I’ll warn you right now: I have some pretty significant issues with this episode. This isn’t a bad episode, but it makes some storytelling decisions that carry with them uncomfortable connotations, and the decision to build the episode around the show’s least sophisticated character only compounds the issue. But we’ll get there in a little bit. Let’s take this one step at a time, and let me be the first to say that, for all my issues with it, there’s plenty to like about this episode. So then …
“Soos And The Real Girl” is a landmark episode for Gravity Falls. With the iffy exception of the Soos segment in “Bottomless Pit!,” this is the very first time we’ve seen an episode that isn’t focused on some combination of Dipper and Mabel. We’ve seen the twins share or trade off on protagonist duties, but never before have both ceded the spotlight for an entire episode to another character. Of the three available choices—sorry everyone, we’re still a few seasons away from the Chief Blubs: P.I. spin-off we’re all deeply yearning for—Soos is somehow both the most obvious and the trickiest candidate. His status as the show’s breakout character—seriously, there was a point toward the end of last season where he threatened to take over the show—makes him the logical pick to carry an episode, but the very reason that he’s built up such a following is that he, unlike Stan and Wendy, consistently tags along with Dipper and Mabel. The audience likes Soos because he’s always around, but the role he fulfills is pretty much always that of the goofball sidekick. Never mind the fact that we’ve never seen a Soos plot before: Have we even seen a Soos subplot?
The pivotal moment comes right before the opening credits, as Soos promises to make his grandmother happy by finding a date to bring to his cousin Reggie’s engagement party. After listing his many datable qualities—including the fact that he sort of has a mustache—Soos is forced to agree with the television’s assessment that he is, in fact, dead. That line is a joke, but it isn’t really a Soos joke; that’s more the kind of pre-credits banter we’d expect to hear between the TV and Dipper. Gravity Falls is pivoting around Soos, moving him into the main character role and seeing what it can do with him. Broadly speaking, this effort succeeds, perhaps because “Soos And The Real Girl” doesn’t even pretend to find hidden depths in the Mystery Shack’s handyman. Soos is still the same lovable if easily flustered manchild he has always been, only now the show is willing to consider which of his traits could theoretically make him a romantic, even heroic figure.
To that end, the episode introduces Melody, who isn’t exactly the female Soos—some thoughts are just too unnerving to contemplate—but is close enough to be compatible. The main story of “Soos And The Real Girl” is at its sweetest and its most successful whenever it lets these two spend together. The episode pulls the old sitcom romance trick of giving the established and the newly introduced characters eerily similar interests, tastes, and opinions, but what elevates Melody above the cliché is her particular perspective. She’s not attracted to Soos because she’s been reverse-engineered by the writing staff to like all the same things that Soos does. Instead, as she says when she sees Soos riding on the toy train, Melody is just so darn impressed that Soos owns his supposedly childlike interests. Soos may be the least confident person imaginable when it comes to even the most basic flirting, but he is hugely comfortable in his own skin, and that can be an appealing trait under the right circumstances. Melody is only thinly sketched here, but Workaholics’ and 22 Jump Street’s Jillian Bell brings a lot of charm and personality to the character, and the episode offers enough little moments—Melody’s distaste for adulthood, her pre-date concerns about itchy legs—to give the sense of a person who exists beyond the narrow, narrative-mandated parameters of Soos’ love interest.
Giffany is a different story, unfortunately, and here’s where we get into my big issue with what is otherwise a charming episode. As Dipper acknowledges toward the end of the episode, the threat she represents isn’t a million miles away from the similar video game antics of “Fight Fighters,” but there’s a crucial difference: In that episode, the villain wasn’t really Rumble McSkirmish, it was Dipper. Here, there’s no question that Giffany is in the wrong, and while her basic conceit is that of a sentient, murderous artificial intelligence, her specific trappings are those of a jealous, possessive stalker of an ex-girlfriend. And … that’s certainly something Gravity Falls can do if it so chooses, but it’s the kind of familiar scenario that carries some unfortunate, off-putting implications. After all, Giffany is a fairly one-dimensional villain, defined solely in terms of her bad intentions toward Soos; she doesn’t really have a character beyond what she represents to the episode’s hero. That’s the role of the monster of the week, and it isn’t that big a deal for a monster, but it does become troublesome when that monster fits every regressive stereotype of the controlling, psychotic ex-girlfriend. That’s the kind of character that demands some nuance, some twist in her execution, but Giffany is pretty darn straightforward in her villainy.
