vulture recommends

Over the Garden Wall Is the Perfect Fall TV Show

Pumpkin people, presumed fans of fall. Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Network

This story originally ran last fall. We’re republishing it because it is, once again, fall.

There’s finally a chill in the air, a breeze in one’s step, and a nip in one’s nips. Fall is here, bringing with it the sense memories of walking home from a new grade of school, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the smell of distant bonfires, and staying inside to watch Nora Ephron movies. It’s “bouquet of newly sharpened pencils” weather. Under normal circumstances, it would also be the start of a new fall TV season, although even that might be kind of a quaint notion in the era of streamers thinking, “Let’s drown everyone in a constant spigot of content.” So instead of telling you about the best fall TV to watch this year, I will instead recommend what I consider to be the most fall TV: the animated masterpiece Over the Garden Wall. 

In 2014, Cartoon Network aired the show, its first-ever limited series, as a ten-episode self-contained story by Adventure Time alumnus Patrick McHale. For anyone who laments how CGI animation has all but wiped out hand-drawn movies in Hollywood over the last two decades, the place to look is television, where artists have been given the space to work in the medium and win over adult fans. But even among such popular, lauded recents series as Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, and Regular Show, Over the Garden Wall immediately felt different and special, hewing to its eclectic inspirations and beautiful blend of invention and pastiche. 

For one of the most unique animated series to air in the past decade, Over the Garden Wall is based on a premise as familiar and old as folklore itself: Two brothers are lost in the woods, and as they try to find their way home, they come across strangers — some helpful, some malicious, each odder than the last. Big brother Wirt (Elijah Wood) is a worrywart in a conical hat and cape, while Greg (Collin Dean) is an openhearted little adventurer in short pants. They are joined by a talking bluebird with a secret (Melanie Lynskey) and continuously cross paths with a woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) who warns them of an evil sentient darkness called the Beast.

This is all the stuff of classic fairy tales, but the plot of Over the Garden Wall doesn’t matter as much as the aesthetic. In The Art of Over the Garden Wall book published in 2017, New England’s fall foliage was cited as a major influence on the look and environment of the show. Episodes begin with lingering shots of a burnt-umber leaf trembling on a branch, or plump orange and red trees along a riverbank as a paddle-wheel steamer drifts by. There is such a deep focus and intentionality to the way that the natural setting is animated, and its child’s-eye view is so enchanting, that the closest comparison I can make is to Hayao Miyazaki. As I wrote in last year’s Thanksgiving what-to-watch guide, it’s like “if Ichabod and Mr. Toad were made by Ghibli instead of Disney.” And all of that beautiful fall flora is met by enchanted fauna: oversize turkeys that pull carts like oxen, frogs dressed in their holiday finest on their way to hibernate for the winter in the muddy riverbed, a raccoon in a newsboy cap who carries a bindle because he ran away from the schoolhouse full of Rosemary Wells–ish critters.

There’s an atmospheric element of Over the Garden Wall that evokes both Miyazaki and autumn, as well: the uncanny mild horror. Over the Garden Wall frequently nods to some of the most influential works of animation history in dreamlike sequences, like the menacing Highwayman and his Cab Calloway–style rotoscoped blues, or scenes where Greg and Wirt try to escape the Beast by running at night through the woods, echoing the early horror-animation of Snow White running through a forest of grimacing trees. A character named Auntie Whispers and her niece Lorna appear as distant Western cousins of the Spirited Away ghouls, dressed in 17th-century Colonial wear and sequestered to their little cottage. In the show’s second chapter, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee,” Greg and Wirt come across an eerie town of pumpkin people preparing for some sort of harvest festival. The creepy beats are sometimes left mysterious, but are often followed with surreal, modern humor. And in a late-in-the-story twist, Halloween plays a major component. (An inspiration for some of the character design, according to the book, was the artwork on vintage Halloween cards.)

The other ingredient that makes this show the television equivalent of a mug of hot cider is the music, composed and performed for the series by “gypsy-folk band” the Blasting Company. It’s full of inviting rustic fiddle sounds and plinky-plunky piano. Chris Isaak performs on the soundtrack, as does Jack Jones, who sings the theme song, which was called “Into the Unknown” before that “Into the Unknown” was even a glimmer in Adele Dazeem’s eye. “How the gentle wind beckons through the leaves as autumn colors fall,” Jones sings, voicing Greg’s frog. Critics, haters, and skeptics could definitely see it all as too twee; it’s like an animated Decemberists album, and that’s not for everyone. But it’s a children’s show, and fall is a time for basic joys.

So while shows like Gilmore Girls and Friday Night Lights are contenders for the best fall TV, I present Over the Garden Wall as the show that most immerses you in the season. It’s getting darker earlier and earlier this time of year, and the world out there is so unknowable. Stop doom-scrolling and shroud yourself for a couple hours in the mysteries and pleasures of Over the Garden Wall. You’ll be glad you did. And that’s a rock fact.

Over the Garden Wall is available on Hulu and HBO Max.

Over the Garden Wall Is the Perfect Fall TV Show