“My name is Dipper. The girl about to puke is my sister Mabel. You may be wondering what we’re doing in a golf cart fleeing from a creature of unimaginable horror. Rest assured, there’s a perfectly logical explanation.”
In recent years, basic cable networks have been to the go-to place for cutting-edge programming, stealing quite a bit of thunder from the premium networks. AMC gave us Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Mad Men, while FX has offered Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and American Horror Story.
Then, way, way, way over on the other end of the spectrum is the Disney Channel. Here’s a network that almost always plays it safe. It has its “inoffensive tween” formula down to a science, and doesn’t deviate from it. Therefore, on those rarest of rare occasions when the Disney Channel takes a risk and tries something different, we should all sit up and take notice. Case in point, Gravity Falls.
Twelve-year-old Dipper Pines (Jason Ritter, The Event) and his sister Mabel (Kristen Schaal, Bob’s Burgers), have come to the small town of Gravity Falls to stay with their great uncle, or “grunkle,” Stan (Alex Hirsch, also the show’s executive producer), who runs the Mystery Shack, a roadside attraction devoted to local oddities. One day, Dipper discovers an old journal, which reveals that Gravity Falls is secretly populated with monsters. He decides to hunt for the truth, with Mabel tagging along for fun.
Gravity Falls: Six Strange Tales contains the first six episodes of the first season. This episode list bedazzled its own face:
• “Tourist Trap”—After discovering the journal, Dipper fears Mabel’s new boyfriend might be undead.
• “The Legend of Gobblewonker”—Dipper would rather hunt a monster than go fishing with Stan, much to Stan’s disappointment.
• “Headhunters”—The kids learn that Stan once ran his own wax museum, filled with wax replicas of celebrities, and so the show does its own twist on House of Wax.
• “The Hand That Rocks the Mabel”—The gang meets Lil’ Gideon, a pint-size psychic who’s stealing customers away from Stan, and who has taken a liking to Mabel.
• “The Inconveniencing.”—To impress Wendy (Linda Cardelleni, Freaks and Geeks), a teen girl who works at the Mystery Shack, Dipper agrees to hang out with some older kids as they spend the night in a haunted convenience store.
• “Dipper vs. Manliness”—Mabel tries to play matchmaker for Stan, while Dipper travels into the wilderness to discover what it means to be a real man.
The “small town secretly populated with monsters” premise is really just a springboard for whatever craziness the show’s creators can come up with—and it is craziness, indeed. This is “anything goes” comedy, often going in strange, unexpected directions. The plot twist in the first episode, which I won’t spoil, tells the viewer, “You have entered uncharted territory.” The tone is joyfully over the top. There are gnomes that vomit rainbows, a monster with fists for nipples, and the still-alive severed head of talk show host Larry King wandering about. After that, things get really weird. The fact that this show exists on the normally squeaky clean Disney Channel is all the more impressive.
If Gravity Falls has any flaw, it’s that we’re never given a real reason why Dipper is so invested in looking for monsters and finding proof of their existence. He just finds the journal, and then he’s off doing the Agent Mulder thing. He’s usually portrayed as an “every kid” rather than a determined seeker of the truth. The “kid next door” thing is fine, but we’re going to need some sort of explanation for Dipper’s inquisitive nature and determination. With all the wondrous weirdness around him, Dipper is lacking in character development, something that will hopefully be added to in future episodes.
The creators have done a much better job with Mabel, as she’s become the breakout star of the series. She’s relentlessly positive, and has an upbeat, enthusiastic outlook on life, no matter what freakiness happens to her. Her interests—which include dancing, scrapbooking, and boys, boys, boys—vary depending on that week’s plot, but it nonetheless informs the character. Mabel lives in the moment. When an idea pops in her head, she runs with it at that very moment without any hesitation or second thought. This makes her unpredictable, but also likable in that you never know what fun, hilarious thing she’s going to say or do next.
Stan, or “Grunkle Stan” as the kids call him, is the source for a lot of the show’s weirdness. Like Mabel, you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. A lot of gags are predicated on him being old, and doing stock “clueless grandparent” things. At other times, though, he shares Mabel’s love of life, seeing everything he encounters with a positive light. Stan’s best moments are his smaller, throwaway scenes, such as his attempts to explain the rock that looks like a face or his getting obsessed with an old movie just because he can’t find the remote.
Gravity Falls‘ two other regulars are the Mystery Shack’s employees: the sarcastic, cynical Wendy and the dimwitted lunkhead Soos (also voiced by Alex Hirsch). Wendy is portrayed as so easygoing that none of the insanity of the town affects her, and it’s hinted that she has a very busy social life outside of the Mystery Shack. Soos seems eager to go along with anything, often serving in a sidekick role for Dipper and Mabel. Instead of being just the “dumb guy,” Soos has something of a different outlook on life, seeing the world through his own bizarre lens.
The animation is deceptively simple, but actually quite good. Plus, it once again bears mentioning that even on a visual level, it looks nothing like what we’ve come to expect from Disney. The characters’ faces and movements are lively and expressive, both the monsters and the townsfolk all have interesting designs, and the whole thing nicely conveys the whole “fog-shrouded woods” vibe of the show. The internet is bursting at the seams with theories and investigations into the various codes and symbols hidden in the show’s backgrounds, so it has a lot to offer for amateur puzzle-solvers as well.
The visuals are crisp and clean on this disc, and the stereo sound is good as well. The novelty of the “DVD collectible booklet” is long since over (Who would collect just the booklets?), but this disc comes with a very nifty recreation of Dipper’s journal, complete with original artwork and two humorous postcards from Dipper and Mabel. The only other extras on the disc are trailers for what seems like a billion other Disney releases.
Having only six episodes on a disc instead of a complete Season One set is a disappointment, as is the lack of any substantial extras. A lot of love and care has obviously gone into making this show, so it’s unfortunate the DVD’s main goal is seemingly to promote other DVDs.
Gravity Falls like getting a classic The Simpsons Halloween special every week. It’s that good. Check it out.