Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch’s recently-ended and already-missed clockwork of a series, is almost perfect. Just a tiny bit off. I say almost perfect, because like anything else made by human hands, the show has some flaws, structural errors, and missed opportunities.
That shouldn’t stop you from immediately (immediately!) going out and binging on it, especially now that it’s been released on Hulu. Don’t just binge watch Gravity Falls – devour it. Pick it apart and learn from it. There is so much to take away from Gravity Falls, so much of what makes excellent television; it’s funny, it’s tender, it’s charming, it’s gently subversive and it is thoroughly human.
This is a post-series review, and as such will be spoilery. And maybe a little emotional. I really liked this show.
If you’ve ever taken a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably seen a bumper sticker for a place called “Gravity Falls”. It’s not on any maps, and most people have never heard of it. Some people think it’s a myth. But if you’re curious, don’t wait. Take a trip. Find it.
Step Right Up To A World of Enchantment, Or Whatever
Gravity Falls launches with the arrival of 12 year old twins Mabel and Dipper Pines to their uncle Stan’s gimmicky little Oregon tourist trap, the Mystery Shack. The Shack is embedded deep in what I like to call “magical Oregon” – a reflection of people’s ideas about what Oregon must be like, full of lumberjacks and huge trees and flannel, but visually it mimics more the giant redwoods of California.
The Mystery Shack is an obvious homage to landmarks like the Oregon Vortex and the Trees of Mystery, as well as every other terrible two-bit roadside attraction between Yakima and Los Angeles. Deep in a valley and dominated by a waterfall and two odd shaped cliffs, wreathed in old woods and isolated from most of the ‘modern’ world, Gravity Falls is a cute little hamlet full of adorable weirdos and small town folk. From the oldtimey maniac yokel Old Man McGucket, barefaced shyster Stan, cat lady and local greasy spoon owner Lazy Susan, to a wide variety of cobbled up mythological mashup creatures that live in the forest, there’s no end of kookery in the Falls. Gnomes, asshole unicorns, hypermasculine Manotaurs, hand stealing witches, size changing crystals and bears with multiple heads all lurk in the area woods.
Dipper doesn’t really want to be there and doesn’t take to the place – until he discovers a funny old book in a hollow tree deep in the forest…
Who Is The Author?
Dipper’s quest to uncover the secrets of the book’s author, who he eventually just tags The Author, leads him and Mabel through a ridiculous series of adventures in Gravity Falls. Before they even know it they’re fighting gnomes with leaf blowers and running away from giant floating backward-talking heads and dealing with abominable little Southern preacher maniacs with perfect white bouffant hair… it gets pretty crazy, is what I’m saying.
The Journal (marked with a six-fingered hand in gold and the number 3) provides much of the plot driving for the first season, with Dipper using it to get himself and Mabel in and out of trouble. Along the way they meet supporting cast, and we start to settle into Gravity Falls and its strange, unpredictable rhythms. The show makes a few soft homages to this or that, notably a sequence invoking the Waiting Room from Twin Peaks – as a restaurant!
Although the show sticks to lighthearted adventure early on, the mythology underlying the series is darkening in quiet drips and drabbles throughout the course of the first season. We start to get Ideas about Stan. We know he’s up to something suspicious in the Mystery Shack’s basement, but we don’t know what. Dipper found the Journal in a fake metal tree hooked up to some old-timey analog tubes and flipswitches, after all…
And if there is a 3rd volume, how many more Journals might there be? And where are they? Who has them?
Similarities to Other Kid Lit
Gravity Falls falls comfortably into the spooky kid lit genre and slots in well beside projects like Goosebumps and Spooksville. Not to mention Eerie, Indiana, which Hirsch acknowledges as a massive influence and which I can directly confirm as such, having watched both. There is just a lot of commonality to these kinds of stories – similar tropes deployed across worlds. The spooky book or artifact, the hobo who knows more than he seems to, the parental abandonment or neglect that makes adventuring possible, the eerie woods and secret societies, Adults Are Untrustworthy motifs, and spunky twins or spunky exploring trios…
This isn’t to say that Gravity Falls in any way comes off as derivative or familiar. Comfortable might be a better word. It elevates itself above the common tropes that it deploys by virtue of great attention to detail and keeping strict focus on its powerful characterizations. Sure, there’s always a crazy old wise hobo, but does every crazy old wise hobo in kidlit also build giant robots to punish those that wrong them?
