I am a person with very varied tastes, but there’s always a few elements in any story that can hook me in for a good while. One of those things is existentialism applied to the state of being fictional, and that one thing is what has kept me from casting off Grant Morrison’s declining output for a good while now. I’m not just solely interested in a work that breaks and plays with the forth wall, I’m interested in a work that makes this awareness thematically central. What I mean by this is that I love works that expose and explore the absurdity that is existence, and especially when its done to fictional characters within the context of being fictional. The wealth of stories and ideas that could be explored are limitless, but few can seem to nail it down. Enter Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball, both one of the most technically inventive pieces of animation ever put to television, and also one of the best written series they’ve ever had. While the show lacks the emotional complexity of Adventure Time or Steven Universe, it more than makes up for it in how it plays with its medium – and what happens when the character themselves start becoming aware.
For those uninitiated, The Amazing World of Gumball is currently five seasons in and preparing to wrap itself up in its sixth season. It’s a screw ball comedy that came into being in 2011, originally thought up as exploring a world where animated characters live together and prepare for their lives in cartoons. That concept was scratched, but the idea of putting a large variety of characters with different art and animation styles together stuck. As a result, the series has managed to get a lot of attention for how seamlessly it blends cel animation, CG, puppetry, and all sorts of other tricks together to make a world with a distinct style made of countless clashing ones. Even the disposable first season surprises in its look, despite some janky animation all around.
The series follows the Wattersons, a family of two parents, two kids, and one fish that grew legs that was adopted in proper. The titular character, eldest son Gumball, attends school and generally gets in wacky shenanigans with his fish brother Darwin, and occasionally with his genius little sister Anais (pronounced An-eye-ease). His goal obsessed mother Nicole and slob of a dad Richard also tend to get dragged into these adventures, or have their own in little episodes that focus more on them or on the entire family. Episode premises run from exaggerated slice of life with the bizarre residents of Elmore, California, to ridiculous grand adventures born from absurd happenings, usually poking fun at different aspects of western culture and subcultures with a surprising amount of knowledge (Rocky talking about different types of metal is the most accurate thing I have ever heard). Overall, the series would just be a good comedy, but the season two had two episodes that changed everything significantly.
“The Finale,” the season two finale (obviously), had the Wattersons suddenly have to pay for all their misdeeds and mistakes from the rest of the show’s run, like that time they accidentally let a giant go on a rampage, or Gumball and Darwin having to repeat a grade because they’re always too busy with nonsense to attend class. The five start to become aware of how an episode flows, logically thinking that the best solution is to just make the problem worse until it magically works itself out and everything returns to normal. By the episode’s end, as it looks like the entire town is about to rip them apart, they’re saved …by the end credits resetting continuity.
Even before this episode, there was “The Job,” the first episode of the series to give us a glimpse of what was to come. Richard gets a job as a pizza delivery man, but the fact he has a job freaks out the world of Elmore so badly that it starts glitching and falling apart. Even Nicole points out that Richard going against his lazy archetype and getting a job simply isn’t natural and is the first to realize he’s the reason everything is going wrong. It’s a visually stunning episode, easily one of the best in the series, and establishes an important element of later ongoing arcs – that Elmore itself is alive. It’s a combination of the intent of the artist, the rules of story structure, genre tropes, and broadcast standards mixed together. Needless to say, it’s a controlled chaos that tends to go off the rails, and the world itself reacts when this happens.
Season three is quick to keep up with this wild new development by premiering with an episode based entirely around Gumball and Darwin getting new VAs. “The Kids” has the two freaking out about their sudden swerve into puberty with their cracking voices, only for the world to reset this development and give them new voices from new voice actors. The change happens suddenly, as during a ridiculous song, the screen fills with static as the change is made. The episode even jokes about how TV characters don’t age, particularly that the kids of Elmore will always remain as they are. It sets the tone of thee rest of the series perfectly, making it clear that forth wall shenanigans will be more than just one off jokes.
Season three includes plot lines revolving around living toast clones, a joy zombie outbreak, Gumball almost being completely rewritten by another character that uses his birth name, a spoof of redneck horror films, Darwin getting a sneeze with the power of a warhead, a house haunting, the entire town becoming a Mad Max wasteland when the character who does all the service jobs quits all of them, and other such wackiness. It also established continuity beyond production jokes, with Gumball and Penny finally becoming an item, and Penny also being revealed as a powerful, shape shifting creature, retaining this form for the rest of the series.
Season three is also where the show begins the Rob arc, and it goes from just being entertaining and clever to something truly, truly special.
It starts in “The Void,” the first episode where the characters become completely aware of the true nature of Elmore. Gumball and Darwin start freaking out that they haven’t seen seen a minor character from previous seasons, Molly, in awhile. With help of Mr. Small, the two discovered a void located behind Elmore, only accessible through pulling apart the very fabric of reality, where all of the world’s mistakes are stored. Boring characters and unused concepts all float around here, including unused promo house designs and other such junk. The series gives an unnerving explanation to what happens to retconned or aborted characters, disguising it as a series of wacky jokes (More cartoons need crazy Frog being hurt horribly).
