Like most Americans, I use my friend Brendan’s HBO Max account. One day he sent me a message, shocked and befuddled.
“Corbin,” he said, “Were you watching Rick and Morty on my account?”
What was I supposed to say? “No, it just autoplayed Rick and Morty after I was done watching Tokyo Story?” I was caught. Brendan, who once had nothing but respect and admiration for me, now knew my dirty little secret: I was a Rick and Morty Guy.
I hoped to keep my dirty, shameful secret from spreading but… as you can see, here I am, confessing it to the world for a freelance writing commission. My name is Corbin Smith, I am a professional writer, and I am cursed to be a guy who likes Rick and Morty. The Szechuan Sauce Show. Elon Musk’s favorite TV show. The show is primarily for dorks who can’t handle being a real snob, and opt instead to absorb themselves in a sci-fi cartoon about a toxic man and his grandson.
I cannot save myself from the judgment of the readership. All I can do is present a defense of Rick and Morty, and of the act of watching Rick and Morty, and move aside as it doesn’t do enough to save me from the rolled eyes and cursed scoffs of every right-thinking person in the country. I am resigned to the consequences of this action: I will never have another relationship again for the rest of my life, not after the greater population of womanhood see this and puts me on the DND (do not date) list at the next meeting. But I need to speak my truth. This is my curse and I will bear it till death.
For those not in the know: Rick and Morty is an animated show just now entering its sixth season on Adult Swim, a grown-up block of cartoons that airs late at night on Cartoon Network and streams on HBO Max. It was created by Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland, who also provides the voices for both of the title characters. Rick is a mad scientist who is the smartest person in the universe—a messy, nihilistic drunk who treats reality as his plaything. For reasons that are sort of nebulous, he exclusively goes on adventures with his grandson, Morty, a dorky, hormonal teen boy who starts out kind of dumb but attains a sort of canniness as the show goes on. They live with Morty’s immediate family: his mom, Beth, his stupid-but-pretty-nice dad, Jerry, and his older sister, Summer. As time has gone on and the particulars of the reality they live in have warped on the fly, everyone involved has become more dynamic, transmogrified into something stranger by their exposure to Rick and his cavalier relationship to reality.
The best science fiction employs a highly systematic storytelling method: you build a world, give it rules, then have the characters take those rules to their breaking point. Take Dune, for instance, Frank Herbert’s canonical sci-fi epic about the folly of messianic figures and the terror of sandworms. As it begins, we are introduced to humanity in a far-off future. At some point, we fought a big war with highly intelligent computers of our own creation. After that, we took to the stars and conquered various inhabitable planets, forming a galactic empire in the process.
It establishes a set of rules and institutions that govern this reality: feudal houses, a spacefaring union, a bizarre breeding program and psychic school, among other things. We learn that a drug known as the Spice Melange is necessary for intergalactic navigation, and you can only harvest spice on Arrakis, a distant desert planet. We learn that, as a result, the family that rules over Arrakis is fabulously wealthy and influential. Then, Arrakis is built out some more: the ecology of the mystical desert planet is explained over the course of the novel, including the existence of a native population in the relatively barren desert that has built their society around the maintenance and preservation of water.
As the story continues, the characters find themselves pushing all the internal logic the creator has installed to its breaking point: the breeding program produces Paul, Paul intermingles with the native population, he uses the knowledge he learns from them to dominate the empire and establish a new set of systems that Herbert draws on for future stories set in the same universe.
At its best, Rick and Morty endeavors to stuff the narrative content of one to three Dune books into a single 22-minute episode so quickly and so aggressively that by the time the credits roll the base system has folded in on itself and produced secondary and tertiary logic. One classic episode concerns the trials of a creature known as “Mr. Meeseeks,” a helpful fellow who is created when you press a button on a box, designated to do one job, and then disappear forever.
Rick gives the box to his family, but warns them not to give Mr. Meeseeks a task that is difficult or abstract to complete. Summer and Beth immediately use the Meeseeks to achieve abstract personal validation, which works, weirdly, but Jerry, in seeking to achieve the far more benign goal of improving his golf game, taxes the poor creature to the edge of insanity.
Meeseeks proceeds to create his own Meeseeks, who in turn make another and another and another and so on, but none of them can seem to do anything to improve Jerry’s swing. Jerry eventually gives up, but the Meeseeks cannot: their existence hinges on improving Jerry’s golf game, and every second they exist without having accomplished this extends their existence, which is suffering. Soon, they go to extreme measures to disappear, and the episode ends in a golfing standoff at a restaurant where Jerry took Beth to dinner after he bailed. Introduce a system, stretch it to insane heights, top out, collapse, repeat. It’s very fun, but also an elegant, functional bit of science-fiction storytelling.
