Over the past weekend, the Disney Channel premiered its latest animated comedy series, Gravity Falls (created by Alex Hirsch) with a surprising four episodes across three days. I’d caught previews for the show about a week in advance and I was interested, as I’m always up for a horror-based kid’s show, but what I watched totally blew away my expectations. Gravity Falls is really sharp, really weird and I’m already in love with it.
The series is something of a “Twin Peaks for kids”, as bizarre people inhabit an isolated town in Oregon called Gravity Falls. Twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) are sent to spend the summer there with their “Grunkle” Stan (Alex Hirsch), who runs a fraudulent souvenir and oddity showcase called the Mystery Shack. Shortly upon arrival, the weirdness of the town makes itself evident to Dipper and Mable in the form of monsters and madmen seemingly out to get them.
That plot synopsis doesn’t really do Gravity Falls justice, as I found it to be a show defined by the wit of its characters and the cleverness of the writing in general. There’s an instant likeability factor to the cast that immediately draws you in and it seems every word out of their mouths is something to laugh about. The kids are just really, really funny.
Dipper is the straight-man of the show, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of Gravity Falls (after discovering one of three journals by an unknown author, chronicling the town’s secret history). He reminds me a bit of Dib from Invader Zim only, you know…likeable. Jason Ritter does a great job on his voice (in fact, the entire cast of this show is really solid), making Dipper not sound like an obnoxious know-it-all even though he always thinks he has the answers or wants to play ringleader on adventures.
Mabel was the real stand-out character for me, aided immensely by the voice-over from Kristen Schaal. Admittedly, Schaal’s performance and the character herself tarry a bit too close to Louise from Bob’s Burgers (whom Schaal also voices), but I find Mabel much more enjoyable to watch. She’s rather hard to describe, as she’s incredibly optimistic but not naïve. She’s also incredibly weird and quirky in her habits and interests, but not excessively “random”. Mabel’s just funny as hell and I dig that the animators give her a different sweater in every episode to break up the monotony of routine character designs.
The immediate supporting cast does a great job of carrying the show when the twins aren’t on their adventures. Their Grunkle (“Great” + “Uncle” = The awesomest portmanteau I’ve ever heard) Stan is hilarious in how terrible a role model he is; kind of like a wrinkly, humanoid Bender. He’s a con artist, a thief, someone with no parenting skills and generally every terrible thing you can think of. What struck me is how Disney has no compunctions in showing him committing various acts of larceny and what-not, and playing it up to humorous effect with no underlying moral lessons to impart on the audience (nothing along the lines of, “Now watch Grunkle Stan, kids, and learn why stealing is wrong,” etc). He does terrible things with no consequences and it is a riot to watch.
There’s also Soos (voiced by Ritter), the handyman of the Mystery Shack and the only adult, so far, that’s allowed to join the twins on their adventures (a theme seems to be that they fail to get evidence to show the police or Grunkle Stan). I’d like to praise the writing staff for creating a humorous simpleton character without having to resort to making him a drooling, “Durrrr”-ing mongoloid like Patrick Star, Cinnamon Bun or Ed. His wall-eyed expressions and often inexplicable nuggets of wisdom are entertaining and you’ve got to love an adult character that aids small children in their dangerous and destructive hobbies.
Lastly, there’s Wendy (Linda Cardellini), who in four episodes has hardly said or done anything, but I assume the writers have a plan for her. She’s a laid back, perhaps lazy teenage girl that works at the Mystery Shack. She also seems to encourage the twins in their crazy antics, but that seems to be more out of sheer indifference to everything around her. She’s got a cute character design, though.
The sense of humor in Gravity Falls is amazing in that its writers seem able to pack a single episode with about three episodes-worth of jokes and snappy comebacks. After watching the second episode (the lake monster one) when it initially aired and laughing my ass off, I immediately switched over to On Demand and watched it again… And proceeded to laugh my ass off at a whole new set of jokes I missed the first time around. Like a lot of modern cartoons, Gravity Falls is written with many different levels of wit to appeal to different audiences; what a child gets out of it is different than what a teenager gets out of it is different than what an adult gets out of it. It’s reminiscent of contemporary shows like Dan Vs. and Adventure Time as well as older fare like The Critic or the early 90s seasons of The Simpsons. Perfectly suitable for kids but with material to be appreciate by older audiences, too.
In addition to the sharp wit of the set-ups and the dialogue, the overall plots of each episode are solidly paced, too. Each episode is a full half-hour story rather than two fifteen minute joints, which is something that’s become a little uncommon in kid’s comedy cartoons these days (making Gravity Falls all the more refreshing for this approach). The longer length gives the writers and the characters the opportunity to wring the maximum amount of humor out of each situation, as well as better develop the conflicts and the setting. The show has a great knack for “twists” at the end that reveal that the strange monster wasn’t all it seemed to be… It was, in fact, a completely different strange monster! Sort of like if Scooby and Shaggy pulled the mask off Bigfoot at the end of the episode and found out it was Mothman all along.
There seems to be a developing storyline in the series, though the episodes themselves try not to dwell on too much continuity. The first episode sets everything up, but beyond that the stories are very self-contained, making the show accessible at any point you decide to jump in. References are made to past episodes, but they’re disguised as the same sorts of weird jokes that litter all the dialogue, so you probably won’t even notice (I watched the episodes out of order, so when they namedropped creepy gnomes, I thought it was a gag, not a reference). Still, there seem to be some developments involving the mysterious journals being uncovered and a slowly growing cast of adversaries. We’re only four episodes in, after all.
The animation from Rough Draft Studios in Korea is very fluid and enjoyable and the art design seems like it would be palatable to most anyone. Joe Pitt’s character designs are cute and spunky and capture the essence of the characters; they’re simplified for animation but not to the point of losing their ability to emote or be modified. I really like all the little details, like the ever-present mud on Wendy’s boots (saying more about her character than anything she’s actually done so far) or the cute braces on Mabel. The music by Brad Breeck is really strong and stands out in each episode; this isn’t one of those shows with a score composed of generic keyboard library tracks. Also, watch during the credits, not just for the little cartoon gag, but the text-itself; there’s a jumble at the end for kids to unscramble as an added bonus.
To wrap it up, I really recommend checking Gravity Falls out regardless of your age. The mystery-horror setting was a natural attraction for me, but even if you aren’t into ghosts and monsters, the colorful characters and clever sense of humor should draw you in.