Welcome to the final episode of “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a mini-series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, will break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Previously we delved into fantasy/paranormal, horror/comics/general geekery, mysteries/procedurals, and sitcoms, so in this very special episode we’ll tackle cartoons, namely Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic, and Regular Show. Be warned, where applicable these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.
The Road So Far: Adventure Time (CN, Mon 7:30 PM) stars Finn the Human, a 14-year-old boy, and his adoptive brother Jake the Dog. Finn and Jake roam the magical, post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo—the earth about a 1,000 years after the Great Mushroom War and climate change wiped out most of civilization—having grand adventures and getting into trouble. On their journey they encounter other strange creatures and semi-humans like the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen, Princess Bubblegum and her half-unicorn, half-rainbow cohort Lady Rainicorn, Flame Princess, and Lumpy Space Princess, and no, I’m not tripping on acid right now.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I’ve heard comparisons of Adventure Time to The Ren & Stimpy Show, but I’d argue it’s more like the next generation of Spongebob Squarepants. The biggest way I’d say it’s indebted to Ren & Stimpy is the animation style. It’s unusual and bizarre with a strange “high school doodles in biology class” flavor to it. Basically, it’s like an animated version of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. The show is gleefully adorable, wondrously childlike, and surprisingly witty for a kiddie cartoon. It’s not my favorite kid-aimed cartoon on TV right now (Gravity Falls coming right up…), but it’s weirdly enjoyable and enjoyably weird, and that’s pretty darn great in my book. There’s a lot to love about the show, and even more to love about the people behind it. The show gets even funnier when you realize the guy who voices Bender from Futurama (John Di Maggio) is voicing Jake and you start pretending that Finn is hanging out with a beer-soaked robot from the future.
Adventure Time has also grown up over the years, and not just in the case of Jeremy Shada, the teen who voices Finn. The characters in the Land of Ooo are oddly complex for a show rated TV-PG, and there’s almost always a hell of a lot more going on than meets the eye. In the season premiere double-header, Finn gets sucked into a dystopian alternate reality that descends into a hellish ice pit when he gets hold of the Ice King’s destructive crown. It’s sad and sweet and everyone dies and it’s up to Jake and his new non-corporeal buddies to save the day. It’s not heavy thinking, but damn if it isn’t a great show. Just because your target demographic is tweens doesn’t mean you have to talk down to them. Adventure Time is brazen enough to create a show that kids and adults can watch without alienating either group.
TL;DR: Bring me my fuzzy animal ears cap!
The Road So Far: Twelve-year-old twins Mabel and Dipper Pines’ summer vacation is ruined with their parents ship them off to live with their Great Uncle Stan in Gravity Falls (DIS, Fri 9:30 PM). Dipper finds a mysterious book full of clues about the weird little Oregon town, and he and his dorky sister use it to fight marriage-obsessed gnomes, zombie boyfriends, clones, alternate realities, and robotic sea monsters. In between supernatural adventures, the kids work for Grunkle Stan in his tourist trap, The Mystery Shack, home to Rock-That-Looks-Like-A-Face Rock (which is not an actual face, mind) and the world’s freakiest wax museum. The kids team up with unpaid maintenance man Soos, Dipper’s crush Wendy, and other strange locals.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: If you asked me a month ago what was my favorite cartoon currently airing, I’d talk your ear off about Adventure Time. But now Gravity Falls has Mabel’ed its way to the top of the list. Gravity Falls is a frakking fantastic show. Even its less-than-stellar eps shine over just about everything else in its category. It is a clever, witty, sweet, bizarre show that manages to be both mature and childlike simultaneously without condescending to either group. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Pixar films and The Iron Giant (by Brad Bird who later moved to Pixar). Gravity Falls is about growing up, about losing things you’ve always known and gaining shiny, scary new things, about friendships and relationships, about realizing your family is weird and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The last episode, “Summerween,” is about the fake Halloween the townsfolk celebrate in the summer. Mabel wants to dress up in cutsey twins costumes and go trick-or-treating and Dipper wants to go to a house party and hit on the chick he has a crush on. Plus there’s a monster threatening to eat them. For tweens, the show is about that tricky space between being a kid and being a grown-up, where you want to do teen stuff that sounds so mature and cool (A party without adults? Yay!) but you also want to do kid stuff like trick-or-treating. Being a tween is confusing in today’s world, and Gravity Falls gets that in spades. For adults, the show makes us remember those seemingly complicated times without getting bored or annoyed.
