Callum Petch (Screened: @jackanderson, Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I mentioned last week that this was going to be the make-or-break season for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The transition season from Lauren Faust to Meghan McCarthy had passed, major story decisions that couldn’t be taken back had occurred and many of the writers from the first three seasons (like M.A. Larson and, from the looks of it, Cindy Morrow) have either left or taken the year off. It’s time to see if the show has still got it, if it could weather these particular storms and emerge from the other side at the same quality level as the first two seasons (which are the ones that the majority of fans seem to adore the most). Of course, these primarily being new writers in a new status quo, I was expecting some rockier episodes to kick off the new season, as everyone settles into the groove and learns how to write for the show.
Yet “Castle Mane-ia” feels like a script from somebody who’s been with the show since Day 1; not by first-time series writer Josh Haber (veteran of something called Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Monsters for three episodes and seemingly nothing else). This, in simple terms, was a freakin’ clinic in comedy, being utterly hysterical from start to finish as every single ‘creepy old castle’ trope is brought out and subsequently mocked to death with genuine affection for the genre itself. Hysterical lines flowed from the script, delivered absolutely perfectly by every single cast member and every scene was augmented by almost-series-best storyboarding by Emmett Hall and Tony Cliff.
Let’s tackle each aspect in order, then, seeing as there isn’t really much else going on in this episode besides non-stop hilarity (and the journal, but we’ll get to that). For a first-time writer, Josh Haber seems to get every single one of these characters and, consequently, knows how to exploit each of them for comedy in just the right ways without sacrificing their friendships with one another. Notice how after the incident with Fluttershy and the revolving door, Rarity starts doing the heavy lifting of tapestry herself and goes out of her way to keep Fluttershy calm... whilst still being obsessed in her quest for the various tapestries. A rougher episode from a less-talented writer would have made Rarity continue to inadvertently abuse Fluttershy for the rest of its duration, but not so here. Similarly, Fluttershy spends most of the episode panicking about most everything but instead of it being flanderization required for the comedy, it works because the context of the episode keeps making her worst fears come true, so her freak-outs feel natural instead of forced.
Also, for the first time I can recall in the show’s history (feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong), we had a script that had A, B and C plotlines and every single one was juggled almost perfectly. Applejack and Rainbow Dash are a great pairing, as we already discovered back in Season 1’s “Fall Weather Friends”, so it was no surprise to see the pair of them get a bunch of great scenes as they tried out-freak each other in order to sufficiently hide their own fear, being the prideful ponies they are. Rarity and Fluttershy, however, was a pairing that, barring “Green Isn’t Your Color” to an extent, hasn’t really been properly explored before on the show. As mentioned earlier, though, the episode wasted no time in getting the most out of it, contrasting Rarity’s cooler head in regards to anything that doesn’t involve the destruction of fashion or art with Fluttershy’s nervous panicking over pretty much anything brilliantly. It’s a brilliant combination in the context of the episode and I hope we get more of this pairing in slightly more serious episodes in the future.
Twilight and Spike and Pinkie Pie ended up getting the relatively shorter end of the stick in terms of screen-time but both sets of characters still got plenty of great moments. Twilight and Spike had Twilight’s giant squee-session as she first entered the library, her carrying the other four main players from the episode on her back near the end and Spike’s over-embracing of various myths. Pinkie, meanwhile, was the inadvertent ringmaster behind the night’s terror-filled proceedings and STILL managed to sneak in several fantastic lines and actions too (the quick cut to Pinkie’s job of ringing the school bell being achieved by having her bang her head against it repeatedly is the kind of quick-gag I’m surprised the show doesn’t do more often). It’s an expertly handled ensemble and, with any luck, Josh Haber will be getting more of these types of scripts going forward.
Secondly, the voice work in this week’s episode was even better than usual. Every single line was delivered flawlessly, really elevating the quality of the already funny script. Ashleigh Ball, in particular, was absolutely on fire. Pretty much anything out of Applejack or Rainbow Dash’s mouths was some form of hilarious and I can credit it primarily down to her voice work. I’m re-reading the transcript of the episode for my Stray Observations part and I’m drawn particularly to the exchange where Applejack is introducing Rainbow Dash to the story of The Pony of Shadows, and what strikes me is how it doesn’t read that funny on paper. It’s Ashleigh’s perfect delivery of “Nopony knows!” that sells the gag totally and many other such moments crop up throughout the rest of the episode, where the joke is nowhere near as funny on paper, though it is still very funny on paper, as it is when the cast deliver it. They know how exactly to bring the funny.
