Over the Garden Wall – “Schooltown Follies”: Brightness on the Edge of Schooltown

Oh potatoooooooooes (Cartoon Network)

Oh potatoooooooooes (Cartoon Network)

“I guess the world really is as sweet as potatoes and molasses.”

– Father Langtree

Over the Garden Wall shifts tones between episodes with an effortless confidence that ought to, on paper, take several seasons worth of material to back up. We would need to know our main characters well enough to empathize with, become acquainted with the setting well enough to believe that it could extend itself beyond two dimensions, and be familiar enough with a standard rhythm to justify a detour.

In short-form animated television, the depth of familiarity needed for this type of leg-stretching especially requires a considerable amount of prologue. Adventure Time took at least two seasons before it ventured into darker territory and embraced the adolescence metaphor incubating at its core. Viewers, at that point, had become acquainted well enough with the nooks and crannies of Ooo and its diversity of inhabitants at their brightest moments, paving the path to more challenging territory.

Over the Garden Wall pulls off a similar modulation, albeit in reverse and in a considerably shorter amount of time. The series starts off dark, moody and slightly broody, and must rise to the occasion of turning on the lights for its third episode, “Schooltown Follies.” Jumping from the dark fatalism of “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” to an upbeat, optimistic romp through a schoolhouse for snappily dressed animals ought to be a jarring transition.

Yet, against all odds, it ain’t. “Schooltown Follies” eases its way into warmth gradually. On my first viewing, I could have sworn some untold terrors—worse than skeletal pumpkinpeople and mutated dogbeasts combined—were lurking in that picture perfect Norman Rockwell Little Red Schoolhouse. It was no easy comfort knowing that Greg, sweet innocent tireless Greg, wandered towards it alone. If his encounter with the dog-monster in the first episode taught us anything, it’s that Greg should not be wandering towards things alone.

We can breathe easy when he rejects school and all the boring, implicit horrors it stands for. “Pssssh! Not today!” Of course, we learn later that this particular school only houses cute animals, broken hearts, and big dreams, but Greg’s decision to play hooky is the first in a series of indicators that this episode will be more playful than its dour cousins. The moment is encoded in the shades: Greg hears the bell toll while cloaked in shadow, but comes upon the school in broad daylight, painted with the brightest palette we’ve seen OTGW use to-date. Wirt and Beatrice, as his elders and (theoretically) betters, decide to explore the schoolhouse in his stead once he scampers off, dissolving any lingering sense of danger in the moment.

Silliness is the name of the game in “Schoolhouse Follies,” eleven minutes packed with amusing wordplay, Depression-era cuteness in the Busytown vein, and a clean, comic rhythm to counter any threat of gravity (“Wirt, your brother, uh, could be in trouble somewhere!” Beatrice stammers as Greg, with a big dimpled smile, waves through the classroom window). These elements contribute to a feeling of weightlessness that, by and large, works in the episode’s favor. After the doom and gloom of the first two episodes, “Follies” goes down like a smooth, sweet scoop of potatoes and molasses. And, also like potatoes, it’s undeniably filler, a tangential distraction from the overarching mythology, albeit a tangent that deepens its characters, offers plenty of belly laughs, and one-and-a-half mesmerizing jingles.

There is, however, one big sticking point that I must bring up. This could just be me, but the design of the gorilla seems to be a throwback of the uncomfortable sort: its wild eyes and prominent pink lips aren’t a terribly far cry from coon imagery, an unpleasant reminder that the bygone cartooning era constantly quoted throughout OTGW’s artwork was also a bastion for pungent racism, where the physical characteristics of apes and African Americans were depicted as interchangeable.

schooltown2gorilla

The man in the gorilla suit in the room (Cartoon Network)

The association is likely accidental—the show thankfully doesn’t do anything to play up the gorilla’s blackface, beyond tapping into the comic relief inherent in the stereotype—and more innocuous than the minstrelsy that’s been earning $800 million dollars as recently as 2009, but the association is still there, and I have trouble shaking it off. Bowdlerizing the past, acting as if racist caricatures didn’t exist in the mainstream at the same time as Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop, does no good, and the ethics of using a visual quote that hearkens back to these indignities is a whole ‘nother discussion definitely worth having.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what else to say on it at the moment, so of course I’m going to talk some more about Greg, the most delightful cartoon critter ever created since Tina Belcher groaned her way into my heart. (How was that for a graceless tonal shift? I need to get on OTGW’s level)

I’ll be honest, in the first couple of episodes Greg seemed elbowed into the persona of a one-dimensional kiddie joke machine, a plot-irrelevant companion of “real” character Wirt. And while I don’t doubt he succeeds as a crowd pleaser for all the children, the little guy really gets a chance to shine and hint at the depth of nuance within his ADD-addled brain. Bringing joy and happiness to the Unknown is a vague, simple quest, but it’s one that fits Greg perfectly.

Beatrice catalyzes his journey with some razor-sharp putdowns to the world at large: “The world is a miserable place, Greg. Life isn’t fun!” If Greg is sugar and spice and everything nice, enlivening the journey to Adelaide’s with a song here and a playful diversion there, then Beatrice is ammonia and obituaries and everything prunes. Her jabs make the perfect springboard for Greg to launch into hero mode, and he sets about saving all the fun of the world the only way he knows how: singing, playing Two Old Cat (Too Old Cat?), and improving the lives of others. At the end of the day, his peppiness becomes more than a quirk: it’s an honest reflection of his soul. For the first time, I felt Greg as a character, caring and vulnerable, not just a mouthpiece for the storyboarder’s favorite throwaway jokes.

