Absurdism has always existed as a lurking force bubbling beneath the surface of comedy television, especially when it comes to adult animation. Since the early 2000s, one only had to look towards Cartoon Network’s programming block Adult Swim to find programs ranging from the satirical claymation Robot Chicken to the graphic acid trip Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or even the endless non-sequiturs of Family Guy. You would surely damn yourself, however, if you tried to dig through the endless stream of surreal events to find some thematic heart. Perhaps you could make a case for Family Guy being a critique of suburban America, but even this seems a stretch. The show barely holds a sense of continuity, which the other two completely lack, and character development is for all intensive purposes non-existent. To put it bluntly, there’s very little to care about.
That was true, at least, until Adult Swim approached Dan Harmon, the troubled creator of Community, to produce a “hit, prime-time” series. Unsure about the network’s style and animation overall, Harmon sought to work with his immensely talented friend Justin Roiland, who had sunk into an emotional rut following burn-out from constant career disappointment. The end result was the cynical Rick and Morty, which follows the dealings of idealistic 14-year old Morty and his alcoholic, narcissistic, intergalactic genius grandfather Rick. The show debuted in December 2013 to acclaim from critics, who praised the show’s surreal and satirical humor, which often lampoons film and television, as refreshingly unique.
Just a few months later, Netflix quietly announced its own entry into adult animation: the Californication-esque black comedy Bojack Horseman. In typical Netflix fashion, the entire first season was released at once in August 2014, capitalizing on the binge format that the service has become famous for pioneering. The story of a washed up ‘90s sitcom star struggling to maintain relevancy, Bojack Horseman, which briefly wore the guise of an irreverent sitcom a-la-Family Guy, often focuses its razor sharp wit into scathing criticism of Hollywood and the cult of celebrity. Like Rick and Morty, the series quickly garnered a devoted cult fanbase and won over the hearts of its initially skeptical critics with its darkly cynical atmosphere.
Both series premiered their highly anticipated second seasons this summer, much to the delight of fans left starving from the morsels of storyline hinted at during the final episodes of the previous season. It’s incredibly common for a series to end a season on a cliffhanger, but the stories behind Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty are no simple formula. Certainly, both began their runs with simple setups, establishing themselves as fresh examples of surreal comedy. In both cases, the simple premises functioned as a bait-and-hook, bringing the viewer into the universe in preparation for delivery of their shared thematic core. If there was any question, that thematic core traces the cycle of depression. For many individuals, Rick Sanchez and Bojack Horseman are exaggerated examples of what life with depression is like. We protect ourselves behind a wall of self-mythologization, but at the drop of a hat, crippling insecurity can burn our best defenses and leave us again susceptible to the hopelessness and abandonment we worked so hard to drive out. In an instant, you can go from feeling on top of the world, to sliding down an iced-over rock face, and no two characters better inhabit this trend than the chronically pained Rick and the self-sabotaging Bojack.
Perhaps the true beauty of the two series is that they rarely play this thematic as a trump card; it often remains an elusive shadow, flitting subtly between passing moments of humor. Considering Rick and Morty, the topic is hardly even broached until the finale of season 1, “Ricksy Business.” After reaching the end of his patience with Rick’s alcoholism and drug addiction, Morty finds himself questioning the source of his grandfather’s arrogance:
BIRD PERSON: Morty, do you know what “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub” means?
MORTY: Oh, that’s just Rick’s stupid nonsense catchphrase.
BIRD PERSON: It’s not nonsense at all. In my people’s tongue, it means, “I am in great pain. Please help me.”
MORTY: Well, I got news for ya — he’s saying it ironically.
BIRD PERSON: No, Morty. Your grandfather is indeed in very deep pain. That is why he must numb himself.
Of course, when Morty inquires about Wubba Lubba Dub Dub later on, Rick characteristically proclaims that his new catchphrase is, “I don’t give a fuck,” inhabiting his constant state of apathy and keeping his loved ones at a distance with verbal abuse. But “Ricksy Business” is ultimately just a tease, hinting towards the thematic line that isn’t fully brought into the light until Season Two. The season premier, “A Rickle in Time,” picks up quite literally where the previous season’s finale left off. In the aftermath of the party cleanup in “Ricksy Business,” Morty and Summer accidently split their reality into separate timelines that continue to fragment as their multiple selves fail to align in space. When one of the multiple Morties places the whole in danger of becoming stuck in nonexistence, Rick sacrifices his live for his grandson. Of course, when Rick gets a last chance at salvation he takes it immediately, but his heroic suicidal action in the premiere establishes the season’s heftier emotional weight.
The season’s third episode, “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” finally takes Rick’s characterization to dizzying heights as it finally digs into his past before returning to the Smith family’s life. By total chance, Rick is reunited with a lover from his past, a hive-mind being called Unity, which leads him into a massive binge of the drugs and sex of his youth. However, Unity soon comes to the realization that Rick is a negative influence on her, and leaves him a goodbye note without warning. Dejected, Rick returns home to meekly accept Beth and Jerry’s verbal disapproval. As the family sits in surprise at his lack of defense, Rick trudges into the garage, where he immediately attempts to kill himself by firing a laser through his brain. He fails only because he passes out on his desk just before the weapon fires, where he lies unconscious. Of course, the season finale ultimately finds Rick permanently alone after he surrenders himself to life imprisonment in exchange for the freedom of his family— an act of both heroism and self-loathing brought on by Jerry’s assertion that despite the family’s undying love for him, Rick would never do anything for anyone else.
However, though Rick’s emotional state is most openly explored, it is important to note the other four characters have been demonstrated to be just as emotionally broken as he is: Morty struggles against the paradoxical nature of his moral compass and the universe’s inherent evil, Summer is confronted with the revelation that her parents failed to abort her, Beth develops alcoholic tendencies from a buried lack of fulfillment, and Jerry flagrantly displays a massive inferiority complex.
So where then does this leave the show in relation to its viewers? What is it that makes Rick and Morty such an influential show for so many people? Certainly, Roiland and Harmon have woven five substantial unique characters such that the majority of fans will find themselves identifying with certain characters over others. While my life with depression, struggling against a clear sense of self-loathing and tendency for misanthropy, has led me to strongly identify with Rick’s inner turmoil above all others, I’ve found that my friends and fellow fans all had their own reasons for identifying among the other four principal characters. Perhaps then, what has made Rick and Morty so popular is its ability to place us within its universe. In allowing us to find ourselves within the characters, the series presents us an opportunity to seriously view our emotional states from an outside perspective, and simultaneously shows us how to laugh when absurdity and misfortune arise. It’s one of the first series (whether considered as animation, comedy, or both) to truly present plead an empathetic case with its audience, and it will likely remain one of the few.
Thus, Rick and Morty stands exceptional as a humorous show with serious subject matter. As I’ll explore in the second part of this article, however, its counterpart Bojack Horseman has become the inverse: a serious show with humorous subject matter.
Look out next week (10/30) for the second part of this blog!
Nicholas Kohomban is the Head of Directors for VCTV, Vassar’s first and only student-run film production organization. Learn more at www.vctv.org