While this blog has been focusing on TV shows and movies with well-rounded female leads, there is one show I want to focus on which deserves a much bigger fandom than it already has. It’s a fantastic example of a well-written seasonal arc, combined with individual episode stories and quirky characters. It doesn’t talk down to the viewer, and is enjoyed by a wide range of people. I speak to you of a magical place called Gravity Falls.
It should come as no surprise to regular readers that I love cartoons. I’m part of a generation who grew up with The Simpsons and can quote most lines from seasons one to twelve, usually within context of a conversation. I love that Harley Quinn was such a popular new character in the Batman animated series that they gave her a comic book series. Captain Planet made me into a habitual recycler. When people mention Mark Hamill I immediately think of the Joker before Luke Skywalker. My first series of blog posts were about Daria, for goodness sake! I adore cartoons.
Well, this generation of kids who grew up on 90’s cartoons are now in our 20s and 30s, and are making shows that they themselves would want to watch. So now we have a smorgasbord of cartoons that appeal to all ages, including Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Rick and Morty and Gravity Falls. The creator of Gravity Falls is Alex Hirsch, and he was born in 1985.
I’m going to try and give away as little as possible while convincing you to watch. Here it goes.
The show follows twelve-year-old Dipper Pines and his twin sister Mabel, who are based on Hirsch and his own twin sister, Ariel. It’s a long American summer, and they’ve been sent to spend the holidays with their Great Uncle Stan. Gruncle Stan runs a tourist trap called “The Mystery Shack” in the fictional town of Gravity Falls in Ohio. While all of the mysteries in the Mystery Shack are hilariously fake, Gravity Falls has plenty of real mysteries of its own, and the kids soon find themselves going on weird and wacky adventures. In the very first episode, Dipper finds an abandoned journal which documents weird phenomena that occurs in the area. The journal is informative when it comes to, say, defeating the forest gnomes who want to make Mabel their queen.
It also contains plenty of codes to decipher, a favourite pastime of both Dipper and diehard fans watching at home. The keen-eyed observer will also notice that each episode has hidden clues and codes in the backgrounds of most scenes. There is symbolism everywhere, both hidden and overt – Mable has a new jumper every week, which sometimes depicts or foreshadows something about the end of the episode, other times it’s just a fun jumper. Unlike most other cartoons, things don’t tend to go back to normal at the end of an episode, so you really get a sense that they’re actually leading toward something at the end of the series (and oh BOY are they leading to something! Holy shitballs!).
While the show leans heavily on overarching plot and general weirdness, at its core it’s a show about relationships between family and friends. Dipper and Mabel may be twins, but they are different in a lot of ways – he’s quiet, reserved, studious and cautious, while she’s boisterous, confident, hilarious and impulsive. She loves boy bands, glitter, sleepovers, and when Gruncle Stan tell the kids they can have one thing from the gift shop, she chooses a grappling hook over anything else in the Mystery Shack.
Mabel: And I will have a….Grappling Hook! Yes!
Stan: Wouldn’t you rather have, like, a doll or something?
Mabel: Grappling Hook!
Stan: Fair enough!
Mabel is far more confident than her twin, which is helpful when Dipper develops his first crush on Wendy, a teen who works at the Mystery shack. Mabel figures it out from day one, and keeps trying to get him to confess his feelings.
Alex Hirsch said that all of the writers just threw in the character traits of the coolest people they knew, and they came up with Wendy. She’s smart, tough, perceptive and knows how to climb a tree like a lumberjack.
She’s laid back, but knows when to be honest and how to keep a secret – no wonder Dipper gets a crush on her. Wendy is fifteen years old – at that age three years is a huge difference – and there’s no way they’ll ever work out, but Dipper never blames her for how he feels. This is in stark contrast to Robbie, Dipper’s rival for Wendy’s affections who keeps bugging Wendy after they break up (highlight to reveal spoiler).
All of the main reoccurring characters get a substantial amount of development throughout the show, particularly toward the end of season two. Soos (short for Jesus) works as a handy man at the Mystery Shack and is a generally amiable and lovable buffoon, but even he has a back story that’s thought out and provides more depth than would first appear. That’s the thing I’ve been noticing about modern cartoons – a lot of them manage to fit in way more character development and depth than their predecessors, and are able to portray messages without ramming ideas down the viewer’s throats. Messages such as,
“everyone is insecure and you’re not as alone as you think,”
“don’t let traditional gender stereotypes define your worth as a man/woman”
“being the boss is more stressful than you think”
“never trust a unicorn”
and “eating expired candy will make you trip balls”
The show only runs for two seasons and just finished this year, which is great for you because you won’t have to endure the agony that was a two year hiatus between seasons.
I also recommend watching it twice – once for the overall plot, then a second time to see how everything links together, and to catch stuff in the background you may have missed the first time. There’s also a ton of voices you’ll probably recognise, such as Nick Offerman, Welcome to Night Vale‘s Cecil Baldwin, Nathan Fillion, Will Forte and, of course, Kristen Schaal as Mabel.
Normally I’d go into a lot more detail with regard to character development and plot progression, but I just need you to trust me on this one – check it out, and get ready for some delightfully weird shit.
Oh, and watch out for this guy…
He’ll mess up your day.
Finally, if all of that doesn’t convince you, check out this.