- Rick and Morty: Season 1 by Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland
‘The horror! The horror!’Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
‘Every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast 20 yards away from my own rotting corpse … Nobody exists on purpose; nobody belongs anywhere; everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?’Morty, Rick and Morty
Comedy, like horror, must evolve in order to maintain its relevance and its bite. Rick and Morty is the consummate contemporary comedy, and one that does more than make us laugh – it exposes the terrible void at the heart of contemporary liberal US culture, while aggressively seeking relief from this knowledge in grotesquery.
Centred on the titular characters and their ‘high-concept science fiction rigmaroles’, as one character puts it, the show follows a classically episodic structure with a loose series arc. Rick (Justin Roiland) is a genius inventor modelled on Back to the Future’s Doc Brown (Zemeckis US 1985), but with misanthropy, alcoholism, indigestion and excess of gas mixed in. Morty is his grandson, who is supposedly stupid but has a good heart, and spends most of his time clinging desperately to Rick’s coattails, whether following his unfair orders, desperately trying to survive whatever mess they have ended up in, or stopping his grandfather from doing something horrific. (The series sets the tone from the beginning – Rick, drunk and belching, drags Morty out of bed, takes him up in a ship and tells him he has had enough and is going to nuke the planet; Morty manages to stop him). Surrounding these two is a classic cast of family (hopeless and narcissistic father Jerry (Chris Parnell); his wife Beth (Sarah Chalke) who secretly blames him for getting her pregnant young; and sister Summer (Spencer Grammer) who’s older than Morty and wishes she was cooler), as well as other lesser characters.
The show is incredibly smart (and ‘smart’ is the right word here, with the [End Page 147] valence it carries in ‘smartass’). For its comedy Rick and Morty mines the by-now-familiar tropes and strategies of sf, fantasy, horror and the Weird. Its success is testament to just how much these genres have permeated the public consciousness in the contemporary period. If one broad current of comedy might be defined as ‘playing with expectations’, then Rick and Morty demands a fannish level of expertise to ‘get’ everything. The show mocks sf’s use of neologisms, deploys pseudo-scientific babble self-reflexively, and toys with a cascade of references. It takes well-known patterns to new depths: a favourite example was the old classic of shooting ‘redshirt’ characters with no consequences (‘They’re robots Morty! It’s okay to shoot them! They’re just robots!’), then showing the brutal consequences (a twist familiar since at least Austin Powers (Roach US/Germany 1997) – they are not robots, and they have families and they bleed and scream) – and then continuing to shoot them despite the horror of that reality (‘It’s a figure of speech, Morty! They’re bureaucrats! I don’t respect them. Just keep shooting, Morty!’). The show thus swings from irony to sincerity and back to a more profound and unassailable irony that recognises nothing as sacred and leaves no solid moral ground to stand on. At the apex of its reflexivity, the show makes knowing jokes about its own position within the legal and economic structures that shape it – describing one character as ‘a legally safe knock-off of an 80’s horror icon’; openly proposing the idea of a spin-off franchise; and producing a character (Mr Meeseeks) who is blatantly merchandisable.
The overriding aesthetic and substance of Rick and Morty is a grotesque body-horror/body-comedy, focussed through traditions of sf and US cartoons like Family Guy (US 1999–) and The Simpsons (US 1989–), though the animation nods to classic grotesques such as Ren and Stimpy (US 1991–6) too. The environments and the aliens are a smorgasbord of Cronenbergs (an epithet they invoke in the show), viscous scrotum aliens and mammary-chinned horrors (‘What...