Greg’s personal journey matters because “Schooltown Follies,” devoid of any serious conflict and awash in music and joviality, needs some set of stakes to clutch onto. These stakes are more threatening than a giant gorilla or a failing school for animals: the purity of an endlessly optimistic child is on the line, and many adults would claim such a loss of innocence is among the worst things in the world. By tugging Greg’s happiness up and down, alternating between moments of ebullience and disappointment, the episode keeps its momentum steady, reaching a life-affirming climax that speaks not just to the triumph of good over misery, but to the sanctity of life’s small joys altogether. “Follies” is a tangential flight of fancy, but its airiness should not be mistaken for emptiness. Propped up high on Greg’s emotional backbone, the rest is gravy (or molasses)—and, as you can see from the mammoth list of quotes and jokes below, theres a whole lotta ‘lasses to go around.

HERE BE BLUEBIRDS

  • Sorry for the pretty substantial delay in getting this review out. It’s a lot harder to kick back into a writing schedule after an infinite string of holidays and plane trips, especially when you’ve just started working a nearly-full-time job at the same time. Things ought to go more smoothly from here on out, though sticking firmly to Sundays may be a temporarily lost cause until things stabilize in January.
  • “Okay Wirt, I admit it, you seem like a pushover but you’re not. Deep down in your heart… you’re a stubborn jerk when are you gonna give this up!” “Maybe never! Maybe I’ll never give this up!”
  • Wirt’s gnomish cap pointing out of the dunce corner = sweet, sweet gold.
  • The song Miss Langtree is playing on piano before she switches to “Potatoes and Molasses”? That’s a slowed-down, even more melancholy rendition of “Patient is the Night.”
  • “Hey, nobody ordered you to eat yet.” “Yeah, but—hmmmm.” Beatrice putting Wirt in his place, plus her little bluebird side-eye. Oh man.
  • “Bluebirds have a short lifespan. You two are literally killing me every moment I’m forced to spend with you.”
  • “Hot dogs are not actually dogs, regardless of what they teach you at school” may be one of the better jokes about hot dogs, if just for Greg’s utter disdain of school and what they apparently teach there.
  • “Here Miss Langtree, play something like this!” followed by a contemplative narrowing of the eyes when Langtree starts playing an actual melody may be Greg’s highlight of the episode. Just because he doesn’t know how to play a piano doesn’t mean he can’t be a perfectionist.
  • “I didn’t invest in this school for fun. I thought we were trying to do important work here, teaching animals to count and spell.” There’s some evidence of a metaphor about the deprioritization of music/arts in childhood education lurking around here.
  • Cartoon Network needs to license Two Old Cat as board game merch, like, immediately.
  • When Father Langtree wipes a tear from his eye, it sticks to his finger like snot. Gross.
  • The Week in Frog Naming: Not sure if I caught the name of the frog this week, but at least there’s a mouse named Jeffrey. At least.
  • Did you know that the origins of the modern game of roshambo date all the way back to Ming China, where it was called shoushiling and was played with a series of hand gestures representing the “frog,” “slug,” and “snake”? It’s a rock, paper, scissors fact!
  • I’m the Bard: This is the most musical episode yet, and possibly of the whole series proper. Obviously, there’s the dreadfully catchy ode to the sweeter things in life, “Potatoes and Molasses,” but you’d be remiss not to listen to the full version of “Langtree’s Lament,” an alphabetical journey through the damaged psyche of one heartbroken schoolmistress. It’s doesn’t quite have the tongue-twisting brio of Alphabet Aerobics, but it remains some dang good songwriting nonetheless.

  • Oh Greg, Never Change: Haven’t I said enough about Greg already? Nope: “He’s asleep. LET’S GO STEAL HIS STUFF.” Over the Garden Wall has an… interesting relationship with the eighth commandment.

HERE BE BEASTS

  • I oughta switch the names of these sections because seriously, it’s nigh-impossible to discuss the continued excellence of Melanie Lynskey as Beatrice without giving something The remorseful, impatient shades she adds to each line pop out so much more on rewatch, and the first minute of “Schooltown Follies” offers her most painful pleadings yet. She knows she’s knee-deep in dirty business with these kids and would like to get it over with as soon as possible. Greg’s optimism—unbreakable despite her many attempts—slow-rolls into the MVP for her eventual turnaround, as we could see even by the end of this episode. Plus, it’s always hilarious when she picks on Wirt. Always. (See above).
  • I’m glad that I found so many nice things to say about this episode which, going into the rewatch, was my least favorite of the whole bunch. The whole gorilla thing still leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but aside from that “Schooltown Follies” is definitely the funniest, most enjoyable of the opening salvo. Two Old Cat is worth the price of admission alone.
  • This episode also marks the first appearance of Greg’s Adelaide song. I can’t remember if he ever changes that last verse or not, but it definitely gets catchier when Wirt gets caught up in its magic.
  • We’re nearing the end of Over the Garden Wall’s first act, with the next episode “Songs of the Dark Lantern” being a neat bookend opposite “The Old Grist Mill.” Get ready for some more beastly terrors, Wirt’s glorious wedding (such a blatant ratings grab!), and the return of everybody’s favorite Woodsman.