Animation isn’t just for children—The Simpsons hopefully put that notion to rest for good about twenty years ago, with a little help from Batman: The Animated Series. But there is still a perception that a cartoon’s channel likely determines its crossover appeal. In terms of animated comedy, Fox and Comedy Central are home to what I will (somewhat imprecisely) refer to as “adult” shows, ranging from late-period Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers to South Park and Futurama, whereas Cartoon Network offers sophisticated absurdism for all ages with Adventure Time, Regular Show, and its Adult Swim lineup—what we might very broadly term “crossover” shows for sake of categorization. Against those, the Disney Channel certainly appears to be the bastion of cartoons aimed directly and near-exclusively at kids, as typified by its flagship program Phineas and Ferb—a fine show, but one that requires the adult viewer to recalibrate for its more juvenile sensibility to really enjoy.
That’s why the Disney Channel’s new show Gravity Falls is such an unexpected pleasure. The show follows 12-year-old twins Mabel and Dipper Pines as they spend the summer with their great-uncle Stan in secluded Gravity Falls, Oregon, a town teeming with supernatural creatures. Creator Alex Hirsch lists a trio of acclaimed “adult” shows as his key influences: Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and, yes, The Simpsons. Story editor Dan McGrath is a golden-age Simpsons writer, and primary director John Aoshima is an American Dad veteran. The show also enjoys a full half-hour format unusual for non-adult animation, which gives it more room to develop elements with crossover appeal.
Consider this climactic clip from “The Inconveniencing”, the show’s best episode thus far. The bravura sequence seamlessly incorporates a dozen different elements, each able to entertain an adult, a child, or both. The possessed Mabel is both scary in its own right and an homage to iconic horror movies like The Exorcist. The ridiculously mild yet lethal rap song taps into the playful absurdity that often characterizes Cartoon Network’s crossover program, not to mention the meta-humor often found in Futurama or American Dad. And Dipper’s Lamby-Lamby dance is equal parts funny and adorable, not to mention a good lesson for children that there’s nothing wrong with being younger than the “cool” kids—indeed, it might save them from vengeful ghosts. That layering of tones is crucial to the universally accessible charms of Gravity Falls.