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Gravity Falls: “The Stanchurian Candidate”

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Never has reality made satire obsolete quite so spectacularly as what we see in “The Stanchurian Candidate.” This is a fine episode, but the funniest joke may be the one at the episode’s (and, um, the nation’s) expense, in that the central premise is that a brash, huckstering loudmouth launches a self-aggrandizing political campaign in which he says whatever crude, terrible things pop into his head … and that goes over so much worse with the lunatics of Gravity Falls than it does when Donald Trump pulls that exact same crap in real life. I mean, say what you will about Stan’s plan to stimulate the economy by invading nearby towns, but it’s no more incoherent or absurd than whatever the hell it is Trump says he’s going to do to Mexico.

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This is where Gravity Falls, with the lengthy production cycle of all non-South Park animated shows and the still lengthier delays that are unique to its Disney XD existence, can be one-upped by a reality far sillier than anything Alex Hirsch and company could dream up. In an imaginary world in which “The Stanchurian Candidate” was somehow written, recorded, and animated over the last month, one could well imagine all of Stan’s awful statements making him riotously popular, with no need for a mind-controlling tie.

But no matter! Maybe “The Stanchurian Candidate” isn’t the most prescient commentary on this particular moment in America’s political history, but that hardly disqualifies it from being a funny and clever half-hour of television. The actual political satire here is pretty minimal, really, apart from some fairly basic points about the controlled Stan’s successful, if flagrantly transparent attempts at pandering to each demographic one at a time. Mostly though, Gravity Falls is happy to approach this story as a character-based one, with the crux of the episode’s conflict turning on whether Stan can do anything to earn his kid’s respect, particularly when the far more impressive Ford is just sitting right there.

That’s a very solid premise to work from, but where the episode runs into trouble is in coming up with a justification for not just Stan but Dipper and Mabel to also care enough about the outcome of the mayoral election to mind-control their grunkle to victory. The episode’s solution is to bring the Gleeful family into this, with the always welcome Stephen Root getting a brief turn in the spotlight as the used car salesman Bud Gleeful before ceding antagonist status to Lil Gideon. And it’s not as though it’s a bad idea to bring Lil Gideon back, but what ends up happening is that the episode’s attention is just a bit too divided. There’s a character story here that revolves around Stan and the Pines twins. For that story to work on a plotting level, the Gleefuls need to be there to offer external motivation, but Stan’s internal motivation has a lot more to do with Ford, who has only a glorified cameo in tonight’s proceedings. It’s not as though “The Stanchurian Candidate” is coy about Lil Gideon’s eventual appearance: It’s next to impossible to imagine an episode that has Bud return without bringing back his son as well. But Lil Gideon’s presence only becomes an actual, tangible thing about halfway through the episode, which leaves the episode relatively little time to ramp up the menace to the point that the possessed Bud leaves the twins tied up in a dynamite-filled lair. In strictly narrative terms, the journey to that climax makes sense, but it perhaps isn’t the most organic exploration of the Stan story the episode suggests at the outset.

I’m being a tad finicky here, I’ll admit. (Tad Finicky was the birth name of Tad Strange, before he went into acting.) There’s really nothing all that wrong with this episode. It’s just that I can point to an episode like “Land Before Swine” that far more effectively and logically builds towards a big hero moment for Stan, and I can point to anything from “Little Dipper” to “Gideon Rises” for an episode that establishes ‘Lil Gideon as a fearsome adversary. Knowing those past successes, it’s hard not to see the efforts of tonight’s episode to combine those two narrative threads and not conclude that the two don’t particularly complement each other. Both Stan and ‘Lil Gideon are big enough characters that they demand entire episodes devoted to them, especially when the pair never really get to face off directly, as is the case here. What we’re left with is an odd situation in which each character is effectively a plot device in the other’s story; both narrative threads are good examples of Gravity Falls storytelling, but they never quite gel together into the kind of more sophisticated story that defines the show at its best. My suspicion is that incorporating Ford more directly into the plot might have helped, but I suspect that might well be my suggested answer for everything these days.

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Where “The Stanchurian Candidate” does shine is in its exploration of Gravity Falls’ reliably loony townspeople. It’s in this regard that the show has most comprehensively staked its claim as the natural successor to The Simpsons’ lofty mantle, and the episode has great fun with revealing just how dumb the town can be when given the chance. Dipper’s deadpan, dumbfounded recitation of the procedures for electing a new mayor is worth the price of admission all by itself, and it’s a well-worn but endlessly effective comedy trick to have random citizens announce exactly how they are being manipulated and why it’s working so well on them. The biographical details of the late Mayor Befufflefumpter are suitably, grandiosely absurd—I appreciate that the most plausible explanation for one joke is that he was somehow the one who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand—and there could not be a more perfect successor to his position than Will Forte’s endlessly enthusiastic Tyler Cutebiker.

After a run of top-notch episodes, “The Stanchurian Candidate” feels like a slight step down, if only because it never quite works out how to use the show’s new status quo to its full advantage. Given the final ‘Lil Gideon reveal that plays out over the end credits, there’s a temptation to think that the episode’s primary function is just to maneuver everyone another big step closer to a climactic confrontation with Bill Cypher. If that’s the case, it more than makes sense that ‘Lil Gideon would end up playing such a big role in the episode, but it does feel as though his naturally outsize presence means Ford has to be relegated to the margins, when it’s Stan’s specific sense of inferiority toward his brother—and the resultant quest to earn Dipper and Mabel’s respect—that would be better served as the focus of this episode. The episode is more than funny enough to make up for that structural wonkiness, though it probably could have papered over those narrative plots even better if Donald Trump had never happened and its satire felt a little more current. Huh, I guess we’ve finally found something regrettable in the Trump presidential campaign…

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Stray observations:

  • I ended up coming down kind of hard on this one, but I did like it, and a lot of that enjoyment has to do with the gags, which are harder to write about in the main body of the review than an analysis of the storytelling. So let’s just have some fun with quotes!
  • “He looks good, considering we threw his son in jail.” “That was a good day.”
  • “I designed a prototype for Ronald Reagan’s masters.” And I was given to understand controlling Reagan had something to do with jellybeans. You guys ever hear anything about that?
  • “I accidentally got my head stuck in my shirt sleeve. I guess this is my life now.”
  • “That llama knew too much!”
  • “On an unrelated note, I’ve got a lot of cheap pugs, and I need to move them fast.”
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