"Rick and Morty": A character study with sci-fi comedy dressing

September 25, 2022

I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should watch “Rick and Morty,” but if you’re unfamiliar, the one thing I would emphasize is that the series is a surprisingly poignant study of alienation and the importance of family and human connection. (I don’t believe there are significant “Rick and Morty” spoilers in the following.)

If you’re only vaguely familiar, it might be because of Szechuan sauce, or Pickle Rick, or the t-shirts sold at Target, which may leave you with the impression the show is a meme-oriented grossout comedy, or one of those children’s shows that attempts to hold the viewer’s attention through spectacle and loudness. Sometimes it is a grossout comedy, but for the most part, it’s much more a character study with sci-fi comedy dressing, in the tradition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only with the sci-fi absurdity amped up to 11 and a hard R rating.

Few shows pack as much sheer plot into each episode as “Rick and Morty,” but no show gives me more belly laughs per minute, and it’s a certified miracle that this show, via this genre, is so clear about using the comedy and interdimensional travel and clones and heightened realities to put a laser-tight focus on its main characters’ relationships with each other, dramatizing the question of whether we are better off caring about each other or fucking off to have adventures with no care for anyone else.

Because I don’t interact with the fandom much — and I suspect, as a kind-of middle-aged dude, I’m outside the show’s prime audience — I’m constantly perplexed to come across people who think Rick Sanchez is a cool dude, an outsider whose heroics save the day time and again. That may be because I’m not an adolescent, or perpetual adolescent, who seeks to see my own feelings of helplessness and futility corrected in the media I consume, but even so, over the course of five-plus seasons it seems clear to me that Rick is a deeply damaged and despicable person who only causes more problems for himself and his family by being a total dick.

That’s a similar dynamic to what we’ve seen in the fandoms of other shows centered around unequivocally bad men — how many people still take Walter White’s and Tony Soprano’s sides? — and “Rick and Morty” navigates this by having Morty and other characters explicitly state that Rick is a terrible person and otherwise bringing to the surface that Rick is damaged. In the first season, one of Rick’s oldest friends, named Bird Person, lays it out for Morty, saying that Rick’s catchphrase of “Wubba lubba dub dub” is not just gibberish, but a phrase in Bird Person’s native language that means, “I am in great pain; please help me.”

To illustrate how this gives “Rick and Morty” a soul and greater resonance, it’s useful to compare it to the two most iconic American animated television shows: “South Park” and “The Simpsons”. While those two shows have been on the air for so long that they’ve had multiple eras and differing levels of relevance, and they have far more text than we can analyze in the scope of any one newsletter entry, I think that “Rick and Morty” has so far avoided the traps that contributed to dragging those shows down to cultural background noise.

The “South Park” wheelhouse was highlighting hypocrisy, and it got a lot of mileage out of the notion that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were willing to go after anyone, not just conservatives, but too often it veered into mocking people for caring about things, whatever those things may be, and couching it as mocking hypocrisy. It was probably at its best when focusing on various characters’ casual cruelty, especially Cartman’s. Episodes about Michael Jackson and Scientology and Major League Baseball players who used illegal performance-enhancing drugs are fine and good, but ultimately those episodes don’t have as much lasting power because they are too of the moment. Episodes like the ones where Cartman fakes Tourette’s, or enters the Special Olympics, or intentionally infects Kyle with HIV are the ones that live on because they stress the goodwill of the characters around him and put them in positions of moral dilemma. That’s basically every episode of “Rick and Morty,” with Rick as the charismatic chaos agent stressing everyone else around him.

“The Simpsons” is my favorite television show, and I’ve probably seen every golden age episode at least three times. I agree with the consensus that the show dropped off sometime around Season 8 and has never recaptured the sustained zany genius of the previous few seasons, but I will also defend multiple later-season episodes — there’s still greatness there, but they can only pull it out a few times a season rather than 20-plus times. In any event, surely the jokes on “The Simpsons” got less incisive and less cutting after the golden age, but the most consequential difference was that the Simpson family became less loving: When Homer and Bart are just run-of-the-mill assholes who don’t give a damn about their family, and Marge and Lisa just kind of roll their eyes at the high jinks, the show loses its grounding. The later-season episodes that have the old spark almost universally seem to work because they are about a true family, episodes like the Season 27 highlight, “Barthood,” which goes into the future and follows Bart as he seethes about all the attention Lisa gets from their parents and others. “Rick and Morty” is more serialized, so not every episode makes it explicit, but the show always comes back to the Smith family and emphasizes that they want to love and be loved. Even Rick, despite himself.

So, while Rick has a portal gun that can transport him across space and different dimensions, and on the surface he styles himself a free outlaw, and by the sixth season the plot has taken us to many different realities, the core of the show remains the Smith family’s ongoing efforts to find happiness and fulfillment in loving each other — whichever dimension they’re in, and whichever Rick, Morty, Summer, Beth, and Jerry they may be at that moment.

(Photo: "Wondercon 2016 - Rick and Morty Cosplay" by William Tung. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)