I’m not a fan of binge-watching. In my mind, television, like every serialized medium, is best when experienced week-by-week—the anticipation building with every cliffhanger and every inexorable countdown to the next episode, all that tension to be released in one euphoric rush before the cycle begins again. In comparison, blasting through a season in one dazed weekend acts like that bag of chips that tastes great while you wolf it down but leaves that slightly sick, empty feeling rolling in your gut once it’s gone.
That said, of all the shows I watch, there are only four I’ve been lucky enough to follow from episode one. And in a week, one of them is ending. So here it is, a loving tribute to what I whole-heartedly believe is one of the best shows on TV, now and ever, Alex Hirsch’s cartoon of mystery and mayhem and mad, mad wonder, Gravity Falls.
Even now, four years after its premiere, I have a hard time believing that Gravity Falls exists. It’s subversive, hilarious, creepy and heartwarming, often all at the same exact time. It’s beautifully animated, impeccably written, and voice-acted by a cast of the absolute best. And not only does it manage to do all that, but it manages to do all that as a Disney Channel cartoon—constrained by every content barrier and ounce of censorship Disney’s TV division can dump on its shows. If the world adhered to our expectations, it wouldn’t exist.
But it has existed, since June of 2012, an era that—every time I look back on it—seems more and more foreign. Pokémon games still used sprites. Netflix wouldn’t release its first original series (House of Cards, in case you were wondering), for another year. Google was a search engine that had started to dabble in phones; now, they’re building driverless cars. In our speedy modern world, Gravity Falls is ancient.
Gravity Falls is so ancient in fact, that the nostalgia I feel whenever I re-watch its first episode, “Tourist Trapped”—something I do on a monthly (and sometimes weekly) basis—ranks with such seminal childhood experiences as Elmo’s World, Pokémon Emerald’s intro sequence and the opening chant of The Lion King. The cheerful theme song, filled with just the right undercurrent of mystery. The characters, shouting and smiling and winking to camera for the first time. That innocuous flicker of a journal page at the end, with its image of what would become one of the show’s biggest secrets. The first time I heard it, I remember smiling, thinking, “wow, this looks pretty cool.” Now, knowing everything that would follow, I can’t help but feel chills.
And that’s exactly what “Tourist Trapped” did—it upended my expectations of another breezy piece of Disney Channel fluff and presented a show that shared more collective DNA with The X-Files than anything Phineas and Ferb had ever done. It was funny, but not crass. The characters were goofy and fun, but still lovable and flawed. And the simple twist that came halfway through the show only foreshadowed the escalation of weirdness and insanity that would follow. It’s the best kind of pilot—it offers plenty of entertainment, while teasing everything yet to come. In its closing seconds, as Stan disappears into the mysterious room behind the vending machine, nothing hints that it will take three years for us to find out what he’s hiding. And when we do, (more on that in a moment), it’s utterly marvelous.
Gravity Falls consists of, currently, 39 episodes. Of those, I can think of one, maybe two, that I don’t completely and utterly adore. As I said, “Tourist Trapped” is amazing—but “The Legend of the Gobblewonker” is even better, and “Headhunters” began the tradition of star guest actors voicing one-off characters (in this case, John Oliver as wax-Sherlock Holmes—later on, Louis C.K. as a ravenous disembodied head and Jon Stewart as a feline judge). “Irrational Treasure” perfectly spoofs National Treasure, while “The Time Traveler’s Pig” provides one of the best uses of time travel I’ve ever seen, especially in a cartoon.
I could go on and on. I could talk about how “Dreamscaperers” depicts the mind as something at once spellbinding and terrifying, how “Scary-oke” flawlessly followed a year-long hiatus with quite possibly the greatest karaoke sequence ever aired (and the only one accompanied by exploding zombies), and how “Sock Opera” somehow combines the concept of demonic possession and a plot revolving around a sock puppet rock opera into a fabulous dark comedy.
