Monday, December 02, 2019

"Rick and Morty": review


I had somehow managed to avoid the cultural phenomenon known as "Rick and Morty" for a long time. The brainchild of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland (Roiland voices both Rick and Morty), "Rick and Morty" is a sitcom-style sci-fi cartoon chronicling the cosmic/comic misadventures of mad-scientist Rick Sanchez and his feckless grandson Morty. These escapades routinely involve other planets, other universes, and other multiverse versions of Ricks and Mortys. Rick, the lone Sanchez in the family, is the father of insecure daughter Beth Smith, who is a horse surgeon. A hundred times more insecure than Beth is her husband Jerry Smith, a loser who often seems to find himself unemployed. Their two children are fourteen-year-old Morty and seventeen-year-old Summer. Morty accompanies Rick on his wild adventures; Summer often wishes she could come along, and she occasionally does. Morty, despite being eternally stressed out by the moral implications of Rick's callous immorality, retains a certain nebbishy optimism through it all. Summer grows as a character over the course of the four current seasons, and Jerry and Beth's marriage suffers through many trials as everyone works through his or her anxieties and insecurities.

Because "Rick and Morty" is a cartoon, the episodes often push the limits when it comes to high-concept sci-fi, often with the purpose of skewering more self-serious sci-fi and other TV and movie genres. Fart jokes abound, and most of the aliens that Rick and Morty encounter are Freudian in nature, with body parts that often look like sopping-wet scrotums or weeping vaginas with fangs. Much like "The Simpsons," "Rick and Morty" has managed to attract a number of big-name guest stars including Keith David, Joel McHale, Danny Trejo, Peter Serafinowicz, Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert, Nathan Fillion, James Callis, and Tricia Helfer (the latter two of "Battlestar Galactica" fame).

I tend to think the style of the show's humor is similar to the humor found in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels of Douglas Adams: it's all ridiculous, all the time. One theme of the show is that science trumps pseudoscience and spirituality (which doesn't explain the Season 4 appearance of the god Hephaestus), and yet the "science" on display in each episode is definitely of the magical/nonsensical variety. The series is self-conscious enough to allow for fourth-wall breaks, usually by Rick, who seems to understand that his existence is limited to the confines of a TV show. There is also little attempt to anchor the viewer in a "home" reality that would keep everything centered: in one episode, Rick and Morty end up "Cronenberging" (i.e., horrifically mutating) the entire population of Earth, which necessitates a move to a neighboring parallel universe in which everyone is still normal. From that point on, this new Earth becomes the base for Rick and Morty's further adventures, and only one mention is ever made, in later episodes, of their home dimension. The show unsentimentally brunts its way forward; another theme of "Rick and Morty" is No regrets; never look back.

The existence of an infinite number of parallel universes, with parallel versions of the show's characters (including non-human iterations of those characters), hints at a kind of ultimate meaninglessness: why bother doing anything if some version of you, somewhere, is already doing it? I've written about the metaphysical messiness of "frothing" multiverse narratives before, but "Rick and Morty" may well be a show that fully embraces that ontological jumble, using the multiverse as a playground for all sorts of twisted narratives. Rick, who is a constantly belching alcoholic, is fully aware of the nihilistic nature of reality, but this seems to give him little comfort, as he is also given to occasional bouts of depression. And when he isn't depressed, his boredom with being the smartest man in the universe drives him to give himself odd challenges, e.g., transmogrifying himself into a pickle in the Season 3 "Pickle Rick" episode to see whether he can manage to survive as a seemingly immobile pickle and eventually get himself back into human form.

The various episodes are constant and consistent in their zaniness, but wildly inconsistent in their ambitions. Some episodes, like a recent Season 4 one parodying heist movies, are content merely to lampoon cinematic genres. Other episodes, like Season 2's "Auto-erotic Assimilation," deal with heady topics like unity versus diversity in a way that I found philosophically meaty, surprisingly balanced, and arguably more substantive than when the same issues are dealt with in, say, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." ("Assimilation" is, in fact, my favorite episode from Season 2.)

Along with Justin Roiland as both Rick and Morty, the voice cast includes Spencer Grammer (yes: daughter of Kelsey) as Summer, the lovely Sarah Chalke as Beth, and Chris Parnell as the always-put-upon Jerry. Everyone seems to be having a rollicking good time making each show, and some episodes even feature recordings of actual improv. Justin Roiland infamously got drunk to record a segment in which the character Rick was drunk (there may be video of this on YouTube), and Keith David—whose name you might not recognize immediately, but whose distinctive voice you'll automatically know the moment you hear it—pops up voicing several different characters, including the US president.

All in all, I've had a hell of a time catching up on "Rick and Morty" via binge-watching. This is one of the few comedies that has actually managed to get me laughing out loud—not just once, but many, many times. The show has no compunction about going there: it features plenty of blood, guts, and goo, not to mention a torrent of politically incorrect humor, for which I'm grateful. As science fiction, it's definitely in the absurdist British camp (I've written before about how the Brits may be masters of the fantasy genre, but their notions of science fiction often tend toward the silly and sloppily imagined*), but there's more than a hint of a good ol' Yankee love of adventure as well.

The visual premise for "Rick and Morty" is that it's loosely based on the dynamic, found in "Back to the Future," between crazy old Doc Brown and his perpetually astonished neighbor/friend/co-adventurer/sounding board Marty McFly. And that's pretty much where the parallel ends. Beyond that basic look, "Rick and Morty" is very much its own show, and it's some of the best escapist TV out there right now. If you're not busting a gut after a few episodes, then I'm sorry, but you have no sense of humor.

PS: does anyone else think that Mr. Poopy Butthole is this show's analogue for Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo on "South Park"?

*That's not to say that American science fiction is somehow scientifically rigorous. It isn't. But it's often drawn along neater, more well-defined lines than British sci-fi will ever be. Look at the hot mess that is "The World's End" to see what I mean.

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