Credit: Cartoon Network

Last week, I wrote a bit about some of the best animation of the year. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s pretty solid. But not long after I wrote that list, a few friends of mine (and some commenters!) wrote me to say that I had overlooked something huge: Over the Garden Wall. Created by Patrick McHale, Over The Garden Wall was a miniseries that ran for five consecutive nights in November on Cartoon Network. It got very little promotion, and passed most people by. But it was short—just 10 eleven-minute episodes long—and the people who brought it to my attention tend to have very good taste, so I decided to watch the whole miniseries in one sitting.

It’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

At first, Over the Garden Wall appears to be a story about two brothers lost in a strange and mysterious woods. There’s Wirt, an anxious teenager, and Gregory, his precocious, oblivious, and adorable little brother. Everything about the show is gorgeous. Rich, somber and surprisingly dark, its world is evocative of early 20th-century animation and classic fairy tales. It’s amazing how well the art straddles the line between Saturday morning twee and contemplative melancholy. It’s like Raggedy Ann by way of Hayao Miyazaki.

The writing is also both moody and whimsical, with fleshed-out characters and very smart dialogue. The relationship between Gregory and Wirt is particularly well done—it’s nearly impossible not to love Gregory, whose naiveté ends up being his greatest strength as he sings and laughs his way through danger. Every line of dialog between the two is important, too—there’s not a second of wasted time in this series, and idle conversation between the brothers often foreshadows what’s to come.

Because Over the Garden Wall might be about how they’re slowly dying.

Critics talk a lot about the Golden Age of Television, but they rarely mention how animation right now is just as inventive and emotional and smart as your Mad Mens and Fargos and True Detectives—if not more so.Sure, those shows are all worth watching—but none have the audacity to be as strange or interesting as what’s happening in animation just about every day.

Over the Garden Wall is remarkably literary. With each reference you research, the world becomes that much more complex and fascinating. For the curious, a good starting point is io9 reader alliterator’s rundown on the show’s many hidden references. The show is also surprisingly scary, with some genuinely horrific imagery lurking in its shadows—but it never indulges in full-on terror. It’s interested in something far more compelling than that.

It’s been a few days, and I haven’t stopped thinking about Over the Garden Wall. There are parts of it that will always be a little bit mysterious, parts that will always be a little bit frightening, parts that will never have a proper name. Watching it is a lot like being in a fairy tale—stray from the path, and you’ll get lost.

The best fairy tales are always the ones where you get lost.[youtube]