Rick and Morty is an animated sci-fi comedy on Adult Swim co-created by Community creator Dan Harmon and his longtime friend and collaborator, Justin Roiland. There’s only been one season so far, but it was universally regarded as the best first season in the history of all television (citation needed).
Still, this is an Adult Swim show and, though the show is already an inarguable success for Adult Swim, there are those people out there who don’t even know this block of late-night programming is good for something beyond “Too Many Cooks.”
But Rick and Morty isn’t just a weird, vulgar oddity like I’m sure many Adult Swim productions appear to be to the casual viewer. It is bizarre and vulgar, yes, but, coming in part from the mind of the king of obsessive sitcom structure himself (Harmon), it’s also a tightly scripted animated sitcom and quite probably the best show currently airing. In short, you’re gonna love it!
Or hate it. I mean, there’s still a chance you’ll hate it, I guess.
So what I’m going to do here is provide you with some background on the show, a viewer’s guide of sorts, to clue you in on it and let you know if Rick and Morty sounds like a good fit for you. When the second season premieres, you’ll be all set to jump right in!
Or, alternatively, avoid it at all costs.
Dan Harmon has always had a penchant for doing themed episodes. You know, those parody episodes of Community that gave us the amazing action-movie-style paintball episode or that weird but awesome half-Pulp Fiction, half-My Dinner with Andre one? Well, Harmon’s been doing that since back in his days of making bizarre shorts for the website he and Rob Schrab started, Channel101.com (check out his series Water and Power on that site for proof).
Rick and Morty is about a genius scientist (Rick), dragging his grandson (Morty) around on wacky sci-fi adventures. Rick is so brilliant that he can invent anything and go anywhere — outer space, dreams, other dimensions, etc. In other words, unlike Community where the events need to be occasionally reined in so it still feels like a real place with real people, Rick and Morty’s premise is so open-ended and fantastical that it would be doing its own concept a disservice if it didn’t present insane adventures in completely new, otherworldly settings from episode to episode. (It also helps that it’s a cartoon.)
The second episode of the first season is in part a very blatant Inception parody in which Rick and Morty incept Morty’s math teacher to make him give Morty good grades. As Rick helpfully explains, “It’s like Inception, so if it’s confusing and stupid then so is everyone’s favorite movie.” The subplot is about Morty’s dog developing super-intelligence thanks to a special helmet Rick’s invented. And the episode is actually titled “The Lawnmower Dog.” Get it?!?
The third episode, "Anatomy Park," is about Rick starting a tiny amusement park with his single-celled friend, Dr. Xenon Bloom (played by Community alum, John Oliver), inside the body of a diseased alcoholic. In an obvious take-off of Jurassic Park (with a sprinkling of action genre clichés), the attractions (e.g., gonorrhea and hepatitis A) have grown unruly. Morty is shrunk down by Rick and sent in to deal with the situation. By the way, this is the Christmas episode.
And the second episode of the upcoming season has an extended gag conceptually based on that Star Trek episode, “The Inner Light.” But, unlike its source material, it manages to be both emotional and funny. Plus, it communicates the same ideas and themes in only few minutes instead of taking a full hour! So it’s better than Star Trek!
That’s right, I said it. You wanna go?
I was never a huge Futurama fan, but I found that it adequately filled a unique niche: animated sci-fi comedy for adults. Well, Futurama is over now! And have I not already made it clear that Rick and Morty is servicing this very niche?!? Admittedly, this show is much darker than Futurama ever was. For example, it’s typical for loads of innocent people and aliens to die as a result of the protagonists’ actions.
In the pilot, Rick uses a freeze-ray on a bully who falls over and shatters into pieces. In “Anatomy Park,” the guy Morty’s inside of dies around the halfway point and he spends the rest of the episode trying to escape from the inside of a corpse. The second episode of Rick and Morty season 2 confronts the issue of how we arbitrarily weigh the importance of certain lives versus countless others (and, in exploring this subject, loads of people die).
But you can take such morbidity. In fact, you have no choice as Futurama is no more! Rick and Morty is the new future! Rama.
Much of Adult Swim’s programming throws conventional narrative to the wind and looks like it got slapped together with pocket change and shoestrings. Rick and Morty looks as though it has a decent budget and is quite solidly structured with each episode balancing two plots: a crazy sci-fi side and a conventional sitcom side featuring the rest of Morty’s family (Chris Parnell as his dad, Jerry, Spencer Grammar as his sister, Summer, and Sarah Chalke as Morty’s mom, Beth). Dan Harmon’s initial intent for the show was for it to be like The Simpsons of Adult Swim and that’s pretty well been accomplished.
All that aside, Rick and Morty is mental and obnoxious enough to feel right at home on Adult Swim. The most evident illustration of this is Rick himself. He’s an alcoholic, often swigging from a flask he keeps in his lab coat pocket. His constant drinking comes complete with a gross, almost ever-present outline of green spittle around his mouth and frequent belching. A significant amount of Rick’s dialogue is interrupted by disgusting, massive belches. Furthermore, he ends nearly every sentence he says to Morty (which is just about every sentence he says), by saying his name, as in: “Come on, Morty. You have to do this for me, Morty.”
I get that this is the modern era of comedy in which Family Guy and South Park rule the airwaves, so maybe a show like this in which the school principal is named Principal Vagina and there are lines like “your anal cavity is still taut yet malleable,” could show up on network TV or at least another basic cable network. But there’s something about the near-unrelenting grossness of Rick that just feels like it couldn’t fly anywhere except on Adult Swim.