The final component in making this episode one of the show’s all-time best is undoubtedly DHX Media’s board-work, which compliments and even enhances the script and voice performances even further. Going back to Twilight’s first discovery of the new library, the main cause of my laughter came from her facial expression instead of Tara Strong’s frenzied delivery. Pinkie’s bell-ringing antics are funny in and of themselves; the framing of the shot pushes it up to hysterical. Applejack’s kind of pathetic scary hooves, a nice call-back to Season 1’s “Look Before You Sleep” with Rarity. Almost all of the physical humour, primarily involving the flinging of ponies around the place at high speed. The short sight gag of the bowl of carrots popping up in front of Angel Bunny. DHX continually impress on a technical level, and they continued to do so this week when it came to lighting and shadows for the majority of the scenes, but I feel I don’t give them enough credit when it comes to sight gags and the like, seeing as they’re the ones primarily responsible for their construction. Well, here is me giving them credit. Well done, Emmett Hall and Tony Cliff! Excellent work!
Before I wrap, I feel like I should address the newest change to the status quo: the journal. Season 3 all but completely removed the Letters to Celestia dynamic, preferring to work the Aesop of the Week into the episode itself, barring a few exceptions. Though it did involve the characters essentially having to state the Aesop to each other, it felt more natural and I liked the change. I do fear that the introduction of the journal will cause a step-back as a result, involving a slightly clunky crowbarring in of the Aesop at the end, but I’m willing to reserve judgement until I’ve seen it in action. Besides, I have a feeling that my worries at this moment are soles rooted in my fears that these sections will begin with the characters saying “Dear Diary...” in much the same way that “everypony” and referring to fillies as “my little ponies” caused me to want to crawl out of my skin on initial viewing. Time will tell!
“Castle Mane-ia” was a comedy episode that fired on all cylinders. Was there a relative lack of the typical heart that usually accompanies the best episodes of Friendship Is Magic? Aside from that scene at the end of the episode involving all of the Mane Six together just being buddies (something that one could argue was sorely lacking from Season 3), yeah, I’d say so. Not that I mind, though, because I was having way too much fun to let that bother me! This is one of the best episodes in the show’s entire run and it both bodes well for future slice-of-life episodes and sets a really high bar for the rest of the debuting writers to reach going ahead. Not bad for a first-timer.
As evidenced by the time that this review went up, I did not watch the leaked version of this episode earlier in the week. Partially because I was busy with other stuff, but mainly because I kinda like the feeling of watching an episode along with 100,000s, possibly even millions, of other people at the same time. Living in the UK, and with most of the shows I enjoy being American imports, it’s a feeling I don’t get that often, so it’s nice when I do.
Callum Petch is looking for a man who could give him true love. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and read his weekly gaming column Petchulant over at GameSparked (site link)!
Callum Petch (Screened: @jackanderson, Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Trying to explain exactly why My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is so popular is one of life’s great mysterious paradoxes. If you watch an episode of the show and are able to get on its wavelength, it makes perfect sense as to why it became popular: it’s a damn, damn great show that appeals to the older animation fan just as the cartoon-loving kids it’s targeted at. But as to how it’s become so popular, popular enough to spawn a giant fanbase with their own slightly off-putting nickname (“Brony”, which is at least seven-million miles better than “Avatard”), a vast network of artists, animators, writers, VAs and musicians that pump out so much brand-new fan-made content every day that the leading fan website, Equestria Daily, has to put most of them in separate roundup posts, a convention program that stretches all over America and the calendar year and is a large enough periphery demographic that the show’s network, The Hub, and the show itself has actually started pandering and selling to it (whilst, key factor here, never once losing sight of the original demographic)... that remains a relative mystery.
