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The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The Quest” and “The Spoon”

The Amazing World of Gumball Season 1 Episode… by gumball-amazing

“The Quest” – A-

This may be the first episode of The Amazing World of Gumball where the show brings in that raw emotional honesty that I’ve been harping about for the past few reviews. It’s not the full, jaw-dropping dramatic revelations that will come later, but “The Quest” seems like the first episode to explore its characters a bit deeper than a bunch of computer-animated figures in a ridiculous cartoon world. A lot of Gumball’s narrative strengths really come together here – its jokes, its pacing, its slick, smart visuals, and its heart. The first time you saw Tina the dinosaur, it was a joke – a giant, female dinosaur as the school bully, literally and metaphorically (at least at this point in the show). In a surprising move, we get a bit of insight into her and her life. I don’t know how many people were expecting to then see Tina sleeping on a literal pile of trash in the middle of a dumpster; Anais says it’s really sad, but “sad” really doesn’t cover it.

It takes a bit of set up to get to that point, but it’s endearing to watch. A few kids tease Anais by tossing her beloved doll, Daisy, around, and Anais demands/guilts Gumball into getting it back for her (for good reason – Gumball brought the toy onto the bus in the first place!). The Amazing World of Gumball will deal with this sibling interplay quite a bit. The Gumball/Darwin bond will always be front and center, but the Gumball/Anais relationship is a prickly one, bouncing between affection, neglect, manipulation, altercations, and forgiveness. It’s in effect a deeply exaggerated form of older brother/younger sister relationships, heightened even more by Gumball’s selfishness and determination, and Anais’ brilliance and loneliness. But “The Quest” shows that it’s a relationship that’s, underneath all that, built on love and family loyalty: Gumball yelling out “That’s why you don’t mess with the Wattersons!” at the end is truer and more significant than we realize at this point.

Gumball reluctantly agrees to help his sister, which has him running around the school trying to get Daisy back. We get some quick introductions to some other classmates: Hector, the giant, and Juke, the walking boombox (the future episodes involving these two are something, particularly Juke’s episode, but we’ll get to that). The build up during the early scenes are just so good – just an easy confidence that makes everything seem so effortless. I have to admit, rewatching these episodes make me kind of miss the low-key narrative build-ups that the more recent batch of episodes lack. And throughout it all are all the kind of sibling manipulations and control techniques that we’ve seen before, given a bit of heft that only Gumball can muster. Gumball and Anais battle over using big-cute-eyes faces and guilt-trapping passive-aggressiveness. Gumball provides a fake Daisy doll only for it to explode. Gumball tries to use his inability to catch against himself, only for him to actually catch the doll, to which he immediately tosses off to Darwin (I also love how his inability to catch is telegraphed early as a weird visual gag when he’s unable to snag the doll in the air after Hector flicks it of his buttock). Gumball is a dick of a brother. But he is committed to his sister (and, in the overall scheme of the show, whatever’s on his mind) in a way that keeps him from being intolerable. And the show itself is keenly away of his awfulness (unlike some other shows).

The entire final section is worth talking about though. From the reveal of Tina literally sleeping on trash, to the hilarious attempts to getting the doll from her grasp, to the phenomenal Jurassic Park-esque chase sequence that follows, “The Quest” takes a big step forward in its commitment to the visuals and aesthetics of a scene versus just establishing various signifiers of the parody. The slow fade in and camera dolly that opens up with the kids staring into Tina’s room/warehouse; the bleak, dreary atmosphere in which the scant lighting only adds to the horror; the dynamic camera angles and change-of-directions of the characters as they give chase and get chased – the level of details is a step further than the already great chase back in “The DVD” (and props to the physical interaction between the 2D-flat Watterson characters and the 3D-rendered dinosaur; that in itself is impressive gold). The parody is clear but “The Quest” is clearer that the kids are in real danger. And despite all that, when they finally stop Tina and gloat, the show pulls back and reveal Tina to be a broken, poor bully who never had a toy before. It’s a sudden switch, especially since you don’t expect Gumball to “go there,” but it’s heart-breaking even this early in the show’s run. There’s more to the Tina story, and we’ll definitely get to that, but we now know that Gumball will bring more to its cast of characters than stock tropes, and what they reveal about Tina will allow them to explore its cast and world even more, and believe me, it’s a trip.

