The mad genius of Rick and Morty

Ben Potts

The mad genius of Rick and Morty
October 12, 2020 Ben Potts

It took my younger brother a long time to convince me to watch Rick and Morty. It often does take him a while to get me hooked on things, and I don’t know why. He was right when he steered me towards Brooklyn Nine-Nine and he was right when he urged me to give My Hero Academia a shot. 

I don’t remember how he described Rick and Morty to me. Maybe I resisted because it was a cartoon. Maybe it was because I’d heard it was crude. Maybe it was because it was unlike anything I’d watched before. At this point, three weeks and three seasons into this unfamiliar, grotesque, ‘adult’ children’s show, I wish he had just described it this way:

It’s like Doctor Who, except it doesn’t waste time on drama.”

I love Doctor Who. I love the mad genius of the Doctor, the man (and woman!) of thirteen lifetimes, who has seen more than any other person in history and keeps on running into the next thing. I love the way that long-spinning plot threads twirl and splay out into a satisfying, beautiful mosaic by the end of each arc. In each their own way, I love Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith (oh, Matt Smith!), Peter Capaldi, and Jodie Whittaker. I could go on for paragraphs.

Still, even before Who was cruelly yanked from my preferred streaming services and locked behind the as-yet-undisturbed iron paywall of HBO Max, I often struggled to watch the show.

There are reasons it’s a cult show, after all. Plot concepts, dressed in thin veneers of sci-fi feasibility, are often whacko distortions or fabrications of real science. The special effects aren’t always on point, either, though they’ve certainly gotten better. What really grates on me, though, is the drama. Who, especially under the storytelling direction of Sherlock mastermind Steven Moffat, tends to get a bit full of itself. Every couple of episodes, it seems, the Doctor is weeping, screaming and shouting in defiance at a universe that is entirely focused on him in turn. Great, passionate orchestral music swells as our hearts involuntarily throb in accompaniment to the Doctor’s passion.

A lot of Whovians love this moment. A lot of Whovians watch the show for it. I can’t stand it.

The darn show takes itself too seriously. There are silent tears, as characters come to sudden and heart-wrenching realisations. There are long, triumphant beats, as once-invincible alien armies crumble to dust before the Doctor’s upraised arms. There are long pauses, as characters finally come to understand the Doctor’s genius and madness.

Give me a break.

I love the Doctor, but he’s just a guy. He has to earn those moments, and he doesn’t always do it. The actors always sell it on a surface level — each one is incredibly gifted — but it doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t, I resent having my emotions twisted and my time wasted.

Now I have Rick and Morty, which wastes no time on such nonsense.

Wubba lubba dub dub!

It would be years before I got around to Rick and Morty, and at first, I thought it was another kid’s show. For all that it was shown on the Adult Swim channel, the crude laughs, the childish sexism, and the shocking violence all seemed like manifestations of boys’ immature minds, rendered in bright, caricaturish colour of cartoony toxicity. To be honest, Rick and Morty is all of those things. It’s also a damn good show.

The show is centered around the Smith family, a classic nuclear unit formerly comprising the mother and father, older sister, and younger brother. That nuclear dynamic is exploded when Mrs. Smith’s genius father, Rick Sanchez, moves into their garage and starts dragging his grandson, Morty, into weird and terrifying adventures across the multiverse. It’s obviously an homage to that 1985 classic, Back to the Future, but if Doc Brown was a psychotic and selfish boozer and Marty a pathetic and insecure child. Every week they explore a particular science fiction trope, with minor interconnecting storylines that tend to only come into play in season premieres and finales. It’s hilarious, irreverent, and clever as all hell.

The strength of the show ultimately lies in the “mental illness” of its protagonist: the mad scientist grandpa, both the smartest and (apparently) cruelest man in the universe, Rick Sanchez. Make no mistake, this is Rick’s show alone — we, the viewer, are Morty, the sweaty teenage boy who objects to each and every one of Rick’s schemes with a grating, affected voice. Rick’s casual sociopathy — at times hilarious or horrific, but most often a tantalising blend of both — is amplified by his place somewhere on the autism spectrum. 