Speaking from experience, I’d have to hazard a guess that it’s down to how nice the show is, by which I mean the tone. There’s not a bad bone in its body. It loves its characters and its world and is endlessly optimistic about what each new day brings. There are enough shows elsewhere on TV that are incredibly serious and take great pleasure in putting its characters through the ringer, Friendship Is Magic acts like an antidote to that. A feel-good show that makes you happier by watching it. Of course, it’s not sickly and asininely sweet, where the schmaltz is laid on so think you could drown pastel-coloured horses in it and sell the remains as glue. Much like Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls, which is the only other show on television that I feel comes close to the same wavelength that My Little Pony operates on, Friendship Is Magic backs up the happy with consistent, strongly-defined and well-rounded characters, a great knack for crafting and expanding the world of the show, a very sharp sense of humour (this is a show that knows how to time every line and pratfall for maximum comedic effect) and, every so often, being surprisingly badass. It’s a very, very fine line to walk but it’s one that everyone involved with the show is extremely adept at pulling off season after season.
Season 3, at half the length of the prior two seasons, attempted to drag the show towards something slightly more mature than in prior seasons. The show tried to create plots and touch topics that were slightly beyond its usual reach and which could be resolved in a slightly different way than the usual “FRIENDSHIP IS THE BEST!” It also tried to shake up the status quo (reforming Discord), called back to prior seasons (THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TRIXIE’s triumphant return) and fleetingly attempted to set-up an overarching plot (and by “fleetingly” I mean “it showed up in the premiere and the finale”). These were tentative baby steps, but they were (80% of the time) high-quality baby steps, those of a show evolving without losing sight of its original ethos or what made it so unique and alluring in the first place. It boded well for the show’s future.
“Princess Twilight Sparkle”, the two-part season premiere, then, acts almost as a reboot of sorts. By that I don’t mean that Twilight has her wings ripped from her, Discord is turned back into stone and everything goes back to how it was pre-Season 3. Instead, the show attempts to consolidate the move towards a more grown-up tone that Season 3 started. The Elements Of Harmony are removed from the picture, a season-long story arc is teased in a manner that can’t be resolved in just the one 22-minute finale and it sets up a seemingly large main cast than, well, the Mane Six and Spike. It’s a very, very well-constructed hour that never feels crowded, despite the number of plates it has to spin and the only reason that it doesn’t break into the show’s pantheon of best episodes is due to it lacking the emotional resonance the show usually has in spades.
But, let’s start with the good stuff and that show-stealer Discord. Perhaps it’s down to my love of his voice actor John de Lancie, but I adore the character and he’s only made three appearances at this point! He started off as the kind of villain I love to see, the kind that poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their way of life but is just too gosh-darn entertaining to hate. There was that risk with his reformation that he would lose his entertainment value by having to conform to the standards of being a good guy, but that turns out to have been far from the case. In fact, though he’s lost the menace and immediate threat value, he has instead been turned into a comedic weapon of mass destruction. I swear that at least 60% of this episode’s best gags came from something that Discord said, did or wore. Plus, though he’s “reformed”, he’s still not good, as he both figuratively and literally sows the seeds of discord throughout the hour, allegedly to help Twilight learn “a valuable lesson about being a princess”. He’s that asshole friend, the one who is kind of a jerk but often means well and is a likeable enough presence that you keep him around, anyway. It’s a nice dynamic change for this show in regards to character relationships and I hope we see more of him soon.
One of the things I didn’t really notice until a few hours removed from the premiere was how the episode didn’t have an actual villain with a face. And no, Discord does not count. The immediate threat was simply “evil plants and vines, presumably from the Everfree Forest, are attacking Equestria”, nothing else. In fact, the threat was more a MacGuffin to address the issues of friends being separated due to one having a new job elsewhere. For me, this actually benefitted the episode. Much like Season 3’s “Crystal Empire” two-part premiere, the episode was super busy and didn’t really need a tangible villain so, unlike “The Crystal Empire”, writer Meghan McCarthy didn’t make one. This show is so good at crafting villains that a half-assed one would damage that reputation (hello again, Sombra) and the lack of one here speaks volumes to the surprising economical quality of the two-parter’s script.
