If you watch Rick and Morty with an ear toward its commentary on media and Hollywood, you’ll get a deeper appreciation for this Adult Swim megahit series.
Remember those glory days of pre-season nine Simpsons, the first few years of Family Guy, the weirdness of Ren & Stimpy? Mix all that in a bowl and add a hefty cup of satirical smarts, a layer of sci-fi creativity and enough movie references to keep IMDb buzzing every Friday night. That’s what it’s like to watch Rick and Morty, one of the most engaging and best-written animated series to grace our tubes or YouTubes. How many shows can include in one episode a gun-toting pickle, bloody scenes of rats getting decimated by said pickle and an endearingly humane monologue unlike anything broadcast in the cartoon world?
I’m citing Rick and Morty’s season 3 episode “Pickle Rickle,” but I could be dropping knowledge on any episode of this series thanks to its seamless blend of crude humor and weighty ideas.
For those unfamiliar with the cartoon phenom wrought from the minds of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon (of Community fame), the show looks at the Smith family, focusing primarily on Beth (Morty’s mom) and her father Rick, an adventurous, always-drunk scientist resembling Doc Martin from Back to the Future. His grandson Morty, inspired by Marty McFly from the same film, is roped into interplanetary battles and rescue missions thanks to Rick’s space-hopping ships, portal guns and wacky inventions. Morty’s father Jerry and sister Summer provide emotional buffers to the tense relationship between Rick and Beth, while also often asking Rick for help with their own personal problems.
It all could’ve just been the sly fun of fantastical romps through planets, but balancing the geekiness of sci-fi with bold humor isn’t an easy feat. That kind of series could veer into cringeworthy real quick. It’d be tempting to just careen the Smiths around planets, reenacting The Purge and fights with mutant aliens named Cronenbergs (get it?). But this is a Dan Harmon project. If you know his previous cult hit Community and watch Rick and Morty regularly, you’ll see links between the two. Both shows dip their toes into one-liners designed to push the laughs from your gut, but they also finesse the story lines with quick jabs at pop culture’s empty ideas, our need to be admired, the danger of hype.
No one takes the piss out of society with referential comedy as sharply as the writers on Rick and Morty. In a season one episode, they poke at the much-adored Inception film, while also pointing out its confusing plot holes. It’s a refrain Harmon also brought to Community, when Troy (played by Donald Glover) cries out, “I didn’t get Inception!
After the show leverages the dream-layer device in the episode, they infiltrate the ultimate nightmare on every street: Freddy Krueger, er, we mean Scary Terry (in order to escape copyright infringement letters). When Rick and Morty “incept” this finger-bladed villain, what kind of terrifying dreams disturb this murderer? The same as everyone else’s: He’s standing bottomless in a school hallway as students point and laugh. The show is saying: Don’t lionize cheap thrills like Krueger one-liners. Hollywood is just human too.
Rick and Morty hate conventional stories, like buddy-cop movies, so why not show how mindless those stereotypical films can be by pairing up a detective with baby legs and a regular-legged cop? When you watch Rick and Morty, you might think you’re being mocked, as if you’re the mark who falls for these kinds of Hollywood-isms.
The more you watch Rick and Morty, the more you begin to see the lessons Harmon and co. want to hammer home, including this one: Don’t get all Rick and flaunt your nihilism, expecting others to join the shrug-and-meh party.
It’s hard to like Rick, much as we might have a bit of Rick in us, a part of our behavior we seek to disguise. Thing is, Harmon doesn’t want Rick to be just be a coldhearted grandpa using his kids as sidekicks on his galaxy quests. We see warmth breach the cold armor. Rick loves Morty and saves his life countless times on Earth and beyond.
Other times, though, he’s too busy being mad-scientist to maintain his familial duties. When Rick does leave Morty adrift on gonzo planets filled with wildly unpredictable aliens, some of the best satire burns bright. Look at season three’s “Vindicators” episode, a direct riffing off Avengers films and their ilk. Harmon not only bashes those films’ predictability and cliché tropes but also slides in a few jabs at the torture-porn franchise Saw. The Vindicators had to endure Saw-like traps designed by Rick on a booze-fueled bender.
We all know what’s going to happen in Avengers movies and in Saw traps. Tension has to escalate. So in Saw, the traps get gorier. To avoid spoilers, I’ll simply urge you to watch that show and behold the splendor of satire done seamlessly, as tasty as McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce from ’98.
When the pitch-perfect homages carry an aha moment, I’m reminded of a key clause unwritten in the show but felt everywhere: Rick and Morty doesn’t want to be just funny. Sure, you’ll be loving the Mad Max nod in season three’s “Rickmancing the Stone,” and you’ll spot Stephen King’s Needful Things playing a chunky role in season two’s “Something Ricked This Way Comes.” But the appeal of watching Rick and Morty is how it shows you the pain of living with people who might hate you. Marriages of convenience might also give way to having children when you’re not ready, as Summer learns from her parents.
Crappy things sometimes happen, and that’s the cosmic forces doing their cosmic thing. We can try to break cycles and interrupt the wheel of life, but we could end up spitting in the wind and getting a big loogie flying into our eye.
Rick might seem like a grump who just accepts his fate, caring little for alien societies he visits but rarely helps, but deep past the stinky burps and Jager shots is an almost spiritual soul.
But Rick doesn’t pray to God. He prays to Science.
Even if his experiments get too Frankenstein for their own good, as in season two’s morally neutral leader created by combining the DNA of Adolf Hitler with that of Abraham Lincoln. Rick didn’t think that through. I could write a whole separate essay on Abradolf Lincler’s existential crisis, but that would take up space for other valuable Rick and Morty shows you could be enjoying. I digress.
At the heart of the show is Morty’s relationship with Rick. It’s more tortured than any other bonds on the show, since the kid at first hates how Rick is apathetic to a planet’s downfall. Rick always has to carry the moral compass, especially in season one.
But darkness starts to slip into Morty in season three. Morty gets outfitted with a giant arm with its own murderous agenda. It’s reminiscent of Evil Dead’s Ash, whose chain-sawed hand embarks on its own devil-stricken rampage.
Not to read into it too heavily, but don’t we all have that side of us? Are we one bad move away from slipping into a rage, if not at someone, then at the world’s ugliness? That’s how Bryan Cranston describes his Walter White character on Breaking Bad: He is so engaging because we see ourselves in a mild-mannered suburbanite pushed to the brink.
Rick and Morty can get that disturbing. It’s why you don’t see parents recommending it to their kids very often. Murderous arms burst heads like grapes. Pickles have to fend for themselves in rat-infested sewers. Life isn’t all roses and rock and roll, Rick and Morty tells us.
Every fan likely watches Rick and Morty and thinks, “Which pop culture icon will they spoof next?” That’s half the fun of the show. They’ve already gone after Jurassic Park, Titanic, Saturday Night Live, Weekend at Bernie’s, Beetlejuice. With no signs of feathering the brakes, Harmon and his writers are taking us for a ride we’ll gladly keep roller-coasting on until Rick and Morty decide to hang up their portal guns and plasma rays.