It’s got to be hard pitching a show to Adult Swim. The network is famous for giving shows a chance that couldn’t have possibly gained an audience (Google Saul of the Mole Men some time when you have five minutes to kill and want to waste precious brain cells). So, in theory, if you can get enough momentum behind an idea and some clout, there’s a chance you can get it on there. However, Adult Swim original shows are also forever associated with things like Aqua Teen Hunger Force: stupid, pointless shows that get more laughs out of randomness than pathos.
Sure, there are exceptions. The Venture Brothers is a front runner of mixing absurdity and character depth to mine laughs. I have a feeling that when Dan Harmon (of Community) pitched his current 22-minute long cartoon, Rick and Morty, he was well aware of that.
Rick and Morty has aired six episodes so far, so we’re at midseason now. Before I jump into whether or not this is working, here’s a quick synopsis: the titular characters are an alcoholic scientist (Rick) and his pubescent grandson (Morty). It’s essentially Back to the Future if Doc Brown did cocaine, Marty was a constantly-wound ball of nerves, and the universe was about to explode every second. A wealth of storylines from previous sci-fi ventures are mined, including the “shrinking down to go into someone’s body to stop a virus” just to name one example. There’s a handful of supporting characters coming from their family: Chris Parnell plays the part of Morty’s father in a role that seems to have been written for him simply because they saw an episode of Archer. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
The show is clearly cynical, which most “adult” cartoons are. The kind characters get beaten within an inch of their life and the bastards seem to get away with everything. Morty, in the role of put-upon reluctant voice of reason, is thrown into situations by his grandfather that are sociopathic. Constantly on the verge of death, the show reaches for humor in seeing this kid go through some extremely rough situations where his victory is “well, he didn’t die.” Rick, on the other hand, is an alcoholic. He does whatever serves his current purposes (be it money or revenge) and usually gets away with it all. There’s no hug at the end and no moment of warmth. It looks, on its surface, to be just another tick on Adult Swim’s soon-to-be-cancelled list…
…except for the fact that the creators clearly respect their medium. As a 22-minute show, Rick and Morty is allowed to be a little loose with time. There’s time for establishing shots, grand epic sets, and whatever action sequences need to take place. This isn’t thrown together last-minute flash animation. The visuals have a retro feel to them. They look like the action scenes from the cartoons you remember watching as a kid. Clarification is needed here: it doesn’t look like something from the early 1990s that you’d pull up on YouTube. They look like how you remember they did. For a minute you forget the monster on the screen is actually a gigantic mutant strain of gonorrhea. It’s just plain fun.
Adult Swim is broadcasting this show on Mondays, which is uncommon for their new programming. It’s also airing at an earlier time slot – in between reruns of Family Guy and American Dad! It’s early enough to give the show a chance to reach audiences that are used to just binging their usual reruns. And while you can say what you will about both of those options, animation has always been something they’ve excelled at. It’s almost like Adult Swim is saying “Ok, Fox, we know you can do this. So can we.”
All of this wouldn’t matter much if the characters haven’t slowly been able to grow, as well. Much like the best comedies, the heart shows through just infrequently enough to catch you off guard and feel earned. There’s never going to be a sitcom-esque wrap up where everyone grows and learns. But in the midst of escaping from a virtual AI simulation on an alien spaceship, there may be a brief moment where the kid and his grandfather have a makeshift snowball fight (in this case, I replace “crystals an alcoholic wants to sell for booze money” with “snowball”). It isn’t much to drive a show, but it’s enough to keep the viewer engaged in the story. It’s the most real element of a show that makes it a point to go as far away from that description as possible.
All in all? This is something to have on your radar. Rick and Morty could become something much more than what it is now. There are flaws, of course. The jokes are often visual and for shock value (everything you expect from Adult Swim, honestly). The weaker characters remain weak and one-note. The premise could easily get overdone if not handled in a creative way. I wouldn’t say the cards are stacked against Rick and Morty working. They’re evenly doled out on either side.
Right now, it isn’t must-watch television… but in a few years, I could see people binging on three seasons in a Memorial Day weekend on Netflix because their friends told them to check it out. I hope to be one of those annoying friends.
Recommended Viewing: If you want to give this show a try, check out episode five: “M. Night Shyam-Aliens!” You don’t need to watch the show in sequential order and this one nails the elements I mentioned above.
Rick and Morty airs at 9:30 p.m. CST on Adult Swim.
Image source: Adult Swim