While bedridden with COVID, one of the things that made the hours pass with the medicine of laughter was a binge through all five seasons of RICK AND MORTY. This cartoon series is packed with interesting ideas, though its later seasons packed a far weaker punch for me.
The show started with a short film by Justin Roiland that parodied BACK TO THE FUTURE and became a show for Adult Swim with partner Dan Harmon. It follows Rick Sanchez, the smartest man in the universe who has invented interdimensional travel, who lives his estranged daughter Beth and her husband Jerry and teen kids Morty and Summer. For various reasons, Rick needs Morty to help him on his adventures across planets and dimensions, and drags him, sometimes unwillingly, into situations that are usually comedic and sometimes, for Morty, dangerous and horrifying.
The show’s creators called it an extended fart joke wrapped in a study of nihilism, and that is certainly a good summation, though the humor deserves credit as often being far more sophisticated than Roiland and Harmon claim. As far as the nihilism goes, however, their claim is pretty spot on, making the whole morally ambiguous at best, unpredictable to an extent, and tinged with a little sadness. Rick is aware of death’s permanence and that existence is therefore essentially meaningless; the typical human answer is either nihilism or humanism. Unfortunately for Rick, because there are an infinite number of dimensions where things turn out differently, he can simply hop to another if things get too dicey, a wonderful thing though it robs him of having to deal with consequences or enjoying the value of real human relationships that might save him from nihilism. Morty suffers along, becoming more self-sufficient as he learns Rick is right about existence, while also occasionally teaching Rick about the saving value of love.
These themes come to life in the early seasons through conflict between Rick being a mad scientist and espousing a nihilistic point of view, and the family obsessing on something important to them but ultimately shown to be unimportant. In each episode, Rick and Morty find themselves in a wacky, life-threatening situation Morty confronts with angst and trying to do the moral thing and Rick confronts with alcohol and a callous disregard for everything aside from his own immediate interest. This is where the show really shines, this conflict but mostly through the crazy adventures and ideas where anything can happen because nothing matters. Examples include a planet where men and women formed separate societies, a galactic spa where the toxic aspects of your personality are extracted to form a separate purged entity, a microverse built to serve as a spaceship’s battery, parasites that take the form of lovable cartoon characters, and so on, usually packaged as a spoof of popular movies such as INCEPTION, etc. Celebrity guests playing the part of an episode’s characters and a post-credit scene add to the fun.
The first three seasons shine with pretty much every episode being a standout for its humor and ideas. By seasons 4 and 5, however, things get a little soft as the family stops caring about its old values and simply go along with Rick’s worldview, the writers get meta about the toxic core of the show’s fan base and seemingly their own struggle with the show’s identity as either fun and light episodes versus an overall arc, and none of the characters seemingly have anywhere healthy to grow to offer a counterpoint to Rick’s cynicism. The last episode of season 5 was pretty smart and seemed to offer a hard reset, and I’m curious about what they’ll do next with subsequent seasons.
Overall, I really enjoyed the ride and recommend it. It’s smart, funny, rewatchable, and filled with interesting ideas.