Hey, remember a couple of years ago when the TV show Rick and Morty was the topic of the day? No? Weird. I remember half the recommendations on YouTube were thinkpieces talking about how the show was pure awfulness / pure brilliance / at peak cultural relevance / a sign of the fall of civilization / a dumb fad / a show for smart people / a show for assholes. Most of it went over my head because I’d never watched the show.
The show is still going, so I’m not sure why it’s getting so little attention now. (Or perhaps, why it got so much 2 years ago.)
The Cable Companies vs. My VPN
We don’t have normal cable TV in my house. With a service like Netflix, HBO Max, or Disney+, you pay between $10 and $20 for access to a ton of quality movies and shows. For cable TV, you pay an outrageous $80 a month for a hundred channels of garbage. Worse, it’s garbage with commercials. The cable company wants to charge me four times as much for a lower-quality product and then waste the fleeting moments of my finite existence showing me advertisements as part of the exchange. That’s not just a bad deal, that’s an act of aggression.
Sure, there might be one or two good shows mixed in with the deluge of reality television, stale sitcoms, home shopping, and other lowest-common-denominator fare. But who wants to pay $80 for one or two good shows?
But then last month I was dicking around with a VPN. I was doing this to see how YouTube and Steam would behave and what sorts of things their algorithms would show me based on where I was from. It was kind of interesting, but not interesting enough to turn into a post.
After the experiment was complete, I forgot about being logged into the VPN. I jumped over to Netflix and discovered that, as someone visiting “from Poland”, I was able to view episodes of Rick and Morty, which – if you’re an American – are normally hidden behind the $80 paywall of cable television.
Is anyone curious what this old man thinks of the hottest show of 2019? No? Too bad. That’s what we’re doing.
In Case You Missed It…
Rick Sanchez is “the smartest person in the universe”. He’s also a selfish reckless alcoholic jerk. He lives with his daughter Beth and her husband Jerry. No, I don’t know why the smartest inventor in the universe can’t get his own place. Beth and Jerry have two kids: Summer is your typical TikTok-watching zoomer, and 14 year old Morty is a shy, nervous, insecure kid that Grandpa Rick often drags along with him on his adventures.
This feels like the setup for an old-timey Saturday morning cartoon show about a boy and his inventor grandpa getting caught up in a never-ending series of wacky but harmless adventures. On paper, it looks like it might be a cousin to Phineas and Ferb by way of Dr. Who. You would expect that every week little Morty learns a lesson or gains some folksy wisdom, and then grandpa drops him off with his loving family until it’s time for their next adventure. This seems to be the template the show is drawing from. (Particularly in the early episodes.)
Rick is an amoral self-destructive old bastard, Morty is a horny insecure teenager, and the entire family is plagued by toxic relationships and substance abuse. In the rare moments when a character gets a moment of pathos, it’s usually undercut by how absurdly miserable and unfulfilled everyone is.
The show is a journey through a universe of shocking violence and flippant nihilism. Characters die horrific deaths on a regular basis, which is often played for laughs.
It feels like all of the main characters hate themselves, and hate each other even more. Sure, you can point to specific scenes where they seem to express affection for each other, but this “love” is often framed as synergizing co-dependence or mutually compatible neurosis. You could maybe even make the case that – in the view of the show – that’s what love is.
The whole thing makes me sad and uncomfortable.
Having said that, I do find the show’s approach to science fiction to be really interesting. This kept me coming back for multiple episodes, despite how awful the rest of the show made me feel.
On Star Trek, there’s this tacit understanding that the show will only ever deal with one new “idea” at a time. One episode features time travel. The next episode has everyone trapped in a simulation. The next week it’s clones. The week after that it’s humans being replaced by doppelgangers and nobody can figure out who is real and who is a doppelganger. Next up will be a robot attack. The show is always careful to introduce the Idea of the Week, explain what the rules are, and then have the characters overcome it at the end to return to the status quo. You’ll never get an episode where someone is trapped in a simulation with cloned doppelgangers and the simulation is being run by robots from the future, because that’s “too many ideas”.
Rick and Morty has no such limitation. Everything is always on the table, and in fact nearly every episode features some degree of multiverse-dimension-hopping on top of the three or four sci-fi concepts the show is juggling in any given episode. (The one exception is time travel. Grandpa Rick is adamantly anti-time travel.)
This means that the show is a strange experience. Its plots are all well-worn sci-fi tropes by now. But instead of taking out a single idea, exploring it, and putting it away at the end of the episode, Rick and Morty careens wildly through multiple tropes at once, mixing them all together into a soup of wild ideas and crazy visuals. Every episode begins with a premise you’ve seen a dozen times, and ends somewhere south of Fucking Gonzo Apeshit Lunacy.
(For the record, I disagree with the Moviebob video I embedded above. Like so much of his material from the last decade, Bob frames this as “Here is another case where the people I hate are the root cause of everyone’s problems.” But despite that, it’s a really good overview of the multi-layered nature of the show.)
I hasten to add that I am not condemning the show for its cynicism and nihilism. I don’t think this is a flaw that needs to be corrected. The show is resonating with its intended audience, and that’s what successful shows do. I’m just explaining why I feel depressed after watching it.
I am reminded of the late 1980s scolds that condemned The Simpsons and Married… with Children for daring to show a dysfunctional family on TV. I thought the shows were brilliant. Then South Park came along and made The Simpsons look like Leave it to Beaver. Now we have Rick and Morty, which is darker still. Sooner or later you fall out of step with the cultural zeitgeist. As someone who will turn 50 later this month, I guess the age of my irrelevance has come. I’d rather just accept that than run around bad-mouthing the next generation for doing entertainment wrong.
When I was younger, my theory was that this sort of thing was cyclical. Entertainment will trend towards cynicism for a few generations, and then suddenly there will be an abrupt shift towards hardshipLike say, a Great Depression sandwiched between two World Wars. and the troubled people will want their entertainment to be reaffirming / heartwarming again. That will work for twenty years or so, but then their kids will find that sort of thing to feel fake and insincere. And so the cycle will begin anew.
But that’s what I thought 20 years ago. Now I’m not so sure. I still believe that we’ll reach maximum cynicism at some point. But I don’t think a counter-swing back towards idealism is inevitable. I don’t know where things go from here. If I live another 20 years will I discover another, even darker show to appeal to the kids born in the age of COVID? Or maybe I should stop thinking about entertainment as a singular monolithic thing, because the internet has fragmented entertainment and split us into a thousand subcultures. Perhaps we now occupy all points on the cycle at the same time. Some folks are watching the Andy Griffith Show on TV Land, other folks are watching The Simpsons, and still others are watching Rick and Morty.
Rather than culture shifting to suit the zeitgeist, perhaps now entertainment is fixed and unchanging, and it’s the people that move. Maybe in the Internet Age, folks migrate through the fixed entertainment landscape, looking for existing shows that suit their mood and worldview. I don’t know.
So that’s what I think of Rick and Morty. It’s an interesting cultural marker and it’s wonderfully inventive, but it makes me sad and it’s not worth the $80 that American cable companies are asking for it.
 Like say, a Great Depression sandwiched between two World Wars.
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