Methinks there’s been a little too much philosophy and not enough stupid around here lately. So I’m going to talk about cartoons.
You know, the smartest shows on television.
Gravity Falls is available in its entirety on Hulu. If you have access then go watch it and then come back and read this. Either that or just don’t complain about Spoilers because YES, HERE THEY COME.
On the one hand, Gravity Falls is a collection of Young Adult fiction tropes– youthful protagonists, weird parental situations, romantic interests, coming of age. On the other taloned appendage, this show manages to combine a some very unusual components in some very unusual ways. Trappings of horror, adventure, romance, pulp, magic, geekery and mystery. At its heart it’s a show about family, growing up, happiness, escape, forgiveness, sacrifice, good, evil and love. Also real cool versus the teenage substitute for cool, which doesn’t really fit into the above list, but is a subject I’m happy to see popping up in cartoons. Seriously, the teenage substitutes for genuine things are the worst.
It does all of the above while also doing something even more important: Gravity Falls is not just deep but spectacularly funny. Humor– the only substance that transforms the rubber mallet of melodrama into the feather duster of truth.
The real key to this show is family. This is so central to the show that I can’t talk about Gravity Falls without talking about siblings, generations, loyalty, rivalry– the building blocks of familial reality. The show centers around two sets of twins, both based in a tourist trap called the Mystery Shack. One pair– the Great Uncles– are the protagonists of the past.
Complimentary opposites, Stanley and Stanford were incredibly close until their differences, societal expectations, and a series of mutual mistakes tore them apart– almost literally since their relationship ended with one of them being thrown into a nightmare dimension for 30 years. It was nobody’s fault– except for both of them. It was both of their faults. Oops. As a result the remaining twin spends the next 30 years working as a small-time tourist trap con man by day, and trying to reconstruct his brother’s impossible physics engines by night, a never-ending attempt to rescue his brother.
The protagonists of the present, Dipper and Mabel, are also opposites– mystery-obsessed nerd and cuteness obsessed glitter-child, respectively–but form an unbeatable team when they come together on a project. Zombies, robot lake monsters, corrupt police,extra-dimensional chaos gods– two kids with no special powers convincingly take down all comers. The absurdist horror setting helps sell the concept– zombies can be defeated by perfect three-part harmony, giant gnomes by leaf blowers, giant robots by nothing but courage and pluck. That said, it’s the similarity between the two pairs of twins– the once and future heroes– that creates the show’s unexpected central tension. Are Mabel and Dipper going to always be there for each other? Or will they grow apart or turn on each other as adolescence and adulthood transform them into unfamiliar beings? Even though the kids battle/are stalked by shapeshifters, gnomes, insane Halloween (okay, fine, Summerween) spirits and yes a LITERAL CHAOS GOD this is their greatest threat and greatest fear.
The relationships between the older generation and the younger is almost equally important. Both uncles are obviously flawed and obviously loving guardians, in that messed up way that fictional guardians who put kids in danger often are. Their love for their niece and nephew is ultimately the magnet that brings the two uncles together in spite of their pettiness. And, you know, saves the world.
That same love is also the force that forged the word “Grunkle,” 2012’s finest contributions to the English language.
The rest of the twins’ family is rounded out by wise loser handyman Soos, who acts as an older sibling for both of the twins, and by virtual older sis/Dipper’s crush Wendy whose mysterious competence and low-level bad girl hijinks never stop being fun.
Of course, outside of friends and allies there are always enemies. All families have them– if you look hard enough– and all heroes need them. Even though the town of Gravity Falls, OR is populated with weird monsters it’s the human enemies that keep returning to have emotional effects on Mabel and Dipper. Okay– there is one monster with terrifying emotional impact and staying power, a Masonic pyramid of malice, Chaotic Evil to his core. But we’ll get to Bill Cipher. Yes we will.
The human nemeses are important because they’re handled differently on Gravity Falls than on almost any other show. Dipper has Robbie,Wendy’s (rightfully) jealous sometime boyfriend and insecure emo jerk. Mabel has Pacifica Northwest, rich pretty mean girl who humiliates her competition into submission. The Great Uncles have… each other, really. And the entire family is threatened by creepy imp-child Gideon Gleeful, a shyster with actual magic power who is willing sell his own soul in order to gain more.
And in each case– even with an apparent monster like Gideon– the Pines family deals with their enemies by forgiving them and moving on. Better than nuking them from orbit, forgive your enemies– it’s the only way to be sure. I admire this approach, treating the bad guys like people, not things. It’s not like they’re demons or something. The only other show I can think of with a hero who wins by forgiving is Steven Universe. This is naught but the highest praise.
Speaking of demons, there are plenty of them in Gravity Falls– in particular an intelligent monster that cannot be redeemed or forgiven, the eye in the pyramid, the thing that should not be spoken to– Bill Cipher.
Bill’s a wonderful adversary and left a lasting mark on my psyche from his first appearance on the show. He’s the simplest cartoon on the show– a combination of geometry and stick figures– but also the most terrifying monster. You can’t take him seriously until you’re forced to. Gleefully voiced by show creator Alex Hirsch, Bill is almost always funny, but it doesn’t detract from the dread his presence lends to every scene he appears in. He’s a demon that exists only in the mind, and yet there’s almost nothing his malevolence can’t accomplish. He’s a literal Faustian devil, making bargains that always harm his “partners” while giving Bill exactly what he wants via creative wording. He manipulates and destroys out of malice and boredom, but also tirelessly works towards his single goal– complete domination of the physical universe. He is literally two-dimensional, but also fully realized.
I– I love him.
I love that this show commits so fully to its concepts– forgiveness, family, perfect evil, imperfect good. There are rumors of a season 3, but the show’s climax and denouement are so perfect, I’d hate to see that happen. Don’t mess with transcendent success.
Unless it’s, like, your job and stuff, series creator Alex Hirsch. But seriously, it’s like writing a sequel to A Tale of Two Cities or something. It felt so good to see a series with a perfect ending.