How Gravity Falls changed animated TV for the better

·7 min read
Screenshots of Gravity Falls’ pilot: Hulu
Screenshots of Gravity Falls’ pilot: Hulu

Ten years ago last month (on June 15, 2012, to be precise), Alex Hirsch took us on the first of many eerie and hilarious journeys in Gravity Falls, the paranormal town where tween twins Dipper (voiced by Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) were shipped to stay with their Grunkle Stan (Hirsch) for the summer. Through mysteries, disturbing horror that made you question if it was in fact a Disney show (like shapeshifting Cronenberg-esque creatures, mounted heads that bleed, and freaky face tricks), and outrageous comedy, the series accomplished a lot: Emmy wins, some serious ratings and what The A.V. Club dubbed “a perfect ending.” Despite all the trials and tribulations—Disney’s S&P notes over silly visual gags and LGBTQ+ representation, and jumping to a different network halfway through its run—Gravity Falls shook up the format, paving the way for what story-driven animated shows look like today for both kids and adults.

Sibling Mayhem | Gravity Falls | Disney XD

Serialized animated shows were a rarity in the early 2010s. The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and other platforms focused primarily on 11-minute episodic comedies that ranged from fantasy (Adventure Time) and surrealism (Regular Show) to musicals (Phineas And Ferb). Every so often, attempts at continuity were sprinkled in, with showrunners delving deeper into the series’ worlds. But that was a rarity. As much as I loved Adventure Time for its episodic adventures, it’s still baffling to me that we didn’t get some background on the land before Ooo until season four’s “I Remember You.” Whereas countless shows made up continuity willy-nilly as they went along, Alex Hirsch pitched Gravity Falls with a finite beginning, middle, and end. (Hirsch wanted to finish the series after one season, but he was convinced to go on by Jon Stewart and Over The Garden Wall creator Patrick McHale.) Throughout its run, Gravity Falls succeeded in walking the fine line between being episodic and serialized: It boasted rewatchability through its comedy and supernatural-based plots, all while building an overall arc with the Pine twins facing off against Bill Cipher in Weirdmageddon. There are satisfying payoffs and little to no filler episodes.

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Nowadays, long-form, story-driven structures have become normalized in western animated shows. Creators such as Megan Nicole Dong (Centaurworld), Guillermo del Toro (Trollhunters), and Radford Sechrist (Kipo And The Wonderbeast) have doubled down on the three-act plotting, letting ideas flourish without losing steam or overstaying their welcome. And you can see a lot of this storytelling shift in the shows that Gravity Falls alums would go on to make.

The Fight 😢 | Gravity Falls | Disney Channel

Former GF storyboard artist and director Matt Braly adopted the act-per-season format with his series Amphibia, which focused on a Thai-American girl named Anne Bounchuy in a fantasy world of frogs. The show, which recently ended, is a triumph of rich storytelling, fantasy world-building, and unique characters.

The same can also be said of Dana Terrace’s The Owl House, which she created after her tenure as a director on the 2017 DuckTales reboot and her turn as a storyboard artist on GF. The Owl House follows human Luz Noceda in a mystical realm full of witches and demonic creatures, and it wastes no time unraveling a gripping narrative. Though its upcoming final third season is around the corner (and the thought of its inexplicable cancelation still boils my blood), The Owl House thus far has been akin to a roller-coaster thrill ride.

Both shows go all-in on themes about interpersonal relationships. In Amphibia, the friendship between the Calamity trio (Anne, Marcy, and Sasha) is at the center. The Owl House is darker in nearly every way, with a narrative about Luz’s quest to become a witch while facing off against a tyrannical leader who wants to commit witch genocide. (It’s a harrowing, riveting watch.) Much like their heroines, both series tackle big ideas about identity, regret, and loss; balance fantasy and comedy; and showcase lovable characters with distinct personalities.

