The show is kind of a Twin Peaks meets Eerie, Indiana, only animated and with less, y’know, actual murder. The main character of the show is Dipper Pines, a tween-age boy who is sent to Gravity Falls. Oregon with his twin sister Mabel for summer vacation. Their Great Uncle Stan (referred to by the twins as “Grunkle”) lives there, running the Mystery Shack. It’s essentially Stan’s rundown old cabin with the front repurposed as a kitschy gift shop and “Museum of the Bizarre”.
Stan is sort of a con-man type. Dipper is an intrepid investigator type. Mabel is a sugar-powered optimist who gets joy out of picking on her brother. Working for Stan at the shack are Wendy, a teenage slacker, and Soos (real name Jesus), the handyman. His intelligence is on a kind of sliding scale.
The town has a lot of recurring characters: Lazy Susan, the waitress. Old Man McGucket, who has a gift with tinkering but is otherwise wackily senile. Toby Determined is the one-man staff of Gravity Falls’ local paper. The Corduroy family is all manly lumberjack boys except for Wendy, who must work at the Shack instead of chopping down trees. Mr. and Mrs. Gleeful are the parents of Li’l Gideon, the little kid who has his own TV show where he shows off his psychic powers. As for Li’l Gideon himself — he’s the villain of the season. He plays off his charm and cuteness, but is really a sinister little monster.
The show is fun at face value, but there are so many hidden fun bits. There are oodles of code in the theme song, the opening and end credits, and in the show itself. Kids who like to read and who like puzzles will have a lot to do between episodes — or they can Google the show if they’re not the brainteaser type. It’ll still give them fun things to do between episodes!
The episodes themselves are arranged in an arc, with continuity (a trend I am happy to see growing in animation). Children can and do keep up with overarching storylines, and in this day of DVRs and marathon show watching, it’s not hard for them to manage even if they do need a little guidance. There are several mini-arcs threaded through: Mabel and Dipper are at odds with each other, Stan torments Dipper, Dipper has a crush on Wendy, Wendy’s teenage antics with her boyfriend, and the major theme: Gideon vs. Stan and the twins.
Parents can enjoy the show as well. There are multiple references throughout the season which are only going to make sense to an adult. Fight Fighters is a send-up of early fighting video games like Street Fighter and Streets of Fire. In “The Land Before Swine,” there’s a shot-for-shot send-up of The Breakfast Club with Mabel and her pet pig Waddles. There’s even a reference to Clerks: The Animated Series.
While the show is fun, engaging, and beautifully animated, with a catchy theme tune to boot, it is sadly not perfect. There are a lot of representation problems that parents will need to keep an eye out for. I make note of them here for informational purposes only. I am not insinuating that the creators placed these elements in the show with awareness of their problematic nature, or with intent to harm. However, the only way to ensure such problems are addressed is to point them out.
The only Black person in the show with a name and recurring lines is Sheriff Blubs, who is depicted as an idiot. The only Latino/Latinas on the show are Soos, who is depicted as a moron and the typical fat person = gross person trope, and his grandmother, thus far only referred to as “Abuelita”, who speaks very little English. One of Mabel’s best friends is a fat girl with a deep voice, both of which are played for laughs. There’s some speculation that the Pines family is Jewish. There are certain aspects which support this hypothesis, which make Stan’s greed and obsession with money unpleasantly stereotypical.
“Bottomless Pit” has a voice-changing McGuffin. It ends with Stan talking in a stereotypical “sassy Black Woman” voice, and making neck gestures that go along with that trope.
In “Fight Fighters”, Dipper asks Wendy’s boyfriend if he’s wearing mascara. He defensively calls it “eye paint for men”. Mabel watches a show called “Why You Ackin So Cray-Cray” … which is an appropriation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and ableist besides. Dipper’s martial artist video game character insults Dipper by saying “you fight like a girl who is also a baby.” Sexism. Wendy’s boyfriend, when Dipper tells him they need to stop fighting and should simply hate each other in silence asks, “you mean like girls do?” The intro episode of Pacifica Northwest, “Double Dipper” shows her as so privileged, she doesn’t even bother learning Soos’ name properly. She knows it’s something Spanish, and ends up calling him Jorge instead.
Despite the casual ableism, sexism and racism-related missteps, the show still has a lot of heart. It’s obvious that despite being a pretty reprehensible human being, Grunkle Stan does love both of the twins. Some of his methods of trying to show it are questionable, but it’s obvious to parents… and will make kids think twice about parents being mean to them. They could have an uncle like Stan!
The show originally aired on the Disney Channel proper with Wander Over Yonder. Both shows went on hiatus, then reappeared in heavy rotation on Disney XD. Season 1 is over, but the Season 2 began August 4, 2014.
Correction: I missed the fact that Candy Chiu is Korean, and that her voice, by an actual Korean actress, is not an affected accent; the line referencing her above has been removed.
Clarification: As for the Pines family, the problematic element there was mentioned as a response to speculation.
Skull Fracture is also Black, and has had at least one line as of “Bottomless Pit” – he’s one of the scary guys from the wrong side of town, and is among those willing to chase and beat up Dipper for making a really weak prank call. So again, not the greatest example.
We’re halfway through Season two, and good news. The show has resolved some of my concerns. The citizens of Gravity Falls appear often to be clueless, foolish, or painfully ignorant because there was a mind-erasing ray being used by a handful of citizens (including themselves) on them. Team Dipper found and destroyed it, restoring the memories to the one most affected, who turns out also to have been its inventor. Also, Abuelita gets more speaking lines. Tyler the Cute Biker, and the two cops were always hinted at as possibly being gay, but “The Love God” has a few more hints along those lines and it was news for a little while that there was originally a same sex couple of two sweet little old ladies in the episode before the creative team was made to change it. The link leads to one of the storyboard artists’ Tumblr with an animatic.
Mabel’s characterization has made her a bit less selfish at Dipper’s expense, and called out for it onscreen by Bill Cipher, who appears to be shaping up to this season’s Big Bad.
There are a few new concerns, though. In “Soos and the Real Girl”, Soos is still depicted as one of the acceptable targets: he’s a basement-dwelling geek who can’t handle social interaction, particularly with girls. He does end up with a long distance relationship, so the open ended resolution of the episode leaves things moving in the right direction. In “Blendin’s Game”, Blendin Blandin’s speech impediment is treated as a conscious choice and he uses it as a weapon against his cohorts. Worse, Mabel’s friend Grenda seems, the more I watch and rewatch, to be a transphobic joke — hopefully unintentional (because it also seems a sincere attempt to deconstruct “traditional female gender expectations”). Examples that set my teeth on edge: not just her deep voice, but the remark in her first appearance “I used to sing like [Pacifica does] before my voice changed” to her broad-shouldered burly physique, to her played for laughs “attempts” at being graceful and dainty, to her being a rather brutally violent character, even more so than Wendy Corduroy.