Doc Brown’s DeLorean pulls up to the curb in front of Marty McFly’s house. Marty hops in, excited for a new adventure with his mad scientist best friend. “So where we going today, Doc? Back to the future? The past? Wait … Doc? Are you … drunk?” Doc turns to Marty and takes another swig from his flask. Marty sighs. Doc burps, grins, and guns the engine. Where they’re going, they don’t need rules.
This is essentially the premise of Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty.” Born as a parody of “Back to the Future” but extending its range far beyond its source material, “Rick and Morty” is the most recent iteration of a boom of adult-centric cartoons. At its heart, it’s a potpourri of sci-fi tropes, sitcom platitudes, and existential rumination. And it’s the ideal show for its college-aged audience. The characters search for meaning and purpose the same way that its viewers do, uncannily giving voice to the questions that keep us up at night.
Stylistically, the voice acting is loose, stuttering, and at times completely improvisatory, while the premise itself is a geek’s fever dream: Morty, your average awkward teenager, is brought along on various interdimensional adventures by his brilliant, alcoholic, near-sociopathic mad scientist grandfather Rick. Aliens are introduced. Worlds are discovered. Clichés are subverted. Chaos ensues.
Luckily for us, such chaos is counterbalanced by a commitment to story and character. Zaniness never eclipses narrative coherence. While Rick’s scientific inventions do provide occasional deus ex machinas, they also serve to highlight character developments; you are never left with a feeling of “Oh, how convenient,” but rather, “Wow, that mecha suit sure is letting Morty release his inner aggression effectively. Wonder what this means for his arc.”
Two seasons into “Rick and Morty,” the supporting characters rarely show new sides of themselves—they simply become more and more heightened. Morty’s dad Jerry is an ineffectual excuse for a male role model: sniveling, helpless, willing to do anything for approval. His arc goes nowhere but down. His failing marriage to Beth is a major part of the show, often serving as the B-plot to Rick and Morty’s A, and though a few episodes end with them kissing and making up, many end on a more depressing note.
One episode sees Jerry being uncommonly chummy with Summer, only to be revealed as buttering up his own daughter for money “to get through the next month.” She says no, and that’s all we see of Jerry and Summer in the episode. There’s no redemption. It’s not played for laughs, like how some mean-spirited sitcoms might approach it. It’s simply meant to deepen our understanding of Jerry. In another episode, he desperately tries to convince aliens to cut off his penis to use for a galactic leader’s life-saving transplant, just because he’s afraid they’ll think him cowardly if he doesn’t go through with it. So desperate is he to be seen as a hero for once in his life that he ignores the fact that they’ve realized they don’t need the penis after all. This subplot exemplifies the dynamic of “Rick and Morty”—a show that features a Principal Vagina and a Mr. Poopy Butthole, but also takes a bleak, bleak view on the human condition.
The contradictions are even greater than the sum of their parts. The other characters are dark in a way that contrasts with, but somehow heightens, the absurd humor. In one episode, Morty bursts into a parallel dimension, kills that dimension’s Morty, and assumes his place as a last resort after ruining his own original dimension. This is to say, he brings about the end of the world, but promptly hops into a nearly identical world where everything is fine—but has to literally kill his double. The shot of Morty staring in horror at his own mangled body lying in front of him will stick with you long after the credits. While most shows would try to highlight any humor they could find in this situation (if they even dared to go that far in the first place), “Rick and Morty” leans into the scarring emotional implications of killing your doppelganger and then burying him in the backyard. The rest of the episode watches Morty go about his daily life in this new dimension, eyes wide over huge bags, mouth open, visibly shaken, innocence shattered—all set to a melancholy indie song.
If this sounds cloying or laughable, it’s not. It’s surprisingly affecting. This animated character is experiencing trauma in a disturbingly real way, and the accessibility of its emotions forces you to let down your barriers. Then there’s the episode that ends on a failed suicide attempt by Rick, and there’s the seemingly endless iterations of the failing marriage trope, and, man, are we even watching a comedy anymore?
Blessedly, yes. It may not the gleeful misbehavior of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but it’s not the crushing morbidity of “The Leftovers,” either. “Rick and Morty” balances the two to perfection: a wacky send-up of sci-fi tropes but with a dark, yearning soul that tries to reconcile the hollowness and the value of existence. You’re forced to care deeply about the characters and their struggles, even if you just want to get caught up in the adventures. It’s ontology disguised as Saturday morning entertainment, Mike Judge meets Charlie Kaufman.
The classic multi-camera sitcom has been on the wane for years. Though classics like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” still hold their popularity, there are myriad new sitcoms nowadays that fail due to their reliance on tired methods of storytelling and uninspired forms of humor (just ask any major network—“Dads,” anyone?). A show like “Rick and Morty” forces our cynical minds to take notice. It feels thoroughly original. Its improvisatory style and its willingness to get morbid are sometimes played for laughs but sometimes for disarmingly strong pathos, and you never know which is coming next.
My personal favorite line from the series comes after Morty’s parallel-self-burial in the backyard, during a moment when Summer is considering running away. Morty confronts her, tells her how every day he “eats breakfast 20 feet away from his own rotting corpse” and finishes by saying, “Nobody exists for a reason. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
As a self-doubting, self-interrogating, generally confused college student, hearing this phrased so simply was bracing. It’s a trite conundrum, sure, but it’s trite because it’s universal.
Rick and Morty is able to give voice to the big questions, and it acknowledges that its audience is asking them right alongside its characters. Whether it knows it or not, its target audience happens to be at the age when we begin searching for ways to answer those questions. Maybe we like when the TV shows we choose to watch can help us. While “Rick and Morty” is certainly an enjoyable ride in the DeLorean, this depth is the real reason why it rings so true to people our age. When it comes down to it, we are all Rick and Morty: finding our way through the universe and trying to make sense of it as best we can.