Rick and Morty: A Surprisingly Sophisticated Sitcom


The adult animated science-fiction sitcom Rick and Morty met great skepticism from viewers with its debut in December of 2013. Co-writer and creator of the hit sitcom Community, Dan Harmon announced he would be doing an animated series for Adult Swim with Justin Roiland. Harmon is no stranger to ambitious, meticulously-constructed television on his other series, Community, yet the scope and complexity he proposed for Rick and Morty was substantial. Originally developed to be an animated short film which parodied Back to the Future, Harmon and Roiland were approached to turn this parody into a functional twenty-two minute show for Adult Swim. Their first battle was in constructing a show that mirrored popular cosmic science-fiction works as well as providing fresh social commentary without seeming all too familiar. In an interview with Vulture, Harmon remarks on the motivation behind their creative process while writing the script:

“We often say that this show is inspired by more British-style storytelling. […] The older world of storytelling — children’s stories were the most brutal playground, written by sociopaths or psychopaths. They give children more credit.” – Dan Harmon, Vulture

Rick and Morty - Adult Swim

As such, Rick and Morty feels like a fever dream. The series follows the misadventures of mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his impressionable grandson, Morty. Rick uses a portal gun to go from one dimension to another in the very first episode (Only later do we learn that there is an interdimensional customs process and that Rick is breaking laws that we haven’t learned exist yet.) Once travelling the universe alone, now together, Rick and Morty divide their time between domestic family life and interdimensional adventures. The multiverse operates as a glimpse of alternate realities and are not used for novelty sake, but rather as emotional catalysts for the entire family. Throughout the course of the first season, each family member sees a better life for themselves in another reality and they must come to terms with their own experiences. As the show begins to fold in upon itself with visits to these infinite realities, the layering of what’s real continues to build on itself as the series progresses. In episode 8, “Rixty Minutes”, Rick upgrades the family’s cable box to receive programming from alternate realities; and in “Rick Potion #9,” Rick and Morty end up destroying their original timeline and end up starting over elsewhere in the multiverse. The dark side of adventuring is brought to the forefront when the credits roll as Rick and Morty from a different universe bury their dead bodies from the timeline the television show focuses on.

Over the course of the season, Rick installs in Morty a form of existential dread. He explains the more alternate universes there are the less meaningful your choices become. The harsh alternate realities they come in contact with show that jumping alternate time lines isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; each world has its pros and cons. It seems like a matter of deciding which portions of your life are most important to you. The recurring theme in the series is that nothing really matters at all.

“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” – Morty

Yet, what does it say when this is the show’s most reoccurring theme? This cohesive thematic weight of nothingness envelops audiences in the throes of Morty’s character development. It especially resonates with a more mature audience as beyond the crude humor is a sadness that comes with experience of reality. The show moves beyond commentating on man overcoming the system, and it’s about how we all may physically need to go into another reality to even stand a fighting chance against the systems we face. What’s so unnerving about all this is that Rick is virtually the only character on the show that is smart enough to beat the system. He just doesn’t care anymore. He’s been outsmarting it for long enough now that he’s disenfranchised, and none of it matters anymore. He’s building the systems now. We’re taught to be questioning every system we have and we see how balancing realities can lead to failure. This complex storytelling addresses how we perceive and handle our own realities, embedded in a meticulously constructed bed of absurdity and crude humor. Rick and Morty will catch us all by surprise.

Rick and MortyTo read more about the delayed release of Season 3, please read here. Thankfully, those of us who await the return of Rick and Morty can tune in to Adult Swim on July 30th.

Post by Meghan Barber


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7 Responses to Rick and Morty: A Surprisingly Sophisticated Sitcom

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I’ve heard tons of things about Rick and Morty, but I’ve never really had the show described to me in a really descriptive way. I’ve never watched it, but I’ve seen enough GIFs and clips to say you’re exactly right in regards to the character development and arcs. I’ve heard tons of people tell me “you’ve gotta watch it” but they’d never go into detail about what made the show worth it until now.
    Sam Bishop

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I think shows like Rick and Morty are helping change people’s opinion on cartoons in general. I still think a majority of the population sees cartoons as something for kids, but shows like this, Archer, and BoJack Horseman are allowing people to see that cartoons can address serious, adult issues, maybe even better than live action TV. With animation you’re allowed to escape reality and explore things that you wouldn’t be able to in a real setting. I think Rick and Morty is the best example of this because, like you said, the multiverse provides a catalyst for plot development and relationship building in a unique way.

  3. mediaphiles says:

    It seems we were both on the actual same page for this one! My post about Rick and Morty talked about a lot of these themes – existentialism, nihilism, the general meaninglessness of our actions as explored by an Adult Swim cartoon. I really appreciated your introduction and the quote from one of the creators – I’ve been a fan of the show for a while and never thought to look behind the scenes like that. It is interesting how the show feels like a bit of an experiment itself. There is no real form, apparently no boundaries, and the subject matter ranges from unhappy marriages to death in another dimension. Rick and Morty might be the most complex and underrated animated series out there, and I think its focus on so many heavy issues (albeit all drenched in satire) qualifies it to be analyzed as a legitimate, important text.

    -Alyssa McAuliffe

  4. marymdalton says:

    Love the use of the quote — visually striking and engaging content!

  5. mediaphiles says:

    Meghan, your analysis of Rick and Morty is very thought-provoking, and a little bit sad! Although I am not an avid fan of the series, I can see how its central theme of “nothingness” and despair with the realities of life open up character development for Rick. Rick lays the groundwork for the audience to deeply question their own realities. We are forced to examine whether our lives are what they should be cracked up to be, or whether we are just always yearning for “greener grass,” as Rick and Morty do in alternate universes. The juxtaposition between the serious, critical questions the show raises against a backdrop of animation and “cartoonish” works to balance the overall theme well.

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