Of course, “economical” may not seem like the most appropriate of words seeing as this premiere tackles (deep breath): Twilight learning to fly (the moment where Spike had to remind her that she could fly to Ponyville instead of taking the train was inspired), Twilight and co. dealing with being separated, Twilight dealing with her new status, the Everfree Forest attack, the kidnapping of Luna and Celestia, the banishment of Nightmare Moon, the original turning-to-stone of Discord, the current dynamic of Discord with the rest of the cast, the origin of the Elements Of Harmony, the returning of those Elements to the Tree of Harmony, the reveal of the strange box and the Summer Sun celebration (exhale). Put simply, that’s a lot of plot threads and such and just reading about them feels like it would lead to an overstuffed episode, like “Magical Mystery Cure”, last season’s finale, but 22 minutes longer.
And yet, it didn’t feel that way when watching it. It doesn’t feel that way a while removed from watching the episode, either. I’m honestly not certain how the episode managed to do it, but it did. I feel like every plot thread got an appropriate amount of time devoted to it, the history stuff was integrated seamlessly into the main plot and everything was closed off in a satisfying way or, in the case of our mystery box, teased enough without feeling like the episode lacked closure. Perhaps it’s because the episode equally barrelled through potential plot points and took the time to stop and catch its breath. Once the Discord theory emerged, the show promptly dismissed it by his mere appearance, nobody who is introduced having a shower whilst singing “Winter Wrap Up” is going to be responsible for anything other than split sides, and then gave us a few minutes of showing us what the Mane Six interacting with a reformed Discord would look like. Character beats instead of just plot beats and those help make a crowded episode feel otherwise.
Again, the one thing holding “Princess Twilight Sparkle” off from an A- grade is the surprising lack of emotion I got from the episode. Don’t get me wrong, the whole premiere was very entertaining and did a good job of creating the Friendship Is Magic trademark warm-fuzzy-feeling, but I failed to get fully connected with the episodes. I specifically recall the Discord two-parter, “The Return Of Harmony”, and the “Royal Wedding” two-parter that opened and closed Season 2, respectively. How both of those episodes’ climaxes had me metaphorically fist-pumping the air, 100% totally invested in the events transpiring and revelling in the victory and resolution as much as the characters on-screen did. That feeling never arrived here, and I’m not entirely certain why. Maybe it’s because the stakes weren’t particularly high. Even though the off-screen captures of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were well done, purposefully designed to leave your over-active imagination to fill in the blanks, everything afterwards failed to capitalise on that. Ponyville barely got a dent and what destruction and violence did occur was primarily played for laughs. The “overcoming the odds” sensation never arrived because there weren’t any odds to overcome. It doesn’t derail the episode, because it was very entertaining and succeeded in various other areas, but it does prevent it from reaching the highest echelons of My Little Pony episodes.
Season 4 is the make-or-break season, in all honesty. Last season demonstrated a show that was willing to begin stepping out of its comfort zone in order to change up a formula that, whilst still satisfying, could have done with a change-up. Doing so lead to various story based decisions that it can’t back out of and the slow move towards a tone that, if done wrong, could rob the show of the unique feel it has; and I say these things as a big fan of 80% of Season 3. “Princess Twilight Sparkle” was a great season premiere that lays some strong groundwork for episodes ahead by its commitment to story decisions past and the seeming embrace of a slightly more serialised nature going forward, all the while being a very fun hour of television that failed to lose sight of what made me fall in love with it in the first place. Here’s to the next 24 weeks, everypony!
AN: So, this was supposed to go up with
Well here I was all set to go into this week’s review clarifying my statement from last week that “Varrick is the best” despite his clearly being a manipulative war profiteer who is actually one of the most reprehensible characters on the show, and Korra, in the closing minutes, turns around and makes him a straight-up villain. A genius, scheming, evil-to-the-bone bad guy who, at least from how I’m interpreting it (which may be completely wrong, so who knows), has been playing both sides against each other in order to maximise his own profits. Who would have thought from the man who practices archery blindfolded? And the reveal was exceptionally done, the kind where you don’t see it coming until the other characters do, because nothing the show has shown up to this point indicates that Varrick could just be straight up evil, yet it still works in the context of what you do know and you end up kicking yourself for not catching on sooner. It’s the first genuine curveball of the season (because, let’s face it, the four people who were surprised that Unalaq was evil have never watched a TV show before) and further cements my belief that Varrick is the best (read: most entertaining and interesting to watch).
