I’ll admit it: I’m late to the party. For quite awhile now, friends have told me I should watch “Rick and Morty.”
After the surprise April Fool’s airing of the first episode of the show’s third season, my social media feeds were inundated with memes, references, and quotes. In anticipation of the rest of the third season, I decided that the time to watch the show had arrived. I subsequently binge-watched the first two seasons and the newest episode in a couple of days. Unfortunately, the show did not live up to the hype surrounding it.
“Rick and Morty” is a great example of why a sincere belief in the meaninglessness of all existence creates bad art.
‘Rick And Morty’ Is Interesting, But Lacks Narrative Depth
For the uninitiated (if any are left), I have taken to describing the show as a combination of “Back to the Future” and Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, except with half the wit and none of the charm.
The classic sci-fi comedy elements are all present: a zany genius scientist (Rick), an unwitting and often unwilling sidekick (Morty), and a universe full of problems to solve. Unfortunately, where other similar stories succeed, “Rick and Morty” falls flat.
It’s not that “Rick and Morty” isn’t enjoyable to watch. There was something about the show that kept me watching all the way through, after all. There are plenty of quotable moments and quippy one-liners that appeal directly to participants in a meme-driven culture. However, the sincerely funny moments are weighed down by ubiquitous bathroom humor that reminds the viewer that Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” lineup is aimed at a demographic younger or less mature than the name suggests.
The Show’s ‘Alternative Universes’ Make It Shallow
Even the show’s most appealing elements aren’t quite enough to make up for the vapidity of the overall story. Lovers of the show usually cite its playful interaction with deep concepts and philosophies as a virtue. One prominent device is the notion of “possible universes,” which has kept philosophers busy for centuries and which Rick uses to his advantage throughout the show. Rick possesses a trans-dimensional portal gun that enables him and Morty to jump between parallel universes inhabited by other “Ricks” and “Mortys” whenever they choose. In fact, after spectacularly botching one of their “adventures,” Rick and Morty travel to another timeline and replace a dead Rick and Morty pair with little consequence.
The ability to change, fix, redo, prevent, and ignore almost anything that has happened is a convenient device for creating new absurd comedic situations. However, it has the side effect of numbing the viewer to any real attachment to characters that can be easily replaced by alternate timeline versions whenever necessary. It further encourages the viewer to think of each episode independently, rather than as part of a developing arc.
For example, Morty’s parents’ rocky marriage is a running joke throughout the series. In no less than three episodes, it appears that something significant has happened that will help them build something like a healthy relationship going forward. However, each subsequent episode resumes the old shtick of a crumbling marriage as if nothing in the prior episode had happened. This reinforces the disconnectedness of story events and the insignificance of any character development.
For a show that ostensibly seeks to develop complex characters and an engaging story, this is a significant flaw. “Rick and Morty” strives to be placed in a different category than frivolous, episodic long-running comedy shows like “Family Guy,” but its own philosophy prevents it from achieving that goal.
Existential Pessimism Can Create Interesting Stories
Morty boils down the lessons he’s learned from his adventures with Rick in the episode “Rixty Minutes,” where he exclaims, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” While the inconsistent story, distracting do-overs, and meaningless choices are internally consistent with characters that find themselves in a chaotic universe and react accordingly, they do not appeal to a viewer who desires meaningful choices and significant character development. Fragments of potential, such as deep discussions of the consequences of teenage sex and abortion, or glimpses into the depths of Rick’s mental illness and regret, are quickly overshadowed by the show’s own narrative devices.
It’s not as if “Rick and Morty” is the first story to play with the idea of the ultimate meaninglessness of existence. Every angst-ridden high school student has read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” an excellent novel that deals with similar themes. Existential pessimism clearly does not necessitate a bad story. However, even as he wrote “The Stranger,” Camus was struggling with how to move beyond its implications, evidenced by his later work. “The Stranger” is not a glib frolic through a world absent significance, but a somber reflection on the potential consequences of absurdity.
“Rick and Morty” could reasonably be the result of someone who read “The Stranger,” accepted its pessimism without argument, and gleefully incorporated it into a whimsical yet equally morbid adult cartoon. Perhaps, then, there is a difference between an unhappy appraisal of apparent ultimate absurdity and a joyful embrace of chaos. “Rick and Morty” is an example of the latter, and it is far from satisfying.
How Has The Show Earned Such Stunning Popularity?
It seems, however, that I am in the minority. The show has a 100 percent critic approval rating and a 98 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The “Rick and Morty” subreddit shows a dedicated fan base that continues to grow and shows no signs of slowing.
I can’t help but think that the stunning popularity of a show proclaiming the insignificance of all our lives and choices says something troubling about pop culture. But what exactly it says, I’m not sure.
Despite its flaws, “Rick and Morty” is not irredeemable. There are nuggets throughout the show that could potentially be pulled together to create some coherent resolution. The third season airs this summer, and for all my criticisms, I look forward to keeping up with it and seeing where the story goes. I hope it proves me wrong, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter either way.