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Gravity Falls, Rick & Morty and Community: on storytelling

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

I have discussed at length the characterisation of these three shows. Well, now it is time to compare their storytelling abilities.

Community follows Dan Harmon's story circle based on Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. Briefly, this is how it goes. The, um.., "heroes" are at a zone of comfort, they want something, enter the unfamiliar, adapt to it, get what they want, pay a heavy price, and then return to their familiar situation having changed.

Now, this story structure may seem too rigid, but it is surprisingly flexible. See, the Monomyth has worked in many stories throughout history, and Harmon just added his own flair to fit into the narrative of a television, where the stories need to be mostly episodic. So, you can have one overarching story for the entirety of the show.

In Community, the overarching story is about Jeff. Even if all the characters start to get their own development, the central plot is still that of Jeff. For the first 4 seasons, the story is about Jeff accepting that he is more human than he let's on. After that, Jeff has to accept that his life will not go the way he was promised. He will not be a lawyer, he will not escape Greendale, he will not end up with Annie, and all his friends will... Well, one by one they all just fade away.

Despite the criticism received for the latter half of the show, I think this gives Community a far more mature tone (which, I understand is a hit or a miss for most). While the first three seasons are still, to me, the best television has to offer, this overarching structure might save Community without a simple retcon. A much lesser show would have resulted in Jeff ending up as a lawyer after a big case defending Greendale and achieving his dreams. The show didn't want to convey to Jeff that he is not capable enough to achieve those goals, but that his goals are not compatible with the person he is now.

The show has the character of Abed to ensure that the audience is always aware of the pattern. This ensures that despite using the same story structure for every episode, it does not become repetitive. With Abed on board, every contrivance, every trope and every filler is called out.

This works amazingly well for Community's unique episodic nature. Every episode feels remarkably different from the previous ones. The gimmicky episodes works so well when Abed helps us separate the obligatory tropes and homage from the real. Take the legendary paintball arc. The best ones, we all know which they are. The general presentation is that of a western, and then Star Wars. Well, the fact that the Monomyth can, in a sense, be used to narrate a western, the show doesn't need to segregate the western motif from the plot.

Everyone is in a space of comfort, then, they want to win the $100,000. They search for a way to win through the Dean's ammo, adapt to the game, pay the heavy price of losing Pierce. This is where the first episode ends. The next one involves the gang winning the money, giving it away to Greendale, and come back to status quo having new respect for Pierce. Now, a weaker show would either keep their plot separate from their gimmick, or have the plot be much lighter than an entire season finale, but no other show can have the biggest conflict in their show be resolved through a fun paintball fight. Community can do it because that's just how good the writing is.

If your big confrontation of the show is a paintball standoff and you manage to keep it completely deep and heartfelt, you might be a skilled writer.

Well, this one went and got himself a new show. By the time Rick and Morty began, Dan Harmon was already a fairly skilled writer who had learned from any mistakes he made when writing Community. The most noticeable one of these has to be letting yourself be as creative as possible.

For the first season of Community, the show felt a little held back since it wanted to be part of the mainstream NBC lineup. While season 1 was definitely great, the seasons that followed up were the highlights of the show. Instead of one gimmick episode in a while, the show started to make 5-6 out of 10 episodes in this fashion. In fact, when the budget got tight, the did another interesting gimmick by making a Ken Burns documentary out of a pillow fight.

Rick and Morty is animated and did not have those kinds of budgetary restrictions. If the show wants to make a plot out of a mini-universe made to power a car, where the universe created another mini-universe to power their homes, and that one made that, they absolutely will do it. They will make interesting subplots like that of the car using any means it can to "KEEP SUMMER SAFE", which gets more interesting as we see how the car functions even after Summer keeps taking her powers away.

While this show has had a few weak ones, like the... dragon episode, the heist episode or the superheroes episode, wherein the episodes do not seem as creative or as narratively solid as the other ones, but without a doubt, the creators still have the ability to make outstanding episodes. My favourite and perfect one to talk about, is the train episode, also known as Never Ricking Morty.

Rick and Morty are trapped in a train which seems obsessed with them while the villain seems obsessed about getting them to narrate more stories about them. Later, as it turns out, the train is the narrative train of the show, the tracks are the Dan Harmon's restructured Monomyth, and the villains are the producers forcing them to put more and more content out, even if it feels derivative.

Why this is my favourite episode, I will tackle when I talk themes of the shows. Right now, another episode that does this is Auto Erotic Assimilation, or the Hive Mind episode. It is also a good example of how the narrative can subvert without breaking the cycle. The audience might anticipate a big fight against the hive mind who is obsessed with Rick. She also exhibits the quality of a villain since she is a mind-stealer, but as it turned out, she took over a planet that was obsessed with killing itself and made it a productive place. The show does not make a statement about morality, but puts it in our minds. What the show says is that she is not as villainous as she seemed. Later, we see that Rick is the one who is dangerous for her. Now, Rick's heavy price was not a big fight against a hive mind, but acceptance that even an almighty hive mind cannot handle Rick at his truest self.

Now, Gravity Falls' creator Alex Hirsch never claimed to abide to the Monomyth, but one can see the structure of his story more clearly than the previous two, simply because the stories are much simpler. The two episodes I want to talk about are The Time Traveller's Pig and Double Dipper.

In Double Dipper, Dipper makes a plan to get a dance with Wendy, but it keeps getting complicated. Dipper makes photocopies of himself to ensure that he has the manpower to accomplish his task. However, he later finds out that Wendy was extremely cool and approachable, and no plan could beat a real conversation. Well, turns out, his copies, the ones that were a copy of Dipper minutes before this realisation. After a huge conflict with himself, Dipper does not get what he wants, and he continues to fight to win her approval.

In The Time Traveller's Pig, once again, wanting to be with Wendy, Dipper keeps going back in time over and over to repair his mistake. When he learns that his wishes conflict with those of Mabel's, he realises that Mabel wants to save Waddles the Pig more than he wants to keep Robbie away from Wendy. After a big conflict with his sister, Dipper does not get what he wants, and he continues to fight to win her approval.

This might be annoying for some, but it is important for the show to convey that Dipper can always be better than he is. Unlike the unchanging Rick, Dipper has to be better than he was in the previous episode and keep his mistakes in mind. Developing him would have been difficult in a regular episodic arc, but as it turns out, it has an amazing overarching plot, where every episode's events truly matter.

The show is building up three main plot-points: What Stan is hiding from everyone, who Bill Cipher is, and the weirdness of Gravity Falls. For these plots to successfully be integrated into the lives of Dipper and Mabel, they have to learn and develop. Finding out what Stan had in his basement would not work as well if Dipper and Mabel had not gotten as much respect for Stan as they did by that point. Dipper is betrayed and angry at the lies, Mabel is hurt and confused, wanting not to believe that he would do anything to hurt them.

One thing important about all the three shows, something that elevates them above other shows is that most of their conflicts are internal. Usually, the show establishes an external conflict like Robbie, the purge planet or, Professor Chang. By the end, the character, instead, becomes adapted to their world and deal with their flaws, whether it is insecurity about losing Wendy, getting Morty to purge down, or Britta accepting that she is not someone completely worthless. It is not a unique take, but most other shows cannot do it to the extent these shows do.

Continuing the arbitrary scale, Rick and Morty takes the cake at 9, Gravity Falls an 8.5, and Community at an 8.

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