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Infinity Train Outgrew Its Audience — and Grew Better for It

Photo: HBO Max

Every television serial is about trauma response. This may sound like mental-health industrial-complex propaganda, but it’s true. At one point or another in any show with any overarching story arc, how its characters handle what has happened to them, and why, becomes as important to the series as its plot. It’s as true of Arrested Development as it is of Game of Thrones. Some shows avoid addressing this head-on. Others, like The Sopranos or Steven Universe, deliberately afford it narrative primacy while letting their audience in on the deal. Infinity Train, the genre-crossing anthology series created by Regular Show alumnus Owen Dennis, is such a show. Or, well, it was.

Appropriately for its title, Dennis’s series has had quite the ride; less appropriately, that ride is almost certainly over. After a successful 2016 pilot, Infinity Train was originally released as a miniseries of ten 11-minute episodes in 2019 before being green-lit as an anthology series — with self-contained seasons of the same length, which the show calls “books” — after the first season wrapped. Produced by Cartoon Network Studios as a Cartoon Network original series for its first two seasons, it was moved to fellow WarnerMedia subsidiary HBO Max as a Max Original, which released Book Three last August and Book Four in April of this year. And that, seemingly, is that, despite Dennis’s plans to keep the show running for eight seasons and mock-ups for a planned Book Five or a prequel film centering the first season’s antagonist and a committed social-media campaign to save the show.

Why the cancellation? Dennis alleged on Reddit that Cartoon Network passed on a fifth season because “it didn’t have a child entry point.” This vague reasoning is presumably a response to the show’s progressively darker story lines and the increasing age of each season’s protagonists. Of course, most superhero shows, two of which were just green-lit at HBO Max, don’t either, and the Harry Potter series exists as a clear precedent for properties aging with their audiences, so it’s safe to assume that profitability might have been the central concern. Media conglomerates like WarnerMedia only care about art as long as it is monetizable. That’s a shame for television as a whole, but specifically a shame in the case of Infinity Train, a great show in part because it did get darker and did challenge its audience more and more with its themes.

(It’s worth noting here that the show’s much more financially successful Cartoon Network predecessors, Steven Universe and Adventure Time, did the same, and each received progressively darker follow-ups, Steven Universe Future and Adventure Time: Distant Lands.)

Infinity Train is a show about processing psychological trauma and other emotional distress, and it proves itself a remarkable engine (sorry!) for exploring the many ways in which people do just that. Its central metaphor, a seemingly endless train with an infinite number of cars holding fantastical and strange worlds within their four walls, is almost limitless in its flexibility. Each season, new protagonists, often connected in one way or another to those that came before them, but always with their own traumatic experiences to overcome, find themselves on the train, a glowing green number newly manifested on one hand. That number goes down as the characters get closer to processing their experiences, and rises if they fight against the lessons about themselves the train offers them. Once passengers’ numbers reach zero, an exit appears, and the train lets them off.

The world itself, hinged upon a horror-tinged science-fictional locomotive and tonally reminiscent of the same sorts of influences that sucked so many into Stranger Things, is all but irresistible. The show’s world-building is well-paced and consistently compelling, with new insights on the train’s inner workings dribbling in each season. The true nature of the train and its mysteries, so many yet to be explained, is puzzling and fascinating, and there are surely a whole lot of viewers aching to learn more. But when it comes to what makes Infinity Train really matter, the character work is the star of the show. The central metaphor is really only there to give the characters space to learn.

And the lessons they have to learn get more complex by the season. Tulip, the star of Book One, finds herself on the train to process her anger toward her parents over their recent divorce. By the end of Book One, Tulip has learned to accept what she can’t change — in part because of her run-in with a much older passenger, Amelia, who’s forcibly taken over the train and wreaked havoc on its inhabitants in an attempt to build herself a world in which her fiancé is still alive. Book Two follows a mirror version of Tulip, who has escaped the train car that was her home and prison, attempting to find a way off the train and her own place in the world, as two police officers chase her down in a ruthless effort to grind her into dust. Grace and Simon, Book Three’s leads, sow misfortune and ruin wherever they go as they fight against the train’s denizens and intentions, so determined are they to stay aboard and avoid moving on from their traumatic experiences; in the end, their respective paths toward and away from self-knowledge lead them from dear friendship to betrayal and irreparable enmity. Book Four’s Min-Gi and Ryan must together process a friendship grown codependent and toxic in order for their numbers, which are tied to each other, to diminish — even as each of them fights to learn at their own pace, often at the expense of the other. And the lessons they must help the train denizens around them process are even more traumatic than their own.

The questions the show raises about how humans can move on from the hurt we hold and cause ourselves and each other are heavy ones for a children’s show. The thing is, it’s okay if they are: Steven Universe carries the weight of his mother’s death and her role in an intergalactic genocide on his shoulders; the world of Adventure Time is a postapocalyptic wasteland. Those shows famously appeal to adults as much as children, even as they eschew the graphic nature of the deliberately adult animation of Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block Adult Swim. They got better as they became more willing to probe the unpleasant and unsettling aspects of human existence. It’s a good thing when all-ages shows shed a light on the darkness we live in and ask them to expand the boundaries of their world and their empathy. It’s a good thing to tell kids the truth.

Dennis has said that the planned Book Five, or film, would have given Amelia’s backstory center stage. It’s easy to understand why Cartoon Network, if not HBO Max, might balk at this. Spending the better part of two hours, whether over the course of ten short episodes or a film, focusing on the grief of a young widow and her desperate, rage-filled attempts to deny or bargain away her loss at any cost, is not exactly a norm for a children’s show. And yet Steven Universe asked its young audience to identify with its protagonist’s grieving father and his late bride’s grieving lover. Even way back in 1992, Warner Bros. Animation asked its young audience to identify with a 30-something billionaire playboy so traumatized by his parents’ death that he could only wage an unending war against crime in his city in a hopeless effort to symbolically undo it.

Those series, undoubtedly, made WarnerMedia much more money. But money shouldn’t be the reason for a work of art’s continued existence. There are too many better reasons. The completion of a story, for one; the broadening of an audience’s horizons, for another. And the continued and necessary exploration of the multivarious aspects of the human condition, no matter how hard that may seem. Hide them from kids or not, those complexities aren’t going anywhere. They are, in their own way, infinite.

Infinity Train Outgrew Its Audience — and Grew Better for It