Saturday, February 20, 2016

Gravity Falls Retrospective and Review

*Insert quote here* - no, I'm not even being quippy, I just want to go back and find a good quote.

What is it? Animated action-comedy cartoon, half-hour (24 minute) length, although the last three episodes which we're touching here were edited and stitched together to essentially form a pesudo-DCOM of sorts well after-the-fact.
Where did it air? Originally Disney Channel, then it "channel-hopped" to Disney XD, although second-runs were still on Disney Channel. This review originally concerned the first Disney XD premiere if you're curious, and if it makes a difference.
Who stars in it? Uhhhh, the voice actress who does Mabel also does what's her face on Bob's Burgers. Grunkle Stan is voiced by Alex Hirsh, the actual creator of the show itself. Apparently the character at least was based on a skit he did in his college days (a lot of the show, in fact, is based on or formulated from events and people he experienced in college).
Why are we reviewing this? Because it's the finale of what's probably one of the top three cartoons not only in Disney Channel history but for at least 21st century Western animation period, up there with Kim Possible and Phineas and Ferb.

I don't know if a show like Gravity Falls would've been possible on Disney Channel 10 years ago, or maybe on any network period. When it premiered in 2012, it certainly represented a gamble, even as that network was on the tail-end of a massive shift itself. I don't know if Disney Channel execs are even convinced that gamble paid off (the success of that network-wide shift seems to be waning at the very least) but strictly from a quality standpoint and critical praise, Gravity Falls was a resounding success. From the perspective of an audience member like myself, that's the best you're going to end up observing anyway.

And it's not like Disney Channel had been slouching on television animation in the past 30 years either. To its credit, Disney has been as dedicated to TV animation as it had been on the big screen, translating much of that Disney animated magic from the 80s-90s "Renaissance" era into Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers, Tailspin, Duck Tales, Darkwing Duck - I mean, you name it. And even in that candy-coated era of television, they even gave us Gargoyles on top of it, so it's not like Disney is a stranger to darker-themed animation on TV either. And let's not forget Kim Possible and especially Phineas and Ferb, or brand-spanking newcomers like Star vs. The Forces of Evil (I've been told Sean and Christian are big fans of that show) or, heck, even Pickle and Peanut which I like for the same reasons I liked Aqua Teen Hunger Force I guess.

So let me just say it: Gravity Falls is way better than all of that. Yes even Darkwing Duck, Gargoyles, Kim Possible, yes even better than Phineas and Freakin' Ferb.

Gravity Falls may be the greatest animated series in the entire history of Disney Channel/Disney XD and one of the greatest series on those networks period. Maybe even one of the greatest Western television animated series, period. 

A big reason why has to do with the concept of mythos, and Gravity Falls has it in spades. Hell, the whole concept of mythos is worked into the very premise of the show. What's "mythos?" In the sense that's usually bandied about for TV series, it's...well, since we're on the subject of animated TV let's have Dr. Doofenshmirtz explain it:



Mythos kind of sort of is backstory just like Doofenshmirtz is used to, except applied to the entire show itself. Or to be more precise, it's all of the things that add up to make for a consistent, continuous story beyond just individual episode plots. It's the background information of the show itself and all contained therein - the characters, the setting both of place and time, etc. - as well as general dangling plots or stories that clearly add to the overall story, plot or "feel" of the entire show or are themselves important story arcs that the show has clearly centralized around. Nearly every piece of storytelling or narrative ever created and concievable has some sort of mythos, but some tend to have bigger and more involved mythoses than others. The mythos of Game of Thrones, for example, is pretty damn important to understanding that show to begin with (fortunately it does a pretty good job of introducing it). Likewise Gargoyles. A show like, say, Pickle and Peanut or Aqua Teen Hunger Force more or less has its mythos scattered to the wind - the guidelines and understanding of the show as it pertains to the episode are whatever that individual episode dictates, and also likely dictated by some interesting drug choice on the creators as well. But there's still some element of mythos - Pickle and Master Shake still have definitive consistency in how they act as characters, for example. For something like Girl Meets World, the mythos involves the entirety of the background of Boy Meets World up to and including the show Boy Meets World itself. The "legend" of Mr. Feeny and Shawn Hunter, if you will, for example. For something like Liv and Maddie, it involves the larger community of Steven's Point and how it's integrated into the show, or Liv's background as a child star, or Parker's odd proclivity towards being live-action Phineas Flynn. For something like Jessie, it would be the world Jessie Prescott herself left behind in Texas, or the worlds the children left behind when they were adopted (especially for Ravi and Luke where they delved the most into with this sort of thing). If you've noticed, shows that tend to have the most involved mythoses tend to have a noticable jump in quality, though this is not always the case. It's possible to get completely bogged down in mythos to the point of boring your audience, which is the mistake most failed GoT and Tolkien clones have made, and why most failed sci-fi and fantasy writers end up failing. A good science fiction novel or show is supposed to be a good science fiction novel or show - not the last D&D campaign you played translated into book or TV form (though there have been several successful sci-fi/fantasy novels and even TV shows that actually started out exactly like that including works written by none other than yours truly - but again, it's the skill of how they're translated and what parts to translate specifically). 

