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I’m always looking for ways (read: excuses) to check into The Amazing World of Gumball for The AVClub, and hearing about the show’s first full half-hour special was the perfect opportunity. I’ve been waiting for the show to do its first expansive episode, and the two-part “The Origins” did not disappoint. To be clear, the story of how Darwin and Gumball met–that is to say, the story of how Darwin grew legs and lungs and became part of the Watterson family–is not really a story we need to hear. A fish that grows legs is nothing shocking or new to the world of Elmore, a place which houses ghosts, talking clouds, sentient hotdogs, and effeminate flowers. But this story is less about the logic of Darwin’s sudden evolutionary burst and more about the (re)unification of the family we know and love.

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One of many things that Gumball captures so uniquely, within the context of its absurdist worldview, is the complexity and complications of the family unit. It explored adoption, estrangement, favoritism, financial difficulty, and parenting (among other things) in its strange but poignant ways, and here, particularly in the first part of “The Origins,” the show tackles on child rearing. This isn’t an in-depth observation, mind you–it’s an animated show with only eleven minutes to work with–but it gets at the heart of its topic starting with Nicole’s first-person perspective of the chaos of her house. It’s a smart way to start the episode (not to mention a nifty piece of animation) by showing the audience how she sees the world–to then follow it up with a brief shot of Richard and Nicole from Gumball’s hyperactive perspective.

Nicole and Richard both comically worry about their struggle to take care of Gumball and his hyperactivity (Nicole threatens to sell him to a freak show if he wasn’t so cute.) Their desperation here reminds me of The Babadook, and although I doubt the scene references that movie specifically, it captures the need for sleep and for something, anything, to calm Gumball down. The answer? A pet goldfish. Gumball becomes enamored by the bland aquatic animal just enough for Nicole and Richard to finally “relax”–up until Gumball notices that “Darwin” isn’t swimming around any more. What follows is a sharply compiled montage of Richard’s purchases of new goldfish, followed by accidental deaths of those subsequent fish. It’s hilarious, made more so by Richard’s take on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” but it’s also shows the lengths that they will go to keep Gumball satiated, even if that includes buying a fish out of a questionable van.

There’s something more here, though. What started out as an attempt to calm Gumball down soon leads to Nicole and Richard’s unwillingness to communicate directly to their child. Nicole can’t bring herself to be honest to her son, which feels like a missed opportunity (and I’ll get into this more in the Stray Observations), but Gumball is keen enough to pick up on the implications. He’s not too keen on figuring out what that means for the fake-dead Darwin though, but luckily Gumball uses his hyperactive time-scale difference to save Darwin, albeit briefly. It’s a great save and there are some particularly nifty visuals that go along with it (I love how the blurred legs and hands are animated, the whole sequence paralleling the intro to boot), but that lack of communication comes back to the forefront: since Gumball never tells his parents that Darwin can talk, the fish’s voice shocks them and they accidentally flush him down the toilet.

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The second part of “The Origins” is a “journey home” story, in which Darwin the fish has to traverse unknown lands to find his way home. And while we’ve seen this story so, so many times before, Gumball brings to it the kind of heart and depth that’s particularly unique to this show. The Amazing World of Gumball has a perverse sense of positivity to it, an optimism that’s couched in the world’s darker, most depressing aspects. So, yeah, it’s cheesy to see elaborate, heart-shaped animations erupt on the screen when Gumball’s “love” magically provides Darwin the organs he needs to move on, but it works because those feelings are innocent, child-based, and raw. Richard and Nicole, ironically, finally attempt to communicate with their son to tell him to move on, but Gumball’s refusal to do so is the impetus that allows Darwin his necessary evolution.

It’s the little things, really, that makes the second part of “The Origins” such a perfect little story. For starters: sure, we know that everything has to end well for the two siblings, but the episode makes it feel like there’s a chance these two won’t re-unite. Watching Darwin sing/arm-crawl his way through water, deserts, storms, and rough forest terrain, slowly losing his strength, is a tough watch, and every near-miss is as perfectly executed as a Pixar movie’s climax scene. Most importantly, it’s a sincere little personal story of two, clueless, young kids who don’t know any better defy the odds and find each other. Gumball doesn’t subvert or break tropes or cliches so much as stretch their authenticity as far and as absurd as possible. But sometimes the show slows down and just wants to tell a heart-warming, wholesome (if silly) story, and on that count, “The Origins” succeeds.

Stray Observations

  • The ending is perfect. Gumball’s abrupt endings can be hit or miss (usually hit, thank god), but this episode’s resolution–a potential song cue that’s cut short because Darwin and Gumball are just tired–is purposely, quietly lovely.
  • I’m kind of disappointed no one called Gumball “Zach” in this episode. Outside of that, there’s a lot of great shout-outs to the show’s past so far (the building of the Rainbow Factory followed by the Paintball van was a particularly clever touch).
  • I sort of like the weird, out-of-time designs of this episode in particular: the house’s 70s-style decor, with its wood panelling and plaid-brown couch; Nicole’s 80s-style outfit with the off-sholder look; Richard’s fake 90-grunge wardrobe complete with ripped jeans.
  • The one thing that The Amazing World of Gumball seems reluctant to deal with is death. (They rarely, directly use the words “kill” or “dead.”) I recently re-watched the series, and it’s odd how often they avoid or beat around the topic. I’m pretty sure this is a creative decision, not a Standards and Practices one, as Adventure Time and Steven Universe are pretty forward with their conversations on loss. While overall Gumball managed pretty well so far, I feel like the first part of this episode took a small hit by disallowing any character to just say, “The fish is dead.”
  • CN airing this episode up against the biggest event of the day–Gravity Fall’s series finale–is so bizarre that it almost comes around to being an insanely “good” idea? Like, with DVR and streaming now available, if feels like the network is trying to grab some attention from Disney XD’s flagship show, so that Gumball is at least in the conversation? It’s a crazy thought, I know, but Nick is also airing two new episodes of its biggest shows (Spongebob and Alvin and the Chipmunks) during Gravity Fall’s finale as well. Notably, CN is aired two new Teen Titans Go! episodes prior to Gravity Falls, so they aren’t that bold, but I don’t really know how else to explain it.

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