That je ne sais quoi

I mentioned in my video on Gravity Falls episode 1 that it lacks a certain quality I struggled to define, but which is possessed by many other cartoons I enjoy. It is a quality possessed by several of the best cartoons, such as Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Friendship Is Magic, but while clearly quite good, Gravity Falls seems to lack it (at least in the five episodes I’ve seen so far). On the other hand, Phineas and Ferb, which is really not a good show (although it is one I enjoy enough to have watched most of it), has the quality, whatever it is.
So this post is me trying to figure out what that quality might be by comparing shows that do and don’t have it. I’ve come up with a few possibilities–things that are shared in common between the four shows that I mentioned which possess this quality, but are not present or less present in what I’ve seen of Gravity Falls. Most likely it is a combination of multiple factors, maybe all of them, in different amounts.
What I’ve come up with:

  • Colorfulness: All four of Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Friendship Is Magic, and Phineas and Ferb tend toward bright palettes. Gravity Falls is not dark by any means, but it tends toward less saturated colors and a lot more browns; despite both it and Phineas and Ferb being set in summer, the colors of Gravity Falls make it look like fall to me.
  • Lack of cynicism: There’s no trace of cynicism in four of these shows; Gravity Falls is cynical as hell.
  • Playfulness: All of these shows can get pretty weird, but treat it differently. The weirdness in Gravity Falls is treated as portentous or uncanny, even when it’s used as a source of humor; there’s a sense of something behind the weirdness, that there is some kind of Other from which the weirdness derives. In the other four shows, weirdness is just there because someone felt like tossing it in.
  • Pacing: Phineas and Ferb, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time have 11-minute episodes. Friendship Is Magic episodes are 22 minutes, but tend to have very rapid pacing anyway. Gravity Falls tends to unfold things more slowly, taking a lot of its cues from genres that rely on slower pacing to build tension.

Again, this shouldn’t be taken as a measure of quality. Gravity Falls is a good show, and I enjoy it. Just not in the same way or to the same degree as the shows which do possess these qualities. And I still feel like I’m missing something; that je ne sais quoi remains elusive.

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