Channel Surfing #4: My Week in TV – Gravity Falls, Sharon Van Etten, Reign

A quick collection of things that I’m finding fascinating, frustrating and fun on TV this past week. 

What’s happening on Gravity Falls?

Normally, when I do a round of Channel Surfing, I start by bemoaning that a once loved show has started showing signs of decay. This time I’m going to start by celebrating an already delightful show for steadily improving from its first season to its second. Gravity Falls is an animated series created by Alex Hirsch that airs on the Disney Channel (or Disney XD – the Disney conglomerate has a weird way of airing TV shows, sometimes months will go by without new episodes airing at all and sometimes an episode airs on one channel and then the next episode airs on the other – but I digress). Yes, it’s a kid’s show but it’s a kid’s show that has been heavily inspired by adult material: The Simpsons (most notably and obviously), Twin Peaks, The X-Files, old B-movies, among others. The show surrounds the Pines twins, Dipper and Mabel, who have come to stay with their old, bitter great-uncle, Grunkle Stan. Grunkle Stan owns and operates a tourist destination/hall of oddities called The Mystery Shack. You see, lots of very strange things happen in the town of Gravity Falls and Grunkle Stan intends to make a few bucks off of all the weirdness. The twins get thrown right into the thick of it, living and working at the Mystery Shack, solving mysteries, happening upon gnomes and monsters and clues and cyphers on an daily basis. The strangeness of Gravity Falls becomes a kind of new normal for the kids and they grow to love the town as much as they grow to love Stan. At the end of season one, they decide to stick around.

Where Gravity Falls has been steadily improving over the first season to the next is that its secondary characters, (beyond Dipper, Mabel, and, to a lesser extent, Stan) are finally coming into their own. My two favourite episodes this season have, ostensibly, been about the same thing: admitting a truth about yourself, realizing that it has been holding you back and moving on. And, really, that’s what a lot of growing up is, making decisions and owning them. These episodes both happen to also expand upon the inner workings of the two other kids that hang around at the Mystery Shack all day long: Wendy, a cool teenage girl who always wears a flannel shirt and a hat with ear flaps (her dad is a giant lumberjack) and happens to be the girl of Dippers dreams; and Soos, the chubby, schlubby, hilarious, jack-of-all-trades at The Mystery Shack.

In “Into the Bunker”, Dipper finally (FINALLY) professes his love for Wendy. Wendy, then, has to tell Dipper what he already knows, that she likes him an awful lot but there’s no way that they can ever be more than friends. In fact, Wendy says that she’s always known that Dipper has been in love with her and, with this simple discovery, she’s given some agency.  In “Blendin’s Game”, we learn that Soos hates his birthday because it reminds him of his deadbeat dad who always said he’d show up for the festivities but never did. Giving Soos this bit of back-story lets us into his thought-process and it becomes a little clearer why Soos is the man-child he is. These are complicated emotional beats for any show to achieve and it’s pretty incredible that a kid’s show takes them on so effortlessly. One of the things I find interesting about Gravity Falls is something I find fascinating about a lot of shows, stories, etc. aimed at children: that in world’s where adults are largely absent, children figure out how to grow up on their own. Grunkle Stan is around, sure, but if anything he’s a barometer of what the Pines kids do not want to become: bitter, angry and, more than anything, lonely and friendless (although, there has been a slowly moving story about Stan’s involvement in the larger conspiracy of the show that may turn him into a more nuanced character). The arc of the show has been, so far, that Dipper, Mabel and, now, Wendy and Soos, are learning who they are and how they can be better within a family that they have created for themselves.

Remember Music Videos?

Here is a good one for an equally good song, Sharon Van Etten’s “Your Love is Killing Me”. Directed by Sean Durkin (who also directed the film, Martha Marcy May Marlene), the video follows a young woman (played by Carla Guri, someone I’m not familiar with, but is fantastic here) through a portion of what seems to be a no-good, very bad day. The first shot alone, where the camera slowly creeps into the woman as she sits in a bar, is worth the investment in the rest of the video. Every 80s movie I watched as a kid seemed to have a similar shot, in a similar bar, but the strangeness here sells me on it:

A short list of the great things that have been happening on this season of Reign

  1. The increasingly anachronistic wardrobe of women. More than any other facet of the show, the costume designers on Reign do not care one iota about sticking with the times. And, because of that, the show’s wardrobe is as batshit as one of Nostradamous’ (sadly absent for most of this season) predictions. This season we’ve been treated to a lot of quasi-hippy, flowing, paisley-print dresses that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on the last season of Mad Men.
  2. Everything supernatural. The show might not know how to “do” supernatural in a particularly interesting or particularly frightening way but gosh does the show (and Megan Follows) have fun with these moments.
  3. Sex! Recently, I’ve been noticing the refreshing attitude that Reign takes on female sexuality and, more specifically, the sex that young women have, without too many consequences. The show walks a tricky line of historical (anti) accuracy when it comes to sex while also letting the kids have a good time, without much judgment. This season, Kenna happened upon a sex journal (I know! I KNOW!), written by a yet-to-be-named young lady of the court, that outlined her amorous escapades with various ladies and gentlemen. The entire sex journal subplot wasn’t handled deftly by any stretch of the imagination, but it did highlight the fact that women on Reign are usually allowed to have as much fun as the guys. This season has also introduced us to Princess Claude, the teenage sister of King Francis, who may be the most promiscuous and manipulative person at court (and is all the more fun for it) – caring so little about who she sleeps with that she once fooled her half-brother into banging her. Reign is like most soaps in that a lot of the story, when it isn’t about political intrigue, blackmailing, backstabbing, and the Catholic/Protestant wars, surrounds sex and relationships. The show seems to have a slightly subversive notion about sex being, at the very least, as fun as it can be complicated. Sure, issues arise around virginity and pregnancy, but these things rarely stop the characters from giving in to temptation. Unfortunately, if the just plain dumb sounding rumours are true, it looks like things may not continue down the road of free-love for very much longer (if you want to stay blissfully ignorant don’t click on this link, I know I should have stayed away).

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