That’s doubly a shame, because this is a character that could so easily be rich with pathos, even without moving her away from the antagonist role. If we go ahead and grant that Giffany is sentient, it’s not hard to rotate this story so that she comes across as sympathetic. In theory, she’s the loneliest being imaginable, a self-aware program designed to be the perfect romantic partner who must spend all eternity trapped alone in cyberspace. If she has no real existence when a player isn’t conversing with her, it’s not hard to blame her for wanting to keep those chats going on indefinitely. And, again assuming that she is self-aware, it really isn’t cool to pause her, even if—especially if—you’re in the middle of an argument with her.
I really don’t want to blow this out of proportion. But to explain properly the issue that I have, I need to get into this in some detail. And really, this is less about bashing this particular episode—which, on balance, is fine, particularly because Stan is in rare form tonight—than it is about pointing out why this particular episode falls into a very easy trap, and how shockingly rare it is for Gravity Falls to make such mistakes. Indeed, I bring all this up because Gravity Falls has repeatedly shown itself capable of remarkable nuance in how it develops its characters and their struggles. This is a show that’s unafraid to point out when one of its protagonists is in the wrong, and it’s also frequently willing to consider whether the horrible monsters are really as awful as they appear at first glance. This show has already demonstrated the kind of complexity necessary to tell a story in which Giffany is more than just the horrible girlfriend monster, in which it acknowledges the pathos of her situation while pointing out that she crosses some lines in pursuit of someone who now has a chance at a more meaningful relationship.
And this is where I have to wonder whether the problem here is Soos. Particularly in the climax, Giffany says some horrible things that reinforce ideas about relationships that children really don’t need to be exposed to. I realize that can sound awfully joyless, and I want to stress that Gravity Falls has every right to teach kids some bad lessons; I mean, I don’t even know how Grunkle Stan could exist in a world where characters could only be good examples and positive role models. Besides, it’s clear—to this adult viewer, at any rate—that Giffany is meant to be obviously in the wrong when she talks about how no real woman will ever care for Soos, that his only hope for happiness is with her. Honestly, my issue isn’t so much with Giffany herself as it is with the entire worldview that the mere fact of Giffany’s villainy implies. The episode would benefit from a character who could point out that relationships can rarely be divided into such neat categories as “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” “hero” and “villain.” But Soos is not even remotely equipped to handle such a task. If you rewrote this story as a Dipper episode, I suspect the Pines brother could rise to such an occasion, but Soos probably just isn’t realistically capable of delivering such an argument.
Is it the responsibility of Gravity Falls to address these sorts of issues? Honestly, here’s where we get into some alternately profound and tedious arguments about what whether children’s cartoons have some kind of responsibility to teach their young viewers about better ways to live their lives and see the world, or if the only thing that matters is that the jokes are funny and the story is well-told, irrespective of whatever implications, intentional or not, it might dredge up. I respect the latter view, but I’ll admit that I’m very much a subscriber to the former, and I think on that score “Soos And The Real Girl” misses the mark. It isn’t a failure, by any stretch, but the kind of emotional maturity and sophistication so poignantly on display in, say, “Into The Bunker” is not in evidence here. “Soos And The Real Girl” is still generally sweet and funny enough for me to call it a good episode. But never has it been quite so frustrating to explain why a Gravity Falls episode falls short of greatness.
- I came down harder on this episode than I expected to, honestly; writing a review is a process of discovery, and sometimes I discover a far more strongly held opinion than I had when I embarked upon writing.
- “This is literally too dumb for me to care about.” For all my issues, I say again that Stan’s (and Wendy’s, even if she doesn’t care) subplot is so wonderfully idiotic that it almost saves the entire damn episode, and for all its gleefully acknowledged stupidity it still makes some nice, cogent points about Stan’s fears of obsolescence and mortality. Also, I love that Wendy reads Avoiding Eye Contact Monthly. Even in an episode I’m fairly down on, I’ll be the first to say there’s a lot to love.
- “You can’t be any worse at this than Dipper.” “Yeah! Wait, what?”
- “What a nice lady. Well, back to riding this tiny train for children.”
- “Soos, these are children.” I love Melody’s entirely legitimate reaction to Soos’ notion that Dipper and Mabel will look after her.
- “Soos’ life is my soap opera.”