The X-Files + Twin Peaks + The Simpsons.
That’s how series creator Alex Hirsch describes Gravity Falls, the animated series that premiered on the Disney Channel early this summer. And I’d understand your skepticism that the show lives up to that bold claim but halfway through the first season, I can safely say that if you like any of those shows, you’ll absolutely love Gravity Falls.
The show is about Dipper and Mabel Pines (Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal), twelve year old twins shipped off to live with with their great uncle Stan (Hirsch) in the small Oregon town of Gravity Falls. Along with surprisingly wise man-child Sous (Hirsch again) and teenage slacker Wendy (Linda Cardellini), they work at Grunkle Stan’s Mystery Shack, a run-down tourist trap that sells cheap junk to a gullible public. But Grunkle Stan’s hocum masks the very real unexplainable phenomena (a Loch-Ness like lake monster, a haunted convenience store, a prepubescent psychic evangelist) that the quirky locals accept as every day parts of life. Dipper is driven to uncover all the mysteries the town has to offer him, especially after finding a book that suggests all the weirdness is connected, possibly to his Grunkle.
However, like other great works of YA genre fiction, Gravity Falls is really a story about children learning to be adults. Each minotaur, ghost, living statue, and giant robot the self-dubbed Mystery Twins encounter is in some way a metaphor for growing up, as Dipper and Mabel have to learn to be responsible for themselves (their Grunkle Stan certainly isn’t going to take care of them.) Most plots are resolved when one of the leads learns to accept someone for who they are, whether that’s themselves, each other, their Grunkle, or the oddball residents of the town.
Accepting themselves is where the show truly shines because it’s so revolutionary. Gravity Falls completely screws with gender rolls. Dipper and Mabel could be Bart and Lisa, but Dipper is the bookish romantic with a unyielding sense of justice, and Mabel is the carefree troublemaker whose energetic optimism and eccentricities obscure her intelligence and familial loyalty.
Jason Ritter delivers a great performance as Dipper, a boy struggling with masculinity especially in front of his crush Wendy (literally in the episode “Dipper vs. Manliness”), but it’s Kristen Schaal who steals the show as Mabel. Like Bart or Bender, Mabel lives a guilt-free life where she can wear a different ridiculous oversized sweater every day, use tortilla chips as earrings, aggressively pursue a series of boys, all without caring what anybody thinks about her. Mabel is a charming, unrelenting incarnation of chaotic energy. Mabel is directly based on Hirsch’s sister, making Gravity Falls a roman à clef as well as a bildungsroman and hey look at me using the big words.
That may seem highfalutin’, but Gravity Falls really is that smart. All of the characters, from the five employees of the Mystery Shack to Manly Dan and Manly Dan’s Biggest Fan, and from Toby Determined of the Gravity Falls Gossiper to the Crazy Old Coot, turn out to be three dimensional characters with complicated lives and emotions, and the nuance to the characters drives the plots into unexpected directions. The pilot episode “Tourist Trapped,” has a plot twist so well done that you will NEVER see it coming, even though it’s perfectly fairly set up. And the storytelling expands beyond the episodes themselves, as clues in the credits, including ciphers, backmasking, and the Konami Code, warn viewers that there is a lot going in Gravity Falls behind the scenes, and Grunkle Stan is at the center of it.
On a metatextual level, the show is clever, too. The kids don’t just encounter a new monster every week, they run headlong into new genres. From paranormal romance to murder mystery to government conspiracies to tournament fighting games, the kids find themselves in new worlds with new rules all the time, and must navigate them to survive. And the show switches genres so seamlessly that neither the characters nor the show’s unique style are lost when Gravity Falls does a direct parody, like “Irrational Treasure” or “The Time Traveler’s Pig.” (The time travel episode, by the way, uses non-linear storytelling to such mind-blowing and hilarious effect that it will have you rewatching it, and all the previous episodes, super closely).
I feel like I’m giving short shrift to the animation (gorgeous), the music (clever and catchy), and the guest acting (look for John Oliver, John Dimaggio, Will Forte, Larry King, and Coolio all in the same episode), but really the last thing you need to know is that Gravity Falls is laugh out loud, gut-bustingly funny. The characters are smart and clever and are aware enough of what’s going to make jokes about it. And if they’re not, the writers are, like the two men holding a pane of glass between fishing boats just so the high speed chase can crash through it.
So, if you like The X-Files, or Twin Peaks, or The Simpsons, you’ll like Gravity Falls. Or if you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or Scooby Doo, this is the show for you. Or Street Fighter II. Or Twilight. Or The Venture Brothers. Or The Legend of Zelda. Or… you know what? If you like life, you’ll love Gravity Falls.