Why Gravity Falls Is the Smartest Cartoon on Television

Electronics Television


Image: Disney Channel / The Walt Disney Co.

While trying to convince my wife to join the rest of the family in watching the latest episode of Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls, I was asked to describe the show. I went on to tell of an animated series that combines the warm family element of Phineas and Ferb and outlandish characterization of Adventure Time with the snowballing conspiracies of the X-Files and Twin Peaks’ patently surreal setting. In short: a pair of quirky but supportive siblings head to an isolated town to spend the summer with their great uncle, and mystery ensues.

That served to get her attention. Just as it had captured mine.

There comes a time in every dad’s life when he must admit that he’s a slave to nostalgia. But the first step is, of course, simply admitting you have a problem. After that point you learn to meter your you-kids-today-have-it-so-easys and your back-in-my-days. If you’re really lucky you can also eliminate the bulk of your they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-tos.

The truth is, on many levels, they make them better than they used to. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of children’s entertainment — specifically cartoons.

Gravity Falls represents many things; it’s a visual triumph powered by witty writing and a stellar voice cast, but it’s also a continuation of Disney Television Animation’s epic legacy. From The Gummi Bears to Darkwing Duck to Gargoyles, these properties blended varying amounts of adventure and humor, but their greatest asset was an unwavering level of quality. The continuing saga of Dipper, Mabel, Grunkle Stan and their extended cast of eccentric Oregonians is all this and more. Aided by the literal decades of advancements in animation technology since that television “Golden Age,” the show boasts both a new-school focus on plot and characterization and Disney’s historic attention to detail.

The end result? Easily one of the strongest, smartest, geekiest cartoons of all time.

(CAUTION: Things are about to get spoiler-y!)

An Inspired Pedigree

Not only does Gravity Falls reap the rewards of Disney Animation’s might, it also manages to incorporate standouts from other classic and contemporary properties. Creator Alex Hirsch cut his teeth as a writer for Cartoon Network’s wonderfully weird The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack alongside such creative heavyweights as Pen Ward and J.G. Quintel. He also contributes to another amazing modern day Disney animated television series, Fish Hooks.

Aaron Springer, the director responsible for, among other things, the exquisite “Dipper vs. Manliness” episode is similarly known for his writing and storyboard work on groundbreaking series like SpongeBob SquarePants and Dexter’s Laboratory. And that doesn’t even touch on Gravity Falls‘ phenomenal collection of actors!

While Hirsch himself serves as the voice behind the characters of Stan and handyman-child Soos, Kristen Schaal (Toy Story 3, The Daily Show) and Jason Ritter (son of the late John Ritter) fill the roles of the Mystery Twins Dipper and Mabel Pines while Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) rounds out the principle cast as their co-worker Wendy. All this combines to make Gravity Falls a veritable study in entertainment history.

Cohesive World-Building

While all the aforementioned behind-the-scenes talent helps solidify Gravity Falls as a technical triumph, the expressive dialogue and rock solid animation don’t exist merely for their own novelty. Each element of a script, a character, a story arc instead serves to power forward a rich and nuanced narrative. Yes, there are hilarious jokes that punctuate the show’s off-kilter sense of humor, but in Gravity Falls nothing happens by accident.

Those ever-present woodpeckers often spied in establishing shots? They turn out to be a proper plot device (not to mention one of the best gags) in the episode “Irrational Treasure.” The mysterious book that Dipper discovers in the show’s debut? “The Hand That Rocks the Mabel” shows us that it’s not the only one of its kind.

A hallmark of the modern intelligent television cartoon series is environmental cohesion – when Friendship Is Magic introduces a minotaur or Regular Show throws in ghost truckers you accept it as part of the expanding story-world – but Gravity Falls instead relies on a complex system of foreshadowing and callbacks that, in retrospect, seem to have been firmly in place since its inception. When an unexplained background character that inexplicably popped up in various pivotal scenes turned out to be Time Anomaly Removal Agent Blendin Blandin attempting to eliminate in-show paradoxes, I wasn’t exactly surprised but I was no less impressed.