On top of all that, it’s really damn funny. When I first looked it up, I was surprised to discover Disney behind the wheel. The quality, breadth, subject matter, and edginess of the jokes is pretty far out there for Disney, what with its non-reliance on bad puns and overly long pauses for canned laughter. The jokes are rapid-fire and hit the mark 95% of the time. Granted, this isn’t George Carlin or Louis CK-level humor, but where the other shows on this list made me snicker, Gravity Falls induced laughs so loud my neighbor pounded on the wall to make sure I was okay. It’s a cross between the crazy humor of Invader Zim and the Important Social Issues in Teen Titans.
TL;DR: It’s like Supernatural but for kids. And a cartoon. Hey, you know what’d be cool? A cartoon episode of Supernatural.
My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic
The Road So Far: Unicorn pony Twilight Sparkle is the main protagonist of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic (Hub, Sat 10:30 AM). She’s a bookworm living in the town of Ponyville in the magical kingdom Equestria. She’s compelled by her mentor Princess Celestia to learn about friendship and eventually takes up with Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy, each with their own unique personalities and qualities. The friends go on wacky adventures and help their neighbors as their friendship grows.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: As a woman born in the early 1980s, I was the target demographic for My Little Pony and My Little Pony Tales. To this day I still count my My Little Pony toys as my prized possessions. There is a clause in my 1980s-1990s Childhood Contract stipulating that I must first complain loudly about any remake from my youth, then watch and either become an angry or obsessed fangirl. This is the show that every single geek I meet tells me I should be watching. When I tell them it doesn’t interest me they look at me like I just told them I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not true, of course. I have seen the show, quite a bit in fact. But I tell them I haven’t seen it because that shocked reaction is easier to deal with than the utter horror they experience when I tell them that although I do sometimes like it I also really kinda hate it. Hold on, don’t go, just hear me out, alright?
In spite of its grammatical incorrectness, My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is a cute show. A very cute show. It’s so cute that every time I watch it I feel like I’m coming down with a severe case of cuteness overload. And it’s full of musical numbers. Some of which are pretty cool. Others make me want to jab pencils in my ears. Look, I have a lump of coal where my heart should be. I am dead inside, and my soul is a shriveled, cold, hard piece of anti-social grumbling. Twilight Sparkles’ eternal cheeriness doesn’t make my heart grow three times larger, it just makes me even grinchier. Despite all this, I still seek out the show. Why? Because it’s genuinely good. The characters are deeper than in those many adult live action shows (looking at you, The Walking Dead). There’s a ton of smart humor squished in and around the happy-go-lucky songs. And, like every other show on this list, adults and kids can watch it together or apart, and each can get out of it something different yet still enjoy it (more or less).
TL;DR: Ignoring my personal grievances for a moment, if you can stomach the relentless twee than this is the show for you.
The Road So Far: A blue jay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby are the stars of Regular Show (CN, Mon 8p). They are a pair of slackers who are groundskeepers at a park who spend more time avoiding work than actually doing any. Season four opens with the duo suffering grave consequences for their lazy-ass behavior.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Regular Show is an obvious kids’ show for adults to watch, what with its twentysomething leads. It’s also a lot more surreal than the other shows on this list. Sometimes I feel like it belongs more on Adult Swim than Cartoon Network, and I think, generally speaking, adults get a lot more out of it than kids do. It’s full of irreverent humor, probably more than most kids get, and its intense level of off-color absurdism hasn’t been seen in the kiddie pool since Rocko’s Modern Life. Honestly, there’s not much more to say about an 11-minute slice of animated heaven.
TL;DR: Watch it. Just watch it. Trust me.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.