The trilogy format is one of the most powerful weapons in the modern animated show’s arsenal. The short running time of each individual tale allows the writers to pare the stories down to only their most important elements, which usually translates to unusually high concentrations of jokes. And, as The Simpsons and Futurama have ably demonstrated with their “Treehouse Of Horror” and “Anthology Of Interest” episodes—not to mention their countless other trilogy episodes—the format allows shows to push the normal boundaries of their premise, to tell stories that might be too outlandish if stretched out to the normal 22 minutes. Tonight’s “Bottomless Pit!” falls squarely in that tradition, though in true Gravity Falls style, the craziest aspect of the whole episode might actually be the framing device, as Dipper, Mabel, Soos, and Stan spend the episode hurtling down the titular pit, passing the time by telling each other stories that may or may not be true.
The first story, Dipper’s “Voice Over”, hones in on one of the most embarrassing aspects of male adolescence, namely the cracking of one’s voice. Unable to cope with his friends’ constant teasing and techno remixes, Dipper makes the highly dubious decision to drink a potion created by Old Man McGucket. After a night’s sleep, Dipper’s voice has been transformed into that of A. Smith Harrison, who possesses the quintessential vocals for voiceover (seriously, check out the demos on his website). Harrison turns in a very funny performance—I especially enjoyed his plaintive wails for Grunkle Stan and his “ridiculous” crying—although “Voice Over” certainly reinforces just how indispensable Jason Ritter is to Dipper. While the entire conceit that Dipper drank the potion for voiceover professional feels just a tad too silly and on-the-nose, the segment does at least have the common courtesy to feature repeated outbursts of extreme violence. Dipper receives hilariously disproportionate punishment for his vocal hubris, being attacked with a golf club by Mabel and a broom by Soos the moment they hear him, and then being chased through the streets by Gravity Falls’ meanest lowlifes as punishment for making a prank phone call.
Soos’ story, the aptly named “Soos’ Really Great Pinball Story: Is That a Good Title? Do Titles Have to Be Puns or Whatever?”, works better partially because it constructs a clearer arc for its main character. There’s real pathos in Soos’ situation, as he wonders whether it might be better to die at the hands of a vengeful pinball game than give up the immortal glory of a high score. As the show’s resident man-child, Soos is usually the butt of the show’s jokes, and his romantic feelings for the pinball wench finds him at his most humorously pathetic. What makes this segment work, and what makes Soos work as a character more generally, is the fact that he so clearly has his heart in the right place, even if he can be easily led astray—after all, it’s the twins who convince him that breaking the rules isn’t necessarily against the rules—and his recognition that saving Dipper and Mabel gives his life more than enough meaning is a wonderfully touching moment.
The segment also gives Gravity Falls another chance to play around with scale, something it previously did to tremendous effect in “Little Dipper”, and the depth and detail of the world inside the pinball machine is just gorgeous animation. Adventure Time and Futurama vet John DiMaggio is perfect as the talking cowboy skull, hitting the right balance between genuine menace and recognition that, yeah, this is just a dumb prop in a pinball machine. The subtly ineffectual tone to his delivery of “I’m not done teaching you a lesson about cheating yet!” neatly illustrates just how ridiculous a villain he is without completely undercutting his scariness.
The final segment, Mabel’s “Trooth Ache”, is pretty much perfect. Stan buys a bear and, in a particularly sharp bit of showmanship, decides to teach the beast how to drive. The idea is gleefully, audaciously insane, and the animation beautifully complements the writing. When Stan is pulled over, the bear is first seen in profile sporting a placidly human expression. But then, as soon as Stan casually addresses the police officers, the bear turns, growls, and starts chewing on the seatbelt. Gravity Falls uses the freedoms afforded by its animated format to sell a completely insane concept like a bear driving a car, and then, as soon as we’ve accepted this as vaguely plausible, the show doubles back and reminds us that this is indeed a wild animal. There are so many levels to both Stan’s shamelessness and Blubs and Durland’s stupidity: that Stan doesn’t hide the fact that he’s scribbling his supposed doctor’s note inside his coat pocket, that the fake physician is called Dr. Medicine, and, on a basic level, that Blubs believes there can be any good explanation for a bear driving a car. It’s a bravura sequence all around, and it’s just the inciting incident for the main thrust of the story.
What pushes this segment into rarefied heights is Stan’s run of total honesty. “Bottomless Pit!” starts small, with Stan casually revealing his everyday vices, but he’s soon insulting his ugliest customers and happily writing “I have committed tax fraud” on his 1040. There’s a great guilelessness to Alex Hirsch’s performance as Stan that not only helps sell the gags but also underscores the childishness of Mabel’s own absolute commitment to the truth. The capper to all this comes when Stan muses on the meaninglessness of existence, wondering whether “life is just some kind of horrific joke without a punchline, that we’re all just biding our time until the sweet, sweet release of death.” The scene lingers on Mabel rocking back and forth and Dipper shivering in purest existential horror. This is arguably the darkest joke in the show’s history—heck, maybe the history of the Disney Channel—and it’s easily my favorite gag in the episode. Like so much of “Bottomless Pit!”, that scene demonstrates Gravity Falls at its most wonderfully fearless.
One final aspect of the episode worth noting is how Stan fits into the proceedings. While we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop with regards to his secret room hidden behind the vending machine, this episode marks the first time Stan unequivocally encounters the supernatural. Considering how long it’s taken to reach this point, it seems like that should be a big deal, but it’s clear this isn’t a game-changing moment for the show. Stan is resolutely blasé about the bottomless pit—especially the second time through—and he dismisses as far-fetched the ridiculous stories that the others tell, including the one he apparently just experienced. Stan’s selective memory might be frustrating for those particularly interested in the show’s larger continuity, but beyond providing some funny self-aware gags, the episode’s handling of Stan recalls how Wendy was used in “The Inconveniencing”, not to mention Blubs and Durland in “Irrational Treasure” and Robbie in “Fight Fighters.” When it suits a particular episode’s purpose, all these characters can interact with the show’s supernatural elements, but the show leaves just enough room for their default position to be on the normal side of the Gravity Falls universe. It’s a tricky balancing act to have so many characters constantly shifting between the show’s various realities, but when the results are episodes as great as “Bottomless Pit” (not to mention “The Inconveniencing”), it’s hard to argue with the show’s approach.
- Fear not, fellows, I didn’t forget about the fourth story, “Grunkle Stan Wins The Football Bowl.” It’s just that story is so darn perfect that there’s really nothing I can say that could add to or diminish its glory. I mean, how can you top a story that prominently features Footbot the talking robot, professional football players learning to appreciate the elderly, beautiful women presenting gargantuan trophies, and impromptu jet flyovers?
- Gravity Falls understands a basic principle of storytelling—when working through necessary exposition, have Mabel voice both sides of a heart-to-heart conversation with Waddles. That’s one wise pig (and Mabel has some pretty ridiculous lower body strength).
- “And I never saw that teeth full of magical teeth again. Oh wait, there it is!” I sort of assumed that, like most animated show’s trilogy episodes, these stories would be considered out of the show’s normal continuity. The reveal that Mabel was recounting events they had all just lived through was a great narrative twist.
- “How you diddly-doing, Soos?” I’m not sure there’s any logical reason why Dipper would start talking like Ned Flanders just because he gets a new voice, but who am I to argue against a Simpsons shout-out?
- “Hushed exclamation of wonder!”
- “Uh, guys, there’s an awful lot of green lightning coming out of that game.” “Nah, that’s the normal amount of green lightning.”