You should be watching Rick and Morty, the best new show on television
Television can be so demanding sometimes. Anyone would be hard-pressed to stay current with every quality program in this Golden Age of the medium, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of prestigious dramas readily available on both cable and streaming services. It’s also easy to forget that great television doesn’t always have to be so GRR, SERIOUS! all the time, and that animation, a genre often dismissed as kiddy fare, can be as subversive and richly imagined as its live-action counterparts.
In fact, the most interesting show on television right now is Rick and Morty, an animated series that finds its home on Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim programming block. Created by Community show runner Dan Harmon and animator Justin Roiland (who also voices the eponymous duo), Rick and Morty is so assured in its first season that you would think it’s been on for years, yet there’s a scrappy, experimental attitude to the project that marks it as something fresh.
Many shows—and comedies in particular—struggle to establish proper tone and character chemistry in their earliest episodes, but Rick and Morty exudes a brash confidence from the get-go that’s both daring and totally in line with its overarching madcap sensibility. Harmon and Roiland don’t bother to ease you into their creation’s infernal weirdness; they throw it at you wholesale from scene one and, hell, it works.
The basic premise of the show is bizarre and clever, exuding a pop culture savviness reminiscent of Harmon’s other pet project, Community. Main characters Rick and Morty clearly mirror Doc and Marty (McFly), the gawky teenager / mad scientist pair from the Back to the Future movies. Harmon and Roiland’s sick twist is that Morty is not just a perilously uncool adolescent like McFly, but also terribly stupid, and that Rick, Morty’s drunkard grandfather, is the universe’s preeminent mad scientist, using his grandson as a Guinea Pig for horrific experiments.
But Rick and Morty doesn’t limit itself to just riffing on Back to the Future, and Harmon has said that the project was partially inspired by both Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That melange of geek influences is readily apparent in every episode of Rick and Morty that has aired thus far, though the individual narratives never feel formulaic. In just half a season, Rick and Morty has aptly parodied Jurassic Park (“Anatomy Park”), Inception (“M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”), David Cronenberg films (“Rick Potion #9“) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (“Lawnmower Dog”), just to name a few.
The show comes so loaded with references and passing gags that pretty much every episode demands a second viewing to parse out all the weird little details, providing ample minutiae for super-fans like myself to obsess over. Take, for instance, in “Pilot,” when Rick and Morty are chased through an alien spaceport by a squadron of insectoid security guards. While running, Morty accidentally knocks over a container which produces a strange Jello-like substance that goes through an entire human life cycle—from birth to adulthood to death—in just a few seconds. It’s a horrifying image, and Morty responds appropriately; Rick, on the other hand, yells “Don’t think about it!” and just keeps running. It’s a total non sequitur moment, but one that perfectly crystalizes the show’s central relationship, with Morty playing the frightened, innocent boy being dragged into danger and Rick the hardened veteran who treats all this weird shit like a daily chore.
There’s a lot to be said about what a solid anchor Rick is for the series. He easily stands as the show’s most complex character, possessing an unmatched intelligence that’s offset by his total lack of moral judgement and empathy. If Rick and Morty is partially a parody of Doctor Who, then Rick is a Doctor motivated by misanthropy and solipsism rather than common goodness and whimsy. And, like The Doctor, Rick serves as a guide through fantastic worlds for both Morty and the audience, but in a ruthlessly self-serving way that can be both funny and alarmingly cruel.
A great deal of Rick’s distinctiveness comes from Roiland, who drunkenly stammers almost all of his lines, occasionally peppering his performance with belching or incoherence.1 It’s one thing to see a strange alien creature lumbering around on a hostile alien planet, and quite another to hear Rick slur-shout, “Look at that thing right there, Morty! What the hell is that? Look at it lumbering around! It defies all logic, that thing!” It sounds arbitrary, but the way Rick simply says things is just so damn funny.
Perhaps Rick and Morty’s most defining quality is just how off-the-cuff and inexplicable its humor can be. Thanks to James McDermott’s trippy, fluid animation direction and a stacked vocal cast (I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned how solid Chris Parnell is as Morty’s bumbling father Jerry), the show creates a visually sumptuous, creatively rich playground for the brilliant team-up of Harmon and Roiland to play in; there are no boundaries to where the characters can go here, and the show’s creators exploit that narrative liberation in the best possible ways. Watching Rick and Morty is a wild and often disarmingly weird experience, but it’s also one of the most unique offerings currently on television. “You smell that?” Rick asks Morty midway through “Pilot,” as the two traipse together through a vibrant dreamscape. “That’s the smell of adventure.” You bet it is.
Best Episodes: “Pilot,” “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” and “MeeSeeks and Destroy”
Rick and Morty returns to Cartoon Network on Monday, March 10, at 10:30 p.m. Most episodes can be watched on Adult Swim’s website. Catch up before it comes back!