It is probably not surprising that I am a huge fan of animation. What is probably more unexpected is that I’m a fan of western animation, rather than Japanese anime. Considering that I spent several years of my life in Japan and took years to become fluent in the language and culture, the fact that I haven’t watched much anime in years might be a surprising revelation.
But I’ve always loved cartoons – ranging from comic strips like Calvin And Hobbes, The Far Side, and Foxtrot to animated shows like Animaniacs, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Samurai Jack. Some of what I watched when I was a kid was low-rent crap, but a surprising number of shows exhibit a real artfulness to them that’s just as enjoyable as an adult – if not moreso.
Today we’re living in a miniature golden age of animation, with a resurgence of high-quality, creator-driven programs that are kid-friendly but draw an extraordinary amount of their fandom from teens, college students, and adults. This is probably exemplified by Adventure Time, Cartoon Network’s breakout hit filled with bizarre humor, unpredictable plots, and a surprisingly coherent and engaging overarching story. Adventure Time feels like a show written almost entirely for its supposedly-periphery demographic of young adults: its glossy art style and chiptune soundtrack are unmistakably informed by early to mid-90s console role-playing games, its humor often stupid and brilliant in equal measure.
There are a lot of great animated shows from the past few years that I can highly recommend – like Sym-Bionic Titan, from Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Lab creator Genndy Tartakovsky, Patrick McHale’s Over The Garden Wall miniseries, the labyrinthinely self-referential and hilarious Venture Bros., and Avatar: The Last Airbender, to say nothing of critically-acclaimed shows I haven’t really dove into yet, like Regular Show or Steven Universe.
But maybe the most impressive – or at least, the most personally resonant of the bunch – is Alex Hirsch’s Gravity Falls. Like most of the best animated shows of the past decade, Gravity Falls has a continuous storyline, and events – even seemingly silly and inconsequential ones – build up to unexpected significance. Gravity Falls probably has the most detailed mythology of any of the shows I’ve mentioned – it feels like an effortless blend of Calvin And Hobbes, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. There are backmasked words in the show’s opening, and decodable cryptograms in the ending credits. The titular town is rife with mystery and weirdness, and the show isn’t afraid to throw game-changing plot twists at the audience.
Of course, none of this would matter much if the show wasn’t very good. Fortunately, much like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls adeptly balances its overarching mythos with a resonant emotional core. The show follows twin almost-teenage siblings Dipper and Mabel as they spend a summer with their great-uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan in the town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Gravity Falls is a weird place, brimming with paranormal activity and conspiracies, yet Grunkle Stan makes his living from a tourist trap called the Mystery Shack, filled with fake paranormal stuff. Dipper and Mabel work in the Mystery Shack alongside lazy redheaded teenager Wendy and loveably clueless handyman Soos.
The relationship between Dipper and Mabel is the heart of Gravity Falls’ dynamic. We’ve seen so many sibling rivalries (particularly among stuff targeted at kids) that Dipper and Mabel’s genuinely loving relationship is quite refreshing. Even more welcome is the reversal of roles: how many kid’s shows, comics, and commercials have we seen where the boy is an idiot blockhead who needs to be reigned in by his smart, strong, sassy sister?
Fortunately, Dipper is a very intelligent boy who’s usually pretty levelheaded (at least, as much as one can be when dealing with the paranormal.) Mabel, on the other hand, is completely nuts. Fond of tacky sweaters, her pet pig, and hilarious non-sequiturs, the irrepressibly lovable Mabel could hardly be more different from her brother. She’s so different from just about any other female lead in a cartoon that she’s become the breakout character, despite rarely kicking anything’s butt. She’s voiced by Kristen Schall (of Flight Of The Conchords and The Last Man On Earth fame – fun fact! Star Will Forte of the latter show voices a minor character on Gravity Falls), the standout member of an excellent voice cast. Dipper and Mabel offer a great contrast – Mabel lives in the moment and is very comfortable in her own skin, while Dipper desperately wants to be a teenager and usually feels pretty awkward about himself.