“The Spoon” – B

Right of the bat, you can tell the animation in “The Spoon” is different. I don’t know if the animation studio was different, or if a different director was in charge here, but there’s an intense exaggeration to the expressions and the energy that isn’t as specifically channelled through something familiar – like a parody or what we’ve seen before. Once again, Gumball is utilizing a cartoon trope to springboard into a different story – but like “The End,” it’s just another cartoon trope. In this case, it’s the father forgetting his wife’s birthday and needing to find a gift, but it’s tossed aside for a nutty adventure involving Gumball and Darwin mistaking a thief for a CEO for charity for bald people. “The Spoon” undercuts all of that by more or less ditching that first trope (once Nicole comes home, Richard comes clean about the forgotten gift almost immediately), by contextualizing the second trope in a dangerous way (Gumball and Darwin are sent to a gas station in what is implied is a dangerous part of town), and by bringing in a heavily over-the-top animation style for most of the episode. When Richard hilariously reminds the kids of their mother’s birthday, only to realize he forgot her gift, his expressions and body language goes absolutely bonkers, in a way never quite matched in previous episodes, and we’re off to the races.

Really, “The Spoon” is a B- episode in overall quality. The jokes are kind of bland, being as trapped as it is in those tropes, and no amount of undercutting or subverting can overcome it. The only thing that stands out is the animation, with some impressive movements and facial expressions being pushed in wildly insane ways, and a final chase sequence that goes all over the place (Gumball just does chase sequences and action so well, I would love to see this team do an action series at some point). Gumball, Darwin, and the fingerprint thief make as many ridiculous expressions as Richard does, there’s some judicious use of emoticon faces throughout (Gumball doesn’t use them often), and even that final sequenced with Gumball and Darwin riding a flying air tank was fantastically well done, if not exactly a new, original, or inspired animated bit.

But it’s a funny bit, and really just a lot of fun to watch. At this point, Gumball and Darwin are still functionally, mentally children, clueless to the kind of world they live in and the kind of nasty characters that populate it. The Amazing World of Gumball in some ways will revisit the idea of the playful, innocent children suddenly brushing up a real threat and dealing with the fall out – that episode ends with Nicole exacting delicious revenge on the culprit as well – but while that episode is a bit more… existential, “The Spoon” caters to a Nickelodeon, “kids rules” approach. Once Darwin and Gumball realizes they’re in trouble, they manage to run and escape the spoon-wielding criminal, while also besting with a series of Home Alone-esque traps. This episode also introduces Doughnut Sheriff, a stereotypical baffoonish cop who is literally a doughnut, but like all the other characters, he too will be contextualized and explored more than the ineffectual goofball he is here. “The Spoon” is a fine episode, propped up by its visual silliness, but it is a slight in the overall flow of the show.


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We Bare Bears’ Cuteness Masks a Shockingly Cynical View of Humanity

In “$100,” a friend that often visits the young bears’ home dons a ski mask and tries to rob them of their new-found $100 bill. In “The Road,” the bears share their box-home with a hitchhiker, only for the hitchhiker to steal their box the following morning. In “The Fair,” a loser carny exploits the bears’ cuteness to earn more customers to his rigged game. In “Pet Shop,” after failing to attract potential owners, the pet store cashier boxes up the bears and puts them in the trash. In “The Island,” a potential island friendship is ruined when we learn the dude has been gaslighting and manipulating the living fuck out of the woman also stuck on said island. These episodes involve the bears as young, even cuter versions of themselves as hapless, adorable, orphan wanderers, and perhaps the show finds amusement in their constant struggles. But, damn, those struggles really come off vicious and bleak, a pretty cynically dark take on humanity.

