Season 5 of Gumball had some of the most enjoyable episodes of the show’s run, with some of the most interesting character development, though also a couple of the show’s only duds too.
Looking back to season one, Gumball has come a long way, looks a lot better, and tends to have very slick, economical writing with good jokes, very likeable characters and that same love for animation that drew me in the first place. I don’t remember ever laughing quite as hard at a cartoon as I did at the end of The Ex.
What I really like about Gumball is that while it sometimes re-treads old, familiar cartoon plotlines – love potions, working with a hated teacher to pass a test, trying to get rid of Granny’s unwanted gifts – it’s very much a cartoon that focuses on contemporary lifestyle. A lot of cartoons these days, not counting satirical comedies for adults, try to have their characters in some weird timeless setting where people don’t use the internet or have smartphones and high school is, well, the way the writing team remember it. Maybe they have a game console that bleeps and bloops and shows some 8-bit graphics. That goes hand-in-hand with the sorts of references that are safe to use – classic movies or 80s iconography, classic rock bands with iconic looks, perhaps even some classic literature. Well, Gumball throws all that out and references internet memes like Friendship Ended with Mudasir and Yu-Gi-Oh chins, has its kids use Facebook, Instagram and Wikipedia clones, catfish their grandpa and in a truly brilliant move has an episode made in collaboration with the makers of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ (which is superb in its own right).
There’s also a Yelp-reviews-as-blackmail episode, but South Park already did that, and it wasn’t really a highlight of either show’s run. The show’s take on social justice also went semi-viral last year, and while it was a very intelligent commentary on it often being used (especially online) by self-righteous people not because they care about the issues they’re talking about but because they want to dominate in arguments and cover their insecurities by being the most tolerant, it was a real shame the clips that circulated didn’t show how Gumball learns that he was misguided in the way he tried to debate. The show ultimately concluded that forgiveness and genuine compassion trump argumentative self-righteousness.
Other references are more safe and straightforward, and it seems like the show is embracing the referential aspect of its comedy and running with it, sometimes a bit far. I enjoyed the Final Fantasy parody episode, and the episode where Gumball tries to befriend Ocho to get to Mario works mostly for the character humour and not the references, but for example Harry Potter references fall flat (especially when two different episodes’ references to Ron being annoying and Gumball preferring Voldemort to Harry kind of clash with each other). Other than a surprising Kyary Pamyu Pamyu skit, ‘The Singing’ was one of the show’s worst episodes, a lazy compilation of unoriginal song parodies – also breaking the unwritten rule that Gumball and Darwin will always appear at least once. It’s these kinds of clip shows that don’t really work, with ‘The News’ another example, bringing to mind the worst random episodic gag episodes of Rick and Morty.
This season again devotes time to some of the more minor characters to develop them. Even Sussie gets an episode, which ends in truly bizarre, somehow uplifting style. Rocky gets an episode too, though not much new is said about him. We also get a relationship episode for Darwin, obliquely referencing his bromance with his adoptive brother, as well as a bit more development for Gumball’s grandpa Frankie, and a nice episode where Nicole reflects on what might have happened had she never met Richard. I really enjoy episodes developing the main cast, but subversions of what’s expected – like Gumball pining for his nemesis Rob when Rob decides to move on – are the most brilliant.
Oh, and there’s one throw-back to the awkwardness with the Hot Dog Guy. Marvellous!