Throughout the series, subtle details have been planted about the greater underlying mystery. Through end-credit secret codes and exploration, and a clever subliminal cut right in the opening sequence, we begin to be introduced to the idea that Someone Is Watching Us Back – and that bursts open at the end of season one when we are introduced to the true darkness in the woods, the mercurial Lovecraftian-demon-for-kids monstrosity that is Bill Cipher.
WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO COMMUNICATE HA HA HA WHO WOULD BE DUMB ENOUGH TO LISTEN?
I would be remiss not to bring up Gravity Falls’ extensive and innovative use of metatext as a way of furthering its mythology and enhancing its secrets. Showrunners are now having to deal with the ‘compositional hivemind’ of viewers connected by the Internet. The hivemind is capable of deconstructing even the most elaborate plotline or hidden secret, and this fact frustrates a lot of today’s showrunners.
Hirsch’s approach, by counter, was to push back by embedding multiple varieties of coded data and ciphers into the show’s very animation, backgrounds, and end credits. These codes and ciphers are also found in the show’s related texts, including videogames, printed books, the show’s advertising and its supplemental shorts. Multiple interactions between the texts hide further layers of connectivity to create a vast flow of secrets-on-secrets, as convoluted as Biblical study. These expansive metatexts both reward and punishes today’s intensive viewer hivemind. Some secrets about season 2 were leaked in the first series’ book, Dipper and Mabel’s Guide – and only in coded text, added (after printing ?) by Bill Cipher. Alex himself created fake spoilers, leaked them,and then yelled at himself for leaking them.
At several points in the series, Bill looks directly at us, the viewers, through the camera, addressing us as if there is no fourth wall. In one notable instance, during Weirdmageddon, he charges at the screen – it’s panic inducing.
Hirsch even went further with this conceit, having Bill ‘possess’ him for a Reddit AMA, responding in character to questions there and in several posts on his Twitter account. He and the Gravity Falls staff continued to tease out the idea of what the show’s reality was through the Search for the Blind Eye website. A dark and distressing exchange emerged between Bill and The Author, all in layers of battling code – implying that Ford was being actively suppressed from trying to communicate with others by Bill. Given the knowledge that Bill and Ford shared mind and body for a while, this introduces a much darker implication to the situation than anything we directly see in-series. The site was clearly created by someone in the know as it teased events in the second season before they happened, and interwove commentary on those events while they were running.
This tradition continues with the @OregonParksDept twitter account, which was created to promote the physical release (in our world) of Journal 3.
Hirsch and his staff have been teasing the audience, suggesting through metatexts across a wide variety of platforms that Bill may have leaked into “our” reality, even as late as the series conclusion. The series finale gives the impression there is a treasure hunt waiting to begin for a real-world statue of Bill.
This is a model that future showrunners might find interesting to explore. The knowing, toying engagement with the audience in Gravity Falls is only surpassed by the far more extreme example of Archer’s seasonal ‘scavenger hunt’, which requires nearly NSA-level decryption abilities as well as special software and extremely exotic and specific knowledges. (Plus some truly insane mass guessing.)
However, the downside of all this additional layering of text was that Alex Hirsch was so exhausted by the end of season one that we almost didn’t get a season two.
Into The Bunker
The weight of the Author’s shadow grows during the entirety of season two. Although it was a coincidence, and the show’s shift into darker gear was planned well in advance, the series was relocated from the Disney Channel to the older-kid-aimed Disney X D channel. And then we got things like Grunkle Stan whacking zombies’ heads off with baseball bats.
The show comes into sharper focus as the core band of writers solidifies – Season One has a few early episodes being off-tone from what the final characters end up being, with stories written by one-off writers.
The stakes get higher, the drama draws nearer, and we start learning more about the Author’s paranoia as we discover there’s a second layer to the Journal – one written in invisible ink as the Author descended from exploration into restlessness and (implied) madness.