Cut many episodes in the season later to “The Nobody,” where we’re finally reintroduced to Rob the Cyclops. Out of every minor character in Gumball, Rob was easily the most minor. His appearances in season one were almost non-existent outside “The Party,” and his only significant role was a joke in one episode where Gumball and Darwin had no idea who he was. This episode reveals Rob escaped from the world of mistakes back in “The Void,” but he came back wrong. His body lacks color, and his organic look has been replaced with geometric shapes and strange renders covered in static. Whatever life he had before no longer exists in Elmore, and until he ran into Gumball again, he didn’t remember who he was. But some poor choices of words from Gumball results in Rob remembering exactly what happened to him, how Gumball abandoned him during the escape from the world of mistakes, making him obsessed with getting revenge. The tragic twist is that some words from Gumball result in the world trying to write a new role for Rob.
For a few episodes here and there through seasons three and four, Rob became Gumball’s nemesis, constantly being teased for future episodes while remaining a tragic figure whenever he did get significant screen time. Until the end of season four, Rob’s original motivation seemed to be overwritten by the more simplistic motivation of “be the villain.” It’s even highlighted in one episode where he admits the only reason he’s doing anything is because he is the villain. It’s all he knows, so he does it. He even gets trained by Gumball and Darwin to be a proper antagonist in one episode, including giving him a ridiculous evil British voice. It’s not until “The Disaster” that Rob finally remembers who he is.
“The Disaster” and “The Rerun” together form a thirty minute episode, and a fantastic one at that. It reveals Rob as the only character truly aware that this amazing world they live in is nothing but a TV show, lamenting he couldn’t be the character he wanted to be and obsessed with removing Gumball so he can finally choose his own course. Rob’s entire arc is incredibly effective because it doesn’t just screw with the nature of stories, but his frustrations with his lack of agency mirror how a lot of people feel – myself included. The world is a terrifying, amazing place, one where we can easily be the center of everything or barely a footnote on the history of society. There’s so much chaos that it feels like there’s no purpose or plan to it all, and there probably isn’t. Rob is the frustration with that realization made physical, placed in a world where he can do something about it. The universal remote he’s given basically makes him a god in this world, overturning the role of the artists behind it – except not. The tragic thing is that it’s just more manipulation for another story, to make Rob a more effective antagonist. The second part is titled “The Rerun” because it’s literally a rerun, just with Gumball now aware of what’s coming and gaining an upper hand. Rob’s plan was doomed to fail, but the story given to him helped mellow him out, and may have helped him come closer to finding meaning.
Even before this outright forth wall breaking, the show has been toying with world awareness for a long while now. Since “The Job,” more and more episodes have focused on the fantastical elements of Elmore, particularly the actions and behaviors of the world itself. The most notable of these episodes is easily “The Signal,” where a satellite malfunction starts to cause Elmore itself to glitch out. Darwin gets mad at Gumball for the odd things the flickering static and freezing cause Gumball to do, but by the time both of them realize what’s happening, the entire world is freaking out so bad that they’re jumping around the episode’s timeline, commercials are affecting events, and some characters get stuck in random loops. Gumball and Darwin even realize they’re TV show characters before the episode ends, only for this to be reset once the episode ends.
Episodes relying on self-awareness and manipulation or malfunction of the world gain dark undertones, helping build the show’s endgame. Little events here and there have built up a disturbing mythology to the series, particularly a series of future paintings by side character Banana Barbara, including one showing the entire Watterson family running in terror from something in the void of mistakes. Subtle visual cues, odd elements of the world (such as the van salesman who gives people magical doodads that act as story catalysts), and the occasional moment of forth wall destruction manage to turn a pretty great animated sitcom into a cosmic horror comedy. There’s plenty to love about the show, from the odd emotional moment to the constant string of clever physical comedy, but what makes it so special, even compared to the rest of Cartoon Network’s original cartoons, is that meta narrative.
While other shows have tried doing the meta thing for a cute joke or to try and do something more ambitious for a finale (ie Regular Show), Gumball has made that part of its identity. It’s done some truly inventive visual gags with that element, but the more interesting part of all of it is how it’s going to impact the characters, and how that mirrors the absurd nature of our own existence. See, it’s not just that Gumball is aware of itself, but what that awareness means for the cast themselves, and there’s actually an answer given.
There’s an entire episode where Gumball and Darwin ask around to learn the true meaning of life, and the answer the episode arrives at is that life has no meaning. It doesn’t mean that in a defeatist way, mind you, but that you need to make the most out of it while you look for your own answer to the question. Despite the horrific, absurd nature of Elmore, the show doesn’t seem to be interested in making a story about overcoming the very nature of the world. Rather, it seems more interested in telling a story about living within that absurdity. The people of Elmore all have their own lives and relationships, and no matter what the world does, those relationships are real to them.
I think once the show wraps up, the ultimate message at the end will be, yeah, life is a ridiculous joke – but it’s still a good joke. Not a bad way to see things.