Once more into the void.
Not What He Seems: The show really doesn’t want us to be ok with Stan does it? Answers begin to flow in but at a cost of more questions. We do meet the author though! Seriously a creepy episode reminiscent of The Visit.
A Tale of Two Stans: We get all the answers here. And they completely break Stan Pines. It’s fascinating to me how the show really refuses to make Stan a likable character in the last 1/4. He is exposed as exactly the con artist we initially take him as, albeit a slightly kinder one. His brother Ford is a likable, good man who we instantly see as a hero and I love that the show doesn’t take the easy way of making him a jerk to keep Stan a hero.
Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons: Keeping Ford likable continues here. This is a fun episode that’s the inevitable D&D episode you always get. “Weird Al” Yankovic does a guest voice because that wonderful legend always graces the best kids cartoons (MLP: FiM/Captain Underpants/TTG). Also gotta give love to JK Simmons as Ford. He really sells the idea a hero is here.
The Stanchurian Candidate: The inevitable political episode. It’s solid as it looks at why yeah Stan would be horrible in politics as would everyone in town. Mostly this is an excuse for Hirsch to be hysterically awful as Stan. I can dig it.
The Last Mabelcorn: The critic in me can’t ignore that this is where the show is facing extreme conflict in tones that honestly runs throughout the last quarter. It’s got a really fascinating plot about Ford’s past with Bill up against a Unicorns are Assholes plot. Those DO NOT mesh. It’s also a weirdly unfunny episode. OK, the joke is unicorns aren’t what they seem. I’m going to have thoughts on the show’s humor below.
Roadside Attraction: The last “funny” episode of the show is one of the best. Stan teaches Dipper to flirt and both end up in a web of trouble. It’s one of the tightest episodes of the show with some good gut laughs and a solid study of why pick up artistry is a disastrous idea. Funny and great.
Dipper and Mabel vs the Future: And the finale begins. But even before the setup at the end, this is such a dark episode. The characters have walked the line of kids and teens the whole show and this confirms that is hell. I related deeply to Mabel’s anxiety. It’s hard to watch.
But before we get to Weirdmageddon a side trip to the Alex Hirsch written Gravity Falls: Lost Legends Graphic Novel’s 4 extra stories:
Face It: A cute, fun Dipper/Pacifica story that feels like a cut episode.
Comix Up: This story slams us through multiple styles well though it mostly exists for that with a thin plot.
Don’t Dimension It: We get the crisis trope so we can meet multiple Mabels. It’s cute.
Pine Bros. Mystery: A transparent pilot for a spinoff but fun.
Overall this feels like stories that just missed the cut but which are immense fun and a vital addition. Now onto doomsday.
Weirdmageddon Pt 1: I don’t like post-apocalyptic stories. I’ll just be honest. Dark future, villains win stories aren’t my jam aside from Dark Reign (which was a status quo). So forgive me for not wholly loving this episode. It has a good joke in the weirdness bubbles–watch live action Dipper and Wendy closely–but not my cup of tea.
Weirdmageddon 2: Escape From Reality: This though? This was great because it took the metaphor seriously. The desire to live in fantasy is so seductive and such a lie. Mabel has to learn it herself. A genuinely moving episode about the hell of that exact moment and childhood anxiety.
Weirdmageddon 3: Take Back The Falls: The inevitable big battle. Yeah I’ve gotta be honest I never felt this plot very much. Bill Cipher is funny but this is just the same bad guy takes over the world plot with a Homestar Runner gloss. However it’s still deeply entertaining even if I found it familiar and it works because it builds to the farewell. And it’s a sweet ending. Dipper and Mabel leave Gravity Falls and symbolically start to leave childhood.
OK, I’m getting the critiques first because I want them out of the way and if I’m honest that’s been a lot of what I’ve done so far. I’ve accentuated the negative because the positive was my main point I wanted to over in a grand wrap up. And also because this show is so well liked, I feel obligated to call out the negative just as a dissenter.