Heh, typical Varrick, coming out of nowhere to bury the real lead coming out of “The Sting”: I am finally a full-blown fan of Mako. Though Book 2 may be making some majorly worrying missteps (you all know what scene I’m referring to and I will get to that, believe me), one thing the show has slowly been fixing over the past six episodes is Mako. He has finally become a character, a likable, sympathetic and understandable character and pushing him to the forefront of the Republic City story has given him life at long last. No longer is he basically just “Korra’s romantic subplot who wanders in and out as necessary”; now he’s making decisions, spearheading action sequences, being a badass and getting to trade barbs with various people. He’s become entertaining and interesting. I can now understand why he does certain things even if they’re not that great an idea, instead of what happened last season where most of his actions were accompanied by a thought along the lines of “Mako, you complete imbecile”. The break-up from Korra seems to have worked wonders for him, let’s see if it holds when the pair are inevitably reunited.
Another reason I loved this episode? Asami doing stuff (the kind of stuff that apparently gets Janet Varney’s motor running)! More so than Bolin, Asami has been frequently running the risk of being made redundant this season, as if the show knows it needs to keep her around (because she’s Asami, come on people) but has no idea what to do with her. Much like with Mako, though, pushing her to the forefront of the Republic City plot has done wonders for her. For one, she gets to pilot a speedboat in another one of those gorgeous and badass action sequences that Korra can just toss off without a care in the wild, now. But mainly, she, and her VA Seychelle Gabriel, is getting some slightly weightier material to chew on. Just that cold, almost dead delivery of her lines after finding out that her entire Future Industries stock has been stolen from under her nose… man, that was a brutal scene. I’m not even mad that she seemed to lapse back to Mako for a moment, because it makes sense. She’s at a low point, he’s there for her, she remembers what drew her to him in the first place; it’s a moment of weakness that, nonetheless, makes sense for her at the time, considering the situation and her headspace. If they make a much bigger thing out of this, then I’ll get upset, but for now it works.
I have a feeling that Mazz and most Bolin fans will be rather irate at how the guy was handled this week, and especially at his total shunning of Mako in Mako’s time of need, but I am completely cool with it because, like Asami kissing Mako, it’s a character move that makes sense at this point in time. Just last week, Mako completely gave Bolin the cold shoulder when he was in a rough spot and Mako, much like everyone else in the Korraverse, treated his ‘relationship’ with Eska as a joke instead of actually trying to help Bolin out. Mako and Bolin have been growing apart all season long, with Bolin being the one who is constantly dumped upon by the universe and his brother, so of course he’s going to turn his crap back in Mako’s face. Of course he’ll act like he’s too big for his brother now, because he’s a star in his own Flash Gordon-like serials. And the reveal of Varrick being evil also justifies it even further, because Varrick is the only guy in this whole season who has been making Bolin feel needed and wanted, a weapon that will surely come into play when Mako has to go to someone with his ‘theory’.
In fact, if Korra has been narratively consistent on anything this season, and even more so than this point last season, it’s been stacking the odds. It takes these characters, that we know and love and root for to triumph, and keeps putting them through the ringer, turning the world against them. Korra is helpless to interfere with the Northern Water Tribe’s war with the South and her bloody-mindedness has turned everyone against her; Mako finally has a lead that will bust the various terror attacks in the Republic City area wide open, but nobody will listen to him (apparently even Lin Beifong thinks that helping to expose Amon is worth diddly-squat which is… an interesting character turn); Asami has finally found someone to help save Future Industries, but that man is also the guy who is almost single-handedly responsible for ruining her in the first place. Korra keeps turning the screws as hard as it can, but I do think that our characters are due for a win soon. By which I mean, there’s only so long that you can make the heroes’ lives an endlessly depressing hell before the audience stops caring what happens to them. So maybe throw them a bone soon, eh?
That said, I have been enjoying seeing the odds stacked higher and higher this season and if the episode had just ended with the Varrick reveal, this would have been a solid A-, maybe A. But, no, we had to have an appearance from Korra and that old chestnut of a plot twist “she’s suddenly developed amnesia”. Maker… Yeah, it prompted the same “slow yet sharp intake of breath, eyes widening, mental ‘oh, crap’” reaction that the Varrick reveal did, but for different reasons. If Varrick was “Oh, shiiiiiiiiit!”, amnesiac Korra was “Oh, shiiiiiiiiiiiit, we’re going there! Why are we going there?” It’s just plain lazy a twist to pull out and, though they have proven me wrong before, I don’t think that Korra’s writing staff are capable enough to make this anything less than a cliché cliffhanger. Please prove me wrong, Korra, because I will be more than happy to apologise profusely if you do.
