As the leaves turn and the crisp autumn chill seeps into the air, one thing becomes crystal clear: It’s Over the Garden Wall season.
Created by Patrick McHale, this 2014 Cartoon Network miniseries nabbed an Emmy award for Outstanding Animated Program, and for good reason. Throughout its 10 stunning episodes, Over the Garden Wall captivates you with two brothers’ odyssey through the strangely beautiful (and beautifully strange) land known as the Unknown. There, they discover curious communities, solve pressing mysteries, and ally themselves with the most unexpected of friends. The only thing they can’t seem to find is their way home.
What makes Over the Garden Wall the ideal fall watch?
Ain’t that just the way.
Credit: Cartoon Network
You can definitely enjoy Over the Garden Wall at any point in the year, but its palette of orange-hued trees, golden sunsets, and dark nights just hits harder in the fall. Plus, the show is the perfect combination of autumn’s coziest and spookiest elements. Falling leaves, piping hot comfort food, and a whole slew of seasonal pumpkins appear alongside treacherous spirits, witches, and an encroaching entity known simply as the Beast (voiced by Samuel Ramey). When you’re in the Unknown, you don’t know if you’re about to be comforted or creeped out — or some strange fusion of the two.
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Our entry points into the Unknown are teenager Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood) and his younger stepbrother Greg (voiced by Collin Dean). They’re lost in this new world and haven’t a clue how to get out. Luckily for them, the denizens of the Unknown are happy to help. Well, most of them are, anyway. A mysterious Woodsman (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) provides Wirt and Greg with shelter, while a talking bluebird named Beatrice (voiced by Melanie Lynskey) offers to take them to a wise woman named Adelaide who could bring them home. Among the rest of the Unknown’s charming ensemble are a town of pumpkin people, a schoolteacher dedicated to educating animals, and a pub full of character archetypes like the Tavern Keeper, the Tailor, and the Highwayman.
While these characters know exactly where they fit into the Unknown’s ecosystem, Greg and Wirt are outliers. Greg, with his cheerful disposition, is endlessly excited about discovering more of the Unknown. He’ll talk to anybody, try anything. He’s got a teapot on his head, a pet rock that spouts Rock Facts, and pants full of candy — he’s like walking childhood whimsy.
By contrast, Wirt is a bundle of teenage angst and fried nerves. He approaches every situation with a heaping amount of trepidation. Pair that with his annoyance with Greg, and you’re looking at two main characters who are excellent foils for each other. Both Greg and Wirt’s reactions to being somewhere as new and bizarre as the Unknown are valid — yet neither quite understands where the other is coming from. Their resulting journey brings them together in masterful yet surprising ways. In fact, the same could be said of the rest of Over the Garden Wall.
You may think you know where a certain plot is going, but the series often plays with your expectations: A sinister old woman may not be as evil as you’d think, or a beautiful ghost may be something else entirely. What you think you see is never the full picture.
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Over the Garden Wall is a beautiful, nostalgic ride with dark undertones
The Woodsman and his lantern.
Credit: Screenshot: HBO Max
Even though Over the Garden Wall came out in 2014, it has a timeless quality to it. You know you’re watching something that was produced in the 21st century, but it could just as easily fit into the landscape of mid-20th-century animation.
That timelessness is due in a large part to the show’s gorgeous animation, which evokes hand-drawn, hand-painted styles that we rarely see in modern animation. Visual inspirations range from vintage Halloween postcards to the work of animator Max Fleischer to the 1890s board game “Game of Frog Pond.” The Unknown is a beautifully crafted world that you’ll want to get lost in again and again, just so you can catch all the show’s lovely visual details.
Adding to Over the Garden Wall’s charm is its soundtrack, a collection of folksy, jazzy songs by McHale and The Blasting Company. “Potatoes and Molasses” is a delightful earworm, while “Over the Garden Wall,” performed by Jack Jones, who voices a frog in the show, has the feel of a classic love song.
The standout number is the show’s title theme, “Into the Unknown,” also sung by Jones. A lone piano accompanies him as he croons about the arrival of autumn and pretending dreams can come true. Like Over the Garden Wall, “Into the Unknown” is haunting yet beautiful. In listening to it, you’ve gained something special. But at the same time the song acknowledges a loss — of spring, of memories, of simpler times.
Much of Over the Garden Wall concerns itself with these kinds of loss. For both Greg and Wirt, this is a coming-of-age story, and therefore, involves a loss of innocence. For many of the characters they meet, this is a story about overcoming grief. The cause of much of that grief, as well as a large part of Greg and Wirt’s emotional journey, is the Beast.
Antlered, wreathed in darkness, and sporting a deep, operatic voice, the Beast looms large over the woods of the Unknown. Encounters with him — and with several of the Unknown’s spookier citizens — are genuinely frightening. From demonic dogs to hungry ghosts, Over the Garden Wall doesn’t pull its punches with its scares. Nor does it shy away from any of the existential dread such explorations of loss can evoke. The series balances this darker, more mature content with lighthearted moments and musical bangers, ensuring that people of all ages and entertainment preferences will find something to love here.
Over the Garden Wall clocks in at ten 11-minute-long episodes, so you can binge it all the way through or spread it out and savor it. Whichever option you choose, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped out of time and into some long-lost Halloween special.
I recommend bundling up in a blanket, grabbing a mug of tea or apple cider, and jumping right into the Unknown alongside Greg and Wirt. There’s no better way to spend your fall. And that’s a Rock Fact!
Over the Garden Wall is now streaming on HBO Max (opens in a new tab)and Hulu. (opens in a new tab)