There’s a lot of debate about whether Rick is a ‘positive’ representation of people on the spectrum or not; those concerns are valid, but I think they miss the point. Regardless, his condition is a unique production of the show’s creators, both of whom may also lie somewhere on the spectrum. The net result of the creators and Rick occupying that space is a complete disregard for the appearance of drama.

Rick has no time for drama. As Morty struggles to comprehend the mind-bending adventure Rick is dragging him through, Rick has already moved on to shoving a contraband space rock up in his (Morty’s) butthole. As Morty’s sister Summer stares in horror at the ludicrous gibs of a relative she was chatting and laughing with only moments before, Rick is already handing her a rifle and telling her to aim it at her mother, Beth (Rick’s daughter). As Jerry, Rick’s son-in-law, is doing, well, anything, Rick is yelling at him to “get the fuck out of here, Jerry!” 

As soon as any one character suggests there are lessons to be learned or a theme between an A- and B-plot, Rick shuts the notion down hard. There are no long pauses in dialogue. There are few exchanged glances. Lines are delivered snappily and in rapid succession, and no sooner has one scene wrapped up with a shocking twist than we’re off to the B-plot. Rick isn’t about to send us signals. He’s not showing us what’s important and what’s not. He is ruthless. He is pragmatic. He believes that the universe is a cold, uncaring place and that all the artifice we humans place on it to manufacture some kind of meaning is hollow and empty.

The masterclass

For all that it seems to blatantly disregard storytelling clichés, the show is actually a masterclass in well-used tropes. Motivations are clear and make sense. Choices have real consequences. Nearly every early element of every episode pays off by the end — nothing is wasted. Nothing is wasted. From this show’s perspective, other media is absolutely full of waste. Every time a camera zooms in on an actor’s face to capture a long, drawn-out expression; every time we take a beat, and allow the momentousness of a dramatic story change to sink in; every time we pause to question a ridiculous premise; from Rick’s perspective, it’s all wasted time. Rick and Morty doesn’t need to display its drama. It just does drama, and works really well. There are occasional moments where it mirrors the slower, saner pace of traditional media, but more often than not it’s just about to puncture the moment with a well-timed belch or gunshot, because “it’s time to shoot a-a-*BURP*-aliens, suckers!”

That’s what sets Rick and Morty apart from shows like Doctor Who. Who needs you to buy into the Doctor’s emotional journey, and invests a lot of work into making sure you’re carried along into the legend. Rick doesn’t care if you come along with him or not. He just is what he is, and he’s not going to waste any time putting on airs or compensating for — from his perspective — other people’s disabilities, like morality. His place on the spectrum becomes his superpower, because he doesn’t care. 

That said, the show itself is under no delusion that Rick is some kind of hero. He’s deeply flawed, and often mistaken — even if he tries to cover it up with a belch and a splurt of his portal gun.

Rick and Morty is also a highly intelligent show, even more so than Doctor Who. Each episode examines a different sci-fi trope (with a seemingly-absolute ban on time travel) in a clever way, from the ridiculous conceit of ‘purge planets’ to the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Mad Max fame. In each case, concepts are explained very quickly — if at all — and then followed to their logical conclusion. Alien cultures are treated as truly alien, biologically and socially — though often it’s the human characters that seem to be weirdest. Each plot is littered with Chekhov’s guns (often literal guns) that surprise even experienced storytellers. For all of its toilet humor and irreverence — oh, God, the irreverence — these are not small minds putting this show together.

The show’s incredible success is amplified in a supporting cast littered with big names. Just the ones I’ve recognised include Jon Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Patton Oswalt, Nathan Fillion, Laura Bailey, and more. These famous voices are casually sprinkled among the ridiculous ones, speaking at the usual rapid-fire clip, with no pause — never a pause — to revel in the massive international fame the show has accrued.

Harmon and Roiland haven’t created a perfect show; it’s problematic in some ways, especially early on, and that cannot be ignored. In fact, getting through the first season can be really rough. Rick is a blatant embodiment of toxic masculinity, who isn’t smacked down as hard as he probably should be. There aren’t any particularly positive messages to be found here. If you’re sensitive to violence and cruelty, this show’s not for you. Nonetheless, Rick and Morty is something really special and functional. I hope many of you come to appreciate it as much as I now do.