I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: The reason this TV column looks different from others is that I’m not much of a “TV Fan” by the current definition of the word. I don’t really do so-called “appointment television” outside of sporting events, and even my DVR viewing is typically weeks behind schedule.
During the week, I’m usually out at movie screenings or otherwise on the road during prime time, and my overnights are spent writing columns and editing videos – during which the TV stays on, but mainly tuned to either news or comfort-food reruns I can half-watch in the background. Especially House, Law & Order, Adult Swim… Lord, how my productivity will skyrocket once FXX’s programming switches over to “The Simpsons, plus other stuff maybe” this Fall. On Sunday nights, while the rest of my Twitter feed is exploding over whichever HBO or AMC drama is The Greatest Achievement In Human History this cycle, I’m usually busy polishing this column or The Big Picture – unless The Venture Bros are airing new episodes, of course.
All of which explains why it took me so long to even bother watching Rick & Morty. Well, part of why.
The other part was that, frankly, it didn’t look or sound that promising. Even if I did eventually join the geek-journo consensus that Community was indeed a great show, the prospect of creator Dan Harmon getting to build a whole series out of the meta/sci-fi digressions that work so well as tangents on that show sounded like overkill waiting to happen. Another red flag? The obvious name and design allusions of the title characters to Doc Brown and Marty McFly.
Revoke my GenX card if you must, but if there’s one 80s classic I never ever need to see “affectionately parodied” again it’s Back To The Future, a great film so easy to spoof that “let’s make fun of Back To The Future” was pretty-much the literal plot of Back To The Future II & III. In other words, the whole thing looked and sounded like an extended Family Guy cutaway: “What if Doc Brown was a jerk???”
Well, as it turns out I was wrong. Really wrong. Wronger than I’ve been in a long time – and I get pretty damn drunk sometimes, so I’ve made a lot of wrong life-choices (like, for example, typing “I get pretty damn drunk sometimes” on The Internet, where exaggeration-for-effect goes to die.) Not only was I wrong about probably not liking this show, I think I might love it. Once you get past its rough, aggressive exterior, Rick & Morty reveals itself as a kind of comic miracle. A broad-swiping cartoon sitcom that lives comfortably in the “skin” of a Family Guy-style crude-for-crudity’s-sake belly-laugher while simultaneously existing as a work of genuine high-concept science fiction humor almost good enough to fill the Futurama-shaped hole in the genre.
It’s a hard show to describe without sounding like your just throwing out “sounds great on paper” ideas that even a bad producer would recognize as unsustainable beyond a one-off sketch. Is it “Doctor Who, but as an American dysfunctional-family sitcom”? Yes, but better. Is it “Dexter’s Laboratory all grown up”? Yes, but better. “Inspector Spacetime: The Series”? Yes, but better. Even simply listing off its obvious (intentional or not) cartoon history influences is liable to sound like overpromising. That list includes Rocko’s Modern Life, Liquid TV, The Head, Ralph Bakshi, the aforementioned Dexter’s Lab to name a few. Are you describing a show or trying to send Western animation fans into fits of nostalgic priapism???
The premise (setup, really) is disarmingly simple: After a lengthy and still largely unexplained absence (possibly from the planet, possibly from reality itself), aging mad scientist Rick Sanchez has reconnected with his family. He has moved into the average suburban home of his now-adult daughter Beth, her disapproving husband Jerry Smith, annoyed teenaged daughter Summer and younger teenaged son Morty, who has become (not entirely by choice) Grandpa’s super-science sidekick.
While clearly designed as a shady version of Doc Emmett Brown, Rick’s mad science has (deliberately) more in common with The Doctor. He’s a guy who casually travels through time, to other planets and across dimensions, with access to technologies that may as well be magic and the secrets of the universe at his fingertips. You’d think this would make Morty a lucky kid – his grandfather is a time-jumping Science Wizard with alien pals and laser guns! – but as the show opens they’ve already been at this for a while we’re made to understand that the wonder of Grandpa Rick has already worn off. Morty regards him with the weary exasperation of a real life kid whose grandfather is bouncing back from rehab (or prison) rather than transdimensional misadventures.
Instead of making Rick “whimsical” or enlightened, this life seems to have ruined him. His gravelly voice and constant belching/farting betray a (barely) functioning alcoholic, which would be a big deal if he wasn’t a habitual abuser of drugs (and worse) culled from across the space-time continuum. It seems like a cheap joke at first (“Huh huh! Doctor Who would totally be a stoner!”) but soon makes complete sense. This is a guy who lives on a level Earthlings weren’t built for, and his all-too-base vices are probably the main thing keeping him human.
