Out of the Box

Out of the Box


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.    


Out of the Box

Out of the Box

HBO’s highly anticipated Sunday lineup, which debuted recently, features the second season of True Detective followed by Ballers and The Brink. Unfortunately, the comedies aren’t that funny and the noir crime series is opaque at best. Airing the comedies directly after True Detective might be HBO’s way of ending the evening on a high note, but if you want to go to bed laughing you’ll need to wait for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. HBO’s new trio is so cynical that come Monday, you’re going to have to watch a whole lot of cat videos at work to recover.

True Detective features Colin Farrell as Ray Velcoro, a detective in Vinci, a corrupt city outside Los Angeles. Velcoro is a mess of a man with so many demons he’s in his own private hell. Rachel McAdams is Ani Bezzerides, an L.A. County Sheriff’s detective with a drinking problem and serious family issues. Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrugh, a CHiPs officer and former mercenary with suicidal fantasies. Vince Vaughn is Frank Semyon, the icy crime boss hoping to go legit-ish by developing land around a proposed high-speed rail. Everything goes to hell when Vaughn’s partner, Vinci’s city planner, is found brutally murdered.

There are echoes of Chinatown in True Detective, with everyone gunning for a piece of the California dream. This California is not the laid-back Golden State. It is a cruel landscape overrun with endless highways. In fact, there are so many road shots it starts to feel like Google Maps went cinematic. Leonard Cohen’s brooding voice in the opening sets a sinister tone for the show that wants to be noir. It goes as far as to have a stuffed black bird in the backseat with the dead man — a nod to… the noir classic The Maltese Falcon? Who could ever imagine Sam Spade inhabiting this world? He’d probably just grab his dame and blow.

Ballers stars Dwayne Johnson as Spencer Strassmore, a “reinvented” football player turned financial planner. Spencer’s boss (Rob Corddry) wants him to “monetize his friendships.” The notion doesn’t sit well with Spencer until he realizes that, whether it’s because of money, sex or drugs, or all three, his friends need him to save them from themselves. As a comedy, Ballers is a bit leaden. The best thing about it is Johnson’s considerable charisma and physical presence, along with his character’s willingness to risk everything to give himself and his clients a second chance.

Tim Robbins stars in The Brink as the boozing, womanizing Secretary of State Walter Larson. Jack Black is Alex Talbot, a toking, womanizing low-level diplomat. Pablo Schreiber plays Zeke Tilson, aka Z-Pak, a pill-popping, drug-dealing fighter pilot. When a lunatic stages a coup d’état in Pakistan and threatens to go nuclear, Walter is called to the Situation Room. When he disagrees with the president, he goes rogue. Meanwhile, Talbot is stuck in Islamabad, and Z-Pak is literally flying high over Pakistan. As a satire, The Brink descends into base humor and is too self-conscious to really say anything.  

True Detective, Ballers and The Brink all miss the mark by just a hair. The writing isn’t as good as it could be and the way most women are depicted is ridiculous. There are so many half- naked women with big hair that it makes Charlie’s Angels feel like an evening with Gertrude Stein. You could label the shows misogynistic, but they don’t handle the men much better. Most of the men are childish, crazy, sad or mean. On the bright side, the first episode of each show feels like a prologue to the real action. At the end of True Detective, the three main characters meet each other for the first time. They size each other up, waiting for what comes next. Just like us.

Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content. Ojai resident Emily Dodi has been writing about television for more than 20 years and has been an in-house writer for Disney and ABC Family.    


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