Not What He Seems/Tale of Two Stans
The series reaches its apex in the Not What He Seems/Tale of Two Stans double episode (it’s hard not to think of them as conjoined) – and achieves the extremely rare effect of making the viewer actually forget that they’re watching a cartoon. It happened to me – I forgot that the people I was watching weren’t real as they talked about their lives. For once, we don’t have to try to read much of anything into it; these are fully realized characters with deep, inner complexities and contradictions.
The show shifts focus away from mysteries and the children and focuses intently for two episodes on the most significant adult relationship in the show – that of the older Pines twins and their long process of becoming estranged from each other. This relationship breakdown is presented in almost harrowing verisimilitude, from childhood ‘us against the world’ companionship to a growing sense of difference, to Stan’s frustration and embarrassment and Ford’s disappointment, humiliation and shame. And it’s set against accurate period backgrounds – such emphasis on the design work! – which reveal other fascinating little secrets as you dig into the paintings. Look where the fez Stan wears as Mister Mystery originally was. Look at the background of the Pines twin’s bedroom and see how much Stan is still clinging to that childhood.
We watch two brothers self-destruct on a dime over hidden tensions and misunderstandings, and the show doesn’t shy away from presenting these complexities for what they are.
I mean, it’s not like Stanley MIGHT have wanted to sabotage Ford’s work on some level so that he wouldn’t be alone, right? And it’s not like Ford maybe WANTED to break away and become more of his own individual person, right?
Stan is thrown out into the street by his ‘unimpressed’ father, and I swear to God it’s at least as distressing a moment as Bambi’s mom getting shot, or any of a thousand disturbing little moments from Pinocchio.
Not coincidentally, Not What He Seems is the one that keeps getting nominated for all the awards, because it’s basically a perfect episode of television. It feels like it’s far longer than 23 minutes. It’s tight, focused, emotional, and incorporates the literal ticking clock trope to fantastic effect, building to the heart-wrenching moment where Mabel has to choose between trusting her uncle (the look on his face! Sad Muppet!) or trusting her brother’s ‘rational’ instincts.
In the end, Mabel’s decision changes everything.
Princess Easily Attainabelle, The Author of the Memes
Gravity Falls does have some significant flaws in pacing and in structure, particularly turning rushed in its final third when Ford returns to the storyline and more or less initiates the series endgame. Ford is only present for five episodes before the shit hits the fan, giving us (and the kids) little time to really get to know him before he’s whisked away – and he tends to get kidnapped like three times out of four. Although in many ways Ford is a hidden ‘main character’ of Gravity Falls, once he actually gets in front of us, he’s underused.
One imagines a fully rested and less stressed Hirsch creating a Gravity Falls with three seasons, without the almost breathless compression of the final run of episodes from NWHS to Weirdmageddon. One imagines a more juicy digging in of the simmering anger between Stan and Ford, more tension put on the relationship of the younger Pines twins to each other and their Grunkles, more exposition and development of Bill’s ultimate plan and Ford’s relationship with his complicated foe… Ah, well. Just as weavers deliberately introduced errors into their rugs to avoid offending God (as no one can make a perfect creation but God) we have to look at Gravity Fall’s compression in a similar fashion. Human error by human hands, and I’m still just so grateful for what we got.
Never Mind All That!
Fandom initiates know that Gravity Falls’s content was a hard-won battle on all fronts. Although the censors apparently missed or overlooked quite a lot Alex has also stated that there was probably something in every single episode that he had to dig in his heels and fight for.
This is unfortunately true of a lot of brilliant television – it’s made more against the system than with it, with creators and showrunners having to burn energy fighting for their creations even in the middle of the act of creating it. As if showrunning wasn’t stressful enough!
The episode The Love God gets into it a bit, with implications that there’s groupie sex happening in a van. The series also sneaks in two ‘basically gay’ relationships – silly comedy relief Blubs and Durland being the obvious one -they actually fire off a cannon on
three different locations, a silly visual gag with no logic unless you assume cannon=CANON. Ford and Bill’s past being the ‘if you squint and tilt your head’ one, with strong implications of at least a one-sided and abusive ‘affair’ between Ford and his demon, currently being strengthened by the leaks of Journal 3’s pages. (The book is declared canon, by the way.)
