Undeniably one of the most popular adult animated programs of the last decade is Rick & Morty. No other animated series has characters who appear in Super Bowl Ads. No other animated show has events and products built around them to promote Wendy’s. No other show has its fans throw temper tantrums at McDonald’s for a discontinued condiment from 1998. So there’s definitely something to this show.
Rick & Morty follows the misadventures of scientist Rick Sanchez and his grandson Morty. They travel through space and different dimensions, encountering all sorts of weird creatures and experiments. The comedy mostly involves Rick being smart and a drunken asshole while Morty is pensive and naive. Rick spends most of his time getting drunk and being awful to people but ultimately ends up being the voice of reason because he is portrayed as being the most intelligent man alive.
The problems with Rick & Morty are pretty obvious by now to just about anyone who has watched the show for some time. For curiosity’s sake, I checked out the premiere for Season Five to see if anything had changed since the previous seasons. There’s literally a line where Morty says that Rick taught him that sometimes you just have to be an asshole to get things done. This was always what the show was telling the audience but I didn’t expect it to be so blatantly stated…again. This is not the first time the show has had a line about being cruel as a positive and then refusing to refute that claim with any satire whatsoever.
The good news is that Rick & Morty is not the only adult animated series on television or even the only popular one. Since Rick & Morty has aired, far better adult animated shows have come about, including ones from writers of the series.
Netflix has had series like BoJack Horseman and F is For Family. These shows narrowly run the line of comedy and drama. BoJack can feature the titular washed-up actor arguing about Hollywood for humor but can also have him abusing someone with drugs and make it darkly tragic and horrifying. F is For Family can feature the father/husband of Frank cussing up a hysterical storm but also does a great job showing how cruelty in the name of traditionalism can carry through generations.
Amazon Prime airs Invincible, an adaptation of the incredibly violent comic book that still manages to have some smarts. The show is deeply critical of identity, corrupt power structures, and eugenics. HBO Max has Harley Quinn, which is absolutely hilarious for poking fun at DC Comics conventions and being having solid themes of relationships, love, and respect.
Two Rick & Morty writers have branched out onto other animated series that has proven to be far better made thus far. Writers Justin Roiland and Mike McMahan have developed Solar Opposites, a darkly comedic sitcom about aliens living in suburbia. Mike McMahan also developed Star Trek: Lower Decks, a sci-fi comedy centered around the workplace activities of Starfleet while being mildly canonical.
With the previous examples from Roiland and McMahan, the animation style and direction is certainly reminiscent of Rick & Morty. It’s enough to make anyone remark that these shows just look like Rick & Morty clones. Cosmetically, that’s understandable. They all share the bug-eyed character designs and involve sci-fi stuff, even literally using terms like “sci-fi stuff” in the scripts.
Really, though, Solar Opposites and Lower Decks are wildly divergent from Rick & Morty in terms of their writing and characters.
Solar Opposites certainly seems the closest relation and not just because Roiland does little to differentiate his voice for the character of Korvo from the drunkard Rick. The aliens of the show are determined to conquer Earth but keep screwing things up and often have their weird plans blow up in their faces. It’s easier to laugh at their antics and some of their cynicism since their ultimate goal is never accomplished.
A more compelling aspect of the series is the C-plot surrounding human characters. The alien children of Yumyulack and Jesse shrink down humans and store them in their own personal ant farm. The kids often forget about the ant farm but the series still follows the humans who fight each other over resources in their enclosed society. This part of the show has the least jokes but also the most gut-wrenching drama. It’s a nice balance to the silliness of the series and makes for great juxtaposition.
Lower Decks is even more divergent from Rick & Morty that it’s kinda hard to believe it was created by one of the writers. The show follows Starfleet crew members Brad Boimler, Beckett Mariner, Sam Rutherford, and D’Vana Tendi aboard the starship Cerritos. The closest comparison to Rick would be Mariner. She is cocky, insulting, and often relies on luck to get her out of most situations. However, Mariner is revealed early on to be the daughter of the captain of the Cerritos and has problems placing trust in others, namely her mother and Boimler.
