It's a question that has been nagging at Gravity Falls viewers ever since this Emmy Award-winning series first debuted on the Disney Channel back in June 2012: What is the deal with Grunkle Stan?
I mean, sure. There's a lot that fans of this animated series already know about Stan Pines -- for example, that he loves fleecing the rubes -- I mean, "customers" -- who come by the Mystery Shack, that tumbledown roadside attraction that he runs. And while he may not be the greatest role model for his grand-nephew and grand-niece, twins Dipper and Mabel, Stan does seem to genuinely care about them.
Nevertheless, from the very first episode of Gravity Falls, "Tourist Trapped," there were signs that Grunkle Stan really shouldn't be trusted. From that -- SPOILER ALERT! -- secret passageway hidden behind a vending machine in the Mystery Shack's gift shop to that enormous whatever-it-is deep down in Stan's underground lab that he uses information from Dipper's journal to fire up in the last episode of the first season, "Gideon Rises," there are aspects of Stan Pines that are genuinely disturbing.
And as the second season of this Disney XD series unspooled, there were Gravity Falls fans who were desperate to learn more about what Grunkle Stan was up to, which is why they decoded each and every secret message that had been stashed in the show's credits, not to mention repeatedly watching every episode of Gravity Falls and freeze-framing particular moments, all in hopes that something that was hidden in the background might then hold the key to uncovering the central mystery that seems to be driving this show's overall storyline.
And you know who's thrilled about all these viewers who hop on Twitter and Facebook immediately after each episode of Gravity Falls airs so that they can share their thoughts about the latest plot twists? Series creator Alex Hirsch.
"When a new episode airs, the 24 hours that follow are -- for me, anyway -- some sort of weird combination of Christmas morning and getting your report card," Hirsch explained. "Immediately there are innumerable crazy and fun tributes online, great pieces of fan art, things that show how engaged people are with what we've been doing with Gravity Falls. Mind you, I'm a 'The customer is always right' kind of guy. If some guy says, 'That episode wasn't so hot,' I don't say, 'Get out of my life.' I say, 'Yeah, no, you're probably right. There's a lesson to be learned here.' I've very much engaged in seeing what the fan response to the show is, trying to discover what provokes passion among our audience and what provokes 'Meh.'"
And given how well the first season of Gravity Falls was received, well, Hirsch was ready to really step up his storytelling with the second season of this Disney Television Animation production.
"And it wasn't just me," Hirsch continued. "The artists who work on Gravity Falls -- now that they knew that people were really enjoying the sort of season-long storytelling we were trying to do here, they wanted to step up their game as well. That's why, just before we officially started working on Season 2, me and all the artists who work on this show took a road trip together. It was like 11 art nerds in a van driving the California coast up to the tip of Oregon and back down. We stopped at every single roadside tourist trap that we could find and then took a million pictures."
And that was all because they wanted to get the world that Stan Pines lives and works in -- a world that's sure to change when "Not What He Seems" airs on Disney XD tonight at 8:30 p.m. EDT (7:30 p.m. CDT) -- right.
"We know that we're taking a big chance when we do something like this," Hirsch stated. "We know that we could possibly turn off viewers. Gravity Falls fans might say, 'This isn't what I signed up for.' But as I and the great team of artists I work with were blocking out Season 2, we kept asking ourselves, 'What would we want to watch?' and, 'What would be fun to write?' I mean, if you have a character who -- every time they appear onscreen -- you can sort of suspect what they're going to do next, well, that character then becomes one-note, repetitious. And we're not interested in repeating ourselves on Gravity Falls."
And not repeating themselves has clearly been paying off: Just last month Hirsch and the Gravity Falls production team were honored with a 2015 Annie Award for Best Animated Television/Broadcast Production for a Children's Audience.
But that was last month. Tonight some very big questions will be answered. In fact, as -- SPOILER ALERT! -- government agents take Stan into custody, Dipper and Mabel begin to question how much they really know about their Grunkle Stan.
"When I first pitched this show to the Disney Channel, I shared my Gravity Falls mission statement -- the road map, if you will, for where this show is headed -- because what we're really trying to do here is, honestly, experimental for a kids' animated television show," Hirsch said. "Combining half-hour stories with season-long arcs like this, it's kind of uncharted territory. The people writing on this show have certainly never done it before, so we're all kind of learning as we go.
"But Gravity Falls -- as I imagine it, anyway -- definitely does have a beginning, a middle and an end," he said. "I mean, it's all about this one insane summer that these 12- or 13-year-old twins have just before they become teenagers. And so far, we feel very fortunate that what we hoped people would feel while they're watching this show is mostly tracking. What people feel while they're watching -- you can never fully predict an audience's response. But so far with Gravity Falls, I could not ask for a better audience response."
Gravity Falls fans finally learn what the deal really is with Grunkle Stan when "Not What He Seems" airs on Disney XD tonight.