Last week, in my write-up of the 1935 Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire, I noted that juvenile leads Frankie and Betsy Baxter (played by Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross) “anticipate[d] the inquisitive child protagonists of Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers of the 1980s.” By coincidence, another pair of mystery-solving siblings returned to television this weekend after a long hiatus: Dipper and Mabel Pines (voiced by Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal), the twin brother and sister at the center of Disney’s cult hit Gravity Falls, which began its second season with a new episode on Friday, August 1.
It had been more than a year since the last new episode, but “Scary-Oke” contained enough exposition to bring viewers up to speed: twelve-year-old twins Mabel and Dipper are halfway through their summer with great-uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan in the weirdness-drenched town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. In Season One they encountered a slew of bizarre creatures and occurrences as they followed in the footsteps of past paranormal-themed shows such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Eerie, Indiana. With its quirky side characters and witty, wide-ranging humor, it’s drawn comparisons to The Simpsons as well.
Dipper is the Fox Mulder of the two kids, convinced that “the truth is out there” and determined to find it with the aid of an old journal he found in the woods, and which describes many of the area’s secrets. Mabel isn’t a skeptic like Dana Scully: she’s seen enough to believe in Dipper’s mysteries, she just doesn’t dwell on them like Dipper. A true optimist and free spirit, Mabel supports her brother but encourages him to lighten up. Stan Pines, for his part, runs a run-down and obviously phony tourist trap, privately poo-pooing any claims of the supernatural. It’s been hinted since the first episode of Season One that Stan knew more than he let on, even as he faced off with his Napoleonic rival, the charismatic and twisted Lil’ Gideon. By the season finale it was clear that Stan was deeply connected to the journal and its two matching volumes, bringing them together to complete some kind of ritual in a secret lab underneath the Mystery Shack.
“Scary-Oke” picks up where last season left off, with Stan activating his journal-powered ritual/machine; we don’t find out exactly what it does, but it does send out signals strong enough to get the attention to two X-Files-like government agents, Powers and Trigger, who are clearly going to be involved as Season Two unfolds. Although obviously catching up new (or forgetful) viewers and setting the table for Season Two, the episode features a satisfying moment as Grunkle Stan reveals that of course he knows about the strange things going on in Gravity Falls (“I’m not an idiot!”), and his affected skepticism was meant to protect Dipper and Mabel. Indeed, he is far more aware of the dangers of the supernatural than Dipper, who is so desperate to prove his usefulness to the G-men that he uses the journal to summon a horde of zombies just so they’ll take him seriously.
That’s just one example of the show’s strength: unlike many monster-of-the-week shows (and even many kids’ adventure programs), the paranormal is almost always thematically intertwined with the main characters’ emotional journey, metaphorically highlighting opportunities for growth: it’s more Buffy than Scooby-Doo. This is especially true when the story dwells on the central relationship between the twins. Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch has stated that Dipper and Mabel are partially based on himself and his own twin sister, and although they are frequently at odds, their essentially supportive relationship is meant to counter the often fractious siblings typically depicted on television. As Hirsch said in a recent interview with Erik Adams of The A. V. Club,
I remembered myself and my twin sister, when we were in school, we would bicker and fight and get on each other’s nerves and butt heads. When we were in a familiar situation, we tended to be more distant. When we were in an unfamiliar situation, and all we had was each other, we became much closer. We needed each other more, and we actually got along better.
If “Scary-Oke”‘s conclusion is anything to go by, Gravity Falls may go the way of The Simpsons, continually setting up conflicts for which the answer is always “family,” the characters learning the same lessons about love and forgiveness over and over again, but I’m not too worried. Balancing strong characters with complex plotting over the long haul is a challenge, but Gravity Falls showed tremendous poise in its first season; it’s a safe bet that the show’s strong serialization and over-arching mysteries will keep it from becoming static.
Perhaps sibling relationships have been on my mind since I just returned from a family trip where we met up with my sister. We aren’t twins: she’s four years older than me, and being around her brought back a lot of memories. When I was very young, she would teach me the latest swear words she had learned from her peers and send me to repeat them to our parents (they knew who had put me up to it). Then there was the time I was afraid to watch Return of the Jedi because my sister (who had seen it first) told me that Darth Vader takes his helmet off and reveals his naked brain at the end; as mild as that scene was in reality, even the exploding head from Scanners wouldn’t have been able to compete with the images I conjured up myself, and I got so anxious knowing it was coming that I had to leave in the middle the first time I tried to watch it. That’s not how she remembers things, of course, but she’ll need to start her own blog if she wants to share her side of growing up with an annoying younger brother.
Yes, we had plenty of conflict between us as we grew up, but also moments of togetherness. By coincidence, my own children are the same distance apart in age as my sister and me, and I see a lot of similarities between them–the older sister and younger brother–and us (similarities strong enough that my dad frequently calls my daughter by my sister’s name). They struggle with the age difference and don’t always want to do the same things; they compete for their parents’ attention. I went through this with my sister, too, as I keep reminding myself. There was a stretch when we didn’t have much to do with each other at all: as we got older, our relationship was something more like that of Sam and Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks, moving apart as we each followed our own trajectory. Now, as adults, we’re friends. I only see my sister a couple of times a year, but we keep in touch, and when we get together it’s like no time has passed.
Stories about twins (at least those that don’t truck in “evil twin” stereotypes) often have an underlying theme: from the beginning of their lives, twins are as close as two people can possibly be, but the world has ways of getting between them. They have different experiences and perspectives, and in order to become their own people, they must eventually separate. By contrast, siblings born years apart rarely see eye to eye; a gap of a just a few years can be insurmountable in early life.
I’ll never forget the night we brought my son home from the hospital; my daughter, almost four, hadn’t seen her mother in days and wanted to sit on her lap; upon seeing the new baby there, in her place, she burst into tears. I sympathized: it must have been a shock. Luckily, such first impressions don’t have to be permanent, and four years later it’s a pleasure to see the two of them playing together, making up games on the spot; just the other night I was treated to “pizza” and “dinosaur steaks” (actually pillows) that they enthusiastically prepared for me in their “restaurant.”
As in friendships and marriages, age differences between siblings dwindle in importance as we grow older, and it’s the common experiences that have more meaning. If we’re lucky, we find that we share our parents with someone who’s actually pretty cool. But not everyone is as fortunate as my sister.