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.

Morty is torn between normal and fantastical adventures
Morty is torn between normal and fantastical adventures

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”.

Snowball is more than just cute in  R&M.
Snowball is more than just cute in R&M.

“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.

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  1. mercedes

    I think Adventure Time, Regular Show, Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls are the best animated shows right now. Rick and Morty completes my top 5.

    • Elfriede Lau

      Fantastic read! This show is possibly the best cartoon series ever made. It’s incredible. I haven’t fallen in love with a show like this since I was a kid.

      • Jordan

        Thank you. I agree. I think I like Rick and Morty more than Adventure Time just because it balances the comedy and dramatic aspects so well.

  2. This is a little embarrassing stories i have about rick and morty: I was watching the one about rick is with the aliens where he was in a hologram in a hologram (and in a hologram), I was watching the ending to that one in the break room at work and everyone was staring from how hard i was laughing at the end that had rick had a knife up to morty asking rather he was a hologram while he was in bed

  3. On the one hand, the funny moments are amazing. On the other hand, I feel the messages it’s trying to convey don’t always exactly hit the nail on the head. Example, the ending for “Rick Potion #9” felt like it wanted to be in league with “Jusassic Bark” or “Mother Simpson”, but ended up just kind of being…forced? I don’t know. I’ll stick with it though, just for Sarah Chalke, Kari Wahlgren, and Parns.

    • Jordan

      I’m interested to know what exactly you think contributed to it being forced. I haven’t seen the Jurrasic Bark episode but I’d like to here your comparison on the two.

    • Orville

      Personally I found that really poignant ending out of nowhere was just hilarious. Sometimes comedy comes directly from breaking tropes and drastically changing mood. Like, why the hell not?

    • I don’t think it has a great deal in common with Jurassic Bark. If we’re doing Futurama comparisons, I’d be more likely to compare it to Luck of the Fryish, though I’m admittedly more fond of that episode than Jurassic Bark.
      Even with Rick Potion #9’s end being sudden and almost out of nowhere, it does indeed fit with the rest of the episode pretty well.

      *spoilers for Rick Potion*
      The episode begins with Morty demanding Rick to help him instead of always working on his own things: This leads to a wildfire spread of a love virus. The love on its own was fairly amoral, practically being a brainwashing potion to force whoever he wanted to become obsessed with him – something Morty was okay with, considering his own obsession. WIth the potion’s effect spreading, Morty wants things back to normal, resulting int he consequential Cronenbergs. That’s the second instance where Morty tries to have things go exactly his way only to have it completely backfire. Morty becomes enraged, blaming Rick for not fixing problems that he (Morty)instigated through Rick’s inventions. Rick decides on the only solution he can think of, hoping to please Morty’s demands. The solution is to find a universe where they’ve just died, but nobody knows yet so they can slip in unnoticed – namely, the third instance where Morty pressures Rick into making things go a certain way, but winds up regretting it. The whole episode follows a pattern of Morty trying to get things through force and the consequences of using such a forceful approach; the end is no different, even if the “fix it” requests were less malicious than his initial “make me a love potion”.

  4. Ryan Oliver

    This show might not be perfect but still better than most of the shows on adult swim (I’m not complaining BTW)

  5. KimberTurpin

    I love the part with Morty’s realization that they’re really leaving the parallel universe all Cronenberged up, and he really has to live in a different one permanently, all at the same time that he has to bury his own dead body.

    That the show went to such a dark place was genuinely shocking. That it was somehow funny at the same time was incredible.

    • Just the stuttering dialogue in general is a huge favorite of mine. Why do shows and film all must have perfect speech and always understand each other the first time?

      When Rick shot and exploded the Jelleybean king. So touching for such a dark show. I felt so great after that and it really makes Rick a endearing character.

  6. I’m so glad someone else is committed to doing these sorts of analysis on shows, especially on these weird little animated shows.

  7. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Great read as always : )

    Adult Swim’s programming is so diverse now. Steve Brule is the only show I regularly watch every week (that and Cosmos), but I might have to pick this show up. It seems like a solid show, and you’ve pointed out how there’s some real depth to it, but I’m hoping for a truly weird outing like Perfect Hair Forever or 12 Oz Mouse soon…

    • Jordan

      It’s worth giving it a try especially considering there’s only 9 episodes out right now. Since they are reasonably episodic you could even watch the ones I have specifically mentioned in the article 🙂
      Thank you!

  8. Rick and Morty is sorta the next mature step of what Penn Ward did with Adventure, humorously deconstructing those fun adventure shows we watched as kids, but with actual complex characters with real emotions. Other great examples includes Archer and Venture Brothers.

    • I’d agree with this. They remove the veneer of perfection that the characters in the early days used to have. Also, I like that the further Rick pushes his experiements the less he really seems to know about the universe.

  9. You said that the family had nothing to talk about in episode 3 once they put their phones away when in reality, practically the opposite happens- Jerry’s parents come in with a shared third lover and then Summer’s boyfriend barges in and causes a commotion. All these instances lead to the family talking/bonding over subjects that Jerry feels uncomfortable discussing and would rather ignore. When a giant Santa Clause explodes overhead, Jerry hands the devices out again so everyone will look away from the blood soaked outside world as well as stop talking about his parents sex lives and Summer’s relationship.

    • Jordan

      At the very end of the episode though…. or maybe I’m getting mixed up. They can’t think of what to talk about so they pick up their phones?

  10. AntonioWhitehead

    Excellent points about the show. The insanity that Rick and Morty presents you with upfront is funny enough, but what makes the show so great is its ability to probe deeply into its characters and concepts. I’m surprised and delighted by how strongly it has come out of the gate.

