The Simpsons recently turned to Rejected’s Don Hertzfeldt to provide the couch gag for their twenty-sixth season premiere (yep, they’ve really been going that long). Hertzfeldt provided a compellingly weird piece of sci-fi satire, biting the hand that feeds and retching up a twisted nightmare (go watch it). While I didn’t watch the episode itself (watching modern Simpsons is a sure way to sap one’s spirit), the couch gag reminded me of how little modern animation exploits the almost-limitless potential of the medium.
You see, the majority of my favourite Simpsons episodes are the Halloween specials, which disregard continuity and the show’s (relatively loose version of) realism for fantastic phantasmagoria: generally parodies of classic horror or sci-fi populated with members of everyone’s favourite animated family. Regular live-action comedies could never hope to stage a full-scale re-enactment of The Shining or Nightmare on Elm Street, but animation is limited only by the imagination of the animators (and, okay, budget plays a factor to some extent).
But, outside of one Simpsons episode a season, how many animated series leverage such possibilities? Twice-cancelled cousin Futurama fits the bill, staging its quick-witted comedy a millennium later, as do a handful of superhero series that can stage action sequences that exceed the grasp of their live-action counterparts (see also: Archer, able to spice up its banter with sizable spy setpieces). And it’s impossible to imagine Adventure Time ever existing outside of animation. But the majority of American animation series only intermittently distinguish themselves from live-action, with Seth MacFarlane’s shows and Bob’s Burgers keeping things grounded aside from the occasional foray into fantasia.
Enter Rick and Morty. Product of Community’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, the show was conceived as a profane spin on Back to the Future, pairing Doc-Brown-analogue Rick – a scientist who’s equal parts brilliant, deranged and drunk – with his weedy-voiced, sex-obsessed grandson Morty (each are voiced by Roiland). The show exists on the midpoint between the sharp, quickfire humour of early Simpsons and the grotesque absurdity of Hertzfeldt’s work.
Where most of the aforementioned animated shows might occasionally exceed the limits of a live-action TV show budget, it’s hard to imagine any budget affording the opportunity to produce a series like this in real life. The pair slingshot between alternative universes and distant solar systems with irreverent glee, all the while trading belches and bizarre banter. What’s really impressive, though, is that where you might expect this conceit to produce something that dials up the weirdness at the expense of coherency, instead Rick and Morty manages to produce something with narrative and character continuity.
Maintaining narrative continuity is especially admirable when the show spends one episode as a mashup-spoof of Inception and Nightmare on Elm Street, a second transforming the entire populace of the planet into misshapen “Cronenberg” monsters and a third travelling to a parallel universe populated largely by clones of Rick and Mortys. It’s built on the same framework as those aforementioned Simpsons Halloween episodes – a winning combination of parody and ambition – but manages to tie it all together with the kind of intricate consistency that only comes from watching waaaay too much science fiction.
This is all for naught if the show isn’t funny and, thankfully, Rick and Morty is hilarious for the most part. The show’s fifth episode, “Meeseeks and Destroy”, is a perfect example (and an episode I’ve seen a half-dozen times by now, having used it to sell the series to newbies). The show splits into two threads. The first follows Morty’s family as they use the titular “Mr Meeseeks” – a simplistic one-wish-only genie-in-a-bottle type deal – to solve their most pressing problems. Our grandfather-grandson duo, meanwhile, head off on an adventure in a Giant Land straight out of Jack and the Beanstalk.
The Meeseeks a typical Pandora’s box situation, with Rick warning his daughter Beth (Sarah Chalke), her husband Jerry (Chris Parnell) and granddaughter Summer (Spencer Grammer) that the Meeseeks are best-suited to simple problems. It pivots away from expectations, however, with Jerry’s request to shave two strokes off his golf game – as opposed to Summer and Beth’s comparatively complex desires – is the one that gets out of hand. The Mr Meeseeks start to summon an increasing number of subjugate Mr Meeseeks to complete the request, building to a splendid orgy of ultraviolence. Sure, maybe this doesn’t sound overly funny written out step-by-step but, trust me: the scene where the Mr Meeseeks unleash their frustration on one another with a seemingly-endless tide of “He roped me into this!” is the funniest thing I’ve seen in 2014.
Rick and Morty’s subplot has its fair share of humour too – a scene where a Giant lawyer (yes) puns on “Fee fie foe fum” then eagerly over-explaining the joke when it doesn’t receive a laugh reminds me of the meta-humour Community did so well – but also features a deeply disturbing scene of attempted rape. It’s testament to this show’s careful judgment that it’s able to balance the weirdo excess of the Mr Meeseeks storyline without turning this sort of thing into a joke (it’s testament to the strength of the scene that any lingering laughter dies in your throat).
That last paragraph will give you a pretty good insight into whether or not Rick and Morty is the show for you. It’s twisted, it’s demented, it’s ludicrous, it’s hilarious, and, unlike many of its competitors, it pushes the barriers of its medium with verve and imagination. In short:
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