Last Friday, Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch tweeted a link to a Tumblr post that revealed what many fans of his cult-favorite animated show had long suspected: the Disney XD series is ending after two seasons. One of the final two episodes airs tonight, but the other—what Hirsch calls a “super-sized third-parter” to the current arc that will now function as the series finale—remains to be scheduled , though a Disney XD spokesperson has stated it would air “sometime in 2016.” Guillermo Del Toro, Weird Al Yankovic, and many others chimed in with praise, but the sudden announcement has left the show’s fanbase reeling.

Gravity Falls, about twins spending the summer with their great-uncle in a small Oregon town prone to supernatural events (imagine Harriet the Spy living in Twin Peaks), has found itself part of a pantheon of animated shows boasting devoted multi-generational fan bases—think the Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Steven Universe, or Nickolodeon’s Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. On one hand, it’s a deeply silly show that leans heavily on witty reference humor and the voice-acting pyrotechnics of Kristen Schaal (who plays boy-crazy, fiercely confident twin Mabel). But it’s also surprisingly complex, taking its fanbase down the rabbit hole with solvable cryptograms while still indulging in summer crushes and pre-teen independence.

Back in February 2013, Hirsch put out a call for screenwriters to submit writing samples, leading television critics to assume that Disney had ordered additional scripts for the series, and it needed to beef up its writers room to accommodate the order. And on a July 2013 episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast alongside Regular Show creator JG Quintel, Hirsch seemed to reinforce the idea that the show would be contained within a three-season structure. Why, then, if other networks has capitalized on multiple shows with a similar fan base, is Disney ending theirs prematurely?

Irregular Show

The series’ biggest stumbling block was always scheduling. After the first twelve episodes ran in the summer of 2012, Gravity Falls has never aired regularly. The first season, on the Disney Channel, ended after 20 episodes in August 2013; it took another year for the second season to begin, by which point it had moved to the slightly-older-skewing sibling network Disney XD. Since then, Season 2’s 20 episodes have been spaced out seemingly at random. It wasn’t unusual for a new episode to pop up in an all-new time slot, unannounced and designated as a rerun (which caused DVRs to overlook it). When the next Gravity Falls would air became a mystery nearly as compelling as the ones the twins encountered.

It’s not unusual for networks for schedule a single season of a kids’ show over multiple years—Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney have all done it. The difference is that it generally didn’t happen with shows that appealed to an older viewing audience, in an age when rabid fans on Reddit pick apart frames in order to solve hidden mysteries. But this also isn’t the first time Disney has mishandled a show with a surprising older fanbase. Tron: Uprising—a series that boasted Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore, Nate Corddry, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Paul Ruebens, Aaron Paul, and Bruce Boxleitner among its voice cast—was cancelled after 19 episodes, despite great reviews and an Emmy win for Art Direction. Disney’s cable networks, which are explicitly aimed at viewers under 14, don’t seem to know how to handle a series that garners fans beyond that age range, even one like Gravity Falls, which is among Disney XD’s highest-rated shows.

We spoke to Hirsch last month when the first episode in the final “Weirdmageddon” arc aired, and in retrospect his language suggests he knew the show’s fate already. “I originally envisioned Gravity Falls as something with a beginning, middle, and an end,” said Hirsch. “I wasn’t sure exactly how many seasons or how many episodes that would be.” That’s essentially what he put into certain terms in his Tumblr post—that Gravity Falls was already over.

Maybe the prolonged hiatuses and irregular scheduling were all part of a master plan by Disney, buying more time to try and convince Hirsch to produce more of the show. If Hirsch’s statement is accurate on its face, along with Disney XD’s corroborating statement, than he indeed made the call to end the show after two seasons. Perhaps, like Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, the arduous production cycle combined with wearing multiple hats behind the scenes took their toll, and the Season 2 narrative offered a convenient place to end. There’s even a theory (on Reddit, of course) that fans’ obsessive deconstruction gave them too much insight about the show’s ultimate twist, so Hirsch himself decided to cut short what was originally meant to be a longer series.

The first part of “Weirdmaggedon” pulled in Louis CK for a cameo as a disembodied head with an arm sticking out the crown of its skull. Tonight’s episode features Jon Stewart as a character named “Judge Kitty Kitty Meow Meow Face-Shwartstein.” Those are the kinds of appearances—and the kinds of characters—that only come from genuine admirers of the show. Through its 38 episodes, Gravity Falls has managed not to talk down to kids about their adolescent fears, while still appealling to older viewers. But through all the uncertainty, Hirsch has been straightforward about what this final triptych of episodes, which equates the end of the twins’ summer (and the beginning of high school) with the apocalypse, has to impart to all the fans of Gravity Falls. “Endings are scary and foreign,” he says. “They split you up emotionally and put you in a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. But with every end of the world, there is a new world that follows.” Considering how big of an impact the show has had on animation fans, our only hope is that Hirsch’s next world will inspire as much devotion as the one that’s ending.

POSTSCRIPT: Just before we published this piece, Disney XD furnished a statement about Hirsch and Gravity Falls. We include it in its entirety not because it’s all germane, but because it gives a degree of insight to the network’s process.

For context, you may be interested to know that Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer, Disney Channels Worldwide, transformed the Disney TV Animation (DTVA) culture into one that is “creator-driven.” He did so because he knew the most important ingredient in crafting a hit show – especially in the world of animation — is a singular, distinctive creative voice that cuts through the rest of the animated landscape. In 2008, he recruited an animation executive, Eric Coleman, and over the last several years, Marsh and Coleman re-focused DTVA’s strategy, increased its output and held the bar higher than ever for fresh, new creator-driven shows. The creative community and talent have embraced this new style of development.

Alex Hirsch’s “Gravity Falls” is one of the unique properties. The creative freedom was a draw for him to pitch it to DTVA. His series, and “Phineas and Ferb” and “Star vs The Forces of Evil,” among others, work so well because they are each the brainchild of a single creator – whose vision remained intact throughout development and production of the series. There’s a long list of animation talent (artists, writers, creators/producers and directors), veteran and new talent alike, working at DTVA as a result of its “creator-driven” philosophy to develop and deliver fresh, interesting entertainment programming for preschoolers, boys, girls, tweens and families.

Like most animated series, the “Gravity Falls” production process takes approximately six months for each episode so rather than stockpile and expect fans to wait for a batch of them, we scheduled each as they were delivered. Unlike most animated comedies, the serialized nature of “Gravity Falls” allows us to create programming events out of each episode.

Our Program Scheduling team created the most strategic, competitive schedule for the series. Importantly, in an “on demand” world, a series such as “Gravity Falls” is ultimately recorded and played back outside of “live” or “same day” viewing. It’s also available on multiple digital platforms.

We measure our success via the broad reach of our properties and the level of engagement our viewers feel with the stories and characters. Disney XD is a kid-targeted, family-inclusive network, so all programming across our platforms must score within kids in order for us to call it a success.

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Gravity Falls’ Many Fans Couldn’t Save It From an Early End