The equation has been perfected: nostalgia plus a subtle self-awareness multiplied by a heaping load of irony and you’ve got a recipe for success. Jurassic World, the upcoming Batman vs. Superman and the Marvel film universe are all the evidence needed to draw the conclusion that what’s old is new again — and frankly, it’s what audiences want.
Which is why Rick and Morty has been such a success for Adult Swim, raking in the ratings in its 11:30 p.m. timeslot and even being featured in a Simpsons couch gag; it’s perfected the formula.
Show creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have captured the zeitgeist of generation nostalgia while doing cartwheels on the line between comedic genius and self-reverence. Just when the narrative diverges down the all-too-familiar path of clichés, it manages to capture a new magic that breathes life into the tired tropes and, frankly, tropes are for the people.
Co-creators Harmon, the mind behind the oft-brilliant Community, and Roiland, who lends his voice talents to both Rick and Morty (and who has voiced equally bizarre characters on Cartoon Network’s nostalgia-laden for-kids-but-really-for-adults series Adventure Time, such as the Earl of Lemongrab), have created a world in which, quite literally, anything can happen through the magic of science and an extreme sense of self-awareness.
Rick Sanchez is Morty’s grandpa, living with the family, experimenting in the attached garage. Gadgets and failed experiments line the shelves where power tools should be and, as we’ve come to learn from season 1, which concluded in April of last year with 11 episodes, this isn’t his first rodeo.
In season 1’s Rick Potion #9, Rick concocts a love potion (for his grandson to woo his high school crush) that interacts with the seasonal flu transforming the world into mutated monsters hellbent on mating with Morty. These beings are aptly referred to as “Cronenbergs,” a nerdy inside joke referencing the body-horror of director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Scanners). Rick’s answers to the problem only serve to make it worse, and as a result, he takes his grandson into a new, alternate dimension where Rick and Morty have died.
The two assume the roles of that dimension’s Rick and Morty and, after burying their own bodies in the backyard, Rick notes that, “It’s not like we can do this every week. We get three or four more of these, tops.”
Consequence is a matter of principle in the world of Rick and Morty. Morty’s traumatic experience burying an alternate-reality version of himself is referenced again in later episodes, and the alternate dimensions Rick so casually uses as his deus ex machina to fix his mistakes become the method which an alternate version of himself uses to murder and kidnap other versions of Morty.
This is a show that relies on tropes, building new, unexplored worlds out of sci-fi clichés. The smart use of science fiction antics, wrapped in an absurd layer of realism and unrealism, gives a touch of credibility to those of us who say, “I loved Back to the Future. Why can’t I have more of that?”
If the greatest form of flattery is imitation, Harmon and Roiland are this era’s greatest imitators, recapturing the magic that some believe was left behind in the 1980s.
Expect season 2 to offer more insanely twisted takes on the familiar, and for as long as Harmon and Roiland are burning this candle at both ends, the world benefits.
Rick and Morty returns July 26 on Adult Swim, found on the same channel as Cartoon Network.
Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.