The Amazing World Of Gumball is a revelation. Sure, it obviously culls its sensibilities from The Simpsons and South Park, but it truly manages to be its own thing. What started off as a grab bag of quirky, silly characters within a quirky, silly world became a hilarious, sharp, and absurd observation of suburbia, family, relationships, and other concepts, as explored through the characters as well as the animated medium itself.

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That second part is important because nothing on television has incorporated the power of the animated frame like Gumball. Gumball’s “amazing” world is not just a product of animation; it is defined by animation. Its unique cast of characters, all designed in different animated styles (puppetry, stop-motion, and pixel art, for example), are defined by their visual nature, and so is the world of Elmore, an elastic setting both amplified and trapped by the medium. And the animated nature of Gumball isn’t metaphoric or representative of people or ideas. To the residents of Elmore, this animated essence is their world. Tina may be the show’s stereotypical bully, for example, but she is also a dinosaur and a 3D-generated animated construct, and they can’t be separated from each other.

Understanding all of that is the key to grasping not only Gumball’s comedy (and Gumball is hilarious) but also the show’s perspective. The diversity of styles is not solely for comic purposes, as in, say, Teen Titans Go!—it’s essential to the show’s world. The animated frame is used for elaborate song cues, exploration of grand ideas, deep character studies, and elaborate metacommentary on animation and/or TV as a whole, as well as specific, in-world plot points, conflicts, obstacles, goals, and resolutions. The animation and the narratives of the show’s setting/characters are one in the same, and acknowledging only one aspect of this is a mistake.

“The Money” is a perfect example. The Wattersons (who, for a lot of reasons, remind me of the Bundys) really are a tight-knit family driven and trapped by the suburban ideal, a false construct of sorts held together by many things, but particularly cash (more on the false construct idea in a moment). While I wasn’t too keen on the reason the Wattersons became broke—while amusing, Richard’s misinterpretation of putting their money in an “offshore account” felt too easy a springboard—the episode kicks into high gear as the family struggles with their lack of funds. It’s sweet, in its own way, to see the Wattersons support Gumball’s phase of maintaining integrity (mainly because Gumball’s phases rarely last very long) while at the same time waffling over whether they actually agree with him or not.

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Gumball himself is at his best when he’s unreasonably idealistic, somehow convincing his family not to participate in a dumb commercial for money for the sake of preserving their integrity (which, against the backdrop of a family known to be particularly self-serving and exploitative, is doubly pathetic). I love that Nicole clearly hates this, tossing her hostility toward random people and barely masking her anger–it was her money that was lost after all. There is something about refusing to exploit one’s family for crass commercialism, but then again, they don’t even have food in the fridge, and Gumball’s annoying song about the power of imagination isn’t going to fix things. That counts as the episode’s general smackdown of cartoons’ penchant for using “imagination” as a fix-all for problematic moments.

But then everything breaks down, and this is quintessential Gumball. This show is rarely afraid to hit hard when it wants to—the line “when you don’t have money, your whole world falls apart” is bluntly to the point—and it shows it by destroying the cartoon itself as the Wattersons’ make their mad dash to that contract. It’s a mind-blowing sequence, with the colors draining and the CGI breaking down, the characters reverting to their paper designs, then everything falling apart into storyboards, then into the writer’s room “Post-it” planning stage. It’s sort of like this infamous scene from Chowder, but by primarily focusing on the animated process caving in on itself, Gumball emphasizes the medium’s connection to Elmore and its inhabitants, and the false construct of middle-class living, so closely tied to money and “how things look.”

Continuity isn’t a big deal on Gumball (in some ways, the show ridicules the entire idea of continuity, most notably in “The Finale”) but it will carry revelations from episode to episode, with “The Nemesis” following up on the events of “The Nobody,” which was a follow-up to “The Void.” Rob, a tertiary character disfigured in the mysterious Void, declared himself Gumball’s archenemy, but proves himself a failure in every way. His depression prompts Gumball and Darwin to help him be the best villain he can be, and it’s a continuation of a series of episodes in which the brothers assisted (or, more accurately, involved themselves with) various cast members. Gumball’s slow development of its side characters is one of its most enjoyable aspects, enriching the show while also providing Gumball and Darwin a well-meaning, if misguided, thrust of charm and appeal.

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Cartoons “need” villains, and Rob—now known as Dr. Wrecker—embraces that role, in his own reluctant way. Once again, Gumball uses its animation to play into this, whether via absurdity (Gumball using a remote to adjust Dr. Wrecker’s “evil” settings), parody (the breakdown of the overplayed “transformation” visual), or even just a unique perspective (several characters producing terrible renditions of villainous themes). Even though we’re watching three characters work toward a lifetime of antagonism, it’s oddly endearing watching Gumball, Darwin, and Dr. Wrecker—who finally nails his catchphrase with “You just got wrecked!—become frenemies, especially with Gumball’s and Darwin’s selfless act of finally falling for one of Rob’s original traps. “The Nemesis” isn’t one of Gumball’s strongest episodes, but it has a lot of what makes this show special, narratively and visually, and works well for what’s technically the show’s fourth season premiere.

Stray observations

  • Quick recaps, reviews, and grades for the other three Gumball episodes that Cartoon Network aired this week: “The Downer” (Grade: A): A hilarious, if twisted, take on how bad moods can completely distort and corrupt your worldview, even when you’re trying to be positive.
  • “The Return” (Grade: B): Giving Richard a redemptive goal is admirable, but his basic neglect (sans pathos) makes it really difficult to get behind him, but it does make for a funny, exciting escapade.
  • “The Triangle” (Grade: A): The best episode of the week, which takes a clichĂ©d lesson and makes it hilarious, while exploring Darwin and Gumball’s relationship, particularly Gumball’s insecurity.
  • I’m basing the season designations on Wikipedia, which is bad form but it’s tricky to determine what constitutes a season, especially when episodes are aired out of order. I’ll adjust if I can find more concrete information.
  • One more note on “The Money”: Speaking of the topic of false constructs, the commercial the Wattersons make is a cheesy, anachronistic parody of a family, and it is as sad (and hilariously fake) as it looks. Gumball managed to do in one episode what Mad Men did in an entire “Burger Chef” arc. (Relax, everyone, it’s a joke.)
  • I know it’s bad form to link to personal writings, but I did a more extensive piece on The Amazing World Of Gumball over on my personal blog.

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