Animation can let thoughts and ideas get to some really strange places that would be otherwise restricted in a more realistic dramatic form, like live-action television or theater. When anything you want to do is visually possible, the scope of ways to approach a particular subject expands exponentially.
That’s part of what makes Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” so incredible. “Rick and Morty,” a micro-budget show that averages around 2 million viewers per week, follows the adventures of mad scientist Rick Sanchez as he bitterly and drunkenly whisks his grandson Morty through parallel universes. The comedy is sick and self-referential, and Rick’s and Morty’s mishaps often end in grotesquely-rendered death.
The ways in which series creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland explore big, heavy questions through a mixture of comedy, sci-fi and stoner philosophy is unique on television. In order to tackle concepts like love as ownership and the general feeling of human loneliness, the episode “Auto Erotic Assimilation” introduced a past lover for Rick (voiced by Roiland) named “Unity” who takes on the form of entire planets’ populations. In confronting questions about the meaning (or lack thereof) of existence, the episode “Rixty Minutes” shows Morty (also voiced by Roiland), telling his sister: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die…come watch TV?”
Existentialist sentiments like these aren’t generally associated with cartoons that take shots at narrative conventions of sci-fi and other commercial entertainment. Part of it comes from Harmon’s influence. The “Community” creator created a similar tone on the best episodes of that show, but something about the animation and Roiland’s talent has made “Rick and Morty” into something a little more.
This season in particular, the show has matured greatly. Each episode combined the show’s sense of humor with emotional depth that (you’ll excuse me for this) gives a bunch of 2-D characters a fleshed-out feel. Rick’s bitterness and alcoholism are constantly referenced and explored; Morty’s teenage angst and insecurities are on display; and Morty’s mother, Beth (voiced by Sarah Chalke), is constantly asking herself between glasses of wine if she’s with her husband Jerry (voiced by Chris Parnell) because she loves him or if it’s because she got pregnant in high school. It’s heady stuff.
Part of the beauty of modern television is that you can find great content anywhere if you’re willing to look. And, it is indeed a modern show—there’s an active subreddit dedicated to the show, where Roiland and Harmon sometimes participate in discussions. Episodes have been released on Instagram, catchphrases have been turned into merchandise within a week and the amount of fan art dedicated to the show is staggering. Every week, people respond to the imperfections of these characters; they respond to their flaws, to their mistakes and to their regrets. But what keeps people coming back is the show’s assertion that life’s ultimate meaninglessness can be mitigated by surrounding yourself with people you love who are as messed up and weird as you are.
Bernstein is a member of the class of 2018.