The deal is, Rick And Morty won’t be airing any new episodes until March 10. Blame, I don’t know, blame the Olympics or global warming or the fact that I gave that last episode a B+ because clearly I’m just sick or something. However, because TV Club loves you and I need the gig, we’re going to go back and review the three episodes we missed before picking up the show regularly, starting this week with the pilot. (PEOPLE WHO ARE READING THIS IN THE FUTURE: You don’t really need to know anything I just wrote, since reviews are archived by episode and season, not by date. But hey, that’s free text, just sitting there. How’re things, by the way? Am I still sleeping too much?)
Part of what’s impressive about the first episode of Rick And Morty is how little it plays like a first episode. Oh sure, the signs are there if you look for them, but the story doesn’t start with, say, Rick moving in to live with his daughter and her family, and we don’t get to see the first time he took advantage of Morty’s availability and loneliness to exploit him in a grand quest for science. The cold open plays like a proof-of-concept sketch: A drunk Rick comes into Morty’s room in the middle of the night, yanks him out of bed, and takes him for a trip in his new flying ship. Oh, and Rick has a neutrino bomb which he says he’s going to use to blow everyone up and start over again. (He’ll save Morty and Morty’s crush Jessica, and he’s not going to fool around with Jessica, because he’s not that kind of guy. On second thought, forget Jessica. Not worth the trouble.)
The bomb never comes up again, and, apart from being funny, the scene’s essential purpose is to set up the nature of the two leads’ relationship without overtly saying, “Look, this is the nature of this relationship.” That’s the theme pulling everything together in the episode—we learn a little about Jerry the dad (he’s a putz) and Beth the mom (she’s nice? Also, she’s a surgeon, but she operates on horses, so whatever) and Summer the sister (she’s… actually, she’s just kind of an annoying teenager, and that hasn’t changed yet, so go with it), but they’re all there to provide a context for the dysfunctional core of the show. Rick and Morty is a pairing that’s at once familiar, and sort of not—and that’s part of what makes it so fascinating. An older, wiser authority figure guiding a vulnerable youngster through a dangerous but fascinating new world is a concept that pops up routinely in genre literature, film, and television. But it’s a concept that’s gone unexamined for far too long, and in the pilot, we see just how fucked up that sort of situation can be.
So yeah, as much as this episode has a “this has been going on for a while” beginning (we find out by the end that, thanks to Rick, Morty has been to only seven hours of school in the past two months), it’s basically introducing the audience to what they can expect from here on out. So you get that twisted, messed up opening scene, establishing that Rick is deeply and psychologically fucked in the head, and that Morty is stuck for the ride because somebody needs to keep his grandfather from killing everyone. And then you get the pleasant, but pretty bland and quietly desperate family life that fills up Morty’s non-school, non-Rick time. You also get the series’ ease with casual deaths, as we’re quickly introduced to a greaser bully, who is just as quickly frozen and and ultimately shattered. Maybe “casual” isn’t quite the right word. Summer spends the rest of the episode deeply distraught over the bully’s demise, and there are some great gags during the big action climax drawing attention to the fact that every bug guard Morty kills is a bug guard with a family who’ll never see him (it?) again. People/aliens/etc die regularly on the series, but we’re never allowed to forget it when they do, just as we’re never allowed to forget the dark implications of Rick’s ambitions. Which means there are still stakes, which makes the jokes funnier and keeps the stories interesting.
As stories go, Rick and Morty’s trip to another dimension to get Rick’s “mega seeds” is more functional than inspiring. But then, that’s probably intentional: The focus is more on Rick and his crazed, abusive behavior. One minute he’s giving Morty a speech about seizing the day, the next he’s guilt-tripping the kid into shoving a pair of giant seeds up his rectum to sneak them through interdimensional customs. There are gags that hint at the show’s ambitions, like Rick going to a future dimension to get medicine to magically cure Morty’s hideously broken legs, only to be caught up in a time when visible old age no longer exists, which makes him a minor celebrity. Or the chase through customs when Rick’s great “seeds up anus” plan doesn’t work out, which has one of my favorite bits in the show so far: Morty accidentally breathes in an alien drug while he’s running, then coughs out a wad of green phlegm which turns into a little baby thing which grows up into adulthood and then dies of old age, all while running and in the space of about three seconds. “Don’t think about it!” Rick screams. It’s a lesson for life, but one which the show absolutely refuses to ever let us follow.
That, really, is what makes this work—the understanding that every trippy, goofy, and silly little sci-fi gag might have a nasty biting heart at the center, and that the great big universe the Doctor is always ranting about the wonders of has a lot of acid and teeth and much, much worse waiting for anyone foolish enough to wander through it. Rick is a horrible human being—selfish and drunk and irresponsible—but he’s good at staying alive, and that gives him the edge. Unfortunately, the edge isn’t a fun place for anyone, which explains why Rick drinks so much, and why Morty spends the last minute or two of the episode twitching on the floor. (Sure, it’s because the mega seeds dissolved in his rectum making him briefly super smart before robbing him of 75 percent of his muscle control, but it’s symbolic, eh?) Plenty of pilots try and find a way to work a mission statement into one of their character’s mouths, but few have done it with such horrible, unsettling glee: Rick’s promise of many more adventures to come isn’t something Morty wants to hear. But we want to hear it, and since we’re not animated, we matter more. It’s science.
- Not sure what to make of the suggestion that Morty has some sort of learning disorder, or worse; we so rarely see the character interact with his peers in a “normal” situation that it’s hard to judge if he’s anything more than just another socially inept geek. But then, maybe the point of the joke is to make Morty suffer, this time through the deep self-loathing and shame. Which seems appropriate.
- Also not sure what to make of the Jessica fantasy. The pay-off, which has Morty groping one of his not-exactly-hating-it teachers without realizing it, is funny, but the fantasy itself has nothing much to do with anything, and plays like awkward padding. It doesn’t even tell us much about Morty as a character, apart from the fact that he has a crush on Jessica, which was already established.
- “What, so everyone’s supposed to sleep every night now?”
- “There is no God, Summer. Gotta rip that Band-Aid off right now, you’ll thank me later.”
- “You ask a lot of questions, Morty. Not very charismatic.”
- Morty: “You’re like Hitler, but even Hitler cared about Germany or something.”
- (Any quote that isn’t attributed is Rick’s, by the way.)
- “Your anal cavity is still taut yet malleable.”
- Alien bug guard: “It’s a new machine. It detects stuff all the way up your butt.”
- Beth’s worry that Morty won’t be able to get over missing so much school because “It’s not like he’s a hot girl!” seems indicative of some deeper issue.