As a reviewer, it’s always tricky when a show capable of complex storytelling, thematic resonance, and strong emotional impact decides to say “Screw it” to all those things and just goes straight for the laughs. It’s not a creative decision that’s inherently bad or good, but it means the episode has to be judged purely on whether or not it’s funny, and that’s a far more subjective thing to assess than all that other, more highfaluting stuff. A Gravity Falls episode could come along that’s so gut-bustingly funny that it’s every bit as great as “The Inconveniencing,” even if it largely eschews (or doesn’t manage to land) the emotional side of the episode. Judging by the comments, last week’s “Fight Fighers” was that episode for a decent chunk of A.V. Club readers. That episode, while still solid, didn’t work for me as well as it did for many of you, possibly because I don’t have the arcane video game knowledge required to make the episode’s geekiest jokes truly pop. I haven’t yet seen a Gravity Falls episode that’s hilarious enough to vault it into the top tier on laughs alone. But “Dipper Vs. Manliness” comes the closest.
Dipper, Mabel, and Grunkle Stan’s trip to the diner leads to a pair of huge revelations. The more obvious of the two is that Dipper, as Mabel so eloquently puts it, “isn’t exactly Manly Mannington,” as the manliness tester declares him a cutie patootie, he smells like baby powder, and he not so secretly listens to girly Icelandic pop sensation BABBA. After a mild nervous breakdown over his lack of manliness, Dipper runs off into the woods to bench press some tree branches and eat some beef jerky until chest hair starts growing. This is the kind of thing Mabel and Stan might take an interest in, if not for the fact that the other big revelation is that Stan carries a torch for Lazy Susan, a waitress at the diner with a malfunctioning eyelid and a propensity for getting hit by buses. While Mabel appoints herself Stan’s trainer in all things romance, Dipper encounters a group of ultra-macho creatures known as Manotaurs, who after Dipper deploys a little reverse psychology and well-placed chicken noises decide to teach the boy their secrets of manliness. After one heck of a dual training montage, Dipper is given his final big test: to slay the dreaded Multi-Bear.
The Manotaurs are easily the wackiest paranormal creatures we’ve encountered since the gnomes of the series première. It’s a matter of taste whether their roided-out antics stay on the right side of silly, and I’ll admit my opinion on that subject varies from rewatch to rewatch—sometimes even flipping during a single scene. Testosteraur’s declaration that he has “three Y chromosomes, six Adam's apples, pecs on my abs, and fists for nipples!” is too goofy—not to mention too gross—for my taste, while the Manotaurs’ fighting-based approach to deliberation and their characterization of reverse psychology as “some sort of brain magic” are sharper gags. The Manotaurs work best when they go against the grain of their über-virility, or when their dialogue pointedly gets at how bizarre their worldview is. For instance, it’s not so much the fighting itself that’s hilarious as it is that Testosteraur’s subsequent explanation begins, “After a lot of punching,” openly acknowledging how ridiculous their decision-making process is. It also helps that as soon as the fighting breaks out, Dipper gleefully observes, “I like these guys!”
Indeed, Dipper’s reactions are generally a big part of the story’s success, and that’s a combination of the writing, the animation, and Jason Ritter’s performance. Dipper’s meek “’Sup?” after his big introduction to the Manotaurs is taken to the next level by his locked posture and childishly fat cheeks, both of which make him look even weaker than he already does. His relatively normal behavior also helps defuse some of the Manotaurs’ more off-the-wall antics, like his very uncertain “O…kay” when Chutzpar commands Dipper to climb onto his back hair.
Ultimately, the Manotaurs work better than the Gnomes because “Dipper Vs. Manliness” has time to flesh out their society and to shade in lots of amusing little details, including their unprovoked hatred of the Merpeople, their use of each others’ horns as an atmospheric percussion section, and their apparent belief that nothing makes Dipper more manly than a bunch of temporary tattoos that declare him a “Rad Dude,” complete with AC/DC-approved lightning bolt. The Manotaurs actually feel like a fleshed-out society, rather than just a bunch of random gags.
Dipper’s race up the mountain to the Multi-Bear’s cave is a bravura sequence for the animation and music teams. Apart from Dipper’s brief moment of acknowledgment with the stag, there’s nothing in there that can even remotely be considered a joke, and the payoff to the sequence—Dipper’s grim declaration, “I’m coming for you, Multi-Bear!” as lightning strikes—is a dramatic moment, not a comedic one. It’s a good example of how Gravity Falls switches tones at breakneck speed, as the very next moment returns us to Mabel’s failed beautification of Grunkle Stan. That B-story is about as straightforward as it gets, allowing Mabel and Stan to bounce off of each other while allowing for quick contributions from Wendy and Soos. The ultimate resolution of Stan’s appeal as the ultimate fixer-upper is fun, and the credits sequence reveal that Stan instantly wants nothing to do with Lazy Susan is a reasonable way to keep the story entirely self-contained without imperiling the show’s generally excellent sense of continuity. Mostly though, Mabel and Stan’s story is worthwhile for its part in the big musical training montage, which channels Survivor, official troubadours of the Rocky franchise, and every other awesomely silly 1980s training-montage band. The song takes an amusingly literal approach and often describes exactly what is happening on-screen (“Teach your uncle how to wear a cummerbund! Now you’re gonna jump a crazy gorge! Keep on shaving that hairy uncle!”) before admitting, in a wonderfully meta moment, that even it has no idea what’s going on toward the end of the sequence, as the Manotaurs, Dipper, and Stan start puffing in and out their chests for reasons that are probably best left unexplained.
And then, at the end of all that, there’s Alfred Molina as the Multi-Bear. Notwithstanding the fact that the Multi-Bear is apparently shockingly easy to kill, Molina brings a weary nobility to the character, one only enhanced by the fact that he likes to blast BABBA songs on a stereo covered in heart stickers and a note that simply says “Cool guy.” Ideally, I would have liked Molina to have had a little more to do, but it’s hard to find fault with a cameo that features the Tony Award-winning actor singing (term used loosely) a duet of “Disco Girl” with Dipper. The Multi-Bear’s example spurs Dipper to one heck of a wrap-up speech to the Manotaurs, in which he declares their ultra-aggressive machismo, “Malarkey! You heard me, malarkey!” It also features a wonderfully unexpected defense of Top 40 hits, as Dipper angrily points out that they’re “in the Top 40 for a reason! They’re catchy!” Stan’s gruff confirmation that Dipper’s behavior was truly manly is just the much-deserved icing on the cake. And then the episode ends as all Gravity Falls episodes should end, with Stan ripping open his shirt to reveal his gargantuan mounds of chest hair. When an episode isn’t going for the big emotional payoff, that’s a worthy substitute.
- “Puma shirt, panther shirt, puma shirt, panther shirt, puma shirt… panther shirt.”
- Dipper’s freakout over the woman looking for the “mailman” has to be the best pun-triggered emotional breakdown of 2012. I’m feeling reasonably confident on that one.
- The “gosh-darned mystery” over the broken fire hydrant is a bit of a weird moment, insofar as it’s easy to miss that the training montage seemingly reveals the Manotaurs are behind it. It was only on about my fifth rewatch that I finally realized that this apparently isn’t some larger, unresolved mystery.
- Beardy is just so satisfied that Dipper guessed his name!
- “Grunkle Stan, come with me. And leave your pants at home!” “With pleasure!”