An Animated Adventure Into Adolescence: Disney’s Gravity Falls
July 21st, 2012
This summer, The A.V. Club’s “Summertime Roundtable” group has shifted their focus from a single show, seminal sitcom Cheers, to episodes of various shows centered around the theme of adolescence. The pieces have been a real highlight of the summer months at the site, foregrounding theme but also emphasizing the way in which genre plays a role in how that theme is understood within serials and sitcoms alike (along with other variations on genre, of course).
And yet as I think about adolescence—and growing up in general—it strikes me that kids’ perception of these terms is less and less likely to come from broadcast programming like Boy Meets World—a show that I grew up with—or The Wonder Years. While the stray network series is “family friendly,” that programming niche has largely moved onto cable networks like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. While these are not “new” channels exactly, and I had equivalents—in YTV and the Family Channel—growing up in Canada when I was younger, they have grown into massive franchises and highly successful programming blocks in recent years. While this is logical given the increasingly savvy nature of young viewers who surfing online or asking their parents to download iPhone apps, it also means that innovations are happening in “Kids TV” during the same period at which I feel the most disconnected from “Kids TV”: as a twenty-something, trapped between childhood and potential parenthood, my channel surfing rarely gravitates toward those channels.
However, occasionally something tips your hat that sends you in that direction. Academically, teaching about children’s TV meant diving into the world of The Hub’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic—and yes, bronies—and Nickelodeon’s iCarly, while personally it often becomes a matter of seeing someone else diving in. And it is this that led me to Gravity Falls, a Disney Channel animated series from Alex Hirsch. My pal Eugene Ahn, also known as nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock, started littering my Twitter feed with enthusiastic remarks about the series, and it soon became one of his wonderful pop culture raps:
Not one to ignore such enthusiasm, and always looking for something to serve as a short distraction from a summer of studying, I started recording the aired episodes—which is easy given how often the Disney Channel strip schedules their shows, although new episodes air on Friday nights—and digging into the series. While I had seen a few commercials for the show, and knew its basic premise, I had been in Canada when it premiered, and so I hadn’t followed any of the early responses (which included a review from The A.V. Club’s Alasdair Wilkins), and so I got to be pleasantly surprised at how charming, fun, and generally hilarious the series has been thus far.
And while I have some more traditional “TV Critic” reasons why the show has been so successful, I think the theme of adolescence is a key part of its success, and the kind of show I wish I had when I was Dipper and Mabel’s age.
Gravity Falls follows a fairly common trend within children’s television, taking parents out of the equation to explore the world of kids when they’re left to have their own adventures. Here, Tipper and Mabel are twins sent to their Great Uncle’s cabin in Gravity Falls for the summer, where “Grunkle” Stan swindles tourists with his “Mystery Shack.” What follows is part workplace sitcom (with Wendy and Soos, the Shack’s other employees, rounding out the regular cast), part small town sitcom (with local police, tabloid reporters, lumberjacks, etc. as recurring players), and part supernatural procedural (with a serialized mystery surrounding a set of books of local folklore and various creatures representing episodic threats lurking nearby).
If this sounds like a lot, it never feels like it. Gravity Falls switches between genres on a dime, using the freedom provided by the supernatural nature of the town to service the more grounded themes tied to family or community. While the mythology of the show is definitely being expanded over time, the storylines tied to the supernatural are always generated from the characters and their relationships. The twins’ search for the town’s Loch Ness Monster equivalent becomes a wild adventure on a shadowy island, but it starts as a piece about Grunkle Stan’s loneliness and his relationship with his great niece and nephew. Similarly, Dipper and Mabel’s adventures with a group of older kids in a haunted convenience store becomes a riff on horror movies, but it’s all in service of Dipper’s crush on Wendy and the struggle of the twelve-year-old who yearns to be a teenager.
These genre elements become a way for viewers out of Disney’s core demographic to justify watching a “kids show,” and there’s actually a lot of elements of the show that fit into this pattern: beyond a generally sophisticated sense of humor, the show also features some fun diegetic popular culture (like “Duck-tective”), meta humor that we associate with shows not necessarily aimed at people half our age, and even a rather overt Twin Peaks homage. Despite being a show about kids, Gravity Falls spends a lot of time fleshing out the world around them, and feels like a fully fledged sitcom in most respects (especially since, unlike some Disney Channel programming, it comes in thirty-minute installments rather than cramming two ten-minute stories into the half-hour).
