It shouldn’t take long to explain what makes tonight’s Gravity Falls episode so great. Like most cartoon anthology episodes—your Treehouses of Horror, your Anthologies of Interest—this episode divides itself into three short stories that are more or less entirely defined by their one main selling point. We’ve got Neil DeGrasse Tyson voicing a super-intelligent Waddles! We’ve got our animated characters facing off against some pretty darn expensive Ray Harryhausen homages! What more do you need? Admittedly, that’s a more specific “you” than I would usually employ. Because when I say what more do you need, I’m really talking about you, the typical A.V. Club reader, who is aware and most likely has great fondness for people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ray Harryhausen, and who also—this is the really crucial bit—is probably not a child, at least not chronologically speaking. And, as anyone who has ever watched this show live on Disney XD (or, at least for tonight, back on the Disney Channel mothership) can attest, that really isn’t this show’s target fanbase. I’m not going to say there are no children out there who tuned in because they heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson would be doing a guest spot—I mean, I was at least a nerdy enough kid for that to be a possibility—but the episode isn’t going to win over the majority of its core audience with such essentially peripheral details.
And that’s the thing: It absolutely adds to the humor if you know that America’s most prominent scientist is the guy voicing Waddles, but that isn’t the primary source of the humor. That segment—dubbed “Abaconings,” because, again, nothing says children’s entertainment like an Awakenings reference—works because it comes up with every possible gag about a suddenly super-intelligent pig, and then the show cast someone who, quite apart from his celebrity, has a voice perfectly suited to bringing this Waddles to life. Gravity Falls finds the perfectly exacting, overwritten diction for Waddles, as when he tells Mabel, “There is more to life than making fart noises and laughing at those fart noises.” This is also where the show’s adorable character design pays off; Waddles is cute under normal circumstances, so the show unleashes something truly powerful when it has him ride around on a custom-built scooter, then tussle with the goat. The jokes really do write themselves here, because the show need only acknowledge that which we already know: “Forgive me. My pig arms are cute and useless.”
But what really elevates all three segments of “Little Gift Shop Of Horrors”—not to mention the wraparound sequences, presented from the second-person perspective of an unwary traveler—is the character work. Both “Abaconings” and “Clay Day” devise Mabel stories that could easily have served as the emotional arc for entire episodes. I might look for a little more nuance from a half-hour version of “Abaconings,” as Mabel is asking Waddles to rob himself of sentience to make her happy, but the compressed storytelling means it’s not such a big deal to elide the issue here; Waddles basically subscribes to that old, Captain Kirk-approved notion that the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many, especially when we’re talking about your best friend. Even if there’s room here to debate how reasonable Mabel is in asking Waddles to revert, the emotional beats work just fine, thanks to the reliably great voice acting of Kristen Schaal (and some fine supporting work from Tyson). Schaal makes Mabel so heartbreakingly sympathetic as she mourns the loss of her fart noise cohost that it’s basically impossible to not want her to be happy again. When employing storytelling shorthand to zip through a relatively complex plot in six or so minutes, that kind of emotionally rich voice acting is a real asset.
The appeal of the first segment, “Hands Off,” is even more straightforward: Grunkle Stan has reached the point where everything he says is hilarious. The non-canonical nature of these stories mean we don’t have to worry too much about what opinion of the supernatural Stan is pretending to have this week, but it doesn’t especially matter, because his attitude toward paranormal antagonists is just as incorrigible and gleefully amoral as his approach to more mundane foes. He’s never especially worried about the curse, not exactly; instead, he just reaches a point where the annoyance of not having hands becomes greater than the annoyance of having to deal with that witch lady.
He’s so utterly self-absorbed and defined by his own very particular worldview—“crotchety” is just scratching the surface, really—that he’s going to remain Stan whatever the situation, hence his observation to the witch that he needs his hands back because he has a certain gesture he would like to show her. And, as with the “Abaconings” segment acknowledging Waddles’ cuteness as its own joke, the episode gets to extract humor from how clearly the show has defined Stan up to this point. He’s a character so over-the-top yet also so specific that, as we see at the episode’s conclusion, he merely has to say “I’m a jerk!” to justify his latest twisted scheme and get a quick laugh out of the audience. If making more of these continuity-light anthology episodes means that the show can more easily unleash Stan in his full, irrepressible glory, then sign me up.
Still, even the “Hands Off” segment is not purely defined by its gags. After missing the mark last time in the depiction of Giffany, Gravity Falls rallies nicely with its surprisingly sweet, nonjudgmental depiction of the witch. The mere fact that the segment acknowledges her as a person with needs and desires rather than as a simple villain is impressive enough, but “Hands Off” manages a far more impressive feat by taking her loneliness seriously, albeit while still finding plenty of jokes. But the key is that the jokes are only tangentially at the witch’s expense; the concluding gag where the buff hiker proves shockingly receptive to her pick-up lines works because the episode has actually gotten us to root for the witch, not because the idea is so inherently preposterous.
As for “Clay Day,” that segment is probably the simplest from a storytelling perspective, but that’s no great knock when it’s likely the most technically challenging thing Gravity Falls has yet attempted. The integration of the Harryhausen-inspired monsters is seamless, with the segment making all the characters appear to share the same space, even though they don’t even share the same number of dimensions. In particular, Mabel disappearing inside the Cyclops is very well done. This is likely a segment where the jokes are going to fly over the heads of younger viewers, especially the knowing winks to the conventions of old monster epics, but even here the show takes care to layer in those references with strong physical comedy and appropriately silly, self-aware performances; Soos’ suggestion that they escape the monster by standing perfectly still fits into that category. This is Gravity Falls firing on all cylinders once again, and the episode’s anthology format means this is about as perfect a demonstration as you could ask for of every kind of joke and every kind of character beat the show can pull off. It’s the ideal sampler pack of Gravity Falls in its second season.
- This is a Saturday night review written after I spent a good chunk of the day wrestling with a Doctor Who review, so I’m aware this is a bit punchier than normal. I think this is still a weirdly appropriate fit for an episode that is far more joke-heavy than, say, thematically rich, but… yeah. Quote time!
- “They’re mob boss quality!”
- “Wait, is this curse ugly or normal ugly?
- “Death to my enemies!”
- “Man wants his privacy. I can respect that. Well everyone, over the fence.”