Social Commentary in “Rick and Morty”
“We often say that this show is inspired by more British-style storytelling. […] The older world of storytelling — children’s stories were the most brutal playground, written by sociopaths or psychopaths. They give children more credit.” – Dan Harmon, Vulture
When co-writer and creator of the sitcom Community Dan Harmon announced he would be doing an animated series for Adult Swim with Justin Roiland, some were skeptical. How would this differ from their usual style? Would these two creators make fireworks or duds? For those who don’t know, Rick and Morty is “Justin’s punk-rock maligning” of Marty McFly and Doctor Emmet Brown from Back to the Future. We have an elderly, eccentric mad scientist Rick who takes his naive grandson Morty (both voiced by Roiland) out on adventures of everything science fiction – parallel universes and visiting the past are just some ideas that are explored.
Yes, its language is sometimes South Park level extreme but R&M shows the dark side of the science fiction and society in a way that is both stunning and thought-provoking. South Park may make a comment of homosexuality in that episode of aliens invading earth, rise up for the justice of all freckled friends and give sad stories about racism and drug abuse. The approach to the material appears to be different. Although almost all of these episodes are over the top, very unbelievable scenarios. R&M takes itself seriously enough in these moments to convey true emotion with its characters that are already have distinct, believable personalities. They have a greater balance of negative and redeeming qualities unlike Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin whose main purpose is to make the audience laugh. Except perhaps Rick himself. Jerk. It isn’t just a new take on every cool science fiction idea in the world. Underneath its rough yet vibrant exterior Rick and Morty (from here on out will be referred to as R&M) makes some very strong social commentary. Please be warned the next portions of the article contain spoilers.
The pilot introduces how malicious and ridiculous Rick is, which is surprising given how its the first episode of a show about adventures.
Or so we thought. What this show explores which titles like Harry Potter, Twilight, Doctor Who or Back to the Future only briefly acknowledge is the impact of going off on adventures on academic performance. Family worries and distraught are not the only changes brought to light. Morty’s parents Jerry and Beth try to stop Rick from bringing Morty on adventures because he is failing school. He also isn’t spending time with his family. These seem like pretty obvious consequences for avoiding life, as much as procrastination and yet it is astounding that they are skimmed over on most forms of media. Much like Her, R&M also has its fair share of commentary on how we use technology. In episode three Morty’s Dad, Jerry attempts to get everyone to stop using their phones during conversations at the dinner table. What parent hasn’t done this? The funniest and saddest part of this scenario is when everyone puts their phones away they suddenly find they have nothing to talk about.
In “Rick Potion n9” the dark side of adventuring is brought to a powerful low when the credits roll. As a Rick and Morty from a different universe bury their dead bodies from the timeline the television show focuses on, Rick installs in Morty a form of existential dread. He explains the more alternate universes there are the less meaningful your choices become. Morty walks pale and empty faced around his house as he realizes with sadness that life is meaningless. The choice to include “Look on Down from the Bridge” by Mazzy Star during this sequence made the scene hit a lot harder. Questioning identity and choices is also a concern of Morty’s parents Beth and Jerry in episode eight. When Jerry sees himself as a famous actor in an alternate reality who isn’t with Beth the married couple begins to wonder if they are better off apart. It is only at the end of the episode where alternate timeline Jerry confesses to Beth that he “hates acting” and “always wonders what could have been”. It shows that jumping alternate time lines isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Each world has its pros and cons. It seems like a matter of deciding which portions of your life are most important to you.
Episode two “Lawnmower Dog” has been the spawn of many humorous parodies on image sharing websites. Much like the children’s film Cats & Dogs the inequality between humans and their pets is the main focal point of the story. In the live action film with 3D animated portions the evil cat Mr Tinkles tries to break this inequality. In this R&M episode, the dog Snowball acknowledges the power imbalance between humans and dogs when it he is granted greater intelligence and rebels. This links back to functionalism theory by Emile Durkheim where social structure is changed by a disruption, like a powerful rebellious act, against the system. The components that make up society have to realign to keep it working correctly. Here, Snowball reverses the society and makes humans his slaves – it is kind of what would happen if the rebellion from I, Robot succeeded. The fact they make Snowball a lovable character despite him being the villain almost seems like an act of sublimation upon the creators – to avoid guilt, they channel their feelings into a creative outlet.
Another exploration of power imbalances is in episode seven, “Raising Gazorpazorp”. Morty and his sister, Summer visit a universe where women are vastly more intelligent and evolved than men. The women have advanced technology and have a clear social hierarchy with humorous politeness customs and rules. The men are depicted as vicious, red monsters with a cave men level of intelligence. This is a clear representation of gender inequality and opposition gone wrong. The characters do not view the situation with as much guilt as they did with their dog, but the views of the writers are summarized by Summer “Let’s go back to our world which thinks it has gender equality but not really”.
“Meeseeks and Destroys” is an episode where Morty chooses the adventure his grandpa go on. At first, they find themselves in a fairy tale land which appears innocent. Near the end of the episode, a King Jellybean attempts to sexually assault Morty. This is acknowledges the scum that parades society – the psychopaths, sociopaths and those with anti social personalities. Shows like Adventure Time negate to portray this fact of life: not everyone is nice. In fact some people are violently evil for no good reason. Granted, these are mostly for children’s television shows. What parent wants their child to marathon South Park? However, the impact of the story makes itself clear at the end where photos of King Jellybeans various other assault victims are burned to “allow the people to remember him for who he was”. This evil king could be described as an innovator in Robert Merton’s social strain theory. The Jellybean values commonly accepted goals like wealth, although he non traditional methods are devised to attain what he wants. It also reminded me of the media’s tendency to cover up stories to present themselves, or its subjects, in the best light. For example, this is uncannily similar to the scandals about sexual assault in churches, a place most people would associate with virtue, inspiration and justice.
How can we describe this show? The creators quote Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as influences, although it is easy to compare it to a number of other animated series. The episode “Anatomy Park” has a sharp resemblance to the episode of Nickelodeon’s Fairly Odd Parents “Tiny Timmy!”. The crude side of the humor rings true to Seth Macfarlane’s work like Family Guy or Ted. Add in the randomness of Adventure Time and the comedy of Community‘s parody parts and you have something which kind of looks like R&M. Its ratings have been high enough to surpass Archer and be a big hit for Cartoon Network so far, especially younger men. When Rick and Morty doesn’t make you laugh, it will make you cringe, think or even cry. Its measly but memorable current ten episode run are better experienced than described. At the end of the day it seems R&M is trying to say that we should aim be grateful for what we have, go on our own adventures and tread carefully.
What do you think? Leave a comment.