Enduring Mystery

Elements like Blandin are likely what make Gravity Falls such an engaging experience; the series actively encourages viewers to speculate, to investigate all the strange goings-on in this quaint northwestern town. Long before Manly Dan was revealed to be the father of Mystery Shack employee and auburn-haired object of Dipper’s affection Wendy, fans of the show had already connected the dots based on a photo of her brothers briefly shown in “Double Dipper” and a shot of Dan’s three sons from “The Legend of the Gobblewonker.”

But while minor mysteries are quickly resolved the true secrets of Gravity Falls keep us guessing. The time devouring baby alluded to in documents unearthed by Dipper and Mabel showed up a mere episode later, but other questions refuse to be wrapped up quite so easily. We know that Dipper’s book (“3”) serves as a guide to Gravity Falls’ various supernatural creatures/happenings and seems to serve as part of a set with rival Lil Gideon’s volume (“2”) – that itself seems more concerned with powerful mystical objects – but we’ve yet to see the all-important first book.

The true significance of these tomes and their creepy six-fingered-hand covers remains to be seen as does the identity of the sinister force from which they were hidden, but until such a time as these secrets are revealed we fans can continue to sift through screen captures for clues.

Puzzles Galore

The show’s reliance on mystery is aided by a continuous word game perpetrated by the production staff. At the end of the opening credits theme a brief backward message can be heard. For the first few shows this message, when reversed, said “Three letters back” – indicating the cryptographic device known as the Caesar cipher, wherein a alphabetic message can be decoded by shifting each letter by three characters. In episode seven this was replaced by the message “Switch A and Z” – the Atbash or reverse alphabet cipher.

Corresponding text-based messages are placed after the end credits that, when decoded using the correct cipher, generally reveal further fun references to the individual episodes themselves such as the phrase “Not H.G. Wells approved” that followed “The Time Traveler’s Pig.” These cryptograms, however, do serve to deepen the enigma that is the show’s sinister underpinnings with several coded references leading us to believe that there is more to kindly Grunkle Stan than meets the eye.

A Robust Fan Community

At the core of all this intrigue and good-natured whimsy there exists a group of individuals that add almost as much to the continued Gravity Falls story as the creators themselves. This extensive enclave of followers debate the meanings of the show’s elaborate symbology – which includes such arcane glyphs as “llama” and “bag of ice” – dedicate themselves to fan art and theme song remixes and even craft uncanny cosplay getups.

Of all the facets of this growing fan community, surely one undeniable touchstone is the Gravity Falls Gossiper podcast. Founded by visual artist Chris Haley and pop culture rapper Eugene “Adam WarRock” Ahn after Chris bombed Euge with a series of “OMG YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW” texts and emails that began mere minutes after watching the premiere, The Gossiper combines commentary concerning the finer points of each episode with (usually) relevant tales from the personal lives of its co-hosts.

While working on this post I talked at length with Eugene – he just happened to be in town winding down the NOFRIENDS tour – and we were hard-pressed to succinctly explain exactly what engaged us about this particular property. Chris, on the other hand, broke it down thusly:

It’s a show that can make us laugh ourselves to tears over a clone gone horribly wrong or a wax figure clapping sarcastically, feel that punch in the gut of watching a childhood crush go heartbreaking-ly unrequited, really ruminate on what it means to be a man, and understand the importance of doing the right thing even when it’s embarrassing or painful. That’s some pretty heavy stuff for a kids cartoon, and yet Gravity Falls threads these difficult needles with an effortlessness that most “adult” shows can’t handle.

Also, there is an adorable pig named Waddles.

There is a heart and resonance to this show that makes it very easy for us to talk about it for way too long and see so many aspects of our own childhoods (and adult lives) in, and if a show like that doesn’t sound worth watching to you, then I have but one question for you, “Why you ackin’ so cray-cray?

Why indeed, Chris. Why indeed.


Image: Disney Channel / The Walt Disney Co.

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