SUPERVERSIVE: Even “Rick and Morty” has a heart under its hideous, Cronenberged exterior

Tuesday , 30, August 2016 18 Comments

This is the show in a nutshell, actually

Apologies for the long title; it seemed appropriate for what, as tends to be my wont, is a long post. Also, by the way, prepare yourself for spoilers. It’s unavoidable, so I’ll just get the warning out of the way now. Nothing from here on out is going to be marked, so if you don’t want endings spoiled for you, stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

Ah, “Rick and Morty”. For those who don’t know, “Rick and Morty” is an adult sci-fi cartoon about a drunk, cynical mad scientist and his young teenage grandson (fourteen?) going on adventures throughout the multiverse. It is probably the most non-Superversive show on TV right now, and quite possibly the most non-superversive show ever made. It is grim, it is nihilistic, it is mean, it takes every chance it gets to emphasize the pointlessness of existence, and it’s also absolutely, hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny. It is one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen, and one of the cleverest to boot. It confirms something I’ve noted for awhile now: Nihilism can only work in the contexts of comedy or horror. You either laugh in the face of the void or you scream at it, but one thing you aren’t is happy about it.

“Rick and Morty” is what “Futurama” turns into after the writers all survive their suicide attempts. The biggest difference is in emotional emphasis: “Rick and Morty” emphasizes the cynicism and chaos of it all, while “Futurama” tends to focus on the beating heart it wears very much on its sleeve.

Both the “Futurama” episode “The Late Philip J. Fry” (itself a hysterically funny all-time classic) and “Rick Potion # 9” end in very similar ways: With our heroes living in what can technically be described as alternate universe versions of their lives, and with the versions of them originally occupying those universes now dead.

What makes this episode particularly awesome is that it started out as a pretty standard boilerplate love potion story that turned into this

But “Futurama” ends on a note of character development, with Fry deepening his relationship with Leela and improving himself personally so he can be a better man in the future. “Rick and Morty” ends on a note of abject despair: The universe they previously lived in has just undergone what can only be described as the apocalypse, Morty is stuck with the knowledge that he’s a major part of the reason for that, Morty is brutally forced to confront his own dead body immediately after arriving in the new dimension, and Rick and Morty’s family from the Cronenberged world (“Cronenberg” is the name they came up with for the horrible monsters everybody has turned into, after body horror director David Cronenberg) have discovered that they’re happier with Rick and Morty out of their lives, even if it means the rest of the world has literally been destroyed.

That’s about as bleak as it’s possible to get, and the fact that “Futurama” isn’t willing to go there is probably the biggest difference between the two shows (the trade-off, of course, is that when “Futurama” goes for its sentimental moments it nails them much more consistently because it’s easier to buy the existence of sentiment in that universe).

Does this indicate a quality difference between “Rick and Morty” and “Futurama”? Well, sort of? Forced to choose between the two things the shows do really well, I’d rather see “Futurama”. That is: If the best ending “Futurama” has ever come up with is “Luck of the Fryrish”, where Fry learns that his long-dead brother really loved him after all and named his son after him, and the best ending “Rick and Morty” has ever come up with is that the world is a better place without their existence and nobody belongs anywhere, “Futurama’s” ending is superior: It’s a more clever twist, set up by what we’ve seen earlier in the episode, it plays off of all the character development we’ve seen so far in the show, and, let’s face it, it’s moving too. The ending of “Rick Potion # 9” is incredibly daring and even brilliant in a lot of ways, but one word you would never use to describe it is moving.

Not that “Rick and Morty” NEVER tries to hit that target. The show also confirms something else I’ve noted: It’s pretty much impossible to go full-on nihilist consistently and not have your viewers revolt. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” had “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” and Marvin the Paranoid Android’s last moment of happiness. “The Office” made it standard practice to give Michael a small win at the end of each episode. Even “Watchmen” had the strange nobility of Rorschach, who much to Alan Moore’s dismay was looked at as a heroic figure by many readers. In “Rick and Morty”, even at its bleakest it seems to confirm that there’s something worth fighting for out there, even if its just the simple belief that in this incredibly messed up, chaotic universe trying to improve things is still worthwhile. Maybe the world sucks, maybe the odds are that no matter how much you try you’re still going to make it worse…but maybe not, too. And maybe there are still things worth living and dying for out there. Not exactly optimistic, but its not the center of the restless heart of darkness either.

I mean, this was also a thing in “Rixty Minutes”, so I’m not giving everything away

“Rixty Minutes” is a good example of the phenomenon of a show just not being able to be completely nihilistic, even as it threatens to go that way. The money line in that episode also became possibly the most famous quote from the show:

On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world, so we bailed on that reality and we came to this one, because in this one, the world wasn’t destroyed and in this one, we were dead. So we came here, a- a- and we buried ourselves and we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse. […] Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.

(Note Morty’s reference of the ending to “Rick Potion # 9”.)

The really interesting thing to me, though, is that that’s not the final image we get. The real last image is the alternate universe versions of Beth and Jerry, Morty’s parents, finding each other even after so many years of living out what were supposedly their dreams.

Brief background: Jerry, Beth, and Morty’s sister Summer learn that there are alternate universe versions of themselves. In Jerry’s alternate universe, he is a famous actor. In Beth’s, she’s a successful surgeon. And Summer, well…in universes where her parents are successful, she doesn’t exist. This prompts Morty to deliver the above bit of wisdom as, amazingly enough, comfort.

