Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Rick and Morty, seasons 1-3

My introduction to Rick and Morty was the long, not particularly funny couch gag on The Simpsons. Nonetheless, the show has been a huge hit and is constantly being referenced online and seems to be on track to become this generation’s South Park – so I decided to give it a go.

Honestly, the friend I was watching it with and I almost gave up after three episodes. It didn’t click. The show introduces its main characters, obviously riffing on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future, which was indeed the show’s starting point. However, going in its own direction, the show has Rick and Morty as grandfather and grandson, with Rick an alcoholic sociopath and Morty an overly naïve adolescent. Both are voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland, who I know from voicing the annoying but amusing Earl of Lemongrab in Adventure Time, and his performances take some getting used to. Morty stutters and whines, while Rick’s speech is punctuated by annoying burps.

The first episode seems to try way too hard. The humour is very adolescent, and the audience is expected to laugh at things like Morty having to shove things up his rectum and blowing up aliens in explosions of gore that probably seem edgy to kids who have never seen the likes of Superjail – with Rick having much in common with The Warden.

The Lawnmower Man with dogs subplot in the second episode amused me and made me think the show had potential – though I’d already seen the most amusing part as a clip online without knowing what show it was from – but the lazy gross-out humour of the third episode set inside a body made it seem like the show had very little to offer. But after a few friends strongly urged me to keep going, I persevered.

Now, after all the available episodes, I can say I’m a bit of an unusual case. Rick and Morty is one of those Marmite shows – either adored or reviled. People seem to think it’s either the best show ever created or utterly worthless stoner-bait liked only by the very sheeple the show likes to admonish to make itself look cleverer. But for me, I think it’s pretty good. It has some great moments and some utter dud episodes. Some of the ideas are thought-provoking, some unoriginal, and some half-baked. Sometimes we’re just supposed to laugh at butts farting green clouds. Again.

The show really gets interesting when Rick’s solution to a problem gone completely out of hand is simply to slip into another dimension and take the places of a Rick and Morty who happened to die just them. There are after all infinite universes, so if you can cross between them, why not? But this doesn’t just get left there, it becomes continuity and takes a psychological toll on Morty – and raises the question of whether Rick has done it multiple times before.

This is where the show gets interesting. Of course, like most multiple-universe sci-fi it really doesn’t begin to broach the real conception of infinity. The show indicates there are a bunch of remarkable versions of the characters from other universes, like a doofus Rick or a lizard Morty or even two Mortys who dress like the characters from Gravity Falls (in one of many references to that show, because the creator is buddies with Roiland). But of course, in infinite realities there are infinite versions of each of these, plus infinite that are not like them, with infinite universes being created in infinite fractions of time from each and every moment, so having just ‘a whole bunch including some quirky unique ones’ doesn’t really cut it – even if most of the show’s best episodes are based on taking this idea further to have, for example, an evil Rick and an Evil Morty, a ‘Citadel of Ricks’ who decided to get together and in some cases exploit the rest, and even jaded corrupt police officer Mortys showing around good-hearted rookie Ricks.

Perhaps the heart and soul of the show is trying to discover whether or not Rick has a heart and soul. He’s decidedly an antihero, perhaps one of the most reprehensible characters ever created, willing to create whole universes to power his car battery and destroy them too, drunkenly devising Saw-like games to slaughter people he doesn’t like, watching Morty writhe in pain with two broken legs with little to no interest, and subjecting his family to endless mind games and manipulations. Yet it’s very compelling for the viewer to speculate that it’s all a façade for a deeper pain and yearning, a wish to be accepted and for others to help him with his inner pain – which was at the centre of the season 2 cliffhanger and remains interesting even after he illustrates how getting caught was part of his plan. Witness one version sacrificing himself to save Morty, or a flashback about his love for his wife and daughter that it turns out he fabricates, or the close friend who reveals that his exuberant random catchphrase is actually a cry for help. He even tries to zap out his brains!

For some reason, it tends to be the show’s most uninteresting and unfunny moments that take off as the most popular, simply because they’re big, obvious moments. Rick sending Morty on a dangerous mission to get him a drug that makes him do a silly dance, or spontaneously coming up with a song called ‘Get Schwifty’, or turning himself into a pickle. These seem aimed at just making stoners laugh at how random and zany the show is, but I can’t say I find them funny at all.

I’ve seen a lot of this humour before, too. Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a lot in common with a machine shocked that its purpose is to pass butter, perhaps with a dash of the toaster from Red Dwarf – which also has the ideas of hallucinating a whole life only to see a ‘Game Over’ screen and an alternate universe version of a cool character with a bowl cut and buck teeth. In fact, most of Rick and Morty’s humour aims to be edgy and boundary-pushing, but it’s actually all mostly very safe, on ground previously trodden by the South Parks and Family Guys of the world. Attempts to be edgy by joking about sex robots and cuckoldry and of course that ultimate edgelord button, people having traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse, are sub-4chan attempts to shock, and the one and only time I was surprised the show ‘went there’ was when it showed drunk Rick rants about Israel – which was genuinely surprising and funny, with the point being that the most feared and respected man in the universe feels awkward and babbles excuses when it comes to the tension there. Though the most recent episode glibly suggests peace was attained there by getting high. Typical.

There’s also some episodes that are total duds. Using interdimensional cable as an excuse to just have the actors ad-lib only results in ‘You had to be there’ style moments, and those episodes were probably the show’s worst. At least the montage of memories in season 3 brings with it the interesting moral question of how many of Morty’s memories have been altered by Rick – including, endearingly, any time that Rick messes up and gets embarrassed in front of Morty.

For all the faults I found with the show, though, what I really liked was how it put its characters through cheesy sci-fi situations but actually allowed that to have a deeper impact. Morty is changed by the knowledge that there are myriad other universes and he’s expendable. Summer has the harrowing experience of a machine taking ‘keep Summer safe’ to horrifying extremes. Beth has to wonder if she’s only a clone who believes herself to be the real Beth. Jerry is the show’s punching bag but has the curious experience of being put in a position to help assassinate Rick. These people are altered by what they go through, even if it turns them into much worse people ready to commit murder almost as easily as Rick is. When Rick and Morty shines is when it raises interesting questions about existence and purpose in a multiverse where you are one of countless identical versions of yourself, if you even exist at all and can trust your beliefs.

I’ll watch all there is of Rick and Morty, but honestly I would call it hit-and-miss at best, occasionally deep and inspired, but far too often formulaic and unoriginal. I’d call it above average, but not by much.