Nihilism has never been funnier.
It took me a while to get to a point where I could bring myself to write a review about this show. Mainly because I was trying to fashion a coherent narrative of my thoughts about this show, but also because I was vacillating between considering the show “bloggable” and putting it in my pile of “entertainments that need no critical reflection”. But I decided that I have something to say about Rick and Morty, and so here I am.
People might disagree with me, but I sort of think that Rick and Morty is a kind of science-fiction analogue to later-season Family Guy, in a bit of the way Futurama was to the Simpsons. After six seasons or so, Family Guy began to head down the path of favoring comedy over character development. Characters like Meg turned into one-note punching bags, and Peter slowly transformed from lovable oaf to a funny but contemptible idiot.
Rick and Morty is similar in that none of its characters are particularly nice or likable people. Rick, the mad scientist genius, is a nihilistic and sociopathic misanthrope. His grandson and sidekick, Morty, is a bit of a high-school loser type wallflower. Morty’s father, Jerry, is prissy, neurotically insecure, and incompetent at his job. His mother, Beth, is assertive but comes across as somewhat selfish and chronically dissatisfied at her family. His sister, Summer, is the most well-adjusted of the bunch, but she still screams “high school superficiality”, at least at first glance. Despite their general unlikeability, they are not unsympathetic. They’re all too human, with human flaws and failings, brimming with authenticity. It is a surprisingly honest dissection of that stereotypical American family unit, in the same way that the Simpsons and Family Guy are.
Rick and Morty, however, goes a little further. It veers dangerously towards nihilism. The first episode starts out with Rick almost destroying Earth in a fit of pique. But the nihilism emerges even more strongly because of the show’s science-fictional premise. Rick’s specialty, you might say, is that he is able to access the multiverse by using a gun that can create portals between dimensions. This creates a setting in which our main characters can wreak all sorts of havoc and resolve the chaos caused by their hijinks by jumping into another dimension. Rick can be as sociopathic as he wants, even to the point of destroying the world, and escape into another dimension with nary a consequence.The destruction of entire worlds is just another point of black humor in this show.
While this sounds like the kind of cross-episodic “world reset” cartoon logic common in Looney Tunes and the like, in Rick and Morty, it is anything but. The actions of the characters follow them across episodes and across dimensions. In one episode Rick and Morty irreversibly turn everyone on Earth into slavering mutants. How do they resolve this? Rick beams into another dimension where their counterparts happen to have died in a freak accident, and the duo take their places and bury their analogs in the backyard. In Rick and Morty, Rick doesn’t conduct his experiments out of anything but a desire to stave off the depressing boredom that comes with tolerating the existence of the mediocrity around him. And the show veers towards nihilism by saying that Rick can do anything he wants, because he can escape into another dimension. But the show avoids nihilism by showing us that ultimately, those choices persist and the characters have to live with them. Morty, in particular, is the show’s limping conscience, meager though that might be. And he is rewarded for it by being the show’s punching bag, and the target of some of its darkest moments. Morty is, on occasion, almost raped, endless dimensional counterparts of him end up tortured for eternity, and perhaps worst of all, he somehow has to live with the knowledge that his actions led to the destruction of an entire world, even as he lives in the place of a person who died so that he could take his place.
And yet, he lives on. His family, bickering and dissatisfied and insecure as they are, lives on. They stick together through thick and thin. Rick doesn’t reach a point where he feels the need to destroy the world, and even as he treats his grandson like chattel he genuinely cares for him at some abstract level, despite the fact that there is an infinity of Morty replacements from which to choose.
The cross-dimensional setting also affords the show to display an amazing amount of creativity. With Rick’s gadgets, the show’s characters are able to have adventures in any number and variety of outlandish and hilarious universes, somewhat like Family Guy’s manatee gags, except in-narrative. Every episode is the result of the fruition of an amazing science-fiction idea or premise, often cleverly parodied from other science fiction universes. For those qualities alone, Rick and Morty might have been a fearlessly inventive Adult Swim staple. But of course, it pushes the boundaries of acceptable television, like all good cartoons do. It invites us, even exhorts us, to laugh at the meaninglessness of existence. It veers dreadfully close to the event horizon of nihilism and pulls out only at the last instant by showing us that humanity, imperfect as it is, persists and struggles in the face in futility and meaninglessness. Now that’s a pretty heavy burden for a cartoon to bear.
Anyway, just to highlight some of my favorite episodes:
S1E3 – Anatomy Park
An adventure in “Anatomy Park”, a theme park set inside the human body. On the list because of the amoeba scientist guy whose being an amoeba is never questioned in the entire episode, as well as the climax, where a giant naked corpse the size of a continent explodes over the continental United States, showing everyone in blood. Some boundaries were meant to be crossed.
S1E5 – Meeseeks and Destroy
On the list because of the creative premise of Mr Meeseeks, a race of blue beings that are summoned into this universe with one of Rick’s machines and will do anything to cease existing, even murder.
S1E8 – Rixty Minutes
Rick sets up the television to pick up signals from the multiverse. Cue a whole episode of bingeing on TV. On the list because the creators were obviously having too much fun improv-ing television shows from different dimensions. Also a window into the family’s home life.
S1E9 – Something Ricked this Way Comes
On the list because of the hilarious post-credits montage, where Rick and Summer get jacked and beat various people up.
I give this show: 4 out of 5 Abradolf Lincers