Faith in Animated Television Restored
When it comes to animated television, I have become a bitter skeptic. With the steady decline of “Family Guy” into an echo of its former glory along with the inevitable conclusion of “South Park” looming in the near future, I was beginning to lose hope. As I finished up another particularly unfunny episode of “Robot Chicken” on Adult Swim during Christmas break, a commercial began to play. The image of an older man in a lab coat accompanied by a frightened-looking teenager flashed across my television screen. At first, the skeptic in me rebelled. “What a ridiculous concept! Who the hell could be responsible for this heap of garbage?” Suddenly, I saw a name flash across the bottom of the screen: Dan. Freaking. Harmon. (If you do not know this name, find a Hulu account and watch “Community” immediately.) I then proceeded to aggressively scour the internet for the pilot.
“Rick and Morty” is a breath of fresh air for modern animated television. This series follows the antics of Rick Sanchez (voiced by Justin Roiland), a super-genius scientist who resembles Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” That’s where any comparisons between these two characters stop. Unlike Doc Brown, who based his scientific research in the theory of time travel, Rick is focused on the theories of space-time and inter-dimensional travel (“Doctor Who” fans will feel right at home here). Additionally, Rick is a sociopathic, alcoholic and outright selfish individual who will do whatever it takes to develop his scientific research. Morty (also voiced by Justin Roiland) is Rick’s grandson and “Marty McFly” sidekick. Unlike his grandfather, Morty is a naïve, panicky, anxiety-riddled 14-year old that constantly finds himself dragged onto his grandfather’s life-threatening tours into other dimensions.
From an outside look, the title characters of “Rick and Morty” come off as unpolished and slightly offbeat. First and foremost, both characters tend to stutter during any given dialogue sequence. Rick also frequently belches and hiccups when he speaks (damn you alcoholism!). At first, these constant interruptions can be jarring when trying to follow what each character is saying, but soon enough these imperfections become signature attributes to “Rick and Morty” akin to the yellow-skin of The Simpsons or the crude construction paper look of “South Park.” Secondly, the relationship between Rick and Morty seems utterly two-dimensional. During each episode, Rick aggressively muscles his way to a science-based objective, with or without the consent of innocent Morty. Although this relationship dynamic seems shallow, it proves to be a staple of the show’s appeal (I will get back to this point later on).
As a duo, Rick and Morty couldn’t be any more different. Essentially, they are two sides of a coin: Rick represents cynic realism, while Morty embodies innocence and youthful ignorance. Yet, despite the conflict that these viewpoints inherently present one another, Harmon utilizes these opposing forces to create a dialectic synthesis that brings the show to life. In one episode, Rick refers to the universe as a “crazy and chaotic place.” This statement presents a commentary on reality itself: nothing is guaranteed and one should always be prepared for the worse. However, Morty resists this claim; to him, anyone can tip the balance of fate. Although I will not spoil the conclusion of this episode, which to me stands as one of the most powerful and raw moments in animated television history, we see that neither Rick nor Morty’s view is absolutely correct. In fact, these ideals perpetually steady each other in a relationship that Harmon skillfully portrays in each narrative arc of the show.
With all of this talk about “Rick and Morty,” it can be easy to forget to mention their family. Jerry and Beth, Morty’s parents, are former high school sweethearts with a failing marriage on their hands (in fact, their union only began once Beth became pregnant with Summer, Morty’s older sister). Although this family dynamic seems utterly depressing, it also represents something beautiful and unique to Rick and Morty. Throughout the history of animated television, and the majority of sitcom television history, the family dynamic has always remained intact. “Family Guy” has often jabbed at Peter and Louis’ struggling marriage, which even comes to an end for the majority of an episode or two. Hell, even the Simpsons, America’s premiere animated family, has briefly played with the idea of Homer and Marge separating. Yet, no animated show has ever fully committed to a consistent and ever-present threat of divorce. To me, this caters to the desire of many viewers to escape into a world where families epitomize stability. Thus far, Rick and Morty has resisted this trend. Throughout each episode, we clearly see that Beth and Jerry are just not right for each other. This stems from a number of issues: their shotgun marriage, their disparity in income (Beth earns much more than Jerry) and their respective stances concerning Rick’s influence on Morty. Yet, despite their many issues, the family always finds a way to avoid total destruction by the skin of their teeth. Now, not only do we focus on the adventures of Rick and Morty, but we also find ourselves rooting for the success of the family as a whole. As a result, this cartoon family takes on a sense of realism that I have never encountered before in an animated show.
Now, I want to return to my previous point about the show’s overall appeal. To me, this lies in Rick and Morty’s seemingly two-dimensional relationship. As Rick coerces his poor grandson into each dangerous adventure, the initial reaction is to feel disgusted. Rick does not seem to regard Morty as anything more than a pawn in his numerous plans; one could even go as far as to say that Morty is expendable to Rick. But by the end of the pilot, amidst Rick’s hilariously incoherent monologue, something so simple yet so powerful emerges. Rick says to Morty, “the outside world is our enemy … we’re the only friends we got.” The true nature of this show becomes painstakingly clear: these two characters are outcasts. Rick, a lonely old man whose extreme intellect has prevented him from building any meaningful relationships, has been forced to move in with his daughter and her train wreck of a family. On the other hand, Morty seems to openly suffer from a social disorder that affects his interactions with others and impedes his performance in school. But as interdimensional travelers unbounded by neither time nor space, Rick and Morty have found a way to overcome and escape society’s restrictive conventionalism. Yet, Rick hardly mentions this power over civilization. What Rick truly seems to care about is his friendship with Morty (he literally repeats the phrase, “Rick and Morty forever!” more times than I care to count). To me, that’s what this show represents: a relationship that can, against all odds, withstand anything the universe can throw at it. I, for one, can get behind this beautiful idea.
“Rick and Morty” airs every Monday at 10:30 p.m EST on Adult Swim.