In which I make a pitch for a children’s cartoon.
[This was originally going on my private blog, then I realized, “Hey! It’s a fantasy, right? Yeah!” So here we are.]
For those who don’t know, “Gravity Falls” is a cartoon currently airing on the Disney Channel (albeit in bizarrely random timeslots, because the people who run the Disney Channel are apparently morons). Also, for those who don’t know, “Gravity Falls” is brilliant.
When I watched the first episode of “Gravity Falls” a few years back, the experience was very similar to my experience watching the first “Spongebob Squarepants” episode (and don’t forget, seasons one through three of that show are classics themselves). I watched it because it was on, and my analysis of the one or two commercials I saw was “I’m sure that it’ll be fine in a “cute for little kids way”.
And then I watched the first episode. I still laugh when I think about it. I can’t possibly spoil it for people because part of the fun is getting taken totally by surprise, but anybody who has watched it will probably agree with me when I say “hahaha-WHAT”.
“Gravity Falls” is basically a children’s version of a Stephen King novel. For folks who were fans of “Courage the Cowardly Dog” – itself something of a cult classic – “Gravity Falls” shares some of its DNA, though GF is much funnier and has much stronger continuity and a real storyline – and I liked “Courage”.
I’ll just summarize the premise: Twelve year old twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines are staying with their Great Uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan for the summer in the small woodland town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Dipper and Mabel quickly discover that something very strange is going on in Gravity Falls, and this “strangeness” drives the plot of the show, which alternates seamlessly between standalone episodes and episodes that contribute to the overarching story.
So here’s why, despite ostensibly being meant for 8 to 12 year olds, you should watch the show:
- The animation is incredible. Exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWvdqkl2UH4I also recommend the final third of “Little Gift Shop of Horrors”, which combines stop motion animation and regular animation. Couldn’t find a good clip.(That first clip, by the way, is the title sequence to “Weirdmageddon Part I”, which I’ll bring up again later)
- The show is absolutely hilarious: I mentioned the pilot, but that’s not even a standout humor-wise. I’m not really sure if there is one…with the exception of one or two more continuity-heavy episodes (which are still really funny), all of them are hilarious. I suppose if I were to suggest the “Gravity Falls” episodes with the best pure humor I’d go with the season two episodes”Scary-oke” and “Love god”, but there are really no wrong answers.
- It’s incredibly clever. The jokes are better than just funny. They’re smart. One episode is an extended parody of “Dungeons and Dragons”. One makes fun of “Street Fighter”. One riffs on the “loser candy” given out during Halloween and makes a Slenderman-style villain based on the concept (it makes sense when you see it). And one…Well, you get the idea.
- It actually has good drama. While the show is consistently funny, occasionally an episode will come out that is genuinely exciting and sincere. These episodes – which are usually the series’ best – tend to be the ones that relate the most to the overarching story. Of particular note are “Not What He Seems”, “A Tale of Two Stans”, and “Weirdmageddon: Part 1” (the source of that terrific animation sequence from earlier).
“Serious” and “Drama” are all relative…it is, after all, a children’s cartoon. It’s always, always, extremely funny. But when episodes like those three come out it reminds you of just how good the show is at executing its more dramatic, serious beats.
- The characters are all interesting and fresh. The show takes old tropes – the loveable curmudgeon, the nerdy brother, the goofy sister, the man-child comic relief – uses them effectively, and adds real depth to turn them into something unique, relateable, and different. Grunkle Stan isn’t a curmudgeon just because he’s an old man; he has to deal with genuine guilt and grief, and devotes his life to a noble, if potentially foolish, cause. Mabel and Dipper’s strengths and weaknesses balance each other out well, but never in an obvious or trite way. Soos fits squarely in the loveable manchild mold but there’s an actual reason he acts the way he does…and on and on it goes.
Also – and my reasons for liking this are somewhat personal – Dipper and Mabel have a genuinely close, positive relationship. It’s rare to see that in fiction.
And finally, and most simply,
- When the show is good, it’s REALLY good…but at its best it’s outstanding. Sometimes, you just exhaust all your adjectives. Sometimes, when people ask you, “But what makes it so funny? What about it is clever? Why do you like the characters so much?” you just have to throw up your hands and say, “Because it’s all done really well, okay?” And that’s it. It’s just a well done show – every aspect of it is polished and on point. The writing is near-perfect for what the show is trying to accomplish, and the continuity is flat-out astonishing. It really is a great show.
For newbie watchers: Atart with the pilot, which establishes the tone and particular appeal of the show about as well as any I’ve ever seen.
Season one essential episodes: Essential episodes – for me, at least – are “The Deep End”, about the awesomely hilarious character of Mermando, “Summerween”, “The Inconveniencing”, “Dreamscaperers”, and “Gideon Rises”. It’s important to get a large-ish sampling to establish the show’s continuity, because a lot of the better episodes greatly improve if you’re aware of it. “Gideon Rises”, the season finale, in particular really works best watched last.
Season two essential episodes: Keep in mind that season two is still ongoing. It is absolutely stellar, probably one of the best seasons of a show I’ve ever seen thus far. For the absolute, must-watch best I’d go with “Into the Bunker”, “Sock Opera”, “Not What He Seems”, “A Tale of Two Stans”, and “Weirdmageddon: Part I”, with a reminder that “Scary-oke” and “Love God” are the best in terms of pure humor. I’ll also note that “Not What He Seems”, “A Tale of Two Stans”, and “Weirdmageddon” rely HEAVILY on continuity, but, with the proper background in place, are arguably the three best episodes of the entire series.
All of that said – for newbies, start with the pilot. There’s no better introduction to this show’s tone and style of humor. It’s a terrific table-setter. If you like the pilot you’ll like the show, and if you dislike it…well, probably not.
So there’s my pitch for why full-grown adults should take time out of their schedules to watch a children’s cartoon. I regret nothing.