Next week is the origins two-parter. Please be amazing and make up for that closing scene. Please?
Callum Petch is frustrated by your apathy. He goes by @jackanderson on the Screened community. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch), listen to the Pupcast (iTunes link) and read his weekly gaming column Petchulant every Friday over on GameSparked (site link)!
Gravity Falls is the best cartoon series on TV today. That’s not an opinion; I am stating a damn fact. It’s better than Archer, American Dad!, South Park, Regular Show, The Simpsons, The Legend Of Korra and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Some of those shows are hysterical, some are feel good, some have excellent plots, but none have all three or, at least, are able to combine all three in as expert a manner as Gravity Falls has. Throughout this extended first season, the show has been capable of making utterly hysterical half-hours combined with clever plots and an extremely deep heart; “The Time Traveller’s Pig” and “Summerween” being the best examples of this, prior to the two-part finale; in a way that few other shows on TV nowadays can do, period. And even when the show isn’t operating at full-pelt emotionally or in terms of the show’s surprisingly dense mythology, it can still turn in year-best half hours based on jokes alone (“The Inconveniencing” and “Boyz Crazy” especially). There has only been one episode in this entire first season that didn’t excel in at least one of these areas, “Carpet Diem”, the rest of the season walked and talked at a level that takes most shows three seasons to reach.
“Gideon Rises”, the first season finale, then, was Gravity Falls operating at full power on every single possible level. What could have simply been an extended victory lap for everyone involved, seeing as all the ingredients for an extended self-congratulatory pat on the back were in place (call-backs to almost every episode! Cameos from background characters! Answers to mysteries that hadn’t really been at the forefront of many people’s minds up to this point! Teases to future mysteries!), was instead a hugely satisfying finale that paid off season long running gags, mysteries and characters, structured together a third act that was almost nothing but involuntary fist pump moment after involuntary fist pump moment, and excitedly teased as to where the show could go next… all without ever coming off as the smug, self-congratulatory back-pat it could have gone. I actually would not have minded the first option, the show has absolutely earned the chance to take a nice, easy victory lap, in my mind, but what we actually got was far more preferable and just firmly cements Gravity Falls as one of the best shows on television.
So, what worked? Well, I could just say “EVERYTHING” and then head on down to the Stray Thoughts part and list pretty much every other line (like I want to do), but let’s start with a frank conversation about Gideon. I despise the guy. Hate him with a vengeance, but not because he’s a terrible character. No, I hate him because he’s a villain who I really want to see get his comeuppance. He’s not poorly written, or badly acted, or inconsistently motivated, or over-exposed or any of the traits that usually accompany characters I hate. I hate him for the reasons that the show wants me to hate him for, namely that he’s an evil little tossbag, and, as someone who often loves a show’s villain just as much as its heroes, that is a testament to just how good the writing on this show is. If Gideon were just a bad character, seeing Dipper finally get to beat the crap out of him wouldn’t be anywhere near as satisfying as it turned out to be, because I wanted to see Dipper beat Gideon for exactly the reasons that the show wanted.
Then there’s the Pines’ relationship with each other. The show has been trading on the brother/sister dynamic since day one and, once again, it is a testament to the writing that, whenever the show goes back to that well, it’s yet to feel stale or manipulative. The dynamic between Dipper and Mabel feels real and three-dimensional and honest; capable of injecting genuine pathos whenever it comes up because of those things. It’s the little moments, like when Mabel tries reassuring Dipper that he doesn’t need the book and that they can still win because he’s Dipper Pines, that help make the bigger moments land even harder, such as Dipper leaping into a the eye of a giant Gideon-bot in order to save Mabel which, again, is a moment that would be satisfying on its own, but I doubt that I’d be involuntary shouting “YES!” at it if the show hadn’t spent the past 19 episodes building up that relationship.
