Rick and Morty Gets Marriage Right by Embracing What’s Wrong –Kevin Pabst

Screen Shot 2016-09-20 at 4.07.18 PM.pngStill from Rick and Morty, “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” (Season 2, Episode 7, 2015).

One thing that stuck out to me in this week’s module was marital relationships. Sitcoms have a well-documented history of portraying marriages pretty problematically, something often just as evident today as it was in the early days of television. In The Goldbergs, Molly frequently deferred to the will of her husband, the final voice of authority whose word held more weight than hers. In The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Gracie was a dim-witted housewife easily fooled by her cunning husband. Modern sitcoms continue to perpetuate icky marital portrayals as well, cashing sexist stereotypes in for cheap jokes. Flip through some channels today, and chances are you’ll find some show still peddling these outdated depictions of marriage.

Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty is not one of them. The show has made a habit, especially in its second season, of satirizing tired TV tropes. Sometimes it’s a lazy and clichéd storytelling technique (e.g., the flashback formula), and sometimes it’s a stereotype so often pushed in television, like the way marital relations are often portrayed. The titular Morty’s parents, Beth and Jerry, have a terrible marriage. Jerry is an unemployed whiney man-child, and Beth is a highly successful and determined workaholic. In a way, at least one stereotype is flipped: Beth is the breadwinner of the household and the highest voice of authority whose word is final. But in another way, their marriage parodies the problematic husband-wife dynamic so many other sitcoms have portrayed.

One episode in season two, “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez,” satirizes this better than any other. When Beth and Jerry get into one of their daily arguments, Rick insists on taking them to the most successful marriage counseling facility in the galaxy (oh yeah if you’re not familiar with the show, Rick is a super genius who casually visits other galaxies and dimensions). The alien marriage counselor has each of them put on a helmet, which isolates their thoughts and emotions about their spouse to create a physical manifestation of how they perceive one another. When Jerry puts on the helmet, the machine constructs an over-dominating and evil spider monster version of Beth, and when Beth puts on the helmet, the result is a timid and submissive slug version of Jerry. Improbably, the monsters escape and start terrorizing the facility, and it’s up to Beth and Jerry to stop them. By the end of the episode, they have a newfound respect and rekindled love for each other.

Screen Shot 2016-09-20 at 4.08.13 PM.pngStill from Rick and Morty, “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” (Season 2, Episode 7, 2015).

This episode accomplishes two things. One, as the A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen observes, “[Jerry and Beth] square off against one another, only to realize in the end that their particular brand of awfulness might actually make for a good fit…the fact that the continued existence of their marriage might be a factor in why they’re so screwed up makes those otherwise tidy resolutions play just a bit more subversive.” Like many other TV marriages before them, Beth and Jerry get into almost weekly fights, many of them severely damaging, but by the end of the episode, resolve things in a tidy manner. What makes Rick and Morty successful at satirizing this trope rather than perpetuating it is the show makes their conflicts so extreme that the fact that they stay together at the end of the episode is absurd. In this way, creator Justin Roiland pokes fun at how ridiculous it is that some televised marriages remain so happy and tidy despite serious problems in the relationship.

Two, the show takes marriage problems and turns them in literal flesh. Jerry and Beth’s unhealthy perceptions of one another become physical manifestations in the form of alien spiders and space slugs. In doing so Roiland visualizes not only the dysfunction in Beth’s and Jerry’s relationship, but the problems with every TV marriage they represent, and exposes them for what they really are: monstrosities.

The fact that Rick and Morty embraces pitch black humor and is not afraid to get very dark very fast certainly helps the show engage with these kinds of problems better than others. Interestingly enough, despite being about a space-traveling mad scientist and his grandson going on inter-dimensional adventures, Rick and Morty at times feels much more honest about hard realities than many other sitcoms. Through Beth and Jerry, Justin Roiland has managed to create a marriage that is more realistic about how certain traits assigned to TV marriages would play out while also satirizing those traits. Also the show is hysterical.

–Kevin Pabst

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One Response to Rick and Morty Gets Marriage Right by Embracing What’s Wrong –Kevin Pabst

  1. marymdalton says:

    Excellent post — can’t wait for you to read Judy Kutulas’s chapter next week!

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