The episodes that focus on the bears as adults aren’t much more optimistic. The last new episode that aired on Friday, August 11, (“Summer Love”) contained a scene in which Panda was forced to pay a bribe to some bubble tea cashier to get information on a girl that left her phone behind. Later in the episode, he runs into trouble with some guy who goes crazy when a girl he liked became an astronaut. (The portrayal of dudes being obsessed over women, which includes Panda here, is an issue all on its own.) There’s an episode where the bears go to a crowded beach but for some reason every human there is some form of shit stain – a litterer, a loud music player, some woman who brought ribs (“Private Lake”). At the beginning of the show’s run, there was a chance that the show was attempting to channel that human behavior towards something specific, in their behavior towards the bears themselves, in treating them differently or aloof because they were bears (I weirdly got pushback for mentioning this, only for the very creator to more or less post a confirmation on Twitter). Basically, if you were to watch an episode of We Bare Bears with the thinking that, thematically, the show is about how subtly but clearly awful humanity is, you might be horrified by how distinctly the show believes this.

There’s the episodes with Nom-Nom, voiced by Patton Oswalt, who hates the bears and only cares about his social media following, and any moment that showcases a smidge of humanity from the cute koala is undercut; lessons are rarely learned. There’s Charlie, the show’s worst character, who’s pretty annoying by default and whom the bears only hang out with because they either feel sorry for him, or he has something they want (I find it remarkable that the show never realizes how insanely shallow this make the bears seem). Chloe is the only character that feels like she genuinely likes the bears, and whom the bears like in kind. Her early approach towards the bears, which was entirely academic and aloof, became something genuine, something shared between her and the bears. Both understood what it felt like to be outcasts, and their connections (and episodes) feel like the rare time the show exhibits some hope.

There’s a “but” coming, though.

Before that, though, I do think that episodes with Chloe suggest that We Bare Bears is not actively trying to be nihilistic. It’s a brightly colorful show with soft, cute character models by design, and it utilizes a light touch with a good amount of its narrative beats – its song cues and montages, its portrayals of its emotional moments, its honest depiction of its central brotherly bond. The issue is that, to get to the ultimate point of those latter two, it has to chart a streak of abject meanness and callousness in its world and its cast of characters. We Bare Bears hides its harshness well, and there’s a chance that it’s intentional; perhaps Daniel Chong finds humor in the contrasts of its characters’ awful, self-centered behavior and the lowkey, soft aesthetics of the show. But Chong isn’t Dan Harmon or Raphael Bob-Waksberg, or even a Ben Bocquelet. His show doesn’t seem to have a larger thematic point beyond that contrast. If he’s aiming to say that despite a hopeful sensibility about the world, the only people who can really trust are family, then… fine, I guess. It’s a bleak outlook for sure, but I don’t think he actually wants to say that, which is why We Bare Bears is a really muddled claptrap of a show.

Really, most episodes place the bears in a situation where each bear has to deal with some inane, contrived obstacle – a person being obtuse, a machine that fails to work, a thing in the way of progress. These episodes aren’t particularly funny or noteworthy, although Ice Bear’s blunt, contrite statements are good for solid laughs. Grizz’s heart tends to be in the right place but will most likely go overboard. Panda writhes between being hapless and pathetic, but he remains endearing enough so he rarely gets annoying. The bears’ problems are mostly situational, almost like bits in a sketch show, escalating problems that come together at the resolution. And that’s fine; at its best, the show’s escalation tinge with pastiches of a clear love of style, like Ice Bear’s vengeful mission in the very good “Icy Nights.” A sweet two-part episode called “Captain Craboo” also indicates a very clear understanding of the kind bittersweet storytelling that warms the cockles of one’s heart. See, also, “Yuri and the Bear,” a story in which Ice Bear and a tough Russian man named Yuri start as mismatched enemies but end up as friends.

But (there it is) there’s the sense that while Chong and his crew understand story structure, they don’t really have much stake in the characters and/or world that supports that story. Chong knows the proper beats to tug at the heartstrings, but fails to apply actual heart or meaning to anything outside that storytelling modus operandi. It’s all mechanical, which results in an assortment of characters who are one-note and dickish, until they aren’t, and that’s only when the story needs the emotional heel-turn. Outside of that, characters are mostly some form of asshole, indirectly or directly, masked behind millennial trappings like gourmet coffee, vegan food options, and excessive-to-obsessive mobile/social usage. (The show, to be fair, nails that modern sensibility but offers little to no exploration of why people are so engaged in those sensibilities, which makes them come off bubbled; Panda orders a fairly over-wrought drink (a gluten-free, chai-coconut milk boba tea) but I’m not sure if we’re supposed to laugh at that or understand it as a reflection of who Panda is.)

