Thursday, January 14, 2016

Boldly Go: Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty, created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, recently completed its 2nd season on the Cartoon Network.

Although animated series Rick and Morty wrapped up its second season in October of 2015, the cult hit has recently moved to a new, coveted time slot on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on Sunday nights at 11:30pm. It’s been renewed for a third season with a yet to be announced air date, estimated somewhere between late 2016 and mid-2017. In the interim, incorporating Justin Roiland (Gravity Falls) and Dan Harmon’s (Community) madcap cartoon show into your Sunday viewing schedule is a worthwhile investment of time. Arguably the cleverest cartoon series currently in production, Rick and Morty is full of bold jokes, intelligent writing, and just enough heart to keep it anchored without becoming saccharine.

The story is thus: genius mad scientist, Rick Sanchez (Justin Roiland, who voices both title characters), a selfish, destructive man convinced of his own brilliance, resurfaces in his adult daughter’s life (Sarah Chalke) after a 20-year absence. He sets up shop in the family garage and regularly drags his dim, anxious grandson Morty along as his sidekick on bizarre, high-risk adventures in time and space. The show’s heavy science fiction elements are inspired by sci-fi favourites like Star Trek, Stargate, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and, most notably, Doctor Who. Between the intergalactic hijinks, Roiland and Harmon squeeze in their take on family drama, striking some ballsier notes than their cartoon peers. Rick’s daughter, Beth (Chalke) and husband Jerry (Chris Parnell) get along well enough but the show often alludes to the fact that they’re only married because they accidentally had a child in their teens; Rick is an absentee father and raging alcoholic that Beth is unsettlingly ecstatic to have back in her life; and, while we root for Morty, he’s a maladjusted, weird kid a lot of the time. The resulting family dynamic is honest and darkly funny in ways The Simpsons or Family Guy could never be, andsubstantial enough to hold its own against Rick and Morty’s equally dark encounters with alternate universes and alien life.

Season One opens with a pilot that doesn’t waste a whole lot of time on expository dialogue. Rick, at what is probably his drunkest and grossest, wakes Morty in the middle of the night to help him drop a bomb, setting the stage for the rest of the series. The show’s biggest gimmick – chiefly, Rick and Morty’s mumblecore dialogue, retroscripted around what Roiland adlibs for the two title characters and peppered with burped words and cartoon vomit – is dialed way up in the pilot for the sake of making an impression, but it levels out as the season progresses. In fact the second episode, “Lawnmower Dog,” is one of my favourites of the season. In it, Rick bestows the family dog with sentience to disastrous effects before taking Morty on a messed up Inception-style quest into his teacher’s dreams. Other standouts include “Rick Potion #9,” Rick and Morty’s misadventures with a love potion that unravels into a disturbing parallel-universe plot device ripped right out of Futurama, “Close Encounters of the Rick Kind,” in which it is revealed that there is an entire interdimensional council of Ricks, and “Rixty Minutes,” an episode composed almost entirely of totally weird adlibbed TV show clips from other Earths (my favourite, a buddy cop show called Baby Legs and Regular Legs). If there is a weak spot in the first season, it is undoubtedly “Razing Gazorpazorp,” the episode where Rick buys Morty a sex robot which Morty inadvertently impregnates, spawning an alien child that he raises to maturity. If there’s anything we should have learned from Friends, it’s that no one wants to watch TV characters raise children.

In a series which initially seems to be built around gross-out humour and spoofing bigger shows, it’s surprising how much character development and growth Rick and Morty’s second season boasts. Morty’s superficial older sister, Summer, is promoted from a supporting role to a full-fledged member of the team and Rick’s backstory finally starts to materialize. While the writers drop the ball in episode five, “Get Schwifty,” by making Rick and Morty compete in a predictable kind of interplanetary American Idol, the fourth episode , “Total Rickall,” where the Smith family struggles to identify memory-altering parasites disguised as innumerable, increasingly quirky family friends, is the best of the series to date.

Leaning on an emerging trend in adult cartoons, the clincher in Rick and Morty is that the series has internal continuity, meaning that any damage done in each of its 21 episodes is permanent. Not only does this make for optimum sci-fi mind-fuckery when one considers the complexity of Rick creating an apocalyptic alternate universe where the original Beth and Jerry are still living like junkyard royalty, it also makes for some pretty warped comedy as Morty, already of a nervous disposition, becomes increasingly traumatized by the horrors Rick subjects him to. In this way, Rick and Morty critiques the shows that inspired it, illuminating how flippant they can be about the disturbing realities of time and space travel. How do Fry and Bender kill, bury, and replace their alternate selves in Futurama without severe psychological damage? How does Amy Pond cope with knowing her future self died to save her in Doctor Who? And what of Tasha Yar, who is killed unceremoniously in Star Trek: The Next Generation only to exist again, briefly, in an accidental bubble timeline and be told about her own demise? Rick and Morty provides some brutal answers to these questions and the prognosis is so unapologetically bleak that the only possible reaction is laughter.

Existential musings aside, Rick and Morty showcases some really excellent comedy writing. Most cartoons and comedies rely on a tried and true “Story A & B” structure, but Rick and Morty really excels at it, telling two independently engaging stories only to tie them together in the final act rarely, if ever, sacrificing one plot line for the other. Harmon and Roiland also deserve praise for resisting worn out tropes. For example, Morty has a run in with the school bully who is poised to be the show’s antagonist. Immediately following, Rick offhandedly freezes and shatters said villain into chunks of frozen human flesh, never to be seen again. Bolder still, Morty makes no secret of his adventures with Rick as is standard practice in science fiction television. He even goes so far as to bluntly tell his crush at a party about how his grandfather has transferred his consciousness into a teenage clone body and is partying with them, and her answer is simply, “Oh cool.”

At the risk of sounding lame, it’s the relationships between the show’s characters that make Rick and Morty’s brutal honesty and pervasive nihilism tolerable. While Rick is undeniably self-serving, inconsiderate, and immoral, he and Morty develop a unique bond and have some genuinely touching scenes together once in a blue moon. In fact, the dysfunctional nature of the entire Smith-Sanchez family makes these rare sentimental touches all the more poignant, reminding us that everything might suck, and maybe we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but thank god we’re all in this together. The character growth from the pilot to Season Two’s finale, “The Wedding Squanchers,” is impressive and carried out in a way that feels authentic, as Rick slowly evolves from a manipulative, drunk stranger into a self-sacrificial antihero and the rest of the family reluctantly learns to co-operate after a series of intergalactic crises. Nowhere is Dan Harmon’s professed adherence to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (from The Hero With A Thousand Faces) more prominent than in the show’s surprising character writing.

While it’s hard to say where Rick and Morty’s third season is going, or when exactly it’s going to get there, the show’s new timeslot is an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with this clever, cynical comedy. As I discovered during all the really important “research” I did in preparation for this review, the show also great “replay value,” so to speak, as each episode is so densely packed with jokes and pop culture nods that it’s easy to miss quick gags like Hamurai, the ham samurai, or Halloran’s Blaxploitation prints from The Shining hanging above Mr. Goldenfold’s couch. Waiting an eternity for new episodes is a let-down, as any Game of Thrones fan can attest, but if the quality of Rick and Morty’s brilliant first two seasons is any reflection of what’s in store, I don’t mind waiting a little bit longer.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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