The Power of K-POP! | Amphibia | Disney Channel Animation

And then there’s GF writer Shion Takeuchi, who went on to create the adult-animated workplace sci-fi comedy Inside Job. While the demographic skews older, the series thus far (it has many more stories to tell) has traces of GF’s DNA. Inside Job’s adventures within the shadow government workplace Cognito Inc. give way to fun riffs on science-fiction tropes ranging from murderous JFK clones to Inception-style mind trips. The dynamic between work-driven, socially awkward lead Reagan Ridley and her upbeat optimistic co-team leader Brett is similar to that between Dipper and Mabel. And as with GF, the show balances sci-fi mayhem and character-driven plots (but in this case, every story is a means to exploring Reagan’s traumatic upbringing).

Because of Gravity Falls’ success, shows that aired after it on Disney XD attempted to fill the cipher-shaped hole Hirsch left behind. Daron Nefcy’s Star Vs. The Forces Of Evil and Ultimate Spider-Man went from stand-alone eps to story-driven arcs halfway through their runs. Spider-Man saw an increase in ratings when the show moved to a linear story. And in Star’s case, the quality of the series went on a downward spiral when it shifted to a serialized storyline in later seasons. Ducktales adopted most of the sensibilities of Gravity Falls in terms of humor, storytelling, personality, and tone. Sadly that show, which had a great run of 75 episodes, was canceled.

In the age of streaming, when full seasons drop for binging, creators have been more inclined to embrace long-form storytelling. BoJack Horseman, F Is For Family, She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power, Kid Cosmic, Centaurworld, Kipo And The Wonderbeasts … tons of animated shows now make sure each season follows a fluent chronological narrative that can easily be devoured. During quarantine in 2020, Nickelodeon’s iconic serialized show Avatar the Last Airbender was released on Netflix and immediately became the most popular kids animated show on the service that year. One can only imagine how that series influenced higher ups at the service to greenlight other animated series with a similar flair and format.

Gravity Falls also opened the door for creatives to explore LGBTQ+ representation in their shows. Hirsch was unsuccessful when he tried to pass through the holy gates of the Disney censors while incorporating queer stories (primarily in the episode “The Love God,’’ which had rejected storyboards featuring two old women falling in love). With a conglomerate like Disney, which has often been criticized for lack of representation in its features and shows, even by Hirsch himself, the alumni picked up where the series left off. When developing The Owl House, Terrace fought to make sure queer characters were front-loaded on the Boiling Isles. Eventually, she was able to get clearance to depict a groundbreaking romance between Luz and Amity. Luz marked the first bisexual lead in a Disney cartoon, while her girlfriend Amity identified as a lesbian. It also became the first Disney series to feature non-binary characters (Raine Whispers and the latest antagonist, the Collector).

Lumity | The Owl House | Disney Channel

Non-binary artists such as ND Stevenson (She-Ra) and Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe) also faced similar challenges to Terrace, with network execs pushing back against wanting to explore queer themes. They fought those executives who were either cautious or straight-up threatening cancellation. There was little to no queer representation in this space at the time, but that changed when the LGBTQ+ community became vocal about seeing positive depiction of queerness in shows, and those networks become more lenient. “I know Rebecca and Noelle had to go through hell and back for their shows and they’ll always have my respect for that,” Terrace told Vanity Fair. “But I don’t think I could have been as sly and strategic as either of them.”

And it doesn’t stop there. In other mediums, former Gravity Falls artists broke the glass ceiling in representation. The show’s former creative directorm Mike Riandam directed The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, which boasted former GF writer Jeff Rowe. Mitchells was bold in its combination of 2D and 3D techniques and its nuanced exploration of a troubled old-school naturist father and his media obsessed daughter not seeing eye to eye. All the while, the film broke new ground: Katie Mitchell was the first queer protagonist in a studio-animated feature.

Having even a glimpse of queerness was a pipe-dream in kid-friendly animated TV 10 years ago. And in some not-so-small way, we have Gravity Falls (and its many talented, envelope pushing creators) to thank for that not being the case today.