On a similar note, Grunkle Stan’s slow defrosting towards the kids has been one of the most satisfying developments of this season. It’s been so gradual that most won’t have noticed it, but there’s clearly been a massive difference between the Grunkle Stan of “The Legend Of The Gobblewonker” that had Dipper and Mabel counterfeiting money and the Grunkle Stan of “Gideon Rises” who actually sends the kids home at the halfway point because he doesn’t feel he can look after them adequately enough anymore. He’s still recognisably Grunkle Stan, but he’s a much softer Grunkle Stan than we’ve seen as late as “Boss Mabel” and as his true feelings for the kids became clear, he became a far more lovable character than he was originally. That shot of him with Dipper and Mabel after Gideon is sent to jail is just all the feels. In fact, hang on, let me get that image below this paragraph for you.
Outside of the always stellar character work, which is always stellar, “Gideon Rises” also paid off all of the running gags and season long subplots that it could in the remainder of its run time. In 19 episodes, Gravity Falls has managed to build a large collection of side characters and background characters that it can drop into any situation for a good laugh but in a way that’s logical and consistent. For example, crazy cook Old Man McGucket is the one responsible for building Gideon’s giant death robot (which screams Pacific Rim so much that it could only have been unintentional, thanks to animation lead times) and it works beyond “Hey, it’s Old Man McGucket!” because we already know that he’s a crazed psychopath who is an incredibly poor judge of character and a mechanical genius. It makes perfect sense for him to be the one doing it! Or when the town is ganging up on Gideon and everyone is waiting on Tyler (now the canon name of Cute Biker) to utter his catchphrase “Git ‘em! Git ‘em!” Yes, it’s funny because we’re returning to a great running gag, but it becomes hysterical because Tyler, like the rest of the town, is upset by Gideon’s betrayal and he says his line whilst fighting back tears. These characters are not just one-joke machines, they’re characters and that’s what pushes them above, say, Family Guy’s ancillary cast. They’re characters just like the main cast, not to the same extent depth-wise but enough to transcend their joke status.
The gnomes from the pilot made a triumphant return (re-introduced on screen with a gag, and later a return gag, that I cannot believe made it to air) and, once again, their inclusion felt natural instead of forced. Wendy found out about Dipper’s crush on her thanks to Soos spilling the beans (despite his very late last second word swap) and it was treated as precisely the non-event it needed to be. It’s the kind of thing that the season finale needed to address, but it’s not relevant enough to the main plot to justify chewing up too much of the run time; so the secret could have been outed here and left for season 2 to explore, which is what they did (but if everyone just went on in season 2 and didn’t treat it like a major event then I’d be even happier because, guess what, that’d actually be rather realistic). The return of the grappling hook, however, initially seemed too much like blatant fanservice, the kind of call-back scientifically engineered to get as many fans creaming their pants as possible. But then they kept going back to it enough to make it work! So much so that, when it made its inevitable working appearance in the finale (saving the Pines twins’ lives), it felt awesome even though you knew it was coming!
You know, I could go on about character intricacies and call-backs and emotional maturity with this episode until the cows come home, but “Gideon Rises” also worked on far more simpler terms. Specifically: being really f*cking awesome. This was a finale that had gnomes being used as arrows for a bow, Soos driving a bus away from a chasing mecha-Gideon, Dipper beating the crap out of Gideon inside said mecha-Gideon, Mabel’s grappling hook, Grunkle Stan managing to expose Gideon’s psychic fraud all by himself, the town turning on Gideon, the Pines’ and Soos and Wendy fixing up the Mystery Shack together… when the first two acts weren’t being hilarious (though I really shouldn’t have to tell you that, at this point), they piled on the hopelessness and the despair just enough to make that third act one, nine-minute long “Hell yes!” of epic proportions. You may claim it to be too manipulative; I’ll tell you to get stuffed. I was eating out of Gravity Falls’ palms and loving every single second of it.
And then there’s the final reveal. Folks, when people talk about how Gravity Falls is better than almost every single animated programme on television today, that’s what they’re talking about. That’s the kind of scene I would have expected out of something like Buffy. FINALLY paying off a mystery from the show’s inception in a manner that’s ultra-satisfying in the moment yet leaves you with even more questions, but is also a reveal that is built on information that we only just recently discovered, couldn’t have been done without said information and becomes even more satisfying with it now (instead of if they’d revealed it back in, say, episode 7). Alex Hirsch was phenomenal as Grunkle Stan during there, as a man barely able to contain his glee at finally getting journals 2 and 3 yet also very cautious about what happens next. Stan is now firmly involved in the not-normal of Gravity Falls and I can’t wait to see how the show deals with this come next season.