For the people not into Adult Swim, you’ve probably at least seen “Too Many Cooks” at this point, yeah? And that’s not a half-bad primer for the tone of madcap nihilism in Rick and Morty. In fact, it’s often a lot gentler (though, er, sometimes it isn’t). I would suggest binge-watching the first season (currently available to stream in full on Adult Swim’s website) real quick before the second comes out, however. The new season builds upon the universe introduced in the first and the sitcom and sci-fi halves were more starkly divided at the start. Season two makes strides towards blurring them.
Co-creator Justin Roiland is far from a household name, so there’s a chance you’re a fan of him without even knowing it. You may have heard his beautiful, infectious voice on Adventure Time. He plays the Earl of Lemongrab. Lemongrab’s episodes are getting progressively more disturbing with frightening imagery like Lemongrab electrocuting children and devouring clones of himself whole. I don’t know how directly involved Roiland is in the direction his Adventure Time character is going, but it seems as though the writers are creating material that fits perfectly with his creative sensibilities all the same.
Dan Harmon’s involvement with Rick and Morty is definitely felt, but it’s very much Justin Roiland’s disturbing baby. If you want to look into the odd levels to which Roiland’s stuff goes, check him out on Channel101 or go to his website RoilandTV.com. But just to give you an idea, he’s responsible for a webshow called “2 Girls, 1 Cup: The Show” (it’s actually far less disgusting than its source material).
Beyond that, probably the best indication of what you’re in for with Rick and Morty is another animated series that Roiland and Harmon collaborated on for the short-lived VH1 sketch show Acceptable.TV called “Mr. Sprinkles.” There are only eight episodes and each one is about two-and-a-half minutes long so you can watch it all in one sitting. It’s obnoxiously difficult to find the entire series in one place, but VH1.com currently appears to be the best place for it. So do have a look. It happens to be one of my most favorite things in the world ever.
Also, incidentally, Roiland voices both Rick and Morty, which is an impressive feat considering how natural it sounds when the two of them bicker.
5. The concept of a twisted take on Back to the Future is hilarious to you.
Rick and Morty originate from a Back to the Future parody video Roiland made for Channel101 called The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti. I don’t think I can even discuss the content of that video here, so if you go looking for it, do know that it isn’t at all representative of the Adult Swim show (aside from the fact that the voices are roughly the same, complete with belching).
Actually, despite the name change, the final, televised product is a much more proper sendup of Back to the Future. Basically, imagine if Marty was kind of a spineless idiot and Doc wasn’t his friend, but rather an abusive relative who forced him into going along with all their sci-fi adventures. That’s Rick and Morty.
Children should NOT watch Rick and Morty.
Old people are mentally equivalent to children and should NOT watch Rick and Morty.
To be clear up front, deep in the folds of its cruel and toxic meat-flaps, there is a heart to be found in this show. Dan Harmon has stated that on Community he’s taking the normal trappings of a sitcom and finding ways to fit them into high-concept tomfoolery. But on Rick and Morty he has the opposite job. Justin Roiland provides the high-concept insanity, so Dan Harmon has to inject the beast with heart.
This is why, aside from the sci-fi stuff, there are plots with Morty’s mom, dad, and sister, to give the show some grounding with a conventional sitcom scenario. And while there are some emotional moments, the show feels firmly locked into Rick’s universe-weary, jaded perspective—a perspective that is already being passed down to poor Morty, who delivered the most profound, tragic line of the previous season: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, and everyone’s going to die. Come watch TV.”
Still, the emotional moments that do show up, awash in an ocean of hopelessness, do, by contrast, manage to resonate quite powerfully. Rick, when he’s not being abusive, occasionally says and does stuff that demonstrates he cares about Morty. For example, there’s this line from the series’ pilot: “The world is full of idiots who don’t understand what’s important. And they’ll tear us apart, Morty.” But he delivers this while standing over Morty as he squirms on the floor having a horrible fit induced by the mega-seeds Rick bullied him into smuggling up his rectum.
As mentioned, much of Adult Swim’s lineup is deliberately low-rent looking, narratively-insane stuff, e.g., Aqua Teen, Squidbillies, or 12 oz. Mouse. If this is your image of Adult Swim, Rick and Morty won’t fit within your parameters.
You might also not like it if you like Robot Chicken or Family Guy because this means you like crap. Let me be clear: I’m not saying Rick and Morty is high art for only the intelligentsia to appreciate. I’m just saying it’s much, much, much better than creatively bankrupt garbage for jackasses.
5. You refuse to accept the crushing truths of existence.
Cartoons are for light-hearted fun, right? And sci-fi cartoons are about wacky, happy adventures! Forget the pains of life and rocket off to other planets and universes! Kooky creatures! Zany aliens! Harebrained premises! Forget your worries and lose yourself in otherworldly fantasy, yes?
While Rick and Morty does an amazing job overextending itself with unique settings and outlandish concepts from week to week, it also keeps things grounded in reality—the worst parts of it. The multiverse of Rick and Morty is one in which you’ll be introduced to a new alien race the likes of which you’ve never seen and they’ll promptly be massacred. It’s an existence where a silly-looking jellybean monster might force itself upon you in a public bathroom stall. It’s an unreality where the only viable solution to a problem is to bury the battered corpse of an alternative universe version of yourself and then take its place.
Yes, Rick and Morty is crazy, sci-fi fun-time but it’s spliced with a stark dose of very visceral, very dark reality. The show imagines what it would be like if you had access to all of space and time and much of it proved to be just as awful as the world we already know. Try not to let this scare you, Tumblr. Embrace the darkness and be liberated.
So, join us! Check out the whole first season of Rick and Morty on Adult Swim’s website right now and be there for the season two premiere on Sunday, July 26th at 11:30pm ET! It’s a show for everyone!
Editor's note: A version of this article ran during Rick and Morty's first season. It's since been updated in anticipation of season two, biiiiiiitch!