We do know that an early storyboard depicting a cute little older lesbian couple was excised and replaced with an interracial pairing, still a little subversive even now, funnily. At no point though does anything feel salacious or creepy – except for a very small sequence that holds a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in The Last Mabelcorn that Bill is manipulating Dipper’s mind to get him to find out horrible things about his great-uncle. Most of the most unsettling stuff in Gravity Falls revolves around Bill, or a couple of random monsters (the zombies in Scaryoke, the lumberjacks and bleeding trophy heads in Northwest Mansion Mystery).
The only thing that makes any of this really scandalous though, is the fact that it’s on Disney. Hirsch, who is friends with Justin Roiland of the brilliantly acerbic Rick and Morty, used to get teased about what R&M could do on Adult Swim that they couldn’t on Disney.
Hirsch has cited Disney’s own Pinocchio and other works and noted that good storytelling doesn’t have to be sanitized, nor does he believe that the brand can’t withstand a little horror and stronger stuff being included. But there’s no doubt that Gravity Falls would have been a very different show on FX, Fox, Nickelodeon or Adult Swim.
Would that have made Gravity Falls ‘better’? By what standard? Again and again, series of the past have shown that working within limitations actually produces stronger work, forcing animators and writers to have to suggest instead of specify, and to invent more creative solutions to scenarios.
Take Back the Falls
The series endgame plays out like Lovecraft for Babies – Bill Cipher penetrates the show’s world, completely dismantling the story’s structure and forcing all the characters into defensive scrambling. Our beloved Gravity Falls is razed to the ground, turned into a hellish landscape of fire and waste. Fortunately our crazy cast, now brought together as one, is up to the challenge of knocking Bill back into place.
We end in a stunning multi-part episode that combines rogue anime influences (Evangelion is directly referenced as a knockoff), suggestive and unsettling imagery (a few gnomes get eaten, a terrifying face inversion, Bill’s ethereal body becoming all-too-gruesome rendered flesh) and higher stakes than ever. Not just their world but potentially our world is threatened by Bill’s mad games.
To continue the metatext, the opening credits during the
final run are rendered incoherent gibberish and subverted by the presence of Bill, with the demon physically replacing all the cast members, and even blotting out Alex Hirsch’s creator credit with his own name.
This is the kind of thing that only works when you have two seasons under your belt and an established bond with the audience. Recently Madoka Magica used its opening sequence in a similar fashion, breaking down the comfortable, ritual consideration of introductory theme songs as outside or seperate from in-show text. Gravity Falls also shares with Madoka a willingness to stretch audience comfort and challenge the barrier between audience participant and the fictional world – nobody is safe.
It’s Out There Somewhere
And when we make it through the other side of all this, all these four years of agonized enduring of random hiatuses, puzzling through the mysteries of Gravity Falls along with characters we have come to love, of being drawn into the idea that our worlds are one…
We have to leave. We have to go home. Back to our own lives, our own seperate worlds. By now we have come to love these people and it’s physically heartbreaking to have to let them go. No cheap outs here – we have to grind through the not wanting to leave, and the show makes us sit with that, simmer in sweet pain along with Mabel and Dipper and the grunks. As the ‘summer’ (the broader metaphor for the series, a singular shining childhood) ends, so does Gravity Falls. Everyone parts, off to take part in further adventures we aren’t priviledged to share. The Grunks head off their way, the kids head off another, and we too must go.
Gravity Falls ends with a fervent call to action. Remember nature, remember exploration, remember the summer, remember that Gravity Falls is both unreal and as real as you want it to be – only you have to do the work.
You have to go looking for it, and create your very own “Gravity Falls” in the act of seeking and finding.
Kid’s show. For kids.
I feel very good. I am at peace. It’s nice to set out to do something, and then to do it. It’s a rare thing in television.- Alex Hirsch
You might also like these links:
- AV Club: Alex Hirsch Says Goodbye To Gravity Falls
- Blumhouse.com: Getting Deep with Gravity Falls Creator Alex Hirsch (part one) (part two)