So when Jerry and Beth discover that even these alternate, successful versions of themselves will end up together it becomes an, admittedly tentative, confirmation that, yes, they really do love each other, and even that aborting Summer was genuinely a mistake. It’s a quiet, very subtle recognition that perhaps there is something to the idea of true love, and even Beth and Jerry’s dysfunctional romance is superior to a shallow life of fame and material success. There’s even a hint that maybe there’s destiny involved in a Jerry/Beth romance, a higher power that ultimately isn’t completely absent in the universe after all. Maybe it’s not true nobody belongs anywhere; maybe Jerry and Beth belong with each other, as messed up as that can sometimes look. It’s something, anyway.

I intentionally used “Rixty Minutes” and “Rick Potion # 9” as my examples because they’re two of the most cynical episodes of the entire show. You can actually find a few others that end with more overtly “hopeful” (for certain values of that word) endings: “A Rickle in Time” is perhaps the most notable, containing a genuinely selfless sacrifice from Rick, but “Ricksy Business,” “Meeseeks and Destroy”, “The Wedding Squanchers”, and  others contain at least some indications here or there that the show hasn’t completely given up on humanity yet.

Going off of my previous points, I genuinely feel that “Rick and Morty” has done just enough that – IF the writers wanted to – they could successfully pull off a happy ending and not have it be a betrayal of what we’ve seen so far. I’m not saying that’s how things WILL end, but I do think they’ve done enough to earn that sort of ending. Not anything really sappy, but something with hope.

This is actually one of the less insane scenes of the show

“Rick and Morty” is very much not superversive, but I do think, besides being absolutely-freaking-hilarious, it’s an interesting case
study in just how difficult – in fact, probably impossible – it is to make consistently entertaining and watchable truly nihilistic fiction. “Rick and Morty” takes its best shot, but in the end even it reveals a beating heart buried deep underneath it all. Very deep. Somewhere down past the corpses Morty eats breakfast next to.

18 Comments
  • PCBushi says:

    One of my friends has been bugging me for a while to watch this show. He’s compared its sense of humor to that of Adventure Time, trying to lure me in. The compare and contrast with Futurama is an interesting one. Maybe I’ll have to relent and give this a watch.

    • Hooc ott says:

      I think one of the 3 pillers of Superversive is sense of wonder.

      Yeah Rick and Morty have has that like Adventure Time does.

      As to the other pillers (heroism and romance I think) Rick and Morty is the polar opposite of Adventure Time.

      Well you read the article. literally the most hopeful heroic romantic moment of the whole show is Rick’s quote above trying to get his sister to just be with the family

      “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”

      sooo yeah…

      But yes for sense of wonder Rick and Morty is on par with Adventure Time.

      • Hooc Ott says:

        Morty’s quote not Rick’s

      • Anthony says:

        I would argue that the most heroic moment of the show is from “A Rickle in Time”, when Rick attempts to sacrifice himself to save Morty.

      • pcbushi says:

        Astute observation, Hooc. Man, I can see you have a lot of those. I hope you’ve got more blog posts in the works!

      • Anthony says:

        Is the sense of wonder on par, though? The show seems to regard the universe with existential dread more than wonder.

        • Hooc Ott says:

          Been thinking about this.

          lots of deleted responses ranging from flippant to snarking humor to agreeing with you to begging for a SUPERVERSIVE article about Adventure Time.

          I think honest is the best course.

          Yes I do think the wonder found in Rick and Morty is on par in terms of quality with Adventure time.

          Adventure time beats it in quantity if only because there are more TV episodes of it.

          This is my individual judgement based on my individual definition of wonder. After contemplation I’m pretty sure SUPERVERSIVE and my definitions of wonder do not line up.

          I think (more feel then think really)sense of wonder is agnostic to all other regards.

          For example I think “Childhood’s End” is chalk full of wonder. I also think it is the most low down hateful books I have ever read. So hateful in fact that at its most awe-full moment is when it is most awful. (short Childhood’s End review: Don’t read this book. It pisses on everything you have, do, or ever will hold dear for no reason what so ever)

          I think the true Superversive
          sense of wonder subtracts any awe-full awful moments of wonder while my personal sense of wonder does not.

          For writing “I think one of the 3 pillers of Superversive is sense of wonder.” when in fact I should have said MY sense of wonder I apologize. I am sorry. In my defense I didn’t realize at the time that the split existed.

          • Anthony says:

            Heh, I get what you mean. The world of “Rick and Morty” is amazingly inventive and full of infinite possibilities. It’s just that most of them want to kill you.

    • LCB says:

      make sure to watch a couple of the first seasons…the pilot is informative, but it’s not the one to hook you.

  • LastRedoubt says:

    I’d put it off for a while, but Davis Aurini’s take on a world full ofJerry’s convinced me to finally give it a look.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaannMgBSCA&list=WL&index=13

    Dark, but brilliant. And as this article also alludes, there is hope there – it’s not all pointless.

    • Anthony says:

      The World of Jerrys makes an actual appearance in one episode, and it’s hilarious.

      Like I said, and I want to be clear – “Rick and Morty” is NOT superversive and not at all uplifting. I think there’s only hope there because without ANY even the most cynical viewers will revolt.

      • LastRedoubt says:

        Says something about modern programming when as dark a show as Rick and Morty has enough moments of unironic virtue to stand out.

        • Anthony says:

          I wouldn’t go that far. What makes it notable is that even a show like “Rick and Morty”, which espouses and generally demonstrates the most bleak of nihilistic philosophies, can’t bring itself to go all the way. Real art simply won’t allow it.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    This is a fantastic article.

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