post-apocalyptic dystopian setting. When your sparkling world of magical creatures was created by nuclear fallout-related mutation, it’s hard to be so optimistic about the possibilities of new technology.
In Islands, a new Adventure Time miniseries kicking off the show’s eighth season, Finn (a human, and our main protagonist), Jake (a magical stretching dog, our secondary protagonist), Susan Strong (also human, with mysterious cybernetic origins), and BMO (a cool robot and game system, addressed as “they”) set off on a boat to visit islands far away from the series’ primary setting of Ooo. In the process, they answer one of the show’s biggest questions: What happened to all the humans? The answer, it turns out, is intertwined with the series’ view of technology in general, and virtual reality in particular.
At the beginning of the miniseries’ fourth episode, “Imaginary Resources,” the group comes upon a store advertising something called “Better Reality”–an exhaustive virtual reality world that contains many of the remaining humans. The emaciated near-corpses have been kept alive by bird-like creatures (suspiciously reminiscent of the Twitter logo) who maintain the nuts and bolts of the VR setup and feed everyone some kind of shake. Though there are standalone headsets, most of the humans are kept in a large facility, comfortably contained in pods that Jake calls “coffins of the future.” Better Reality’s tagline: “Where reality doesn’t stink!”
Adventure Time, the beloved Cartoon Network show, is a strange candidate for a complex take on VR.
Better Life is bluntly parodic. It’s the kind of thing that should say everything about how Adventure Time views virtual reality: a place of pure escapism that may provide some relief from the “real” world, but ultimately detracts from it. This sort of well-worn technophobia is the most obvious response to being presented with VR, which is why it would fit neatly into a long tradition of televised depictions of the technology. Even the name “Better Reality” could be a reference to “Better Than Life,” a game from the long-running dystopian sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf.
Given TV’s attitudes toward VR, it’s an almost mathematical certainty thatAdventure Time would initially confirm the “common sense” lesson that virtual reality is fake, or bad, or a distraction—a lesson that makes even more sense for a kids’ show. Scientists are uncertain about possible side-effects of children using VR, given their developing brains. (Most companies that make VR headsets don’t recommend them for children.) So really,Adventure Time should come down against the supposed falseness of Better Reality, strongly and consistently. But it doesn’t.
Better Reality is a massive environment, more reminiscent of Second Lifethan anything currently available in the Oculus store. The assembled humans have bizarre, cubist avatars, usernames like Wolfprud3 (with a three), and hang out in something called a “pizza romance RPG mega-quadrant.” Better Life might be off-putting to our heroes, but it’s not hard to see why the assembled humans trapped in a post-apocalyptic world of candy people find it so appealing. As Finn eloquently puts it: “Oh wow, this place is objectively interesting.”
Adventure Time should come down against the supposed falseness of Better Reality, strongly and consistently. But it doesn’t.
BMO, the show’s living game console, certainly think so. As a sentient computer, they’ve quickly become the world’s mod. In Better Reality, BMO are a god with a gigantic, classically sculpted body who can do anything—and, understandably, don’t want to leave. Afraid of losing his friend, Jake destroys the machine. This would would be the triumphant ending of a straightforward version of this story, where the birds would also turn out to be siphoning off the humans’ life force in some capacity. But it turns out that the destruction of the VR system isn’t the product of moral clarity–-instead, it’s a selfish decision made because Jake wants to keep his friend around. How many similar actions in fiction are motivated not by righteousness, but by fear?
Finn, at least, understands this, and forces Jake to help repair the facility—not because he’s come to understand the objective value of the technology, but because he cares for BMO. (And for the humans he calls “this depressing offshoot of my species.”) The people engrossed by Better Reality might not be living in a way that makes sense to the perpetually-active, reckless Finn, but it’s right for them—they have their own, activities, norms, and community. By acknowledging the possibility that Better Reality might just be outside the scope of our heroes’ understanding, Adventure Time also acknowledges its limitations as a TV show.
Of course, Adventure Time can’t quite depict the nuances of virtual reality, a new imaginatively expansive medium—how could it, without putting the viewer into the virtual environment? So it doesn’t try. Instead, it points to possible uses of the technology. By the end of the miniseries, Finn will start to understand when he uses the Better Reality headset to form a genuine emotional connection with another person, who he’s incapable of relating to in physical space. (Spoiler warning: It’s a very affecting moment.)
This ending isn’t so much of a full endorsement of VR as it is an acknowledgment that it might not be all bad—like other forms of technology, it’s a tool with a variety of applications. There’s not much common ground other than uncertainty here, which more TV shows would do well to recognize. It might have just taken a show like Adventure Time, which has long been comfortable translating stoned dorm conversations into real dialogue, to do justice to the ambiguity here—exemplified by a scene in which Finn and BMO have a brief conversation about the nature of reality.
BMO eventually elect to leave Better Reality—they tried to make virtual substitutes for Finn and Jake, with terrifying results—but otherwise, it’s just another place to live. And it’s a place where there are, simply, different rules. If BMO asking Finn to question what’s even real, man, seems like a bit of a copout, the computer’s final pronouncement is a spooky reminder about the limits of human sense, reminding Finn (and us) that what we perceive isn’t always grounds for objective truth. “The sky,” BMO remind us, “is black.”