But what makes Gravity Falls incredible isn’t any of those things. At its core, despite the entrancing mythology and amazing plots, Gravity Falls is great because it understands the importance of characters, of the relationships that ground its free-wheeling insanity. In “Tourist Trapped,” Dipper, Mabel, and Stan seem to be the typical cartoon archetypes: the smart guy, the social girl, the crazy uncle. Wendy is the object of a comedic crush, and Soos is comic relief. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Character development seems like such a simple concept, but no piece of fiction has—for me—ever pulled it off as well as Gravity Falls. Now, four years and two seasons later, Dipper and Mabel are an inseparable pair, bound by their love for each other and their acceptance of each other’s flaws. Stan is, like his Mystery Shack, a masquerade; a con-artist whose first priority has always been to protect his family. Soos is a beloved friend, trusted advisor, and all-around “awesome dude.” Wendy is much the same.
And it doesn’t end there; one thing Gravity Falls does amazingly well is take its one-bit characters—those seemingly written as a plot device or a foil for a single episode—and turn them into people just as compelling as our main cast of five. Old Man McGucket, in the beginning just a crazy old kook slash mad scientist—becomes a tragic hero in “The Society of the Blind Eye.” Pacifica Northwest, once called out by Mabel for being a, “walking one-dimensional-bleach-blonde-valley-girl stereotype,” makes you pump your first with joy at the end of “Northwest Mansion Noir.” Robbie V, one of Dipper’s many nemeses and owner of the phrase, “my hormones are like a sweaty cage,” becomes a rumination of love’s healing power in “The Love God,” one of my all-time favorite love-potion storylines. And there are so many more.
That’s how Gravity Falls grounds its mystery—with its characters, and their relationships with each other. For the prime example of exactly what this contributes, look no further than “Not What He Seems,” the one episode that I can confidently call the series at its best, and quite possibly my single favorite 22 minutes of television, ever. This slice of television, episode 31, was the culmination of every previous strand of plot, every mystery surrounding Stan and his secret project. It was the climax of the plot line teased in the first cipher of “Tourist Trapped,” which translated out to the simple phrase, “Stan is not what he seems.” In any other series, it would have been all about the mystery.
But this is Gravity Falls, and what made “Not What He Seems” as amazing as it is (if you want more than my word for it, it currently sits at a 9.8 on IMDB—that’s Breaking Bad territory, and the same score as Doctor Who’s legendary “Blink” and The Flash’s amazing “Out of Time”), was that all the mystery and the intrigue and Nick Offerman’s humorless government agent were, in essence, relegated to side-story status
In reality, “Not What He Seems” was about Dipper, Mabel, and Stan: their relationships, their love for each other, and in the end, their family. The central question was not, “what’s going to happen to this world?” it was, “did Stan betray his family?” and “how are they going to react when they find out?” There’s no emotion in “what’s going to happen to this world.” But when Stan’s niece and nephew, and effectively his adopted son, start to wonder if their beloved uncle had conned them too, the stakes become real.
I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that the payoff is perfect, because—like everything else in this wonderful, wonderful show—it’s about family.
So let’s give it up. To Dipper and Mabel Pines. To Fiddleford H. McGucket, to Pacifica Northwest, to Blendin Blandin and Waddles the Pig. To Little Gideon and to Bill Cipher—magnificent bastard and frat bro of the apocalypse. To Soos and Wendy and Stan. To the Gravity Falls Gobblewonker, the gnome named Shmebulock (Sr.), and that one asshole unicorn. To cloning copy machines and elderly ghosts, to living videogames and cherubs who just want to work on their rock careers. To the author of the journals. To Love Patrol Alpha. To the ridiculous airing schedule that sets three week hiatuses between normal episodes and three month hiatuses between cliffhangers.
To Alex Hirsch, one of those few writers who inspires me to one day write as well as them.
To Gravity Falls. No matter what happens in the finale, to me, you’re already legendary. I’m going to miss you.