In Morty, Rick may have an accomplice, but also maybe a twisted sort of redemption. A guy who ends up as the Hunter Thompson of the multiverse must have started out as a wide-eyed dweeb like Morty, right? And that’s the gimmick: The super-scientist as (occasionally) well-meaning/bad-acting human wrecking ball. If there’s a disastrous consequence to a seemingly miraculous sci-fi development, it’ll happen to Rick – and Morty will pay for it.
At one point in the pilot, Morty breaks both of his legs after trusting his grandfather that he can walk down a cliff with a pair of special shoes (that Rick forgot to tell him to turn on.) Rick teleports off to another reality, returning moments later with an over-the-counter “cure for two broken legs” and then casually reveals that he actually hung around the “perfect” alternate universe (since they’d cured EVERYTHING including aging, Rick’s rare visible old age made him a celebrity) having orgies with supermodels for a few years just because he could. Morty’s dissonance over whether to be mad about Rick taking his sweet time when he… sort of didn’t, is hilarious. A darker version comes in a later episode, “Rick Potion #9, where Rick’s solution to their having ruined the world (short version: a love-potion meant to help Morty at a school dance mutates into a pheromone-virus outbreak) is to beam off to a near-identical reality where “they” just died and quietly take their doppelgangers places. For Rick it’s practically a reflex – crack a beer, integrate and chill out – but a final shot lingers on a Morty’s horrified expression: “How many times has this maniac done this!?”
Not that Morty is always the innocent one: In “Raising Gazorpazorp,” (which really does play out like they found a great unfilmed Futurama script and switched-out the character names) he begs Rick to buy him a sex robot from an interdimensional pawn shop. Of course, the sexbot turns out to be an alien fertility surrogate which subsequently gives birth to Morty’s rapidly-growing monster son, sending Rick and Morty’s vapid sister Summer off to its female-ruled homeworld (their universal greeting: “I’m here if you want to talk” instead of “hello”) so that Summer can beg Earth’s salvation from the Matriarchy on… unique terms. “Maybe on your world separation of the genders is the right thing to do, but on our world a certain percentage of our males… are born gay! Which is why my clothes are so much better than yours!”
Rick, too, has his moments of humanity. In “Meeseeks And Destroy,” (considered by many to be the best episode of Season 1) he grudgingly let’s Morty pick the day’s adventure on a bet, leading them to a fairytale kingdom of fantasy folk and candy creatures that looks an awful lot like a piss-take of Adventure Time’s twee hipster whimsy. And, holy crap, is there anything in the animation genre more straight-up ballsy than taking a SHOT at Adventure Time? You might as well drop-kick a Make-A-Wish kid! However, this episode culminates in an alarmingly dark moment where a sentient jellybean tries to rape Morty in a bathroom stall.
It’s the darkest moment in a series full of them, even though Morty fights his attacker off and gets away. But the key is watching Rick (silently) put together what’s actually happened when his grandson comes sulking back asking to abandon the adventure and just go home. For the first time (that we’ve seen, at least) he sort of acts like the Magic Grandpa figure he’d be in a non-satiric version of this series. He goes all in to make sure the adventure can wind up as positively as Morty envisioned it and also popping back in, on his own terms, to make sure that the jellybean pays for what he did. If the show has an unspoken rule, it’s that NOBODY gets to hurt Rick’s family but Rick.
I could spend a whole column talking about everything great from the shows inaugural season: The hilarious (and horrifying) implications of Mister Meeseeks. Rick building a microbe-sized zoo (a Jurassic Park but for infamous diseases instead of dinosaurs) in the intestines of a homeless man. A Titanic (the movie) role-playing vacation hit by disaster when the ship fails to sink. The fact that Rick uses “Cronenberg” as a verb. By the time things rolled around to a “shit just got real” revelation for Morty in the season finale (“Wubba lubba dub dub,” Rick’s catchphrase, actually has an unexpected English translation), what might’ve been a maudlin walkback for any other show feels earned and real: “Oooooh. That’s what this show is about.”
This is easily one of the best first seasons of a series I’ve ever watched (even Venture Bros. didn’t quite realize it could be more than just a Johnny Quest spoof until Trial of The Monarch.) It’s doubly surprising to see something arrive so fully-formed on Adult Swim, whose “What the hell, let’s try it!” approach to original programming often results in shows that spend a whole first-run figuring out what they want to be. Case in point: Moral Orel, which went from a tiresome one joke premise (“LOL Christianity!”) to brutal heartbreaking pathos in a a single episode (and then wrapped up with a series finale that somehow manages to be soul shattering and life affirming.) But this show? It knew exactly what it wanted to be right off the bat, even if it’s sneaky about letting you know what that is.
Rick & Morty is the best kind of TV surprise. The show you didn’t know you needed in your life. The first season just recently concluded, most of the episodes are online now (and will be incessantly re-run because this is Adult Swim.) If even one sentence in this column sounded intriguing to you, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.