"I'll let you know that duck-tective has a big mystery element, and a lot of humour that goes over kids' heads!"
With this line, Gravity Falls caught me off-guard. Since I watched both these shows at the same time, this was the kind of DanHarmonesque meta reference I was expecting out of Rick & Morty. These references are almost always butchered by their creators, but Dan Harmon knows how to properly balance these reference without sacrificing the narrative or the characterisation. Now, for most people, these two shows are too different to compare, and they would not be wrong. All three of the shows that I am about to talk about, Gravity Falls, Rick and Morty and Community, each one is a top-of-the-top-tier show, and when I talk about these, I have to compare them with the appropriate curve.
To start off, the most important aspect of any fiction, for me, are the characters. All you need to do is write an Ethan Hunt. Afterwards, you can put him in any life-threatening situation to make him intriguing, since he is actively trying to save as many innocent people as he can, and that's what people love seeing.
Well, with Rick and Morty, I feel Dan Harmon hit the nail. Look, if I want to be fair to this amazing show, I have to ignore 90% of its fanbase, so I will not address them here on out. Anyway, Rick is a pretty well-written character. The show is not about this perfect guy who ha complete grasp over life, it is about this insecure guy who sometimes makes good decisions, but mostly uses his intelligence as a deflection for any criticism that can actually prove to be constructive. An evil nihilist would not regularly use a memory erasing device to forget his pain. He would rather forget the painful memories he has than learn from them and live with the pain. Rick is an amazingly-written character, so much so that to put other characters in the spotlight, their story is about how Rick's personality is taking over them, whether it is Morty and Summer fighting to become invisible and not face consequences for their actions, or Beth and Jerry defeating an evil version of Beth through thorough analysis of their situation.
This form of character-writing is new for Harmon when you contrast it to Community. Community's character writing feels closer to Gravity Falls here. Community does start-off in a Rick and Morty kind of way, where Jeff seems to be this Rick-like figure who is a nihilist, who knows more about the world and uses it as an excuse never to grow as a person. Unlike Rick, however, Jeff actually grows as a person and becomes much different by the end of his character arc.
However, season 2 onwards, the show becomes about the study group rather than Jeff. Now, the rest of the group is not confined within the B-plot, and get to have their personalities explored and developed much more. Some writing nerds would recognise this as a signature of the Russo Brothers, who deal with developing and writing stories about huge ensemble casts. This change is especially noticeable with two elements of the show. Firstly, Britta is no longer the moral centre she was, but a more interesting and flawed character like everyone else. She can be right just as often as... She is mostly wrong, but her character proved that Gillian Jacobs was being seriously underused as an actor. Secondly, we can notice it with the absence of Dan Harmon in season 4, which again feels too Jeff-centric. Jeff, much like Rick, is an amazingly written character, but this concept did not work well for Community, a show which could not introduce life-threatening situations (funnily enough, the writers in season 4 actually did a life-endangering situation involving a balloon) and zany new worlds. There IS a show that combines these two, and its creator is one of the funniest people on twitter.
Now we come to Gravity Falls. It may not be the best show, but it is, without a doubt, the most surprisingly good show. I remember watching the early episodes on TV and overall hating Mabel (a feeling I am no longer proud of). It's a controversial opinion, but I like Dipper more than Mabel. I know that most of the fandom loves Mabel a lot, but I just think that not many appreciate how well Dipper is written.
Dipper is one of my three favourite characters on the show. Surface-level understanding might lead one to believe that he is simply an audience character, but Dipper is much more. He is curious by nature, has a strong sense of morals, and is protective of his little sister. Besides that, he is pragmatic, agile and has a good survival instinct. These characteristics aren't too overpowered for a show about a place as crazy as... Oregon. This allows Dipper to have the most interesting plotlines as well as the most emotionally strong scenes. My favourite of these have to be:
1) telling-off the Northwest family, leading to one of the best character redemptions on the show
2) feeling betrayed by Stan, making for a painful scene where Mabel cries over her uncle's lies and decides the fate of the universe, and,
3) convincing Mabel that reality sucks, but they can get through it together.
Dipper is consistently challenged by choosing between what he wants, and what is better for someone else, and Dipper sacrificing so much of what he wants is addressed by Bill Cipher, allowing for Mabel to return the favour in another powerful scene. Alex Hirsch himself said that Dipper has to be the one who always learns, because Mabel usually has pure and unselfish wants from the start.
My two favourite characters have to be Stan and Ford, and I expect little justification is needed for this. Gravity Falls was always a great show, but the episodes starting with the Northwest Mansion make Gravity Falls one of the best shows of all time. I started off finding Stan to be a Mr. Crabs knock-off, but he ended up being their MOST empathetic character. He felt betrayed by his brother wanting to leave, he was kicked out of his house for a mistake he made, his brother abandoned him, he had to struggle with jobs to barely survive. When he was finally called by his brother, it was to be told to go as far away as possible. The storyline was set up within 10 minutes, but the fight between them is still one of the most powerful fights I have seen on TV. Neither of the brothers are wrong to be outraged here, and you still knew this fight was inevitable.
As for side characters, Soos, Wendy and Pacifica started-off as one-note characters, and ended up having their own amazing storyline involving choices and growth. My personal favourite is that of Pacifica, who was being controlled by a bell in a Pavlovian nightmare. It was seriously one of the most messed up things I saw on this show. It is not easy to make someone fear for the fate of a fictional character, especially one that has been nothing but unlikable, but this show did it without even changing her character in any way, just adding context for her personality so far. This is a straight up Zuko arc done within 20 minutes.
So, if I had to keep an arbitrary and meaningless score, I would give Gravity Falls a 10, Community an 8, and Rick and Morty a 7. My purpose with this series of articles is just to see the interesting things creative minds can do and garner a similar reputation (again, ignoring most of Rick and Morty fans).