Saturday, October 10, 2015

The First Five of "Rick and Morty"

Dan Harmon, one of the creators of "Rick and Morty," has described the animated show as a combination of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."  The main characters, the grossly immoral mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his timid teenage grandson Morty Smith (both voiced by the show's other creator, Justin Roiland), go on wild science-fiction adventures, often traveling to other dimensions.  Meanwhile, the rest of their family, mother Beth (Sarah Chalke), father Jerry (Chris Parnell), and sister Summer (Spencer Grammer), deal with more typical domestic issues back home - though Rick's presence often introduces unpredictable elements and escalate situations quickly.  I think the show also shares a great deal of DNA with Seth McFarland's "Family Guy," due to its adult content, shock humor, and often anarchic, morally ambivalent attitude.  "Rick and Morty" is a lot smarter than "Family Guy," though, and much, much weirder.

As you might suspect from the visual similarities, "Rick and Morty" originally started out as a series of "Back to the Future" parody shorts.  Harmon and Roiland made the characters distinctly different for the Adult Swim version, however.  Rick is a selfish, greedy, drunk and very, very dangerous, but you can tell he cares about Morty,  He just doesn't have the capacity to  help him without also simultaneously scarring him for life.  Morty, meanwhile, is a high-strung, nebbish, high school loser who nervously objects to being dragged along on his grandfathers' deranged schemes, but doesn't have the backbone to really say no.  The relationship between the two is wildly abusive, yet also oddly sweet at times.  I also like the rest of the Smith family, who aren't the oblivious suburban zombies you might expect.  They're intelligent and perceptive to varying degrees, but hampered by their own personal baggage and easy for Rick to manipulate.  Beth still has abandonment issues.  Jerry is pathetic and insecure.  Summer is self-centered and status-obsessed.  They don't have an outwardly unhappy household, but there are a lot of resentments and dysfunctions beneath the surface.  Some of their interactions are startlingly well observed and true to life.  

And here's where I should drop the quick reminder that Dan Harmon was also the creator of my dearly departed "Community," a show that also indulged in crazy high-concept premises, multiple universes, and unusually deep existential self-examination by its main characters.  "Rick and Morty" is a lot sicker and more cynical than "Community," but I can already see some of the same approaches to character-building and relationship-building being applied to the core cast.  Also, the animated format gives free reign to Harmon's notoriously complex, metatextual, pop culture homages.  In one episode we have "Jurassic Park" crossed with "Fantastic Voyage."  Another is built around "Inception" style nested dreams. The writers do a great job of imposing some structure and thematic depth on what could have easily been another "Family Guy" ripoff relying on simply being dark and twisted.  There's a lot more going on here, which is why I think "Rick and Morty" is going to be a be able to sustain itself for a good long while.

I also want to give some love to the production, which deftly handles a lot of complicated environments, characters, and concepts in every episode.  This is one of the most impressive-looking things I've ever seen out of Williams Street.  The designs are simple, reminiscent of a lot of current Cartoon Network shows, but animated with care.  There are always fun little details to look out for, like the empty liquor bottles cluttering up Rick's spaceship or the various items in the garage laboratory.  Everything feels looks a little grungy and a little alienating, and I know it takes a lot of work to maintain that.  Rick's constant burping and hacking, for instance, all has to be carefully recorded and timed and animated.  "Rick and Morty" could easily be a network show if it weren't so committed to content that no network would want to touch with a ten foot pole.  

Like all Adult Swim shows, "Rick and Morty" aims for the niche, and its humor will not be to everyone's taste.  My SO dropped it quickly, finding Rick's behavior too annoying to take.  But I think I'll stick with it for while, as these first couple of episodes impressed me enough that I'm willing to overlook some of the more sophomoric shtick.  I've heard good things about some of the later episodes and I feel I could do with a little of its uniquely sick and twisted outlook in my life.

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