I look back at Daniel Chong’s tweet, and I look back at my own AVClub review, and I think about the show’s very early interest in maybe, sort of, exploring the uncomfortable treatment between the bears and the humans, in the very human world surrounding them. I think that, had the show kept that as an undercurrent, the sheer cynical approach to said humans (and to the bears) would have had context, something rich and consistent to better reflect Chong’s vision and thematic approach. We Bare Bears eventually dropped that human/bear tension (which I why I got shit for mentioning it in the pilot), but kept the broad sense of hostility, which results in a show that may understand story structure but has a deeply dim view towards humanity. Watching We Bare Bears is pleasant until its over; the aftermath leaves a weird taste in your mouth. That taste? A darkly negative view, underneath a tasty boba tea.


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The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The Third” and “The Debt”

The Amazing World of Gumball Season 1 Episode… by gumball-amazing

“The Third” – C+

I forgot how “introductory” these early Gumball episodes are. They’re quietly structured around introducing new characters and locations and “things,” like the infamous Dodge or Dare game, which they boys immediately give up on playing. This episode introduces the “school” setting, and a few of the various students in the class. We see most of them – Tina the dinosaur, William the floating eye, Joe the banana, Bobbert the robot, Leslie the flower – but we’re only provided closer looks at Tobias and Alan, and even then they’re mostly one-note at this point. (Tina and Bobbert don’t even have names at this point.) This is a solid episode for introducing the sensibility of the show, which is composed of such an assortment of character and character types, characters who just are what they are and have to exist within that space. This will be more important later, especially as the jokes get deeper and crazier and the show gets more sincere and more satirical. Right now, it’s enough to marvel and be amused by the world opening up a bit.

It’s not that great of a story though, and I can chalk this up to early show “jitters” and the show’s lack of a clear viewpoint this early in the run. “The Third” doesn’t quite know whether it wants to approach its “is Gumball losing Darwin as a friend to Tobias” sincerely, or if it wants to ridicule such a dated and lame trope. The Amazing World of Gumball will get so much better at balancing and bridging those two lines – sincerity and irony – sometimes in the same episode. But for now, this feels like a test. I don’t doubt that “The Third” sees Gumball and Darwin search for a third friend as inherently silly, since it’s instigated because the boys are bored one morning. Later in the episode, when Gumball asks what Darwin wants in a friend, he lists a number of superficial traits: rich, athletic, and “colorful,” as well as “good at listening.” (The last trait, which often is noted as the most important trait in friendship, is clearly tossed off here.) But Gumball’s mad dash to get back his friend feels a little more heartfelt, and even though it’s populated with dumb gags, like breaking through concrete with the power of friendship, it still wants to be honest about it. The issue is that it’s unearned. There’s no realization or cathartic change of heart from Darwin over what he’s done. He just misses Gumball. When he arrive, they hug it out. It feels like something got lost in the narrative.

Still, there are some things to like about this episode. It stands to reason that Darwin would take to Tobias since he did represent all the traits Darwin listed, for better or worse. I’m amused that the show never calls too much attention to Darwin literally buying Tobias’ friendship, even at the expense of Gumball’s own money. The gags are dumb but mostly land, mainly due to how well the show manages the timing of those gags. Bobert’s slow wind up before punching Gumball back is heighten by not showing the actual punch but the hilarious aftermath. The mad dash to Tobias’ house also has a lot of insane bits of visuals, and as I watched it, I’m struck by how well the use of color, backgrounds, and layouts work to really make the show pop, even at this early stage of the show (the hills are a particular highlight). The denouement is the weakest part unfortunately, as Darwin suddenly seems to miss Gumball for no reason, and Tobias lacks any reaction to this point. This also kills the final ironic beat when Darwin and Gumball reject Tobias’ request to play. The blunt, selfish irony of that beat gets lost in the dud of the climax. But it’s practice now, as the show will get much better at this soon.

