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.
Part of what has made the third season of Fringe so compelling is the degree to which the other universe has been fully realized. It is a place we can journey to, a place with a heartbeat and which moves us beyond the imaginary. Olivia being trapped in that world wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, it was a situation that begged to be explored. It was an instance of science fiction storytelling that had room to breathe, that could be revealed gradually rather than being defined immediately.
By comparison, the Inception-esque journey that Walter, Peter and William Bell’s consciousness take into Olivia’s mind is pure imaginary. While I do not want to discount the value of the imaginary, and would applaud the show for testing the boundaries of its visual storytelling with its use of animation, the fact remains that “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” just absolutely failed to resonate for me. As the episode came to its emotional conclusion, I felt one level removed from the action, and I don’t think it was simply because of the fact that the characters in question were cel-shaded.
In December, as the semester wound down, I took the opportunity to catch up on a show that I honestly hadn’t given much thought to when it premiered.
As I am now aware, I really had no excuse to avoid FX’s Archer – which returns for its second season tonight at 10/9c – the first time around. Its cast features numerous people who I enjoy (like Chris Parnell, Judy Greer and Jessica Walter), the spy genre seems like something with plenty of comic potential, and people I usually trust on Twitter, and in the world of television criticism in general, approved of the show.
However, I didn’t watch because it plays into two categories which I am less likely to actively seek out. The first seems particularly strange considering that I was raised on The Simpsons, but animation has not been a part of my more critical relationship with television. I stopped watching The Simpsons at around the same time I started watching everything else under the sun, and since I didn’t have access to Adult Swim or the Cartoon Network it wasn’t as though I was in a position to test emerging shows out at random. I just sort of stepped away from the form, not out of a lack of appreciation so much as a lack of habit. The other reason, meanwhile, is that I don’t tend to lean towards the particularly vulgar – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is low on my catchup list because its brash nature just doesn’t fit my general comic sensibilities, and so Archer’s reputation for being particularly “rude” meant that I did not necessarily rush out to see how it was working.
Perhaps it was that I was in the midst of finishing papers and in need of an outlet for expletives and insensitivity, or maybe I’m just being saltier as I get older, but mainlining the first season of Archer along with the first seven episodes of the second season was a whole lot of fun. While the show may be aiming for offensive in quite a few circumstances, it always seems primarily concerned with being smart – in its second season, in particular, the show manages to maintain a sense of excess despite having become a tighter, more well-oiled machine between seasons.
The result is a show that makes me laugh a great deal, and one which always leaves me wanting more (which is both a blessing and a curse, as always).
As if Community weren’t meta enough, my immediate response to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” was a desire to sit Dan Harmon down in a study room and journey into his mind in search of the meaning of Community.
I say this not because the episode undermined or threatened pre-existing notions of the series, but after the episode I wasn’t sure if what I’d seen was the very embodiment of the series’ general approach to comedy or something completely unique. Because it looked decidedly unique, I first leaned towards the latter category, but then it was put into context with the sense of generic parody that Daniel T. Walters wrote about this week, and even Abed’s general trend of seeing the world through pop culture that friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about on his publicly-available term paper.
The episode was lovingly crafted, comically inspired, and willing to delve into some darker emotional territory, but I ended up feeling that this ended up in a liminal space between what Community wants to be and what I often fear it will become. It was sort of like I was Ebenezer Scrooge, and the episode manifested as ghosts of Community Past, Present and Future all at once.
And I don’t know whether to be extremely excited or mildly concerned.