Other little systems include Rick creating a video game-style save/load button for real life that Morty immediately abuses, an entire episode about decoy families creating and destroying more decoy families, a B plot where Rick making Jerry lighter than air to hang Christmas light turns into disaster. Rick’s car battery dies, so he shrinks himself and Morty down to attend to the pocket dimension inside his space-car battery, where Rick has seeded a civilization that exists to stomp boxes that power his car. Unfortunately, it turns out that inside that dimension there’s a separate mega-genius who has also built a pocket dimension that exists to generate power for his entire civilization, outmoding the stomp boxes and leaving his car stalled out in an alternate dimension.
“‘Rick and Morty’ also has another dimension, one that makes it both a better, more interesting show and a natural magnet for the most irritating people on the planet.”
If that was all Rick and Morty was, it would probably top out as a really good Adult Swim show, beloved by the stoned and teens, regarded with bemused curiosity by everyone else. But Rick and Morty also has another dimension, one that makes it both a better, more interesting show and a natural magnet for the most irritating people on the planet. It’s the way the show deals with Rick, the Smartest Man in the World.
Here is Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, the paradigm-shifting 1980’s superhero comic, talking about Rorschach, one of the book’s main characters, a costumed vigilante with a nasty right-wing streak:
“[Gibbons and I] thought about superhero types like Batman, so I thought, ‘What would he be like in the real world.’ And he’d be very much like Rorschach—if you’re a revenge-driven vigilante, you’re not quite right in the head. Yeah, alright, your parents got killed when you were a kid, whatever, that’s upsetting. But for most of us, if our parents were killed when we were little, would not become a bat-themed costumed vigilante—that’s a bit mental.
So, I thought, ‘Alright, if there was a Batman in the real world, he probably would be a bit mental.’ He wouldn’t have time for a girlfriend, friends, a social life, because he’d just be driven by getting revenge against criminals… dressed up as a bat for some reason. He probably wouldn’t be very careful about his personal hygiene. He’d probably smell. He’d probably eat baked beans out of a tin. He probably wouldn’t talk to many people. His voice probably would have become weird with misuse, his phraseology would be strange.
“I wanted to kind of make this like, ‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world.’ But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend—these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?’”
Rorschach is an out-of-control fascist who spends his spare time standing in the middle of the sidewalk, holding a “THE END IS NEAR” sign, and scrawling purple prose about a “Cleansing rain sweeping the filth off the street” and whatnot. Claiming him as a spirit animal is deeply troubling, and you should not do it. But, and I can’t stress this enough, there is a problem with Moore’s ad-hoc critique of how his masterpiece is commonly read by weirdos: Rorschach is cool.
Moore can say that the character is a messed-up little troll all he wants, but when you read the book the visceral experience of spending time with this freak is intoxicating. He looks awesome, he is a compelling detective, he executes some wildly stylized violence. When he gets stuck in prison with hundreds of guys he bagged in the course of his career as a masked vigilante, he defends himself by improvising a brutal weapon out of deep fryer oil.
And, even if Rorschach’s worldview is revolting to the author and to any reader with normal ethics, the book still engages in the project of granting it a kind of logic. There’s a lengthy subplot where a prison psychologist finds his sanity cast to the wind when he stares too deeply into the mind of the man. There’s only one character in Watchmen who has a proportional reaction to Veidt killing eight million people with an interdimensional Cthulhu monster, and it’s Rorschach. There is a kind of critic, especially nowadays, who encounters anti-heroic dissonance and declares that the writer in question needs to be more clear about their moral position from the get-go, so that no one can take the wrong idea from their work. But the seductive qualities of violence and nihilism don’t just go away if we lecture at them. You have to put some effort into understanding something, even if you find it repulsive, even if people might mistake your critique for endorsement.
“You have to put some effort into understanding something, even if you find it repulsive, even if people might mistake your critique for endorsement.”
