The love of Rick and Morty became a double-edged sword long ago. While toxicity runs deep within its fanbase, the series continues to evolve and test the limits of its storytelling. The science-fiction genre show never stepped into the joke-joke-punchline monotony of other animated sitcoms. Instead, the series embarked on a nihilistic romp through the multiverse. At times, this approach has curbed the emotional stakes of the series. Yet unlike many of its brethren, Rick and Morty continues to develop emotionally complex characters and narratives.
With the arrival of Season 5, Rick and Morty have regained its crown as the king of TV animation. The first two episodes dive back into hard sci-fi and pull off their complicated conceits. In “Mort Dinner Rick Andre,” Rick’s nemesis arrives for dinner while Morty becomes the boogeyman for an evolving society. In episode two, “Mortyplicity,” the Sanchez-Smith clan stumbles into a robotics conundrum (an “Asimov Cascade”) as robotic versions of the family kill each other for supremacy.
With bloody solutions, over-sexed fish kings, and impressive animation, Rick and Morty has earned its way to the mountaintop. The quality of the Back to the Future-inspired series has always been impressive. Despite entering the fifth season, Rick and Morty has been on the air for eight years. Writers and creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon found a creative balance between quality, demand, and dropping episodes at their own pace. They do not settle for mediocre stories but instead harvest the vast sci-fi genre for inspiration.
Every comedy show needs to have a central voice that drives its humor and its story. Luckily for Rick and Morty, the creators placed an early emphasis on developing and building out the characters of their world. The five leads can all take turns as the engine of the A or B plots at any time. This also avoids over-exposing a character or two because of their popularity. This issue eventually dooms lesser shows. When Family Guy began over-relying on the Stewey/Brian pairing, the importance and quality of those episodes diminished. Wisely, Roiland and Harmon will mix up the world with enough one-off and recurring characters to avoid this very issue.
The series can also get away with a litany of one-off characters because it embodies meta-sci-fi comedy. A lesser version of Rick and Morty would simply cycle through the genre’s tropes instead of telling original stories. Instead, Rick and Morty takes the Scream approach. Rather than simply retelling, it explores the sci-fi lexicon but then adds to that legacy.
While an “Asimov Cascade” certainly sounds interesting, the idea did not exist. Combining a philosophical idea of an information cascade (when people make the same decision and it cycles through a population) with an homage to Isaac Asimov, Rick and Morty literally developed a new sci-fi angle to explore. The series engages in hard sci-fi elements yet also plays heavily in the metaphorical sandbox when it’s convenient. This flexibility is rare, and because the writers understand and appreciate the nuances of their genre, they have a unique opportunity to shape its future.
For Adult Swim, Rick and Morty has struck gold in ways that its most popular shows never could. Shows like Squidbillies, Aqua Team Hunger Force, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast built strong fanbases. Sadly, the animation never approached the gorgeous shots populating Rick and Morty, especially in the big-budget intro to Season 5. This gap certainly pushed the late-night programming block to invest in quality shows, knowing they can find an audience for even the weirdest concepts.
Adult Swim’s newest series, Tuca and Bertie, arrived for a second season after Netflix canceled it in 2019. With a new home, Tuca and Bertie can embrace its Degas-inspired animation of animals and odd genitalia. It also continues to tell stories of grief, trauma, and womanhood, which made it a critical darling in its first season. Adult Swim has clearly taken the turn towards quality over quantity for its future programming. However, Rick and Morty‘s popularity transcends its network and late-night constraints. Can Adult Swim resist the urge to over-expose its gargantuan hit?
Luckily, we’re only twelve episodes into a seventy-episode renewal. The hefty commitment allows Roiland and Harmon the opportunity to travel more philosophical roads in the years to come. The benefit of a Rick Sanchez-style character is his omniscience and his arrogance. The writers can poke fun at a concept and utilize their other characters’ explore emotional turmoil within the idea. Neither of the Season Five episodes will be the next Rick and Morty episode to contend for an Emmy (the last two that did, each won), but they prove the series can deliver on nearly every premise. When a show’s middle-of-the-road episode would be the highlight of another series, it is clear that the series has entered another echelon of television. It’s no secret that Rick and Morty is in that echelon. Whether it can maintain that consistency is another question entirely.