Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Gravity Falls: “Scary-oke”

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It’s been just a day short of a year since “Gideon Rises,” the finale of Gravity Falls’ first season, hit our screens. Thanks to Disney’s idiosyncratic programming strategy, it’s been a full two years and two months since the show debuted. After the yearlong hiatus between seasons and the several extended breaks between episodes throughout the first season, a viewer could be forgiven for having hazy memories of the show. “Scary-oke” recognizes that fact, and it essentially throws a reunion party to reintroduce the audience to the show’s vast, endlessly endearing ensemble. Tonight’s episode doesn’t quite function as a second premiere for the show, as there’s too much mythology and backstory thrown around for a completely new viewer to fully understand what’s going on. Instead, “Scary-oke” aims to intrigue, pulling out all the stops to convince audience members both new and old that this is a show worth checking out. As a (re)introduction to what makes Gravity Falls so special, “Scary-oke” is a triumph, and it rather neatly sets up the revised status quo for the coming season. Honestly, the worst thing you can say about this half-hour is that its general effortlessness makes the occasionally creaky bits stand out all the more.

On that point, let’s talk about Grunkle Stan and his top-secret master plan. The end of “Gideon Rises”—which saw Stan take Dipper’s journal and set some mysterious machine into motion while simply announcing, “Here we go”—was always going to end in slight disappointment, as almost all cliffhangers must. After all, the timing was wrong: The kind of revelation big enough to explain whatever it is Stan is up to could only come in a season finale, never a season premiere. As soon as the closing credits rolled on last year’s finale, Gravity Falls essentially confirmed that the audience would have to wait awhile (even beyond the wait between seasons) for a complete explanation. And that’s fine! Gravity Falls isn’t the first show to tease a game-changing plot twist at the end of one season, then find a way to strategically undo it at the start of the next, and it sure as heck won’t be the last. The show wouldn’t benefit from Stan revealing everything in one fell swoop. Such a move would throw off the pacing of the overarching narrative, and it would force the show to skip past the rather nifty setup that “Scary-oke” suggests will guide this season, with Stan and Dipper engaged in a mutually deceitful arrangement that will see both of them plunging further into the supernatural abyss without ever telling the other.

It’s just that part of the deal with episodic reviews is that I do kind of need to look at each episode on its own terms, and “Scary-oke” does suffer from just how darn coy it has to be about everything. In particular, Stan’s monologues to nobody in particular about what he’s up to and how important his work is are oddly serious. Apart from his brief realization that he probably should have put on some pants, his lines are generally devoid of the usual streak of loutish old man humor that defines pretty much everything else Stan says; just compare his monologues with, for example, his reaction to fighting off the zombies, as he observes that everything hurts. This appears to be a conscious decision on Gravity Falls’ part, as though to suggest that this Stan is fundamentally different from and rather more serious than the fun-loving swindler we see at all other times. It’s just that the plot requires that Stan—not to mention Agent Powers and Agent Trigger—to talk in circles, carefully avoiding all but the vaguest statements about what’s actually going on. This is the kind of dirty work that a complex, mythology- and conspiracy-driven plot so often requires, and it’s probably better to get it out of the way in the first episode of the season.

But enough about all that! The main joy of “Scary-oke” is reuniting with old friends. To that end, the episode starts out as a massive ensemble piece, but it then expertly narrows its focus, spotlighting Wendy and Soos before turning things over to the Pines trio. Wendy is still very much the fifth main character, but it’s fun to see her as the instigator of Dipper’s defiance of Stan, and it’s refreshing to see the two interact in ways not immediately informed by Dipper’s crush. And, after Soos occasionally threatened to take over the show toward the end of season one—not the worst of things, admittedly—this episode wisely resets his role, positioning him as consistent comedy relief and little more. Indeed, “Scary-oke” engages in a bit of self-aware humor when Soos offers to take charge of the zombie invasion, relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of horror movies to see everyone to safety, only for him to immediately get bitten and switch gears toward a strategy focused on eating as many brains as possible. It’s particularly inspired for Soos’ personality to not be altered one iota by his zombification, as his love of television leads him away from the climactic, karaoke-centric confrontation between the undead and the Pines family.

Many of the show’s minor characters only get the briefest of check-ins, though their presence is appreciated: Lazy Susan, Manly Dan, Tyler the Biker, Shandra Jimenez, and the dynamic duo of Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland all basically just restate the core ideas of their characters with their cameos, while Lil’ Gideon’s silent cameo is a useful reminder that, yes, he’s still out there. A little more attention is paid to Mabel’s friends Grenda and Candy; if nothing else, When discussing the second season, Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch has mentioned an expanded role for Wendy’s teenage friends, and there’s some hint of that in tonight’s premiere. In particular, Thompson’s rapid-fire humiliation is both a good throwaway gag and the kind of character moment that was implied way back in “Inconveniencing.” The notion that he would do anything for his the approval of his “friends” could easily sustain a season-long running gag, but it also could be used to build up Thompson’s character to the point that he could eventually carry an episode, or at least make the kind of foolish, attention-seeking decision that could unleash some fresh supernatural horror.

Indeed, that’s pretty much exactly what happens to Dipper in “Scary-oke,” as his desperation to prove himself to the two aggressively no-nonsense agents leads to a full-on zombie invasion. This development happens late enough in the episode that the zombies are almost an afterthought, though they do manage to push Powers and Trigger out of the picture until the very end of the episode. Beyond Soos’ charmingly unique take on what it means to be a zombie, the undead invasion is mostly useful in forcing Stan to be marginally more honest with Mabel and Dipper and in getting the Pines family to unite for the ultimate zombie-destroying three-part harmony. The episode doesn’t even attempt to hide the ridiculous coincidence that the only way for Dipper and Stan to survive this mess is to do what Mabel wanted all along; the only way to make it more on the nose would have been for the book to literally read, “Just do what Mabel asked, you big jerks.” But then, that’s part of the charm of Gravity Falls: It can be subtle when it wants to, but part of the fun is its willingness to be completely, ridiculously, irrepressibly obvious when the situation demands. There are few better distillations of the show’s sensibility than the Pines family standing on the roof, singing some insane, gender-inappropriate pop song to repel a bunch of zombies, all while two of the characters involved wonder whether death might be preferable. Yeah, it feels pretty great to have this show back.


Stray observations:

  • Welcome to our coverage of Gravity Falls’ second season! In keeping with historical trends, the scheduling for season two is a little funky; this episode is premiering on the Disney Channel, but at least the next two episodes are debuting on Disney XD on Mondays before being rerun days later on the main channel. We’re still sorting out what’s the most logical way to approach all this; in the meantime, I’d recommend checking the What’s On Tonight listings to see whether we’ll be reviewing the episodes after the Monday Disney XD airing or the Friday Disney Channel airing. I’ll also probably update this review once we’ve made the final call.
  • The voice actor for Agent Powers is credited as Key Vigenére, a talented young unknown who just happens to sound exactly like Nick Offerman.
  • Guys, I’m worried about Toby Determined. He doesn’t seem like he’s in the best possible place right now.