My brother was the first person who told me I should watch Rick and Morty, and he was right. I binge-watched the first season in one sitting, unable to stop following the adventures of the smartest person in the multiverse (Rick) and his timid grandson (Morty). The Adult Swim original reminded me of The Simpsons' golden age — original, clever, and oftentimes deeply touching.
Unfortunately, a lot of horrible people agreed with me. Since its premiere in 2013, Rick and Morty has been met with nearly universal acclaim from critics — as well as from some of the worst people on the internet.
Just this past weekend, for instance, a throwaway gag from an episode spiraled out of control. After Rick and Morty casually mentioned a limited edition dipping sauce from McDonald's, fans became obsessed about pressuring the company into bringing it back. Sensing an opportunity, McDonald's acquiesced, but then was swamped over the weekend by the high volume of demands. When it couldn't deliver, things got ugly, violent, and embarrassing very quickly. Chanting "we want sauce," fans were caught harassing McDonald's employees. Police had to step in.
For casual fans of the show, it was a depressingly familiar fiasco. After Rick and Morty was rightly criticized for its all male writing staff, the show's creators hired two women for its third season. Quickly, the pair, Jane Becker and Jessica Gao, were harassed and doxxed by misogynist fans who believed they were "ruining" the show. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, co-creator Dan Harmon said of the instigators: "These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own — and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender." Yet even Harmon wasn't able to stop these hardcore fans from running amok.
I'd prefer to blame these fans' behavior on their own motivations alone and go on blissfully enjoying the show. But it's hard to shake the feeling that there's something about Rick and Morty that attracts bad people. The show is crass and excessively violent. More importantly Rick, one of the show's two protagonists, is a total jerk: intelligent, yes, but also cruel, arrogant, and selfish.
Disturbingly, there are parallels between Rick and Morty's worst fans and Rick himself.
The show makes no bones about Rick being a bad person. He repeatedly puts Morty in mortal danger without even a hint of anxiety or remorse. He doesn't care when people die or are hurt. We learn he abandoned his daughter at a young age only to appear in her life again unexpectedly. In the latest season, his behavior becomes increasingly damaging to those around him. Fueled by alcoholism, he puts Morty through even more life-threatening situations, mostly just to prove a point. Rick and Morty's worst fans love this about him, and take it personally when he seems to grow. In fact, when fans harassed Gao and Becker, one of their stated reasons was that the female writers were making Rick submissive. It was like they were channeling Rick to protect him.
Beyond his lack of concern for those around him, Rick's other defining trait is his intelligence. Here, too, there are parallels with the show's most toxic fans.
To Rick and Morty diehards, liking the show is not a matter of taste but of smarts. One popular meme that grew out of a Reddit comment sums up the absurdity of this kind of thinking. "To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty," it begins. "The humor is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of theoretical physics most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer's head." That's a huge exaggeration of what you'd likely see in a typical Reddit thread, but the point of the satirical quote is a common one. If you don't like Rick and Morty, you just don't "get" it — and are likely too stupid to ever get it.
I think the reason why the show's fans sometimes behave so horribly has a lot to do with the psychology of fandom. A protagonist's hold on the audience is incredibly powerful. Because you see the world through their eyes, you inevitably sympathize with them, no matter how horrible they are. It's why other critically acclaimed works that depict emotionally manipulative but captivating patriarchs (think Walter White from Breaking Bad) also have fomented a toxic fan culture.
So as the Rick and Morty fanbase turns into a monster, with even its creators trying to distance themselves from their predominantly male fans, I find myself being pushed away. The series is still funny and it hasn't even hit its narrative peak yet. But in the back of my mind, I can't stop questioning how I can love something that's become a catalyst for the worst kind of behavior.