Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block has always been a weird phantom zone for comedy. Ultimately, a majority of the shows all deal in the same kind of weird anti-humor: they derive humor from making something strange and weird, almost to the point where you get a little uncomfortable. For a late night block with such a niche audience, it seems strange, then, that “Rick and Morty,” the new show created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, has been met with across-the-board critical acclaim and groundbreaking ratings (even beating the new season of “Archer”). That said, “Rick and Morty” is kind of a weird show, even by Adult Swim standards.
The show follows the misadventures of its titular duo. Rick is an alcoholic, immoral super-scientist, and Morty is his nervous grandson. Together, the duo embarks on strange adventures through time and space, tackling a constant barrage of strange, inter-dimensional threats including cyborg dogs, sentient jelly beans, and a cloned fusion of Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler (by the name of Abradolph Lincler). It’s sort of like if Doc Brown and Marty McFly from “Back to the Future” stole Dr. Who’s Tardis and if Doc Brown were drunk for the whole adventure.
To call the show manic wouldn’t do justice to the breakneck speed of the plots, which constantly evolve through a deluge of science fiction tropes and pop culture references. For example, in the episode “Anatomy Park,” what starts out as a Christmas special ends up with Rick shrinking Morty and sending him into the body of a homeless Santa (a nod to “Fantastic Voyage”), resulting in him having to navigate a disease-themed park inside the Hobo and thereby turning into a big “Jurassic Park” spoof. All of these turns and change ups are accompanied by hyper-aware meta-humor, which Harmon made one of the trademarks of his NBC hit, “Community.”
Another incredibly strange element of the show, which becomes apparent within the first few minutes of the pilot, is how unusual the voice acting is. Both Rick and Morty are voiced by Justin Roiland, the show’s co-creator (whom many might also recognize as Lemongrab from “Adventure Time”). All of Roiland’s lines for both characters are delivered in an odd, improvisational style, to the point where he’s constantly stumbling over his own lines. This, combined with Rick’s alcohol burps, makes it seem like Roiland is drunkenly speaking to himself as he tries to get through the show’s lines. This ultimately works to the show’s benefit, purely because of how talented Roiland is at rattling off lines that are equally strange and hilarious. There’s even an episode in which Rick and Morty spend the entire time watching TV from other dimensions, which just consists of voice gags Roiland obviously did on the spot that have been animated.
Yet in spite of the Roiland’s crazy voice acting and the writing’s madcap style, what’s strange is how grounded the show remains. For example, Morty’s dad (voiced by Chris Parnell, who actually manages to be more pathetic than he is in “Archer”) is an idiot and nowhere near as smart as his wife or his father-in-law. In the first few episodes, this is a running gag and something to laugh at, until we slowly start to see that he is not only fully aware of his own stupidity, but also tremendously insecure and terrified of his marriage inevitably falling apart. Thus, a far more cynical, yet sometimes surprisingly thoughtful, underbelly of the show emerges, one that is always willing to address the consequences of its own jokes. We see that Rick is not just a zany anti-hero: he’s also a self-destructive sociopath who recklessly endangers his family. Morty’s not just a bumbling sidekick: he’s also a kid struggling both at school and at home, who’s genuinely being hurt and traumatized by the adventures he’s dragged into.
In almost every episode, there’s a moment when the show takes a radical left turn. Some episodes become so dark that it will leave you speechless, such as “Rick Potion #9,” which starts out with Rick making Morty a love potion for a prom date but goes in a sinister direction.
Ultimately, it’s the show’s willingness to completely pull the rug from under you that makes it so brilliant. It’s one thing for a show to keep you on your toes with rapid fire meta-humor, but it’s something else entirely for it to suddenly make you feel uncomfortable, and sometimes even a little moved, by its characters and its writing. Thus, it’s because the writing is so thought-out that I can confidently put “Rick and Morty” up there with “The Venture Bros” as one of the best the shows to come out of the strange Adult Swim lineup.