The third season of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty is over. The show is currently the most popular comedy television program among viewers eighteen to thirty-four. Critics describe it as “nihilistic,” while fans retort that it’s actually more “absurdist.” Regardless, both agree that the show is funny and intelligent, or at least that its entertainment value depends on whether one finds it funny and intelligent.
The show’s premise is a spoof on the dynamic between Doc Brown and Marty McFly from Back to the Future, with the main characters navigating various realities and dimensions. Rick—Morty’s grandfather—is a scientific and technological genius. His inventions range from memory-erasers to interdimensional portal guns. His personality is part drunkard, part atheist, and part projection of suburban-teenage dissatisfaction. He’s the id of every engineering student who just passed differential equations and the ego of every self-defeating misanthrope who mistakes despair for cynicism.
Rick lives with his daughter Beth’s family, which includes her son Morty—a good-hearted, insecure, and not bright adolescent boy. In the first season, we learn that all interdimensional Ricks hide from the Galactic Federation (which sees Ricks as terrorists) by hanging out with Mortys (the Morty-dumb brainwaves camouflage the Rick-genius brainwaves).
Morty’s sister Summer is the typical stereotype of a teenage girl: bratty, frivolous, and phone-obsessed. Despite that, she is the most plot-significant character besides Rick and Morty. Beth’s husband Jerry is passive and incompetent. Rick hates Jerry and sees his timidity as a ruse: “You act like prey, but you’re a predator. You use pity to lure in your victims. That’s how you survive.”
Rick and Morty’s audience are predominantly online types, and the show both benefits and suffers from this. On the one hand, it establishes a trust between creator and consumer that grants a lot of leeway for ambitious narrative and thematic experimentation. On the other hand, it makes for too many inside jokes—the show heavily relies on cyber-cultural references for laughs. It’s assumed that just mentioning established online paradigms (e.g. Reddit) will by itself be considered amusing.
It also means the show would inevitably be captured in the online political nexus. The alt-right/4-chan crowd still can’t decide whether Rick and Morty subtlety favors reactionary politics or subtlety mocks them. Take the following exchange:
Summer: Gross! Does all interdimensional TV have to rely on juvenile violence?
Morty: Well, Summer, maybe people that create things aren’t concerned with your delicate sensibilities, you know? Maybe the species that communicate with each other through a filter of your comfort are less evolved that the ones that just communicate? Maybe your problems are your own to deal with and maybe the public giving a shit about your feelings is a one way ticket to extinction!
Rick: Geez, Morty. I take it Cathrine Hefflefinger hasn’t texted you back.
Who’s being got here? Summer for being a killjoy? Or Morty for being a crybaby? Or both of them for caring either way?—the show is nihilistic (or absurdist) after all.
Being stuck between the histrionics of 4chan and Tumblr doesn’t just affect how you’re interpreted though. It also affects where you set your boundaries; and with 4chan and Tumblr as your gatekeepers of civility, you can get a false sense of edginess when you’re really just toeing the line.
Because of the show’s false bearings on what is and isn’t controversial, it frequently takes a posture of brave nonconformity on opinions as ubiquitous as they are banal. For example, in one episode, Rick makes fun of social sensitivity over the word “retarded.” A fair point, but the bit is so preachy and self-serving that it ends up almost as ridiculous as the thing it intends to deride.
When something in mass entertainment gets a reputation for philosophical depth, the easy move for detractors is to say that it’s actually quite superficial, pedestrian, 101-ish, etc. Plenty have already done this regarding Rick and Morty’s materialism and pop-Nietzscheism; and it is easy to roll one’s eyes when Rick reduces love to “just a chemical reaction” or banters about cosmic meaninglessness (“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die”). Even easier when the show tries to hide these musings behind irony, indifference and meta self-awareness.
But, to be fair to both the show and its fans, everyone hears these concepts for the first time at some point.
For those unfamiliar with postmodern form-play, today’s online cultural landscape, and the triumphant bleakness that life’s meaning is what you make it, Rick and Morty might seem either uniquely alluring or uniquely off-putting. In fact, in most ways it’s a rather conventional program for the online age.
The PC menace obviously plays well today. Internet cults have emerged around figures with nothing more to offer but half-baked panic about it. South Park parodied it for a whole season. Failed comedians rejuvenate their careers with a pivot to fresh bits such as “Hitler was actually a leftist” and “transgenderism is a mental disorder.”
Nihilism (pop or practical) also has solid appeal right now. T.J. Miller’s podcast Cashing In has popularized the softer side of Nietzsche’s tortured philosophy. “Persuasion experts” teach that facts and logic don’t matter—only the ability to persuade. The manosphere doles out advice for manipulating women while lamenting the hopelessness of everything. Television shows such as HBO’s True Detective display the vapidity of a world with no overarching merit but self-indulgence.
Rick and Morty mostly handles these themes playfully—another method for disarming criticism. But it also handles them with originality and exuberance.
The consequences of Rick and Morty dimension-hopping aren’t always clear or precise. Entire episodes are forgettable or even unwatchable. No characters are relatable—Morty, clearly breaking the fourth wall, says of Rick, “He shouldn’t be your hero. He’s more like a demon or a super fucked-up god”—and the show’s fandom taken collectively is notoriously . A case in point was how many of them handled Summer’s newfound plot centrality in season three—by sending death and rape threats to the female writers they assumed were responsible.
Still, Rick and Morty is a fun show if it isn’t always funny. How intelligent you think it is will depend on your reference points for the themes it explores (and likely on how old you are). That it’s gotten itself taken as seriously as it has is a testament to the aspiring ways it deals with perplexing questions about the self—maybe the best is Morty from one dimension murdering and replacing the Morty from another and having to confront the implications of what that means for his own identity, especially in its relation to those he loves.
Rick and Morty comes from the particularly crude barren of intellectual vegetation that is the internet. Those who defend the show by trying to disassociate it from internet culture’s negative aspects—cultism, pandering, faint-hearted in-jokiness—ultimately fail because those things are so intrinsically tied up with what makes it enjoyable to begin with. In other words, fact and meaning have a dialectical relationship. No one tell the nihilists.