If animated shows have any advantage over their live action counterparts, it’s that they aren’t limited by what you can throw in front of the camera (without spending a mountain on visual effects that is). Case and point – “Rick and Morty,” Adult Swim’s latest cult hit, which recently capped its second season and seems to take the limitless possibilities of animation as a dare. It traverses multiple dimensions and exotic alien worlds, rendering the most bizarre visuals it can muster on a weekly basis. Yet for all the imagination on display, it’s the emotional punches that shoot ‘Rick and Morty’ into the upper echelon of adult comedy. The second season finale delivered a knockout that managed to feel both unexpected and well-earned. Though the madcap antics get most of the praise, the ending served as a reminder that the show hides a trove of character development and honest-to-goodness heart. And if it conjures memories of another not-too-distant sci-fi animated comedy, you would not be alone in saying so.
For many animated comedy fans, the series finale of ‘Futurama’ in 2013 left a gaping hole in their hearts unable to be filled by the large yet insufficient swath of content available at the time. Matt Groening’s sister piece to his opus ‘The Simpsons’ had long since surpassed it in terms of quality of writing, intelligent humor and emotional sweep. An episode of Futurama could make you laugh hysterically, nod knowingly at a clever scientific tie-in and ball your eyes out all within the span of five minutes (“Jurassic Bark,” anyone?). Yes, it was truly the end of an era for sci-fi geeks and gripping, emotional animated comedy.
Or was it? Two months after Fry and friends waved their last goodbye Adult Swim unleashed their latest cult creation on the masses. Created by Dan Harmon (‘Community’) and voice actor Justin Roiland (‘Adventure Time’), ‘Rick and Morty’ was initially pitched as a skewed take on ‘Back to the Future‘: the titular Rick Sanchez is a mad scientist who drags his plucky grandson Morty on a slew of sci-fi adventures. But Rick’s motivations for spending time with his grandson are often twisted and opportunistic. He takes advantage of Morty’s spirit and can-do attitude. What became instantly apparent to early audiences was that ‘Rick and Morty’ bore the spiritual torch of ‘Futurama’. The wit was quick and inciting, sprinkled with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it science in-jokes and a cast of wacky, yet rounded peripheral characters with compelling arcs of their own.
But if that were all the show had to offer, it would do little more than occupy a space in the cult consciousness of Adult Swim’s lineup. Instead, Rick and Morty mania reached a peak after the finale of its second season in late September. Rick and Morty memes stuff newsfeeds, online publications of some prestige sing its praises regularly, and content creators make their own homages to the show. Hell, even ‘The Simpsons’ featured Rick and Morty in a couch gag earlier this season.
So what is it about this show that’s blasted it out of cult status and into the mainstream? The first key is that Harmon and Roiland quickly stray away from the initial concept. The show expands its universe as far out as possible. Rick isn’t merely an eccentric scientist, but the smartest being in the universe (multiverse?), able to create literally anything to further his egomaniacal goals, while burdened by next to no morality. But the show doesn’t succeed by simply chucking another tortured anti-hero into the mix. Over time we see Rick grow a budding conscience without spoiling the antics or pitch-black humor at the show’s core.
The second trick comes in Harmon and Roiland’s adherence to and defiance of conventional sitcom tropes. This may seem paradoxical to anyone unfamiliar with the story structure and meta-reality of Harmon’s long-running cult hit ‘Community’. His on-again-off-again association with that show found itself dripping into the storylines at every turn. As ‘Community’ kept playing the part of television’s zombie – getting miracle revivals on NBC and Yahoo! despite abysmal numbers – Harmon began to confront the reality of telling new stories in the same setting year after year, and of the diminished potential of characters forced to attend community college for six years. That meta-commentary grated many viewers, but partly because it holds a lot of truth. Working hard for years and going nowhere is frustrating. With ‘Rick and Morty’, Harmon and Roiland take the opposite approach. No longer tethered to a depressing reality, the characters take multi-dimensional leaps and bounds in every episode. The anchor of relatability comes when they must face the human intangibles such as love, loss and family.
‘Rick and Morty’ could very easily adhere to this formula for years. The scientist and his plucky partner embark on wild adventures, learn a little about life, and always go out on top thanks to Rick’s brilliance and cynicism. While it works this way for a while, Rick’s anarchic self-interest and Morty’s mounting objections to the trail of destruction they often leave in their wake builds to a breaking point by the second season’s end.
It’s this statement that marks the brilliance of ‘Rick and Morty’ in a nutshell: these characters can’t continue to exist as they are without confronting their faults. Rick Sanchez is a genius who loudly insists that any cost is the right cost to meet his ends, yet is quietly tortured by pain he causes others. Whether it’s by vaporizing small monstrosities in his garage after realizing he isn’t right for his hive mind girlfriend or for his heartrending demonstration of love at the end of season two, Rick shows us that he can’t hide from his humanity forever. And for a show this existentially bleak, that’s the best possible twist.
What do you think? Is ‘Rick and Morty’ really the best cartoon on television? Let us know in the comments below.