Warning: This review contains spoilers, but also effusive praise.
Gravity falls is a smart, smart to show.
And by that I’m talking about how it manages to introduce cosmic horror in a format that’s palatable to Disney audiences, while at the same time keeping all of its teeth intact. At a glance, it is an extremely safe production. The characters are clearly cartoonish, designed without a single thought of realism. Proportions are off, expressions are wacky and while everything is high quality, Gravity falls is undeniably something for children.
What it really is. Brimming with adventure and family relationships, the two-season show, which recently aired its final episode, revolves around twelve-year-old California twins: Mabel and Dipper Pines. Early in the first season, they are placed with their erratic grand-uncle Stan, who runs a tourist trap in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. It is not surprising that friction occurs.
But soon homesickness and a longing for urban civilization give way to curiosity, when Dipper discovers a mysterious diary and Mabel is kidnapped by aggressive leprechauns. (You can’t make these things up.) A rescue is staged, revelation strikes: things are not what they seem. The episode ends and starts a series of “monster-of-the-day” scenarios. Some of these are smart, many are silly and even more evoke the feel of weird Americana.
Along the way, the kids do what kids always do in cartoons like this: they bond. With each other, with their Grunkle Stan, with the often absurd supporting roles. Kind of like X files, except that Mabel is almost sickeningly cheerful and Dipper is pre-pubescent with a hopeless crush on the unattainable older girl. It’s cute, lovable, and utterly innocent, except for the cryptic, disturbing imagery teased throughout, images that don’t quite match the overall cheerfulness of the show.
Then we meet Bill and things get good foreign.
Leading up to Bill’s introduction, we see references to him, warnings to avoid interaction, accounts of how he manifests in dreams. We see his image repeated in Dipper’s diary: a demonic triangular creature with a single eye, similar to the symbol for the Illuminati. And then he is finally summoned by a megalomaniac child, and we meet him in person for the first time.
Irreverent and nasal, Bill isn’t exactly terrifying. A little unsettling, sure, but nothing worse than the menagerie of monsters yet. However, Bill soon disapproves of that initial idea. He is sociopathic and evil, completely unconcerned about anything but his own agenda, cruel and seemingly enamored with the chaos he causes, a trickster in the worst possible sense. He is unrecognizable, an inscrutable entity with no ties to anything we find understandable – like something out of Lovecraftian mythos.
And like Shub-Niggurath, Hastur and all the other Great Old Ones, Bill Cipher feels representative of one of Lovecraft’s most salient themes: the fear of the unknown. Which is kind of interesting, because if love was the answer Steven Universefear is what propels Gravity falls. Fear of loss. Fear of loneliness. Fear of the things we’ve seen and the things we’ve done, of the memories and trauma we build up throughout life. Fear of our own utter insignificance, of the knowledge that we are not so much transient beings as a meaningless nanosecond of self-awareness in a vast and uncaring universe. Fear of growing up.
But where Lovecraft responded to his terror with hatred and bigotry, Gravity falls undermines his legacy by choosing love and acceptance every time. It may not be the most unique route. Almost every existing children’s program encourages positive behavior, but it feels particularly appropriate here, especially when you consider that Gravity falls is set in a small town in America, a setting traditionally associated with excessive bigotry.
Either way, the message is powerful. The show makes sure to layer the delivery, slowly building nuance, offering relatable scenarios and interludes of silliness to balance the more philosophical elements. With each episode, it repeats its central conceit, showing different ways for kindness to triumph, different ways for love to manifest. Over and over again, until we reach the climax of the show and the Pines family is faced with pure, existential terror in flesh.
Of course they choose love. And sacrifice and hope and human resilience – all the things that make life worth living, even if it’s empirically meaningless.
You have to look Gravity falls. Not because it’s charming (although it is). Not because it’s further proof that children’s TV can be shockingly sophisticated (although it is). Not even because the narrative arc it follows is positively balletic in its elegance.
Actually because of all that.
Gravity falls. Several thumbs up.
You can watch Gravity Falls in the UK on the Disney XD channel, which is available on Sky, Virgin and BT TV. In fact, there are a ton of episodes airing today, it seems. Unfortunately, only Season 1 is currently available on Disney’s streaming service.