This story was originally published in October 2016 as part of Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series. Two years later, Over the Garden Wall is a fall viewing requirement. It’s one of those shows that reveals something new to love every time you watch it (which you can do right now, because it’s currently on Hulu). Read on to find out why we still love Over the Garden Wall.
In 2014, Cartoon Network released a weird little show called Over the Garden Wall. If you’re looking for something spooky to curl up with on Halloween, it’s my number-one recommendation.
Over the Garden Wall is a surreal American folktale about two boys lost in the woods. The series doesn’t waste any time telling us how they got lost, or why they were in the woods in the first place. Like Wirt and Greg, we’re dropped straight into the Unknown.
Wirt is a sullen, dramatic teenager prone to reciting wistful poetry, and Greg, his half brother, is a Chaotic Good 5-year-old who wants everyone to be happy. The sibling dynamic lends gravity to the familiar odd-couple pairing. The comedy and tension don’t just come from two people with different personalities navigating a wacky situation. Wirt is responsible for Greg, even if he doesn’t want to be. And there are real dangers in the woods: witches and wild gorillas, and a shadowy Beast that steals souls.
For me, watching Over the Garden Wall feels like falling into a dream. Many of Wirt and Greg’s encounters are completely surreal, like the roadside inn where everyone sings musical numbers and insists that Wirt must be either the Young Lover or the Pilgrim.
“I don’t really like labels. I’m sort of just myself,” he tells them, before being interrupted by the Highwayman singing a jazzy song about his dirty work.
It makes no damn sense, but that's the whole point. Greg and Wirt’s journey is a darkly comedic nightmare that they can’t wake up from. For every quip or visual gag, there’s an unsettling reminder that the woods are deadly. Sometimes the visual gags and the death metaphors are one and the same, like when Wirt opens a door in Pottsfield to find a turkey taking a nap on a table.
Seriously, that's just a turkey resting its head. What do you mean it looks like the scene of a turkey murder? This is a fun kids show!
If you enjoy the humor of shows like Adventure Time, you’ll probably find Over the Garden Wall hilarious as well. Showrunner Patrick McHale served as a creative director and writer on Adventure Time and as a writer and storyboarder on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.
The Greg character was inspired by McHale’s own young son, and I think this is part of why the show struck such a chord with me. Greg is hilarious and annoying in equal measure, which anyone who has spent time around young kids can relate to. But as things become more dangerous for Greg and Wirt, Over the Garden Wall makes viewers confront the fear of losing a child that you were supposed to protect. I won’t spoil where Over the Garden Wall ends up, except to say it's smart and poignant.
I notice something new every time I watch Over the Garden Wall. The episodes are full of references to everything from nursery rhymes to Dante’s Inferno and old cartoons. One sequence is a straight-up homage to animation from the 1930s. If you’re done with the show and want a detailed look at all the symbolism and references, there's a great series already written for you here.
My favorite stories are always ones that feel heavily grounded in a place. That’s why Over the Garden Wall’s quirky Americana is so important to me. It’s a fairy tale, but it mostly avoids the Western European aesthetic that so many fairy tales adopt. There’s nothing wrong with Europe, but the American aesthetic makes Over the Garden Wall feel distinct among other fantasy or fairy tale cartoons. We have a rich, weird folk history in this country, and watching Over the Garden Wall made me wonder why we don’t put it to more use.
The series is 10 episodes long, with each episode clocking in at just 11 minutes. You can watch the whole thing easily in one sitting, and I recommend it. You can start now: Cartoon Network made the first episode available on YouTube. Make some cider or cocoa, and settle in with a blanket and some friends for a heck of a good time.