A Hundred Years: “Rick and Morty”

Perhaps it is best, given his reputation as a rather difficult person to work with, that Dan Harmon confine himself to a medium in which the cast need not be in his presence, and the majority of the crew be separated from him by an entire ocean.  With the debut of the Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty, he may have found a way to do exactly that.

Putting Harmon’s name at the top of this article is in no way intended as a slight against Justin Roiland, who actually created the idea for the show before Harmon was ever involved.  (The original version of Rick and Morty was a delightfully, relentlessly obscene animated short involving Marty McFly and Doc Brown from Back to the Future; this permutation never made it to air for obvious legal reasons, but for those who got a chance to catch it at festivals or online, there’s an obvious precedent to what finally did emerge.)  Roiland is an immensely talented guy; the animation is based on his original work, which, while somewhat aping Matt Groening and, to a lesser extent, Kate Beaton, has its own unique characteristics and no small amount of disgusting charm — he has a habit, for example, of affixing useless but comically grotesque extra testicles to his alien beings.  He’s also a fine writer who established the show’s central premise — a brilliant but reckless scientist drags his naïve, easily manipulated grandson along with him on wildly dangerous sci-fi adventures — and perhaps most of all, he voices both Rick and Morty, a trick that seems all the more impressive the more interaction between the two one hears.

But it can’t be denied that Harmon is a huge presence on the show.  He came to Rick and Morty during the period Sony had unceremoniously fired him from Community, and he was able to use both his professional clout (to hook Roiland up with the right network people) and his artistic brilliance (to expand the cast and turn it from a one-joke premise into something far richer and stranger) to birth a great new show when it seemed like his baby had been taken away.  He transformed something undeniably appealing and packed with promise, but crude and largely directionless, into one of the best animated shows on a network that specializes in cranking out great cartoon comedies.

Expanding the cast was the most obvious, and probably unavoidable, moves, but it’s paid off well only one season in.  Chris Parnell plays Jerry Smith, Morty’s insecure loser of a father, who gets fired from a job he sucks at early on and never seems to work again; the clueless, overly fragile dad is pretty much a stock character in any sitcom these days, but Parnell, who’s become a real superstar of a comedic supporting player, imbues him with some sharp angles and much-needed texture.  Sarah Chalke is Beth, Jerry’s husband, Morty’s mother, and Rick’s daughter; she has to more or less bring the whole family together, but instead of a thankless long-suffering mom role, she imbues it with a surprising amount of depth and tragedy, playing Beth as a woman who’s quite aware of her failures and lost potential, a loyal wife who’s always on the verge of forgetting why she stays loyal.  Spencer Grammer plays Summer, Morty’s older sister, a fairly dull shallow teen at first who develops into something more, partly due to Grammer’s fine comic acting (she’s Kelsey’s daughter, and obviously learned a few things from ol’ Sideshow Bob), and partly because as the series develops, she’s allowed to be a bit more knowing and a bit more self-aware, which allows her to work quite nicely as Rick’s foil.

Predictably, though, it’s what Harmon brings to the stories, in conjunction with a small, tight, and wisely chosen writer’s room, that really makes Rick and Morty exceptional.  While the show is both too short and too bizarre for his patented story circles (at one point, while being chased by yet another horrific space menace, Rick sneers at Morty “We don’t have time for arcs”), Harmon imbues the characters and situations with an emotional depth — and a truly surprising degree of darkness — that really puts the show over the top.  There are hints of this early on, as in the second episode, where, after being granted sentience, the family dog embarks on behaviors at first comically vengeful but later touchingly kind; but it’s not until the sixth installment that things really get heavy.  After a failed experiment to seduce his high school crush, Morty finds himself in an alternate universe where he is forced to bury a recently deceased version of himself — and this horrible knowledge, that, as he puts it to Summer later, “Every night I go to sleep 30 feet from my own decaying corpse”, colors everything he does and sets up one of the season’s most amazing twists.  It’s truly bleak and truly funny at the same time, a move Harmon manages to pull off time and again.

The most obvious comic parallel to Rick and Morty is Futurama, something even its creators fully own up to.  It shares innumerable qualities with Matt Groening’s farcical space opera, but it’s this willingness to go down the dark path of the characters’ private lives that really sets Harmon and Roiland’s series apart.  When Futurama went for emotion, it usually headed straight for bathos, and this set up some of its weakest episodes; Rick and Morty, conversely, specializes in tragedy, in the inherent existential dread that comes from knowing that you are always one vibration away from a truly horrible reality.  Rick Sanchez is hilariously unhinged, but also deeply unlikable in a way that Bender never could be.  There’s almost nothing of the lovable rogue in him; his fondness for his family is contingent and sporadic, and while he seems willing to show Morty he loves him on a certain level (unforgettable expressed in “Meeseeks and Destroy” as well as the last two episodes), he also pulls no punches in putting the boy in his place, and is more or less telling the truth when he defuses an argument with Summer by saying “Family means nothing, so don’t play that card.”

Of course, all the emotional heavy lifting wouldn’t matter if Harmon and Roiland didn’t deliver on the high-concept sci-fi laughs.  That’s never in question, though — the show is packed with hilarious bits, beautifully executed ideas, and clever metacomedy.  The ascent of Snuffles, the aforementioned Meeseeks and their friendly lust for self-annihilation, the fantastic improvised TV shows from another dimension, Jerry’s reaction to a low-tech virtual world designed to flatter him, the coming of Abradorf Lincler — all of these are comedic gold, making the show unceasingly funny and immensely quotable.  Watching jokes develop and permute before your eyes is a treat, but Harmon and Roiland are already thinking long-term and have laid the groundwork for some dangling plot threads (for a show so utterly ungrounded and absurd, Rick and Morty‘s plotting is surprisingly tight) to pay off in the second season, which debuts this fall.  Leaving the planet gave Dan Harmon a way work out his demons without causing any real harm; he also found a way, oddly enough, to make a show as perfectly grounded, in its own way, as Community.

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