THIS REVIEW IS MEANT TO BE READ AFTER YOU'VE SEEN THE EPISODE. I WON'T BE GIVING A PLOT SYNOPSIS FOR THE EPISODE AND I WILL BE REFERENCING SPECIFIC EVENTS, SO IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE EPISODE THEN THIS WON"T MAKE MUCH SENSE.
Tourist Trapped is best in its first minute, which for a pilot is probably one of the best compliments out there. That first minute of Gravity Falls is exciting, mysterious, and funny all at once, even if you don't quite know it until after it's over. The image of two 12 year olds fleeing a giant, dark, unseen creature in a golf cart is funny, but when you add the deadpan voiceover of Dipper, stunning animation, and a perfect bit of comedic timing with the ending freeze frame, you get an intro that is guaranteed to make any viewer stick around just to see what the hell they just watched. It does no harm too that that great intro is followed by one of the best theme songs currently airing on TV.
What I'm trying to say is that Tourist Trapped excels as a pilot. It's first minute introduces the humor, it's theme song introduces the mystery, and the rest blends it together gracefully. You could watch just the first two minutes of this episode and know the mood the show would take for its entire first season, which for a first episode of a show that practically defines itself on major twists and turns is impressive. That's not to say the first episode spoils too much or makes the direction the show is going to take as a whole too obvious, but that it does a great job presenting us with all the information we need up front in an entertaining way. It's best strength is in how it connects us with Dipper. His personality is the most defined of the main cast during this episode, his neurotic tendencies displayed along with his penchant for over-analysis. This is mostly shown through voicover, an element that the show wisely drops after this episode. It's not bad per say, and it has its moments(like the intro or when Dipper finishes tailing Norman and Mabel), but it seems a bit out of place even when watching the show for the first time. It's easy to see why its there, as it would take much longer to set up the story of the twins vacationing in Gravity Falls without it, but directly hearing Dipper's thoughts seems like it would get old quick. That's probably a big part of why it's only in about half the episode, as during the action and comedic dialog it would mess too much with the timing.
The other characters fare a little worse than Dipper. While he's defined well its easy to see that the other members of the main cast are still being figured out by the writers and performers. Wendy stays in character with her later self, but she only has 2 lines so there's not much for her to do. Soos is pretty close, but he's a little less lovable and more random than his later portrayal. The advice he gives Dipper also sort of fits how he's later portrayed, but not really. Soos is nice, but he's not that smart, so him having such a concentrated and well thought out opinion on what it take to prove the existence of the paranormal, even if it amounts to "You gotta have evidence" is a little weird. Having less of a teaching moment between him and Dipper and more of a conversation establishing Soos's randomness might have worked better, but what we got is by no means bad. Stan is grossly underused in this episode, but most of the characters are so it doesn't come across as that much of a missed oppurtunity until you see just how funny he is later in the show. Almost whenever Stan opens his mouth in a scene that isn't purely dramatic later in the show he pours out pure comedy gold. Almost every joke he says hits a bullseye, so it's strange to see him take a backseat during the more comical scenes to Dipper and Mabel's antics.
And on that note, Mabel. Mabel is half of Gravity Falls as whole, but here she's definitely a secondary character, if a big one. Her personality feels the least like her later incarnations, less of a random goof and more of an immature airhead. When I imagine Mabel from the first two episodes of Gravity Falls (This and The Legend of the Gobblewonker) I think of her as an entirely different character from the one portrayed in later episodes. Some of this is purely how she acts in general, but a lot of it has to do with her interactions with Dipper. In the first couple of episodes Dipper and Mabel aren't nearly as close as they are in later episodes. They definitely love each other, but they're not quite the inseparable pair that they are during the rest of the show. Initially I thought of this as a flaw, but I eventually realized that even if it wasn't intentional it still works wonderfully as a means to show Dipper and his sister growing closer. Before they move to Gravity Falls they probably had their own friends and while they saw each other a lot they most likely had other people to confide in. Here in the middle of Oregon, at least initially, they have each other, which causes them to bond more. But that means that during the first two episodes there definitely aren't as many great moments between Dipper and Mabel like there are later in the show. This episode fares better than The Legend of the Gobblewonker in that regard, but it's still a price that needed to be paid in order to show the characters grow.
While the lack of closeness with Dipper is needed, Mabel's out of character moments aren't. She seems much less smart here, which can partially be blamed on her lack of knowledge about Gravity Falls and its dangers, but is also just not right for her later characterization. The Mabel that I and other fans know from later in the show would not say things like "I like you" as a tall, threatening, man/teenager advances towards her. Moments like these and her reaction to the leaf blower incident("That was fun") are funny, but they don't really fit her. She's naive early on in the show, but she's clearly still practical and knows what she's doing, which goes against her doing things like sticking her face into a leaf blower and then saying that it was fun. It feels like the writers didn't quite know what to do with Mabel since this episode was mostly using her plot as a way to set up Dipper's character, so they just had her say wherever funny stuff they could think of. The consequence is that some of those jokes really don't work for who she is.
But the jokes that do are great. The MEOW-WOW sweater is still one of my favorites and her adorable surprise at finding muscle on Norman's arm is hilarious. Mabel, like Stan, is an incredible comedic resource and it shows during most of the episode. The rest of the jokes are more hit and miss, but lean closer to the good side. Most of them hit right where they mean to, but it's clear that the show is still developing its sense of humor throughout. Stranger things like Mabel knocking over the can of beans and Soos eating chocolate right after one of his lines seem like they're supposed to be funny, but they just come across as out of place with the rest of the show's jokes.
But among all that criticism lies the simple fact that Tourist Trapped is still a fantastic episode of TV, even if it's "only" really good as an episode of Gravity Falls. A majority of the jokes are great, the characters even if inconstant with their later portrayals are funny as all hell, and the entire show's premise is set in record time. I didn't even mention the great tease of Grunkle Stan going into the door behind the vending machine, which kept everyone wondering for the entire season, and that's because beneath all the mystery and humor Tourist Trapped is an excellent way to start Gravity Falls.