In the most recent season of the hit Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty, the mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his teenage grandson Morty Smith face off against one of Rick's deadliest creations: a sentient super-robot that has synthesized the plots of every twisty heist movie ever made. The out-of-control "Heist-o-Tron" can predict — and out-maneuver — nearly any attempt to defeat it, with maximum efficiency. At one point, it executes an especially clever con as an evasive maneuver, and in the process obliterates an entire planet.
That's one grimly funny gag — like slapstick comedy on a global scale. But it's not wrong to consider the joke horrifying, too. It's an example of what the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once called the trend in post-Star Wars action movies toward treating human beings (or aliens, in this case) as "garbage to be gleefully fed into a garbage disposal," as the plot demands.
Then again, the push-and-pull between no-holds-barred comedy and all-consuming nihilism is (pardon the pun) what animates Rick and Morty. This astonishingly imaginative, ruthlessly hilarious science-fiction parody — which airs the mid-season finale of its fourth season this Sunday — has always framed flippancy as a kind of enlightenment.
Co-created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty had its origins in one of Harmon's pop culture incubator projects, Channel 101. Initially conceived as a filthy, juvenile parody of the movie Back to the Future, the show's concept was refined once Roiland and Harmon drew interest from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming bloc. The writers developed it into a savvy, smart-aleck riff on classic science-fiction themes, steeped in knowing cynicism.
It's the "knowing cynicism" that has sometimes gotten Rolland and Harmon into trouble. The series is ostensibly about Rick's casually monstrous selfishness, as he drags his grandson across time and space, often over the objections of Morty's mother Beth, who's never quite recovered from growing up with a warped genius for a dad. Rick embarks on these missions in part just for the hedonistic pleasure of using science and technology to dominate others, and in part to persuade Morty that life is meaningless.
Rick and Morty fans differ on what message Roiland and Harmon expect viewers to take away from the heroes' picaresque misadventures. For some, this series is just a font of especially edgy humor, not meant to be taken too seriously. But for others, it represents a coherent and reasonable worldview, one which implicitly rebukes any "social justice warriors" who want genre fiction to advocate for real-world change.
The creators have pushed back against the faction of their fan base that has embraced Rick Sanchez as a truth-telling antihero. In an interview with GQ last year, Harmon called that phenomenon "a huge bummer," adding, "Once the title of your show becomes a way of describing a demographic, that is toxic."
Still, it's hard to argue that the lead character is intended to be a bad example or to embody a critique of anything in particular. Rick and Morty stories by design push familiar science-fiction and fantasy plots to their logical ends. They're grand "what ifs." What if the most powerful man in the universe was a bored old man, with no particular moral code and no overtly villainous inclinations?
Roiland and Harmon haven't backed away from their show's central premise, no matter how much they've been criticized for fostering a "nothing matters" attitude — and at perhaps the worst possible time in the world's history, too. Global warming, spreading economic disparity, the rising tide of authoritarianism: To Rick and Morty, loss and misery are just inevitable parts of existence, so why do anything?
This perspective isn't just potentially damaging to impressionable Adult Swim viewers, but — in a way — to storytelling itself. So many Rick and Morty plots (including the aforementioned heist parody, credited to writer Caitie Delaney) are like that famous scene in the movie WarGames where a super-computer rapidly runs through simulations of tic-tac-toe, chess, and global thermonuclear war, until it realizes none of these "games" are winnable.
Roiland and Harmon and their talented writing staff keep running their characters through new scenarios and coming to the same conclusion: that the universe is cruel, and that heroism is more or less a waste of time. The Rick and Morty creative team will keep following its cranky muse, so long as it results in entertaining, popular television. (Which, I should reiterate, it does.)
Harmon has been here before. He created the cult favorite NBC sitcom Community, which started as a kooky college comedy and then became more sophisticated and self-aware, commenting on the mechanics of network television itself. And at a certain point in the show's run — not long before Harmon was fired — it took a turn from playfully meta to somewhat despairing, as the characters pondered the limitations and even the ultimate pointlessness of TV. It's like Harmon can't stop his mind from wandering in this direction.
Granted, Harmon and Roiland haven't shied away from Rick's destructiveness or his vulnerabilities. Superman can be bested by Kryptonite and magic; Rick Sanchez's mental acuity is affected by his alcoholism and by his need to keep Morty as a sidekick. Many of the duo's missions start with Morty wanting to try something cool he read about in an old pulp fantasy novel, which Rick goes along with because he gets desperately lonely without his grandson tagging along.
In a more conventional TV show, Rick's dependence on Morty would soften him, allowing him to see the wonders of the universe with fresh eyes. Here, the opposite happens. Rick indulges Morty's whims in hopes that the boy will see firsthand that the awesome things he wants to do aren't really worth doing. Rick and Morty is the kind of show where an episode opens with a friendly alien getting shot through the brain while helping Morty retrieve a rare artifact for his grandfather, who then tosses the object aside because it wasn't quite what he wanted. Perhaps the best word to describe this is "pitiless."
Even in the heist episode, it's eventually revealed that everything that happened — from the activation of Heist-o-Tron to the demolition of an entire world — has been part of Rick's elaborate plan to burn Morty out on the very concept of heists, so he won't abandon Rick to follow his dream of becoming a screenwriter. That is bleak. If this show weren't so great, it'd be awful.
All of that said, it's undeniably refreshing for a television comedy to have such a confident and consistent point of view — and especially one that's so unapologetically dispiriting. Too much popular entertainment panders to its audience's desire for comfort. Rick and Morty stubbornly refuses to do so.
That's what makes this show so fascinating: the extremes to which Roiland and Harmon will push their premise, even at the risk of exposing their own weaknesses ... or of inspiring a generation to be smugly apathetic. They've constructed an astoundingly intricate machine, and they've set it in motion, knowing full well what it may destroy.
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