Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, Regular Show, and the power of heart

Adventure time, c’mon grab your friends. We’ll go to very distant lands. With Jake the dog and Finn the human the fun will never end, it’s Adventure Time!

My current favorite shows on television are all cartoons.

Maturity is never something I’ve been accused of, but it does strike me as odd that for 21-year old me and a large portion of my friends in the same demographic we are increasingly finding ourselves caught up in what is essentially children’s programming.  And, while I and many others could argue for days on end about the subtle adult humor and references in shows like Regular Show, Adventure Time, and my new favorite Gravity Falls, at the end of the day I’m dvr-ing the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. 

So what is it about these cartoons that have people in my age-range so enraptured? I would assume that we are not the target audience. All of these shows are quite funny in their own right, but I think each one of them independently appeals to something in me that goes beyond the comedic.

Adventure Time, is at heart, about a boy and his dog. This is simply the start of any good adventure. Boy + Dog= great fun. But this is a talking magic dog. And they live in a literal candy kingdom. There’s sorcery and swords and liches (Despite my extreme nerd cred I’m not quite sure how to pluralize that word).  There are princesses and evil wizards. On paper seems extremely cliché but when put into practice it’s just kind of whimsical. It’s a show that encourages you just to let go and accept what’s happening. There’s a sense of fun and excitement to it that stops all cynicism in its tracks.

And I think that is what makes Adventure Time such a phenomenal show. Consider the extreme cynicism in our world today. There’s such an incredible negativity for people of my generation. There aren’t jobs. The planet is objectively fucked. Politics is a joke. Idealism is something that is a punchline and not a desirable character trait. And yet, in Adventure Time there’s this one boy that pretty much embodies everything good about the human spirit. He’s courageous, kind, selfless, loyal, and every other positive quality a person can possess. He is undeniable, unabashedly good and sees the world in a way that makes everyone who watches feel the same.

Gravity Falls features a somewhat similar character. Dipper is roughly the same age as Finn. He’s in that same point in his life, existing as he comes into the his own without a standard parent figure (Finn was adopted by Jake’s family, and Jake serves as a sort of older brother, whereas Dipper and his sister are spending the summer at their great uncle’s).  However, whereas Finn is sure of himself and confident, Dipper is more unsure and contemplative. Gravity Falls is styled like Twin Peaks for kids, and the supernatural events simply serve as a framing device for Dipper and his sister Mabel to learn and grow.

The subject matter is presented rather straightforward. It’s direct, sincere, and sweet without being saccharine. Dipper learns to stop being so analytical and just let things happen thanks to a copy machine that serves as a cloner in a surprisingly self-aware and heartfelt episode. In another, Mabel has to learn to deal with people directly, specifically in the romantic sense, when the guy she has Dipper reject for her goes berserk with his psychic amulet.

One of the things to me that in Adventure Time and Gravity Falls that is the most interesting is the fact that both boys’ primary love interest is much older than they are. Gravity Falls has Wendy, a fifteen-year-old, and Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum is eighteen. Both of these are in this continual state of pining, with their beloveds either unaware or uninterested, and eventually the boys have to accept that it doesn’t always work out. I don’t know, for me and probably everyone else, growing up there was always that older person that you just pined for knowing in the back of your mind that it was incredibly stupid, and yet you couldn’t help yourself. Watching Dipper go through the same thing that I had gone through with god-knows-how-many girls really struck a chord with me that reminded me of what it was like to be his age trying to get that girl you like to notice you despite the fact that you’re twelve and half her height.

Part of the heart of both those shows is the reminder of growing up, but Regular Show breaks the mold a bit by the fact that all of it’s main characters are well into adulthood. Mordecai and Rigby are both 23 and objectively aimless, working at a park. They’re roommates and old friends, and spend all their free time playing retro video games or watching VHS tapes. Whereas Adventure Time and Gravity Falls remind us of being kids, Regular Show is surprisingly on the money for being in your early twenties without a clue what to do with your life.

It’s almost surprising that this is a cartoon and not a real show. Aside from the absolutely ridiculous events that happen in almost every episode (arcade game comes to life and destroys the park, evil society of blondes, bowling versus death) it’s rather subdued in it’s humor.  They mock hipsters and nightclubs, despite the fact that the average 12 year old probably has no concept of either of those. If anything, Regular show seems aimed at the kind of people its protagonists represent: young adults who don’t know what to do.

Regular Show, despite its absurdist plots, deals with heavy subject matter beyond the standard “very special episode”. In one episode, a side character known as Muscle Man, loses his father, and learns about his fathers real job (he was a forklift driver, not a trucker as he claimed), and grows closer with Mordecai and Rigby, all while they prank the trucker hall of fame by spreading his dad’s ashes there. It’s a lot to think about, all in the guys of kids show. But, for twenty-somethings with parents in their fifties it’s something creeping into our heads that our parents won’t always be there or that they aren’t exactly all we thought they were and that’s okay. It’s honest. It’s sincere.

And then compare this to other shows on TV. I mean, the most popular comedies on TV have a cynicism to their humor and protagonists that are fairly hateable. I mean, look at 2.5 Men or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There are shows like The Big Bang Theory that try and fake sincerity, but the I’d argue that the vast majority of live-action, prime-time television lacks heart, and that’s an issue. In an interview, show creator Alex Hirsch says:

I think there's sort of a fear in some places, particularly at networks that have an over-emphasis on being cool or trying to follow what they think the zeitgeist is this minute. There's a fear of sincerity, and a fear of characters being emotionally invested. There's kind of a "can't the characters all just be kind of sassy jerks who don't learn anything?"

And don’t get me wrong those shows are funny. I do love Seinfeld and I can laugh at Workaholics. I’ve watched my share of How I Met Your Mother and Girls. However, the thing is that once I watch an episode I really stop caring about it. I am honest-to-god obsessed with Gravity Falls. I mean, I take enough away from these shows to the point that I have written over a thousand words about why they’re so incredible.

It's that heart and sincerity that makes all of these shows so great. These cartoons allow for adventure and fun but also confront serious issues like death and love. All at once I’m reminded of growing up but also dealing with being a grown up. It’s more than cartoons kids can watch with little jokes for their parents to laugh at, but cartoons that anyone can watch and relate to their characters, whether it’s a boy and his dog, a twin brother and sister, or an anthropomorphic bluebird and his best raccoon friend. 

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