We live in an age of television abundance. It’s not a novel concept to suggest that the staggering amount of quality programing one needs to watch in order to participate in water cooler conversation has begun to feel more like homework than enjoyment. That said, if you aren’t watching Rick and Morty on Adult Swim, you’re either someone who has yet to see the light, or someone who never will. Yes, Rick and Morty is one of those rare shows that inspires fervent adoration amongst its fans on an almost theological level.
When Rick and Morty was announced way back in 2013, I was immediately on board, sight unseen. One of the co-creators, Justin Roiland, was relatively unknown to me at the time though I’d heard his voice in Adventure Time and some other shows. The main pull for this new show was that the other co-creator was Dan Harmon, Community creator, notoriously difficult boss, and (most important to me), Mayor of the podcast Harmontown. Already an ardent listener and attendee of the weekly Harmontown tapings, I was thrilled at the prospect of another opportunity to wolf down more polished-for-prime-time Gospel of Dan, even if it was squeezed through the Play Doh Factory of a naughty sci-fi cartoon. Boy, was that a reductive view of what would become my TV show equivalent of Ram Dass.
Rick and Morty is the “umpteenth-time’s-a-charm” result of a quite NSFW Back to the Future spoof from Roiland’s early web work being chopped and screwed into something suitable for television screens. For the uneducated, the premise follows the adventures of Rick, an alcoholic scientist, and his grandchild, Morty, as they navigate their family life and casual intergalactic travel.
Despite my initial presumptions, Roiland is the true voice of the show, not Dan. And that works out just fine. Community or Harmontown fans know that Dan’s voice can get a bit dark but as a guy so obsessed with the Hero’s Journey story structure, even his more bleak diatribes tend to circle back around to a warm, comforting conclusion. This isn’t the case with Roiland, who many describe as “a younger, angrier Dan.” His depression, hopelessness, and rage manifest in Rick and Morty’s eponymous characters.
Lessons aren’t always learned at the end of a R&M episode, and if there is a lesson, sometimes it’s that “things aren’t going to be okay or go back to the way they were before.” What a refreshing blast of truth for those of us in a generation that keeps beating our heads against a wall, trying to find any modicum of success or stability only to be told by the older generations that swindled us out of a future to “Keep at it. Things will work out eventually.” Embracing the very real possibility that no matter how smart one is or how hard one works, there are no guarantees of happiness is an almost zen-like realization to have, and for a wacky sci-fi show to help guide its viewers to this tough-love life lesson is truly going above and beyond the call of duty.
But vastly exceeding expectations is par for the course for this show. Harmon and Roiland are well aware that their baby lives in a permanently observed and dissected state, so they go the extra mile. The show is peppered with background jokes, equations that track, and future callbacks that reward a second and third viewing (a la the hand/seal stuff in Arrested Development). This detail overkill doesn’t stop in the show. The frightening Rick and Morty universe has expanded to comic books, an announcer voice pack for e-sport juggernaut League of Legends, and, in preparation for the Season 2 premiere, the most creative Instagram marketing campaign of all time.
The timing is right for a show like Rick and Morty. Cartoons for adults are in a new epoch. The audacity and “oh no they di’int” surprises of Family Guy and South Park might still draw big numbers, but for those of us who came up in the golden age of television, a cartoon that dares to be funny AND plumb the depths of raw human emotion, as is the case with R&M and contemporary BoJack Horseman, holds our attention more than an edgy-for-the-sake-of-edgy rape joke ever could. This isn’t to say Rick and Morty doesn’t dive headfirst into these controversial topics, though. In Season 1, Morty is legitimately almost raped by a character who, at first, presents to Morty and the audience as a friendly jelly bean creature. The scene isn’t played for laughs, however. It’s a harrowing and disturbing minute of escalating tension, but serves to progress the plot in a brilliant way. The only comedic moment to come from that scene is later seeing this monster get his comeuppance, and one could easily argue that’s closer to fulfilling a Tarantino-esque bloodlust than anything.
It would be far too easy to compare Rick and Morty to the other big comedic sci-fi cartoon out there with a large online following, Futurama. While Futurama is certainly a great show deserving of its own praise, outside of a few choice episodes (“Jurassic Bark,” “Luck of the Fryrish”), it can feel like your typical “caper of the week” animated sitcom, albeit with a higher caliber of jokes. But where Futurama endeavored to create memorable catchphrases and lines primed for reddit comment threads, R&M shits on the entire idea of regurgitating things said on your TV, with Rick’s 4th wall breaking anti-catchphrase “WUB A LUB A DUB DUB” hitting the audience like spit in their eyes. Futurama often would drop a Nerd™ joke into the dialogue with either an explanation of the matter at hand from Professor Farnsworth or a little pause to give the audience enough time to pat themselves on the back for getting something sooo highbrow, like a reference to Schroedinger’s Cat. Rick makes the same such references in jokes but the train keeps moving because his character truly doesn’t care whether or not you comprehend what he’s talking about.
Therein lies one of the greatest strengths of Rick and Morty: it vehemently refuses to pander to its audience. It respects them/us/you more than that. You’re a grown-ass adult or teen that sought the program out of your own volition. You’re welcome along for the ride, but come forewarned that it won’t always be fun. You’ll face some hard truths. Some episodes will have you thinking about the meaning of your life and life itself for days after viewing. If you’re not okay with that, the exit will always be there for you. But life is challenging, so maybe your TV programming should be too. If you want to just unwind and not think after a long day, that’s great. CBS already exists to serve your needs. But, if that’s the case, Rick and Morty isn’t courting you. It’s a porch light left on for curious travelers that are seeking something more. It’s a dismal philosophy learned only through viewing. Rick and Morty is the final stage of grief. Rick and Morty comforts your disillusionment by matching it.
But it’s not that serious. There are fart jokes in there too.
So, if you haven’t already, start watching Rick and Morty. You deserve showrunners that refuse to condescend to you. You deserve programming that tackles tough moral quandaries and holds you accountable for your complacency in the proceedings. You deserve the TV show equivalent of a true friend telling you, “Y’know what? Your ass does look fat in those jeans.”
Justin Caffier is a writer who lives, laughs, and loves in Los Angeles. Here's his Twitter.