It’s a tremendous risk to wax on about how great the most popular adult cartoon on Adult Swim is, and it’s entirely possible doing so will anger a great many people.
Nonetheless, I really like Rick and Morty, and I want to write about it, and this probably won’t be the only time. Rick and Morty, for those who are unaware, is an adult cartoon, on appropriately enough, the adult swim sub-network of cartoon network. Adult Swim has been around for some time, giving birth to such gems as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2020, Frisky Dingo (which birthed Archer), Squidbillies, Lucy Daughter of the Devil, and other fine works. They’ve also had some misses, but that’s the nature of a network that takes risks. Sometimes they pay off. Originally Adult Swim split the typical 22-minute episode in half, airing original programming in an 11-minute format, which led to some wonderfully tight storytelling.
Eventually, the network morphed and now shows a significant amount of live-action programming in addition to its cartoon roots. Personally I think this is too bad, as I find most of the live-action they end up doing to be somewhat lacking, and it cuts into their ability to showcase animators and provide a home for adult animation that isn’t entirely mainstream.
Animation can be a wonderful format because it’s cheap. It’s cheap, and no matter where the characters go, it’s cheap. Enormous logistical tricks, scale models, CGI green screens, and other technical wizardry is simply not necessary when you are just drawing the background. This means stories can have an incredible scope, and go to bizarre, unreal, or impossible locations. One of my disappointments with anime is that it so often fails to explore strange locales. Doing so would be trivial, yet so much anime is entirely prosaic in setting.
The central premise of Rick and Morty is that Rick is essentially a mad-scientist who shows up and starts crashing with his daughter (Beth) who lives with her husband (Jerry) and two children (Summer and Morty). He actively interferes in her marriage, and it’s unclear whether he’s doing so out of concern for his daughter and her children or simply petulance and disdain, though I lean toward the latter interpretation. He has no respect for conventional morals. He’s a disgusting drunk. He’s mean. He uses drugs. He’s callous. He actively risks his grandsons’ life. In short, while you might be imagining something like that relationship between Doc and Marty McFly of Back to the Future, the relationship is rather closer to Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. Though at surprising turns, Rick will risk his life to save Morty. These moments are usually fleeting and generally unexplained, which lends them credence as like most real people he is inconsistent and hypocritical.
Rick and Morty bets big on strange creatures and environments, and explores them, and absolutely refuses to take them seriously. One of the tenets of the show is the multiverse theory, and Rick has invented a portal gun allowing him to travel between realities, as well as cross immense distances instantly. For no explicated reason though, he also has a space car (personal flying saucer) which looks like it is constructed of garbage. Why risk bothers flying places when he can instantly portal there is never explored, it is simply taken as a given that Rick has his reasons.
But Rick’s reasons are often quite dark. He seems to have absolutely not ethical code whatsoever, but rather than finding this bleak hedonism freeing, he is frequently depressed, and tries and fails to commit suicide. It’s an excellent exploration of the pitfalls of intelligence, and far more nuanced than the usual TV take on those with superior intellect, which treats it as a kind of superpower allowing the bearer to solve problems trivially and ignores the larger impact of increased perception and cognition.
While it deals with Rick’s dark super-intelligence the show also explores family dynamics and the complicated and unresolvable tangles we find ourselves in. Beth, taking after her father, is also highly intelligent, while her husband, Jerry, is not. She is initially openly contemptuous of him, but in later seasons softens as she seems to come to terms with, and even embrace her choices. In a shocking twist, the show has real character development.
The masterstroke of worldbuilding that is Rick and Morty though, is that the Beth from season 1 is not the Beth for later seasons. Rick essentially renders the entire human race into “Cronenbergs” and is forced to flee with Morty into a parallel reality, one of the ones where their doubles have coincidentally just died. He warns Morty that they only get a few of these do-overs, but the lesson for the audience is clear. In a show about growth and emotion, nothing matters, and the putative protagonist can simply start-over, with an alternate version of the same family. Part of the mastery of this storytelling is to expose the fact that even though we know that this is a different Beth, and Rick knows it too, he has essentially the same emotional attachment to her. This is fertile ground for exploration, as human sciences move closer to human-like robots and human clones.
This inter-dimensionality also means that we, as audience members, never quite know what is going on. It’s entirely possible that any given episode we are watching is not about the “right” Rick and Morty, the Rick and Morty from Dimension C-137. Given they can hop universes, reset the setting, clone themselves, return to life, wipe away memories, replace those memories, and travel in time, you’d think it would be difficult to go about the process of building a larger narrative structure or engage in worldbuilding. But there are clearly parts of a larger story hinted at. There is an ongoing plot revolving around “evil Morty”, the citadel and the council of Ricks, and possibly Rick’s wife. The very questionable nature of the show, and our inability to know if what we are seeing is supposed to be real in the imagined universe of Rick and Morty, an element reminiscent of Don Quixote or wrestling’s kayfabe, makes teasing apart the hints even more intriguing.
And of course, Rick can break the fourth wall down, heavily implying that he somehow knows he’s in a show about himself, which itself raises further questions of verisimilitude.