First, I do have to chastise the show for some slightly regressive jokes. I know Alex Hirsch is a fist fighter on progressive causes and the last thing I want to do is impugn someone whose history is stellar. But I’m not letting the way non-white characters are usually stereotypes and at least twice played by white actors off the hook. I also get that the intention was a love story with Bubbs and Durland but it felt like a bad joke. And I’m sorry but everything with Grenda was bad and mean.
The other big gripe I have is totally me and not the show. I can’t really say the style of humor it dwells in is another generation from me because Hirsch and I are basically the same age. But we definitely have different influences. Hirsch is nakedly a fan of works like Homestar Runner, Neil Hamburger, Welcome to Night Vale, and biggest of all Twin Peaks as evidenced by people associated with all of those in his cast. And that’s not really my wavelength. I’m more Pawnee, Indiana than Night Vale. I respect the work and I laughed a lot here but I acknowledge the distance.
Ok enough about the criticism. Time to lay out what works.
First off this is a great looking show. It’s a cartoon but it’s a richly stylized cartoon. It has a distinct look and feel. Action is great. Characters shine. I’d rather watch it over basically every DC animated film of late. It has such sights.
It also has to be admired for taking the genre seriously. This isn’t a training wheels show. Kids who love this will jump right to the Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks. The scares are genuine and while nobody dies, stakes are high. There is constant talk of trauma. It’s not safe.
The lore of the show is gold. I love the idea of a weirdness vortex and a place where these issues would occur. Monsters are fantastic throughout. Just seeing the wild way the show finds riffs on the absurd is gold.
And while I’m not always into the sheer random humor on the show, I do like the more familiar character driven humor that gives it much of its pulse. The constant clever dialogue given to Stan is the show’s best part. I get grifter humor. I get awkward nerd humor. I get pop culture humor.
A lot of love must be given to the voice actors. The show has an absurd level of ringers from comedy legends like Patton Oswalt and Weird Al to great actors like JK Simmons. But the core is the central trip of Jason Ritter, Kristen Schaal, and especially Hirsch himself. They give all they have every time.
The characters are truly what drive the show after all. There’s a shocking amount of nuance to everyone. We wind up understanding why side characters like Soos, Wendy, and even Pacifica are as scarred as they are. We understand why Stan is as bitter and angry as he is and why he’s so corrupt. There’s a surprising amount of focus on the damage previous generations wreak upon the next.
And that brings me to why I think the show shines. It’s hard to say a show is really about anything because almost all non-adapted shows start with a premise and wing it. But this show is ultimately best viewed as a study in that hellish moment at the end of childhood where you’re starting to grow up. Being 12/13 is a nightmare and I’ve never really seen that as honestly depicted as I see it here. Once you notice the age matters, you have to see the whole show in that lens.
And that’s why I get the Dipper/Wendy story in retrospect. Because it is a doomed crush but that’s the point. Dipper can see fitting in and having a girlfriend so close it’s a mirage. But he’s not there and that frustration of feeling your childhood is just behind you but what you want isn’t there is agony. Hirsch obviously has very similar unresolved grief like I do.
Similarly I get Mabel’s story of desperately trying to live in fantasy. Her denial is so palpable. When it crashes in on her, it literally leads to her escaping into a void to not feel it.
All of Gravity Falls winds up being a safe zone for the kids to experiment and try to figure out who they are. It’s not an accident basically all of the monsters are metaphors for what they’re facing as tweens. It’s a very effective device that gives the show extra power. But eventually everything is confronted. And the summer must end. They have to leave. And after 40 episodes, the story must close up never to continue. Because you can’t have that summer again.
While Gravity Falls had a very different experience with the network, the show it reminds me most of is Freaks and Geeks. It’s a few hours shy of the same length actually all total. It’s one perfect potent blast about how painful it is to be young. Strip away the supernatural and the silly and it’s a show about how scary and awkward it is. That’s what makes it brilliant. You just want to be liked and to have a purpose and you can’t figure either out.
It broke my heart to leave Gravity Falls. But I’ll never forget the trip.