Review of Rick and Morty (2013)
Seen in 2020.
This review refers to the first four seasons.
An alcoholic 70-year-old “mega-genius” and his 14-year-old grandson, patterned after Doc and Marty from Back to the Future (1985), go on disturbing adventures throughout the multiverse.
Nihilistic SF adventure. The unholy bastard child of animated sitcoms like The Simpsons (1989) and Family Guy (1999), the zany action of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) and fine dysteleological science fiction like the horror of H. P. Lovecraft or the mechanistic thought experiments of Ted Chiang. Rick and Morty is uncommonly well written, both in its plotting and in its uncanny callbacks, often turning the thumbscrews on some minor character for metafictional purposes, driving home additional pain.
The motto of the writers seems to be, as Rick says in season 3, episode 9 (“The ABC’s of Beth”): “When you know nothing matters, the universe is yours.” This is their main conclusion from what Morty says to his sister in season 1 when he reveals he’s buried in their yard: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die.” It’s an edgelord reaction to the bleakness of Red Dwarf (1988) with the queasily comic cartoon mortality of the egg and the doughboy in “The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon” (1933). Indeed, the creative vision could never have been realized without the medium of animation and the execution is often joyously rich and fluid. The highs are amazing, like everything about season 1, episode 10 (“Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind”) and its follow-ups, or my favourite: Season 2, episode 2 (“Mortynight Run”), the one with Jerry daycare, the ultra-immersive video game Roy, and a counterintuitive, psychedelic experiment in utilitarian ethics. The episode after that, “Auto Erotic Assimilation”, pulls out the corollary: When you know nothing matters, you know you don’t matter.
If Rick and Morty had been planned from start to finish, to run for about two seasons, it would have been a masterpiece. Alas, as of 2020, the plan is to run it forever. This means that, as in the aforementioned sitcoms, characters are not allowed to age and the family situation is not allowed to evolve. The parents of the central family, Beth and Jerry, are traditional for the genre in that Beth is relatively intelligent and attractive while Jerry is more feeble-minded and grotesque. They get divorced at the opening of season 3 and get back together again before the season is over. The unlikely latter development was ostensibly made to soothe Beth’s existential dread that she might have replaced herself with an exact duplicate, a reason which does not make sense even if she was. Compare the swift resolution of season 2, episode 7, also about their marriage.
The real reason for Beth’s decision is status quo ante, the curse of American TV. Paradoxically, an audience that is clearly on board for vertiginous, disorienting, soul-crushing vistas of grand science fiction is assumed to be put off by any change to a fictional family’s situation. I would much rather have seen Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland moving on to another project than keep this one going by such dirty tricks.
To fill the time, the writing is increasingly focused on parodies. For example, the first half of season 4 is, in order:
- Akira (1988) with Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
- The A plot is not parody-focused; the B plot satirizes dating apps, like “Hang the DJ” (2017).
- Heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven (2001).
- Western dragon fan culture of, for example, Eragon (2006) or How to Train Your Dragon (2010), extending to e.g. Pete’s Dragon (1977).
- The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) with The Terminator (1984) and A Christmas Carol (1843).
Each of these comes with fun twists and good detail work. I would gladly have watched a cel-style Robot Chicken (2005) about Doc Brown and Marty McFly if it was done this well, but I don’t like Rick and Morty becoming that show; it’s disconnected from the best parts of their own show. The next episode (number 6) lampoons this very idea of a “story train”: The contemporary franchise driven formulaically by commercial instead of artistic concerns. The rest of the season picks up nicely, doing good things with the parody of The Puppet Masters (1951) and Alien (1979). Most importantly, the season finale teases an upset of status quo ante—the show’s only hope in the long term—but simultaneously mocks “overserialization”.
References here: BoJack Horseman (2014), Mob Psycho 100 (2016), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Final Space (2018), SSSS Gridman (2018), “Zima Blue” (2019), “Swarm” (2022).