I want to say one more thing about this episode, but this will be very important for the show as a whole. Gumball’s final race for Darwin is filled with an assortment of obstacles both familiar (biking through wet concrete) and outlandish (a talking wall, and a talking manhole cover). As the show continues, it will slowly start to incorporate a lot of “cartoon-ness” into its worldbuilding, in which its characters-as-cartoons must survive a world in which cartoon tropes, concepts, and meta-concepts are as much obstacles and advantages as anything else in potential narratives. I sort of get into it in this piece about Gumball I wrote years ago, but I’ll explain this in clearer terms as the show gets really comfortable. All you’ll need to know now is this: The Amazing World of Gumball is a cartoon about cartoons; this will make more sense as time goes on.

The Debt – B

Introductions continue as we’re introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, and (briefly) their son, Robbie. With Mr. Robinson, The Amazing World of Gumball will set up a Dennis the Menace/Mr. Wilson dynamic that will run through the course of the show. I’ve always be a bit aloof about this dynamic. The show doesn’t explain exactly why Gumball (and in the future, Darwin) is so smitten with his neighbor. It sets this up mostly because they know that it will create some hilarious comic scenarios over time – and to be clear, they are hilarious. The situations that bring Gumball to be his most annoying, and Mr. Robinson to be his most frustrated, will create some of the funniest gags in the show’s run. They won’t create many of the more meaningful moments, though, not until they calm Gumball down a bit. One of the things I’m curious about is watching Gumball’s changing level of maturity, if not necessarily his age. That’s one of the limits of this cartoon about cartoons – being “stuck” within a situation and the trappings of cartoon structure (later episodes will make this point more explicit) – but still affecting certain layers of personal growth and change.

Right now though, Gumball is young boy whose fascinations and determinations and energy levels seem endless. It’s the very thing that keeps “The Debt” moving along despite the fact the episode is utilizing one of the older cartoon tropes in the book: the vowed life debt. Gumball perceives that Mr. Robinson somehow save his life (by not running him over with his car, in a situation where Gumball’s life wasn’t even at risk), and swears to watch Mr. Robinson at all costs until he saves his life. It’s an old bit for sure, and Gumball lampshades the idiocy of this story by the non-threatening inciting incident. But it doesn’t do much more than that, still going through the typical beats you’d expect in other cartoons: every time Gumball tries to protect Mr. Robinson, he only makes things worse.

Two things keep this story moving though: the bits they do pull up are very funny, and there’s a weird-but-informative streak throughout the episode that keeps one’s interest piqued. Gumball’s booby trap is just a sudden bit of physical, surprise comedy, and as much as you may cringe with watching Mr. Robinson getting hit in the groin, you might cringe just as much when Gumball is hit in a head by a brick. Anais and Darwin feeling bad for Gumball is kind of out of character, in the sense that Gumball shouldn’t be doing any of this in the first place, but their secondary plot to fake an assassination attempt on Mr. Robinson is great, because it develops its own set of gags and problems, mostly centered around Anais trying to explain the plan to Darwin. And then there’s Mr. Robinson’s final performance, and it’s just so ridiculous, a sort of “release” in case viewers were getting too sympathetic to Mr. Robinson. All that prep, and you’d think Gaylord would have a hidden, glorious singing voice, but it’s just his gruff regular voice, and some 80s aerobic dancing to misplaced fogs and lights. It’s the kind of chaos and misdirection that Gumball is good at, and it’ll get even better.

Gumball does save Mr. Robinson’s life, which is kind of sweet in its own way, up until he pushes Gumball aside to bask in the applause of two old people. Mr. Robinson is a bit… delusional; that and his woes with his wife and son will grow clear and more distinct over time (leading to the darkest moment of the show’s run by far). Still, “The Debt” is a fun watch if not exactly a necessary one, but worth engaging in to see the origins of some the show’s most comedic dynamics – just like “The Third,” really. We’re still getting used to the show’s cast, vibe, and aesthetics, and there’s a value in watching this work in progress.


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