However, rather than trying to elevate the show out of its genre, one of my favorite things about Gravity Falls is viewing it through the lens of my younger self, and considering how it reads to the twelve-year-olds who want to put on a hat like Dipper’s—not that I don’t want a hat like Dipper’s, because I totally do—and go on adventures in the woods. Last night’s episode, “Dipper vs. Manliness,” picked up on themes broached in “The Inconveniencing” regarding Dipper’s masculinity: while there an embarrassing story from childhood came back to undermine his play at teenagedom, here his wimpiness and love for Icelandic pop music—an ABBA stand-in—are perceived as a barrier to his masculinity. Suddenly, as the show taps into the well of folkloric wonders in the town, he meets a Man-ataur (basically a minotaur) named Hutzpah who empathizes with Dipper’s struggles, and returns him to the “Man Cave” where his fellow Man-ataurs—including Pubitaur, Testostoraur, and Pituataur—work together to teach Dipper how to become a man through feats of physical prowess.
That it comes in the form of a hilarious training montage—intercut with Mabel’s attempts to groom Grunkle Stan into a suitable mate for the local diner owner and set to a descriptive song including the lyrics “Teach your uncle how to wear a cummerbund”—certainly adds to its appeal, but the story reaches its conclusion when Dipper’s final trial is to kill the “Multi-Bear.” When Dipper reaches the mythical creature, he discovers the Man-ataurs only want the Multi-Bear dead because they don’t consider him enough of a man, and then the two bond over their shared love of Iceland’s Babba. Dipper comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t need to conform to the Man-ataur’s standards of manhood, and manages to earn his first chest hair through shirking society’s values of masculinity and defining his own path to manhood.
It’s far from a subtle framing of alternative masculinities, but its combination of sharp satire, laugh-out-loud comedy, and strong storytelling make it a particularly compelling look into the struggles of “growing up.” While the freedom of animation means that Dipper’s transformation into a young warrior is exaggerated, and the episode’s montages stretch the bounds of credulity in an effective fashion, the sense of whimsical adventure never feels removed from a kid wanting to find his place in the world. I highly doubt that “alternative masculinities” would come across in any 10-year-old’s response to the show (or that many older viewers who aren’t academics, for that matter), but I think kids would understand Dipper’s desire to move past “being a kid,” and what they see here could—humorously—frame their understanding of the difficulties of adolescence ahead of them.
Watching the show has reminded me of Amanda Ann Klein’s great post where she interviews her daughter after seeing Pixar’s Brave, as it offers some tremendous insight into how a film often framed as progressive in its approach to gender roles is actually perceived by the kids piling into theaters. While I don’t have direct insight into how kids are responding to this show, trying to put myself into their shows only adds to Gravity Falls‘ appeal. There’s enough humor here to sell the show as a fun comedy for more mature audiences, but my appreciation for the series lies in how it manages this without abandoning the younger audiences in the stories it tells and the themes it emphasizes. It may have serial storylines, and it may have hip guest stars like John Oliver and Jennifer Coolidge, but it also feels like a great introduction into both sophisticated television and the struggles of adolescence for the kids tuning into the adventures of Dipper and Mabel each week.
While it’s unlikely to turn into the next great supernatural serial, Gravity Falls is witty and clever without losing its heart, the kind of sharply-written, feel good television that’s perfect as a summer escape.
- I’m aware of other crossover “Kids TV” success stories, including The Legend of Korra (and Avatar before it) and Adventure Time, but for the sake of time I’ll likely stick to Gravity Falls for now. Any other suggestions?
- The series features some great regular voice work from creator Hirsch (Grunkle Stan and Soos), Jason Ritter (Dipper), Linda Cardellini (Wendy) and the always wonderful Kristen Schaal (Mabel). I feel I’ve given Mabel short shrift here, as she’s featured prominently and is consistently hilarious, but I would definitely argue that Dipper remains our primary point-of-view character into the world of Gravity Falls, driving most storylines.
- Speaking of Kristen Schaal, I’ll write about my discovery of Bob’s Burgers when the show returns in the fall.
- In terms of past Disney shows, Dipper reminds me a lot of The Weekenders’ Tino. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to fall down a YouTube hole watching The Weekenders.