Now, there is a difference between a show steeped in its own mythos - like Game of Thrones or Gargoyles - and a show that's nearly entirely about its mythos. That is, all the backstory isn't just necessary to understand what's going on - somehow, the backstory is actually central in creating the plots themselves. Perhaps the one example people are most familiar with that's the easiest to explain is X-Files - it's a show about a pair of characters exploring and investigating paranormal mysteries, and they're just as much in the dark as the audience is. The whole plot of the show isn't just steeped in mythos, it is the mythos of alien visitation, supernatural phenomenon and what the government is conspiring to cover up.

Naturally I bring this up because this is also what Gravity Falls is. In fact it's pretty much X-Files mashed with Phineas and Ferb, which is probably why it's so great. Dipper stumbles upon this book with a bunch of mysteries in it, and the duration of the series from that first episode on is about Dipper and Mabel either getting caught up in the mysteries of Gravity Falls or directly hunting them out and investigating them. That alone probably would've created a great series, but there are further ingredients that went into making it not just truly memorable but to stand head-and-shoulders above a very long list of great animation from this network. 

Again, it's about the mythos, but in this case the specific details. It's at least believable that Alex Hirsh had at least large swaths of the plot and mythos mapped out well before actually storyboarding the first episode. Many shows, even great shows, may have expansive mythoses but not necessarily well-mapped out and consistent ones. Back with X-Files, it's almost the whole point that the mythos is inconsistent and poorly understood by anyone, including the creators themselves (so much so that it even has a trope on TVTropes named after one of the writers/producers of The X-Files, called the Claremont Coefficient - you can look it up yourself). But with Gravity Falls there's clearly a very consistent line of reasoning behind it all. We get glimpses of a very far future that's involved through Time Baby and Blendin Blandin. We have very clear alternate dimensions and a villain in Bill Cypher. And of course what probably helps is that there's a bible right there in Dipper's own hands, which alone goes a long way towards forcing certain rules and consistency to be adhered to, even an informal one.

Beyond even that, though, is that Gravity Falls also brings with it great characters and even a great and touching human element that a lot of live action shows both on and off the network could learn a thing or two from (not the least of which is GMW). Dipper and Mabel come off as very realistic, believable and relatable twins/siblings. Grunkle Stan is a very relatable older relative and adult figure. There's a plot element concerning Dipper's infatuation with a flighty, enigmatic and older girl, again something that's certainly as hell relatable for many viewers (both who would be currently experiencing that and older viewers remembering such romance from their own past). And many of these adventures concern real, relatable flaws from the characters in some fashion, either brought about directly by these flaws or they come up organically in the process of exploring them. Yes, these are typical human flaws, but explored more intimately than in just the general Star Trek/Twilight Zone broad sense. They're more than just human flaws, they're flaws that Dipper, Mabel and others have specifically as characters that they're learning to grow out of. They might not necessarily learn the error of their ways by the episode's resolution, but the adventures they go on at least make them aware of that or even embrace their flaws.

And beyond that, the series is just damn fun to watch. It's legitimately creative, but also a great comedy even without taking in and appreciating the dramatic moments. It's a very rare combination of dramatic and comedic elements relatively few shows even try (at least in such even doses) and many shows simply fail at. As far as mainline Disney Channel is concerned, it's even more of a rarity given how that network has all but banished animation to XD and the dominance of multi-cam sitcoms that with rare ventures aim squarely at pure sitcom-style comedy (though with exceptions as I'll get into eventually - I just wish there were more of them.

...and more involving redheads....)

Series Grade: A+, obviously. Given the arcing nature of the plot, it's best to appreciate the series as a whole, although most episodes can certainly be appreciated stand-alone as well. For highlights The Time Traveler's Pig and Fight Fighters comes to immediate mind - for "lowlights" probably the Mermando and Sock Puppet ones, though those certainly weren't bad episodes by any means (probably a B+ at worst).
Series MVP: It's tough to give this to an animated series since you have individual talents working multiple characters at once. Series creator Alex Hirsh himself is Grunkle Stan, Soos, and a number of recurring characters male and female. If I had to give it to an actual person as a voice actor, I'd either give it to him, or the talents behind Dipper (something Ritter or other) and Mabel (that woman who does the voice of that girl on Bob's Burgers who just really sounds like Mabel now). If I had to give to actual fictional characters on the show, it's a tie between Dipper and Mabel - again, the twin dynamic is what makes this show rise above the rest.

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