The inaugural season of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s runaway Cronenbergian monster of a hit, Rick and Morty, wrapped last night, ending a nearly flawless season of ambitious animated television. The scope and complexity of Rick and Morty should be no surprise considering that Harmon is no stranger to ambitious, meticulously-constructed television on his other series, Community. What’s especially worth noting in Harmon and Roiland's collaboration this time around is that Rick and Morty is essentially your only hope to standing up against the unforgiving universe(s) and all of its bleakness.
It’s also a very, very funny show.
While Rick and Morty might have spun off from the meager beginnings of Roiland’s Channel 101 short, "The Real Adventures of Doc and Mharti," that being a humble Back to the Future parody, it has transformed into not only one of the sharpest, most surreal, nerdy (you did know the show’s theme song is heavily referencing Dr. Who’s, which deeply influenced the show, right? It also contains references to the Hyperion’s Tree of Pain, Lovecraft, The Twilight Zone, and too much more…) comedies on television, but also a treatise on storytelling and world-building. Harmon and Roiland mentioned wanting to have the series lack traditional continuity, but in spite of themselves, they have developed an extremely well-defined world that seems to have limitless opportunities for smart comedy. A world that grows off itself organically and at times off screen, even. Rick uses a portal gun to go to another dimension in the very first episode, and only episodes later do we learn that there is an inter-dimensional customs process. Rick is breaking laws that we haven’t even learned exist yet, due to writing that respects its world.
Harmon has said that all of the stories that he writes are essentially examples of "man vs. system" stories and that feels no stronger than throughout the first season of Rick and Morty. This is why there is such a cohesive thematic weight to it that especially resonates beyond the laugh-a-second dialogue.
We’re taught to be questioning every system we have.
This idea is reiterated repeatedly throughout the season; whether it’s with the subjugation of house pets in the early classic "Lawnmower Dog," the bureaucratic system of the Meeseeks imploding in on itself in the equally worthy "Meeseeks and Destroy," or a simple robot whose only task is to pass butter. The episode "Rixty Minutes," which is one of the most unique episodes of a comedy to air on television this year, is almost a pure distillation of this idea. The episode itself even being an attack on the "system" of how animated sitcoms work. First, by deciding to use a heavily-improvised script and then choosing to infuse it with a much more stream-of-consciousness flow than a conventional narrative. The episode was even "leaked" entirely through 109 fifteen-second Instagram videos, just to prove to the system that it could.
And it did.
What’s so fascinating is that Rick is virtually the only character on the show that is smart enough to beat the system. He just doesn’t care. He’s been beating it for long enough now that he’s disenfranchised, and none of it matters anymore. He’s building the systems now. If a store in your neighborhood is cursing antiques, then uncurse them; if you annihilate your universe into a bunch of mantis monsters, you hop into another one. This another reason why Rick and Morty has such a refreshing, limitless quality underscoring its humor.
The series also found a way to excel by playing with a number of smart subversions through the season. In repeated episodes, when random aliens or insects are killed, their families at home are either shown or referenced. When a statue of a Jelly Bean King is being honored, evidence arises that he’s a troubled, troubled pedophile (the system, again failing). These aren’t just ancillary characters. These are worlds that are deftly being crafted. The core relationship between Rick and Morty is even essentially toxic. From the start of the show, we realize this isn’t a nurturing grandfather that’s going to educate his kin in off-kilter ways, he just knows the best methods to take advantage of mega seed-induced intelligence boosting brain seizures. Add to this the fact that Rick is mentally ill, and you’re processing things through his point of view (albeit, filtered through Morty) too. The more adventures these two have together, the worse off Morty will be. You’re not getting that sort of thing on Bob’s Burgers; you’re not getting it on South Park.
This complex storytelling continues with how the series begins to introduce more and more alternate universes that are ever-expanding and growing within each episode as the show’s universe expands. The idea that the Rick and Morty that we’re watching is merely one of thousands, if not millions of Rick and Morty series that are floating in the ether. This is a series after all where in an entirely different episode lampooning M. Night Shyamalan films and twist endings in general, Rick utters the line "The entire world is not the world."
As the show begins to get lost in these infinite realities, the layering of what’s real continues to build on itself as the series progresses. "Lawnmower Dog" goes down a rabbit hole of Inception-style dreams within dreams within dreams until it is unclear what is reality; "Rixty Minutes" has Rick upgrading the family’s cable box to receive programming from alternate realities; and in "Rick Potion #9," Rick and Morty end up destroying their prime timeline and starting over elsewhere.
These alternate realities are not used for novelty sake or as a lazy cop-out but rather as emotional catalysts for the family. Throughout the course of the season, each family member sees a better life for themselves in another reality (Jerry has worth in one, Beth is happily married in another). It’s combining this insane experimental science fiction with grounded character development that strengthens the show even more. Some of the season’s highest emotional moments, like Rick burying himself (yep), or Jerry receiving acceptance with Rick J19Z7, the “dumbest” of the Ricks, an outcast in his society (oh yeah, there’s also a whole Citadel of Ricks that help monitor and balance these realities because of course there is), stem from playing with these realities. It’s to the point that it’s not even about man overcoming the system anymore, it’s about how man physically needs to go into another reality to even stand a fighting chance against the system sometimes.
It’s absolutely no coincidence that the first episode of the series introduces Rick (or rather, Rick C137 as we later learn, making this Universe C137 presumably) by trying to kill all of the humans on the planet and by the end of it, he is declaring, "The world is full of idiots that don’t know what’s important.” Rick is the smartest man in the room, presumably just like Harmon is; just like Roiland is. And they’re trying to use this show to buck the system of what animated sitcoms are and are capable of. But that doesn’t mean that they still don’t just pass butter. That this still isn’t just a cartoon. In the episode “Rixty Minutes,” Rick muses after talking about the weight of having buried his own self, that, "Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's going to die. Come watch TV."
As hard as we try, maybe we can't win in the end, so we might as well watch some TV and enjoy ourselves as everything goes gazorpazorp around us. Rick and Morty isn’t trying to do what other shows like Futurama or American Dad! are; it’s rather quite literally your only hope against the universe “Big Brother-ing” you into oblivion. And for an animated sitcom to push that in 22-minutes, in its first season, is pretty incredible.