See also: How to make a geek: Nurture nerdiness
The show follows twins Mabel and Dipper Pines as they spend their summer vacation in the titular town with their great-uncle Stan, a crusty old guy who runs a sketchy tourist trap called the Mystery Shack. It's your basic roadside attraction, full of goofy claptrap tied to the local myths and urban legends. The thing is, in the town of Gravity Falls, a lot of those myths and urban legends are real.
In the excellent first season -- available on DVD, but not on Netflix, alas -- Dipper and Mabel run up against everything from ghosts to time-travelers. The majority of their supernatural antagonists tend toward the weird, like the testosterone-fueled Manotaurs -- like a minotaur, but obsessed with masculinity -- or a boy band made up of clones. They also run into situations like accidental body-switching, getting sucked into a pinball machine and video-game characters that come to life. Oh, there's also the televangelist-style kid psychic who serves as the big bad of the season.
The town's "normal" residents are a pretty colorful bunch, too, like the crazy old coot/mad scientist Old Man McGucket and the lumberjackesque Manly Dan. Some of them have paranormal secrets of their own, but most of them are just the kind of odd, slightly off characters you might find in Twin Peaks or one of the goofier episodes of The X-Files (two shows that Gravity Falls owes a considerable debt to, it's worth mentioning). Between the paranormal and the merely abnormal, the town of Gravity Falls is a brilliant setting for a show, even if it does happen to be a Disney Channel cartoon.
Like the best cartoons from our childhoods -- and unlike most Disney Channel cartoons I've seen -- Gravity Falls is packed full of jokes and references that should go right over most kids' heads. From oblique references to psychedelic drugs to Larry King guest starring as a wax dummy of himself, there's plenty of stuff for the grown-ups in any given episode. All of that is woven into a deep mythology that rivals the writing of much more serious shows like Lost, while maintaining a sense of playfulness and fun that is often lacking in the genre. The humor is smart, often silly and sometimes surreal, but almost never resorts to the non sequitur zaniness that fuels similarly weird shows like Adventure Time.
That doesn't mean it's all, or even mostly, aimed at adults, though. Most of the humor is accessible to kids, and the show focuses on themes that are near and dear to the hearts of tweens and young teens, from getting along with siblings to unrequited crushes. That stuff is occasionally a little heavy-handed, but the vast majority of it is worked artfully into the stories of monster-hunting and supernatural shenanigans. It helps a lot that the writing is top-notch, creative and clever without pandering to the audience or spending too much time on the low-hanging fruit. The cast is superb as well, featuring well-known character actors like Kristen Schaal, Linda Cardellini, Jason Ritter, TJ Miller and John DiMaggio. It looks great, too, with appealing character designs, detailed settings and solid animation.
Put it together and you have a show that you can watch with your kids (or, you know, without any kids at all) without feeling insulted or bored. If they like it -- and they will, it's damn good -- they'll slowly be indoctrinated into the high weirdness and subtle surrealism that suffuses the show, preparing them for later adventures in strangeness so that when you turn them onto Twin Peaks in their teen years, they'll be ready for it. And in the meantime, you get to enjoy one of the best animated shows on television. That's a win-win.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.