Debuting in 2013, Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” has established itself as the best animated series of the 2010s. Co-created by Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Justin Roiland (“Fish Hooks”), the series follows the adventures of brilliant but deranged scientist, Rick Sanchez, and his hapless grandson Morty. Ostensibly a comedy, the show is also a compelling family drama, science-fiction epic, and sad coming-of-age story.
Indeed, “Rick and Morty’s” greatest strength is its ability to portray contradictory ideas and tones without going off the rails. The show is both deeply sarcastic and at times jarringly sincere. Its characters treat each other with a casual cruelty that belies their deep-seated emotional connection. Moreover, the series excels at simultaneously mocking and celebrating contemporary American pop culture.
Though very different from its predecessors, “Rick and Morty” is to the 2010s what the “The Simpsons” were to the ‘90s and “South Park” was to the 2000s. With its potent mix of anxiety, gallows humor, and technophilia, it depicts a funhouse mirror version of modern life.
With the program recently beginning its fourth season and the 2010s drawing to a close, here are five reasons why “Rick and Morty” is the defining animated series of its era.
**This article contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty’s” first three seasons.**
5. It’s TV’s Most Unpredictable Show
Although it has produced more than 30 episodes, there is no standardized version of a “Rick and Morty” episode. Some installments of the show follow it’s two protagonists as they visit a strange new world or alternate dimension. However, others revolve around the cast dealing with the unexpected arrival of a disruptive new character. And one of the show’s recurring plots involves its protagonists watching an interdimensional version of cable television.
Furthermore, the show frequently uses the plots of classic movies and TV shows as a framework to tell its stories. However, “Ricky and Morty” deconstructs and remixes its borrowed premises to the point where they become almost unrecognizable.
For instance, an episode that began as a “Mad Max” pastiche concluded as a cathartic field trip for Morty and his sister Summer. Conversely, one installment about Rick’s reticence to attend a family therapy session turned into a thrilling “Die Hard” homage. Similarly, an adventure riffing on the absurd nature of love potions abruptly resolves as a David Cronenberg-inspired zombie apocalypse.
Because “Rick and Morty” gleefully ignore genre conventions and traditional television storytelling tropes, it’s wildly unpredictable. However, the show’s lack of stability and repetition don’t make it feel rudderless. On the contrary, its ability to continually surprise its audience makes it a joy to watch. Its narrative curlicues and tonal shifts ward off the staleness that plagues many great shows in their later years.
4. It’s Deceptively Complex
For the uninitiated and casual fan, “Rick and Morty” might seem like a particularly subtle show. Indeed, the program’s characters tend to speak to each other directly, and most episode plots wrap up without any lingering threads. Also, the series’ writers are big fans of scatological humor. However, careful viewers have noticed the show actually weaves rather elaborate narratives in its background.
The show’s most significant ongoing plotline involves a ruthless and atypically genius version of Morty. Since his debut in the show’s first season, the character has made occasional reappearances to build up an increasingly large power base. Though his motives are unknown, many fans believe Evil Morty is the show’s ultimate antagonist.
The animated series has also introduced ongoing plotlines about an interdimensional alliance of Ricks and hints that Summer is secretly much smarter than she appears.
“Rick and Morty’s” background plots give the show another layer of depth that isn’t immediately obvious. Though the program is ostensibly a sci-fi black comedy, it’s also a “Watchmen” esque puzzle box show. Plus, because the series received a 70 episode production order, its producers can play the long game with their mythology.
So, in addition to being the best animated series of the 2010s, “Rick and Morty” also ranks among the greatest mystery serials.
3. It Highlights the Costs of Being Smart
While “Rick and Morty” eschew storytelling formulas, it has a few recurrent themes. One of the show’s most poignant through lines is the problem of being highly intelligent. Typically but not exclusively, the show explores the notion in its Rick-centric stories.
As an overclocked version of “Back to the Future’s” Dr. Emmett Brown, Rick is a super-genius who can fabricate entirely new technologies in his spare time. However, his brilliance comes with two significant drawbacks. One, being the most intelligent life form in his universe, he feels profoundly lonely. As the character effectively has no peers, he lacks an essential connection to the rest of humanity.
Besides, his ability to quickly think his way out of virtually any problem makes everyday life feel profoundly dull. In the show, Rick regularly puts himself in life-threatening situations to feel challenged. But when forced to endure normal conditions, he becomes irritable and depressed. Indeed, the character thrives when facing an alien armada or celestial talent show but struggles with breakfast small talk.
Rick’s great tragedy is he can’t enjoy life’s simple pleasures because he understands nothing in life is truly simple. While the emotional drawbacks of high intelligence are well documented, few works of fiction detail the problem. But “Rick and Morty” does, and as a result, it stands alone in the contemporary TV landscape.
2. It’s the Right Kind of Self Aware
When appropriately used, meta-humor can be incredibly effective. Fourth wall breaking films and TV shows like “Deadpool” and “Fleabag” have used the technique to great effect. However, like anything else, an overuse of meta-gags can make a work feel tedious, a la “Family Guy.” Throughout its run, “Rick and Morty” has employed meta-fictional humor regularly without harming viewer engagement.
The show’s fourth wall breaks are successful because they are seamlessly integrated into its storytelling. One of the most enjoyable aspects of “Rick and Morty” is its narrative efficiency. In most episodes, the program introduces new characters, settings, jokes, and concepts at a breakneck pace.
“Rick and Morty’s” writers can tell such dense stories by keeping exposition to a minimum. Often, the program will establish an episode’s premise by having a character directly reference what kind of scenario’s about to play out.
For example, when the show did a superhero movie parody, it began with a Justice League/Avengers-style group summoning Rick for help. However, the scientist wanted to blow them off because they already had a team-up, and it was “the big event of that summer.” Nevertheless, Rick and Morty end up answering a literal call to action.
Similarly, in the show’s later years, it’s taken to mocking some of its more…dedicated fans. However, its references to obsessive Reddit threads and YouTube videos are made quickly and don’t distract from the action.
As such, some of “Rick and Morty’s” characters are aware they only exist as part of a TV show. But that meta-awareness does not have significant influence on their lives. Indeed, when death is a mere inconvenience, being fictional probably isn’t that big a deal.
1. It’s Equally Terrifying and Awe-Inspiring
On paper, “Rick and Morty’s” abrupt tonal shifts should make it feel incredibly inconsistent. However, the show’s writing and performances have so much nuance, its rapid changes in mood almost always feel justified.
For instance, in one episode, Rick creates a small surface that is perfectly level to show up Morty. Upon stepping on the completely flat piece of floor, Morty experiences an almost narcotic sense of contentment. But once Rick forces him off the square, the boy becomes overwhelmed by existential ennui. Watching one of the show’s protagonists’ shift from joy to despair in a few seconds is horrifying and mesmerizing.
While full of coarse, low-brow humor, “Rick and Morty” is nevertheless a deeply philosophical show. Many of its best episodes offer complex explorations of questions that have no easy answers. The program also makes polarizing arguments about human nature, like a person’s worst qualities can also be their greatest strengths or the notion that cruelty and brilliance are inextricably linked.
Philosopher Edmund Burke described the sublime as experiences that evoke an equal combination of awe and terror. By that definition, “Rick and Morty” is the most sublime American TV show of the last decade.