Mariner’s cockiness does not always save the day and she learns that her friendship with Boimler can often lead to greater outcomes more than just doing everything on her own. She’s not just some proto-Kirk. She has problems that are addressed and built upon over the course of the first two seasons.
The same is true for Rutherford and Tendi who have an adorable friendship. They are both eccentric but also self-conscious as they struggle to read each other. They are also sympathetic to their respective needs, making them the perfect nerd duo.
The show often criticizes and laughs at the absurdity of its own lore while still trying to pose as a Star Trek series. The emotional core of Star Trek, however, where colorful characters come together to solve problems, still remains.
Despite seeming so behind with the current trend of adult animation, Rick & Morty most likely deserves some credit for the creation of Solar Opposites and Lower Decks. It’s highly likely that Fox and CBS saw the success of Rick & Morty and most likely took those credits into consideration for making these programs. Even though Lower Decks executive producer Alex Kurtzman stressed that the show would absolutely not be Rick and Morty in the world of Star Trek, McMahan’s work on the series that won him an Emmy no doubt played a role in the decision for this show.
But one of the biggest problems with Rick & Morty having lingered for as long as it has is that it hasn’t grown much. Character growth within Rick & Morty is slow and often times stifled with fakeouts to deceive the viewer.
If the show just wanted to be a series of standalone episodes destined for syndication, that’d be one thing. But when the series continually gives Rick opportunities for humility and then squanders them over the course of numerous episodes, the bit gets old fast.
Rick’s most concerning trait is that he favors nihilism about how life is a pointless series of random events. This is partially a product of the show’s new-atheism bent and but also part of an apathy present in other Adult Swim shows.
Series such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021 featured characters who were often egotistical and oblivious to others. However, a crucial companion to this apathy is the comeuppance and karma for such selfishness.
Master Shake is a self-centered jerk who often ends up being beaten, tortured, gored, or just murdered by the end of the episode. Captain Murphy often ignores the needs of Sealab to either make his own dangerous fun that often backfires and hurts others, including himself. There is a running gag of how Sealab is constantly blowing up because of the ineptitude and apathy of the crew.
Apathy in those shows is often punished. Apathy in Rick & Morty is rewarded and often cited as correct.
Rick & Morty is not going to be going anywhere for a long time. The show struck a deal in 2018 for 70 episodes and there’s still 50 left, meaning there are at least five more seasons on the way. Given that the show already has a more massive marketing deal than any other adult animated show, there may be an expectation of the show to hold its course rather than take it in a new direction. The last five seasons have given Rick bits and pieces of self-reflection, but compared to the show’s competition, these developments are microscopic.
Season five ends with Rick going into exile because a series of sci-fi events leads to him not being the most intelligent man in the universe. Oh no, I wonder if he’ll ever be able to fix this and go back to being the smartest dick in the room for next season. Time will tell.
It’s not that Rick & Morty can’t be funny. It still has some decent gags here and there, with parodies of everything from Hellraiser to Voltron. But most of that comedy comes with an acceptance of Rick always being cruel, always being the most intelligent, always controlling the situation, and always being proven right.
It makes the show feel archaic when compared to the numerous animated series that followed. Adult animation has grown to such a degree that it can feature adult humor AND still have characters with compelling arcs. Harley Quinn and Lower Decks have characters with positive traits that go beyond just being assholes. Solar Opposites, BoJack Horseman and F is For Family are smart enough to craft solid satire with their flawed characters with reflections and criticisms.
There is a real balance in these shows of mature themes around adult jokes. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Animated television can now serve up both whereas Rick & Morty still only offers funny adult humor with mature themes so watered down and half-hearted they may not as well be there.
But, hey, I could be wrong.
Maybe Rick & Morty will change for the better over the next few seasons. And, who knows, maybe The Simpsons will finally start having more pointed humor in Season 34. Maybe Family Guy will finally have better character development in Season 21. It’s not impossible just very, very unlikely.
It’s something to keep in mind the next time your social media feed spits out a Wendy’s ad featuring Rick & Morty. In the same way that there are better restaurant options than Wendy’s, there are better adult animated shows than Rick & Morty.