Quite frankly, “Gideon Rises” is not only the best half hour Gravity Falls has ever turned in (to such an extent that I have absolutely no idea how they can ever top it), but it may end up being my favourite episode of television all year. Everything about this episode worked; being funny, smart, heart-breaking, heart-warming and involuntary-sky-punching-screaming-“YES!”-to the heavens, excelling in every area (and frequently multiple areas at once) and providing the perfect capper to, in my mind, one of the best debut seasons in television history. This is the kind of show where I just don’t understand how people could not love it. In fact, I am adamant that if Disney could schedule it half-decently, Gravity Falls could become the next The Simpsons. By which I mean that kind of mainstream cross-over appeal because there really is something for everybody here. Congratulations on an incredible first season, Alex Hirsch. Good luck topping it with season 2; you are definitely going to need it.
“Gideon Rises” Grade: A+
Gravity Falls Season 1 Grade: A
What I will give Les The Miz (a cross-over between Les Misérables and the WWE) is that it’s different. It’s not good, not by any stretch of the term, but at least it’s something… different. Pretty much the entirety of that sketch acted like some random lucid dream that I was hallucinating. The Miz stole the WWE Championship belt! And then he ran off. And then John Cena started singing. And then they were in pre-revolutionary France. And there was a time wizard and some other song started up and then everyone was back in present day. Then they kept showing random people from Les Mis and then the sketch was apparently a pay-per-view that Hulk Hogan watched? I honestly have no idea what I saw, but I do know that it wasn’t funny. It was certainly random, and I applaud MAD for doing most of the sketch in song, but there were no jokes here which leads me to wonder how this sketch might have turned out had somebody who was capable of writing funny songs under a deadline been assigned it instead. What we got, though, was… something? Again, I’m still really not certain as to what on earth I watched.
Outside of that, and the total dud of the MAD Security Cam segment (which just isn’t landing this season), this episode was really funny. Both Mike Wartella segments were great ideas executed perfectly (Expect Fifteen Minute Delays) with Pillow Fight actually getting even funnier thanks to the tag (again, I appreciate a well-constructed “child violence” gag). Irish Scream Shampoo managed to get a lot out of mileage out of its one gag (which switched into two gags in the closing seconds), this week’s The Less You Know (involving the lack of air filtration in Pokéballs) made me laugh and I’m not apologising for that, whilst this instalment of Real Life Heroes was a lot of set-up for one gag designed to make me, and likely only me, laugh in spite of myself.
Two sketches, though, that landed perfectly were Cop Chef and closer The Lex Factor. Cop Chef was simply inspired, just a silly idea purpose built to send stupid pun after stupid pun in your direction. It worked a treat and got out precisely when the risk started appearing that the sketch was going to outstay its welcome. The Lex Factor, meanwhile, aside from some cheap Kardashian jokes that literally everyone has heard before (ooh, they’re the real monsters! You’re cracking me up with your insightful observation!), managed to make the randomness that usually sinks the lesser of MAD’s sketches work. The addition of Gargamel from The Smurfs as the representative of evil wizards managed to get laughs outside of the initial “hey, look, it’s Gargamel” by playing up his patheticness and mining some actual gags out of the equation (his brilliant plan to simply step on Superman is foiled because the man himself is far taller than Gargamel’s action figure of him would suggest). There were gags from the start of this sketch right up to the finish and all but a few land on target.
Throw in another great Spy vs. Spy and you have the best MAD episode in a long time. Even the MADvent Calendar was great, this time! With only two dud sketches (although I am tempted to give Les The Miz a pass because… ah, who am I kidding? That sketch stunk), the hit/miss ratio was far kinder than in most episodes of this show and the ones that hit knocked it out of the park every time. Tonight’s episode was simply MAD setting up some rather clever premises and then wringing out every last possible joke it could get from them. This is what the show’s capable of when it produces an episode where most everything works, and the results of that are why I keep watching.