But when you make an antihero, it’s easy to fall into the hands of an audience who admires this toxic quality a little too much. When Rick and Morty premiered in 2013, TV was overflowing with this kind of thing. Breaking Bad’s Walter White was a murder machine who justified his excesses by embracing patriarchy, yes, but he is also a sickly, nerdy man who does a bunch of cool action crap that gets everyone who ever watched pumping their fists. Don Draper of Mad Men is a truly odious guy, but he’s also suffering from PTSD, looks cool as hell with that cigarette, and watching him navigate the backstabbing boardrooms of corporate America is a thrill-and-a-half. Being misunderstood is the cost of writing something that messes with the contradictions of our moral and limbic systems.
Rick, our ostensible protagonist, is the Smartest Man in the Universe. He is also a staggeringly arrogant nihilist and a grouch whose premium on taking life is staggeringly low, a selfish family member, and a bad friend. He is also carrying around a bunch of rancid self-loathing that he projects onto everyone around him, trauma stated and unstated, and a defensive alienating posture toward everything and everyone. He’s not only the smartest man in this universe, mind you: most universes have a Rick, and most of them have some relationship to the Citadel of Ricks, a cross-dimensional waypoint where every Rick in the multiverse has, along with their Mortys, created a city state that serves the needs of the Ricks of the Multiverse. Our Rick is the Rickest of all the Ricks, the arch non-conformist and an old, sad man who finds even the company of himself tedious and beneath him.
Rick and Morty is a chaotic sendup of any sci-fi genre piece where technology passes the barrier into magic, but it is also a character study of Rick that does or doesn’t take itself seriously depending on what it needs for any given arc or episode.
There’s a scene in Rick and Morty’s first season finale where Morty, cleaning up after an epic rager thrown by Summer and Rick destroys the house, is given a talking-to by Rick’s best friend, Birdperson, about Rick’s catchphrase, “Wub a Lub a Dub dub.” It turns out that this nonsense phrase isn’t really nonsense, but that it means, “I am in great pain, please help me.”
In this moment we learn that Rick, who seems like a wacky cartoon character, is actually a well of suffering who needs Morty’s help and love, and that’s why he has adopted him as a sidekick. The show plays this revelation fairly seriously in order to deepen the audience’s relation to the character, but also, in the abstract, it’s just… absurd. Like, Rick’s best friend is a Birdman from space? And the vent for his pain is a stupid catch phrase? How exactly am I supposed to feel about this construct?
This moment sets the template for the show’s dance with the character of Rick: he is a cool antihero, a bad boy who does what he wants but is tormented by his status as the smartest man in the universe and a parody of the sort of antihero who has it all but can’t escape his own suffering. It doesn’t always pull it off: the ending of the Pickle Rick episode is maudlin, for instance, but watching it try to balance itself, episode after episode, is fascinating.
Why is the vocal Rick and Morty fan so irritating? I submit that it’s because he (almost always he) can’t read the text as satire at all, and watches it as a sincere reflection on the trials and tribulations of being the smartest man in the universe. They see themselves as Rick, like the cruddy half-hearted reactionaries who like comics too much once saw themselves as Rorschach, even though the very idea of being Rick is a ridiculous notion. You can’t build a portal gun, your best friend can’t be a bird, your alienating attitude toward everyone who loves you isn’t forgiven by the depths of suffering your genius has plowed in you. But when someone is given a model by which they are allowed to subsume the miserable parts of their personality, they usually take it.
Are you a sweaty, paranoid fascist? Rorschach. Do you look at the world and think that men need to step up and do what needs to be done? Walter White. Do you like wearing suits to algebra class? Don Draper. Rick is just one of these guys, but for someone who doesn’t have a very good attention span and whose concept of a human being is summed up by a binary of “genius” and “normie.” It’s honestly even sadder than thinking Walter White is a hero who provides for his family, because the show is a joke. There’s even an episode where Rick has sex with a planet.
Of course Elon Musk, an egomaniac who lives his life as though he is always correct and has enough money to make this “correctness” a reality, loves this show. He has a very shallow concept of himself as a genius-God, and Rick and Morty is the only show on TV that is giving a version of this energy. Seeing yourself in a show where a guy bangs a planet is really demented but, I mean, being a man in America can often make you demented.
The show itself is always pushing and pulling at this characterization, but it does sum it up pretty nicely in the first episode of Season 3, an all-time classic that features Rick breaking out of a galactic government prison by teleporting the Citadel of Ricks into it. “He’s not a villain, Summer,” says Morty, backed by a faint string/piano score, testifying in front of the Council of Ricks, “but he shouldn’t be your hero. He’s more like a demon, or a super fucked-up god.” Then, a member of the council of Ricks says “Let’s not suck the dick of his ghost yet.”
The whole show in a moment, really.