On August 16, 2013, Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch first hinted that the show, which had concluded its wildly popular first season on the Disney Channel two weeks earlier, would be coming to an end, sooner rather than later. It was during a Reddit AMA session, and it contained the kind of firm establishment of an end date, and the more nuanced dancing-around-the-issue that would become a staple of the Gravity Falls narrative. “The show is meant to take place over the course of one totally insane summer,” Hirsch explained. I know that my summers as a kid felt endless, so the ‘length’ of the summer in Gravity Falls is more emotional than logical. Assuming they don’t get eaten, pulverized, shrunk, cast into another dimension, blinked out of existence by a time anomaly, turned to stone, or trapped in a painting, the kids will be returning home at the end of the series.” A Reddit user swiftly responded: “The end of the series is going to be the most depressing episode in the history of animation.”
And while the Gravity Falls series finale, airing tonight on Disney XD, is not the most depressing episode in the history of animation, it will definitely tug at your heartstrings. Every time we’ve watched it, we’ve had to choke back tears. But as fascinating as the double-sized episode is (and we’ll have our full recap tomorrow), how it came to be even more compelling.
We asked Hirsch last week when he firmly decided that season two was going to be the end of the series, which has been praised by critics and adored by fans, he answered that a definite end date had always been a part of the plan. “I knew from when I first pitched the show, that it had a beginning, middle, and end. I said then that it would be two or three seasons. But I didn’t know how long a season was, I had also never made a TV show before or even written a script before. So it was always finite. But the exact contours of it are something that I needed to feel out. And to be very frank, season one was very difficult.”
Keep in mind that, as Hirsch says, “this was the first time I had ever run a show,” and that it was incredibly draining. Gravity Falls is an animated show unlike any other, with an unprecedented level of detail, world-building mythology, and, most importantly, heart. And it’s not something that Hirsch took lightly. In fact, before he had even finished the first season, he was ready to close up shop. “It had so many demands that by the time I was two thirds of the way through season one, I had already made up my mind: I am not making anything more after this,” Hirsh said. “Season one is the only season, even though I’m ending on a cliffhanger. Originally it was: I’ll make two or three seasons. And then it was: I’m not making anything else. I was wiped out. This is so difficult. And I didn’t think anyone would watch it.” He then added: “I was very, very dead set on not making any more because I was so burnt out.”
But, as it turns out, people did watch it; a lot of people, in fact. And they didn’t just like the show; they loved it. Fans loved picking apart the minutia of the inside jokes, self-referential callbacks, and elliptical hints at future events. And critics were just as excited, with weekly recaps being conducted by major outlets and the New York Times describing the series as “quirky and endearing.” And as Hirsch tells it, the response did help ease the pain. “When the show came out and was so well received, it was incredibly gratifying. They say that when a woman gives birth there’s this flood of endorphins afterwards, which is the body trying to trick you into thinking that wasn’t painful so you might do it again one day. That started to happen with the fan response.” Still, he kept in mind how hard the first season was. “I didn’t stop thinking about what I had promised myself, during late nights, after sleeping in my office for three nights in a row: You can’t do this to yourself anymore.”
Ultimately two people convinced him to come back and do another season: Jon Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show (and eventual Gravity Falls guest star), who told Hirsch that his kids loved the show, and Pat McHale, who created the similarly genius animated series Over the Garden Wall. McHale had been watching the series, which meant a lot to Hirsch, and then told him: “Look, after that cliffhanger, you’ve got to finish it.” Hirsch decided that he had about ten more episodes left in him. Then he went to the network, who said, “We only take seasons in twenties.” “So I said, ‘Okay, one more season,’” Hirsch told us. “Before we started the season, it said in my contract, before I put pen to paper, that this is my last season.” The studio agreed, under one condition: Hirsch couldn’t tell anybody.
Not that Hirsch particularly minded: “To their credit, they’d hope I’d change my mind. I don’t think they actually believed me. I think they thought I was being cranky after a lot of hard work. But the decision to make a second season was a decision to end the series.” Keeping that secret, though, was hard. “I kept saying: Can I tell people now? Can I tell people now? Because I knew that the longer I waited, the more people would be upset. They kept saying, ‘Let’s keep thinking on it.’ Finally, they realized that I was serious.”
While it’s understandable that Hirsch keep the announcement contained, it seems that not even those working on the show knew exactly what was happening. We chatted with Jason Ritter, who voices Dipper, about how he found out it was ending. When Hirsch told him that the show was coming to a close, Ritter said that the creator dodged his question. “He sort of, he like, he parsed it out a little bit. He told me that there was a possibility, but he wasn’t sure,” Ritter said. “He sort of told me in little bits. I guess … I wasn’t really sure, and then when I read the finale I thought, this feels like, not just the season finale. It feels like a series finale.” That’s right: The star of the show didn’t know the series was ending until after he read the finale script.
Still, Ritter says it was partially his fault. He wanted his feeling that the show would be coming to an end to be untrue. “I think I was in a certain amount of denial because at a certain point, that is what it was and Alex wasn’t going to do any more. I just didn’t know. I wasn’t 100% sure. I just didn’t know if he would be magically convinced sometime after the decision had been made. But then after I read the finale, I was like, Eh, this would be hard to continue.”
This type of secrecy, which has been a longstanding part of the Gravity Falls world, took its toll on Hirsch. “I’d be at a convention and an adorable 6-year-old girl would come up to me and say, ‘I hope the show lasts forever,’ and I’d want to tell her that it is only two seasons long, but I couldn’t tell her.” After telling us the story, he said: “That’s the absolute, true, never-before-told, accurate, full version.”
The Gravity Falls series finale airs on Disney XD tonight.