What makes Gravity Falls a standout example of a great all-ages animated show is its fluid balancing of the ridiculous and the sublime. The show’s speculative elements always intertwine with its relatable, human element, working to mutual benefit – if it were just a slice-of-life show, it would be funny but commonplace. Meanwhile, a purely mythology-driven Gravity Falls would suffer from an all-too-common issue among speculative fiction: plots that drive the characters, rather than the other way around.
Finding this balance is a challenge I’ve experienced in my own writing: I tend to get more excited about writing plots and world-building than the characters themselves. But nothing pulls you out of the story quite so much as a character who behaves in a certain way because the plot calls for it. Usually this manifests as an otherwise-intelligent character doing something arbitrarily stupid to move the story along.
What so consistently impresses about Gravity Falls is that even the most mythology-heavy episodes are ultimately focused on the characters and their relationships: the fantasy and science fiction elements always serve a greater purpose in telling a story about the characters. While theoretically other shows like Lost were supposed to work this way, their fanbases tended to split in two groups: Fans of the characters, and fans of the mythology. Gravity Falls successfully ties both halves of its narrative so closely together that it avoids similar problems. And most importantly – the show’s writers have carefully plotted out the show, hinting at major developments (only recently revealed) in the earliest episodes. This kind of cohesion is sadly lacking in many live-action dramas.
Another part of what makes Gravity Falls great is the animation. It’s easily some of the best I’ve seen from an American television series, and the show is filled with lush backgrounds and fluid movement. The character designs are great – the closest analogue I can think of for Gravity Falls’ design would be that of newspaper comic Foxtrot, if that comic’s characters had a more natural appearance to them. There’s always something fun to look at in Gravity Falls, and that’s definitely a big part of why I enjoy the show. There are plenty of other animated shows (and movies) that I can readily admit are probably quite good, but which I simply find to ugly to watch.
What makes Gravity Falls a great family show – rather than a kid’s show – is that it never panders. There are hardly ever any fart jokes or anything else that you could really call crude humor or inappropriate. The show is never afraid to seriously deal with death, danger, or otherwise frightening elements. And subjects like romance, broken relationships with parents, and rivalries, which are usually handled in a predictably tedious or preachy way on kid’s shows, feel surprisingly real. Creator Alex Hirsh and his crew have a deep understanding of what does and doesn’t work about shows like The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Lost. And they’re not afraid to show their influences in interesting ways – the most recent episode featured two very obvious allusions to Breaking Bad, of all things. If the stereotypical kid’s show assumes its viewers are morons, Alex Hirsch assumes his viewers are geniuses – and it pays off.
Gravity Falls hasn’t, so far, drawn on much guest talent for special episodes (like Adventure Time with its seasonal guest-animator episodes.) However, deranged pixel artist Paul Robertson has provided some great pixel animation to two episodes (thus far.) His contribution reinforces my impression that Gravity Falls is deliberately casting a wide net, since most kids are going to be completely unfamiliar with 8 and 16-bit videogames and chiptune music. Even more obvious is the hilariously self-unconscious eighties-ness the show sometimes evokes – like Mabel’s affinity for cheesy eighties fashion and her “Dream Boy High” VHS Tape (“Where love is on your permanent record!”) and its tacky, 1980s cartoon technicolor radical dudes Xyler and Craz (did I really just type that?)
One doesn’t need to talk with me for very long to get the impression that I am someone with a deeply cynical view of the modern world and American society. That’s largely reflected in the garbage entertainment foisted on the masses on a near-daily basis: television is such a cesspool of irredeemable and sensationalistic gunk that I see no reason to own one unless I’m intent on playing old video games. That’s why the current renaissance age of animation is such a pleasant surprise, and why I’m so eager to recommend shows like this to my friends. Gravity Falls isn’t just a great show for kids, it’s a great show for everyone who appreciates great storytelling, beautiful art and animation, memorable characters, and unique humor. It’s a leading example of great family entertainment in an era where high-quality shows with such wide appeal are rare. I can’t recommend it highly enough.