  11. The observation of the social commentary of Rick and Morty is amazingly in depth and accurate. The show was both humorously detached from its message and engaging in topics that most shows shy away from. It’s crude and blunt about things that makes others uncomfortable, and that’s where it gets it’s charm. It’s a show that tries to get away with every sort of taboo while keeping the show palatable and funny and exciting.

    • Jordan

      I agree. There are a lot of shows, for example Family Guy, that sort of dodge around these issues without making a blunt statement.

  12. I love the show. Both the main characters remind me of Doc and Marty from Back to the Future.

  13. Max Lin

    I have to say, I loved the mini-existential crisis that shows in the most recent episode, “Something Ricked This Way Comes.” Rick makes a robot with the higher capacity of trying to understand its nature and self. It asks him, “What is my purpose?” He replies, “You pass butter.” The delivery from the robot when it says “Oh…my god.” is dark and hysterical.

  14. Nicely written article! I love the laughs I get from Archer and Family Guy, but I’ve been looking for a cartoon with a little more depth and philosophical impact. From your description it seems like R&M is just that, so now I really wanna check at least a few episodes out.:)

  15. Dillon Raborn

    I have always dismissed R&M as just another filler cartoon, but I have to say this article helped along the process I have been going through for understanding that beneath their outrageous exterior Adult Swim is quite thoughtful. Anyway, thanks for the read- I’ll have to start recording the show now to see if it holds up!

    • Jordan

      Glad you found it interesting. It is definitely outrageous too though! Hope you like the show.

  16. Jemarc Axinto

    One of my favorite episodes thus far is one in which Rick and Morty don’t do anything but watch television. When *SPOILERS* Morty tells Summer that nothing matters and his dead body is buried in the yard I fully accepted that the story is going for more depth and character growth (by virtue of consistency). I look forward to seeing where it goes.

  17. Rick & Morty is one of those cartoons that looks crappy, but with intention. I was slightly skeptical about it after seeing the style, but seeing the promo at my local GameStop left me in stitches. The promo was Rick telling Morty they were trapped in a promo for their show. For a modern cartoon, this is one of the best!

  18. Thanks for writing this. I’ll use it to refer people to why I stand by Rick & Morty. It’s been hard for me to explain, and this seems to sum it up nicely.

  19. Great look at the series so far! Hopefully Adult Swim will continue to treat the series right, seeing as they have an iffy track record with some of their programming that isn’t the Seth McFarlane reruns.
    Beyond the crude exterior of some programs, there can be some surprisingly insightful content.

  20. This is a great cartoon. I find R&M, Adventure Time and Regular Show all to be in the same vein or at least three birds on a branch, the childlike yet mature themes shows how the evolved nature of our society is growing. Kids today especially teens my age and I am 20yrs old can understand the complex menaigns and subtle messaging in the shows. This was a great analysis of the show

  21. Great article! I’ve only seen a few episodes of this show and it freaked me out so of course I loved it. I’m glad more people seen the intellectual value of animation even if it seems like utter nonsense at first glance. However, you say at one point, “Shows like Adventure Time negate to portray this fact of life: not everyone is nice,” and I disagree with that one point. I think Adventure Time does portray the idea that people can just be evil, particularly with the character The Lich. Yes, *SPOILERS* the Lich seems to be ultimately conquered but there is still the fact that he is evil and wants nothing more than to take over the Land of Ooo. That being said, it is a children’s show and like you say Rick and Morty has more freedom to address the darker parts of humanity and just how evil people, not just fictional monsters/creatures, can be.

    • Jordan

      Thanks for your comment! You have a point. Adventure time has bad guys but I don’t think it shows them in as dark of a way as Rick and Morty does, probably because it is a kids show, as you say.
      I don’t think I’ve seen an episode with the Litch in it, but I appreciate the feedback.

  22. Thank you for summing up the unexpected rich qualities of Rick and Morty. It’s incredible that the premise of this show has opened the possibilities, including the insanely great episodes that experiments with split screen to convey a cartoony quantum mechanic visually.

    But make the show so noteworthy is how it conveys that “chaotic, complex” universe. There’s not just the Jellybean character who’s unspeakably and incomprehensibly evil, there’s also the fact that you’ll notice that plenty of the antagonistic-like character (like Scary Terry and Snowball) have human edges to them.

    You have a rich knowledge of other medias to show parallels Rick and Morty have to other old works like I Robot.

    The show is a playground of visuals and commentary. Like in the more family friend Adventure Time (with Justin Roiland cited as an influence), somewhere in the crudeness of Rick and Morty’s black humor, is an undercurrent of existential emotions that strikes us when it’s least unexpected. The priceless humor of Rick and Morty burying their other dimensional counterparts is the pinnacle of existentialism. And nor does the show brush over it as a one-time heavy gag. It comes back in the form of this profound statement, “Every day, I eat breakfast feet away from my own rotting corpse… Nobody exist on purpose, we’re all going to die, come watch TV with me?”

    • Jordan

      Thank YOU for the awesome feedback! Much appreciated. I’ve got to catch up on Season 2 as well.

  23. One of my favorite show, great article!

  24. Benjamin Polk

    What do you think about season 2?

  25. I really don’t want to sound like an ass: I enjoyed your article greatly. However, I saw several grammatical errors throughout that thew me off, just wanted to suggest more thorough proofreading in future articles.

  26. In a sense, this is the proof of the Rick & Marty copy pasta that had been running around the internet for the past few years.

  27. Burying their alternate selves in a different reality and taking their places, that’s the moment the existential meaninglessness of the whole starts penetrating the gaze of a rather amazed and frenzied viewer from all the cool, space fantasy stuff.

    A great show. Touches visceral terrains, at times dark but surely can make one chuckle with moments of unprecedented delight.

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