If anybody asked me right now, I’d say that “Gravity Falls” on the Disney Channel is MY FAVORITE CARTOON SERIES ON TV TODAY PERIOD (IMO), including all sub-categories of kid/adult/grownup-targeted shows (sorry, “Adventure Time”, sorry, “Archer”). “Gravity Falls” (or as I prefer to call it, The Falls) is blessed with a smartly developed concept (when a cartoon finds a way to include elements from “The X-Files” AND “Twin Peaks” and NONE from “Scooby Doo”, that’s smart), good storytelling (with more ‘everything-changes’ plot twists per half-hour than anything on TV), interesting characters (I wish I’d known 12-year-olds like Dipper and Mabel when I was 12 years old), multiple laughs-per-minute (including during the ‘scary parts’), solid voice performances and perfectly executed design and animation (the only ‘what-the-hell-is-thats’ are things you’re not supposed to know what-the-hell-they-are). Creator Alex Hirsch has risen from the crowded pack of TV-toon-heads to the top of his field in almost no time.
I was a little concerned when I saw the promotion for the March 1st episode:
“One fall down a bottomless pit leads to three terrifying tales. Questions will be asked and some will stay un-answered. Did you expect anything else?”
An excuse for an anthology episode? Would there be opportunity for its signature plot twists? Would it fall (pun intended) into lazy storytelling, not to mention trespassing into the already-overpopulated territory of “The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Terror”?
And what’s this about a Bottomless Pit in Gravity Falls? Sounds closely-related enough to become either an opening for a series-ending revelation or just some ironic self-referential meta-ness that could move to within jumping distance of a large shark.
Well, I’m happy to say I remain fully NOT disappointed – or undisappointed – why isn’t there a better word for that, like “appointed”? It didn’t quite pull off the impossible quadruple somersault of tying everything together at the end, but it did link some seemingly unrelated elements, made an explanation for a “bottomless pit” that is as reasonable – yet entertaining – as anything I’ve ever seen and ends with the joke on Grunkle Stan (if you didn’t know, and honestly I didn’t for a while, ‘Grunkle’ is a portmanteau of ‘Great-Uncle’), who definitely deserves to be the butt of every joke possible.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Of course, when you have the show’s top four characters falling through a black void for most of the episode, you have to either take an extreme turn in another direction or risk extreme boredom (and the wrath of the background artists who don’t get paid for this episode). And the “let’s tell stories to pass the time” framing device (Warning: TVTropes link) was managed well in the context of the characters’ personalities.
And on “Gravity Falls”, any chance to add detail to the personalities of the characters is a rewarding experience… well, in the case of ‘Grunkle Stan’, usually a more frightening experience. But that’s another one of The Falls’ most impressive features – the character of Grunkle Stan is the most successfully unsympathetic semi-protagonist/non-villain in a mainstream cartoon since “Hoppity Hooper’s” Uncle Waldo.
Who’s Uncle Waldo, you may ask?
What is “Hoppity Hooper”, you keep asking?
Well, it happened during Jay Ward Productions’ Couple of Lost Years, between the end of “Rocky & Bullwinkle” and the beginning of “George of the Jungle”. The title character was a young, plucky frog (any similarity to Rocky the Flying Squirrel or Crusader Rabbit was obvious) who teamed up with Filmore, a dopey bear (similar to Bullwinkle) who plays the bugle (one difference) and a third character, Professor Waldo Wigglesworth. Voiced by Hans Conreid, best known as the evil Captain Hook in Disney’s original Peter Pan and the evil but funny Snidely Whiplash in Ward’s Dudley DoRight cartoons, Waldo is a grey fox with an oddly Bullwinkle-ish nose who initially introduced himself and Filmore to Hoppity as long-lost relatives in order to hide out from the law; therefore “Uncle” Waldo. So he’s an outlaw/criminal (specifically a con man/”snake oil” salesman) from the moment we meet him, and he shows no redeeming values until well into the second of the two seasons the series ran. His whole relationship with the title character is based on false pretenses and when, in the show’s first four part adventure (shown below in its entirety), he stumbles on a miracle hair-growing product that actually works, he declares more than once that he is upset to be “earning an honest living”.
Of past Jay Ward cartoon creations, Uncle Waldo is closest to bad guy Boris Badenov, but without the orders from higher ups to kill the other protagonists, instead using them as accomplices (If you remember Boris’ implausible successes at disguise, convincing Rocky & Bullwinkle he’s someone he’s not, it really is similar). One of the most impressively bad role models for a protagonist in a Saturday Morning cartoon. And it is most often Uncle Waldo’s avarice and dishonesty that puts each Hoppity Hooper story in motion.
And between Parents’ Groups stern disapproval and Hoppity Hooper’s unspectacular ratings (good enough for two first-run seasons and a year of reruns on ABC but not enough for a long syndication run – or to be well remembered now), morally bankrupt characters like Waldo Wigglesworth have been mostly absent from cartoons for kids (at least as protagonists). The rather repulsive personality of Ren Hoek on “Ren and Stimpy” has been the edgiest character allowed all these years, as opposed to Prime Time and Late Night cartoons where Homer, the generally unlikeable head-of-the-Simpson-family, set a standard for cartoons NOT meant for kids.
Now, “Gravity Falls” could be considered a Prime Time cartoon, with its initial airings at 9PM Friday evenings, currently between “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Dog With a Blog” (which totally stole my life story, but that’s another issue), but repeat airings are all over the Disney Channel daytime schedule.
And the “Bottomless Pit” episode displays Grunkle Stan’s failings front-and-center, starting with his responsibility for everyone falling into the pit, to his turn at story-telling, a cringingly indulgent display of egomania and ignorance of how things work: “Grunkle Stan Wins The Football Bowl”, to the final story where a set of magical “Truth Teeth” Dentures turns him totally honest and his first words are “I have little or no concern for other people’s possessions or emotions… huh, that was strangely candid.” In the next few minutes, he describes his grossest habits (at least as honestly as allowed on the Disney channel), declares his belief in the meaninglessness of life and admits to a wide assortment of crimes (most shown in previous episodes) directly to the local Sheriff, forcing Mabel to come up with an extremely creative lie to cover up for him, which is an equally awesome and awful performance for her.
Grunkle Stan is a reliable provocateur in a cartoon with enough other well written characters that he isn’t really necessary, but is nice to have around, if only to make everyone else look better by comparison. There have been hints from sources around “Gravity Falls” creator Alex Hirsch that, for all his open awfulness, Grunkle Stan has yet-unknown secrets to be revealed. Although THAT should probably be saved for the series finale… sometime in 2019, right? (And I just noticed perpetual sidekick Soos’s resemblance to Filmore the Bear… I wonder if he plays a horn.)
BONUS STUFF: One of the animated oddities at a site called ToonHeads.Net is my favorite Hoppity Hooper adventure (in its entirety), a Twilight Zone spoof turned silly titled: “THE TRAFFIC ZONE”.