A park full of dinosaurs: Can anything go wrong? The world’s greatest superheroes face a new threat: Can they possibly succeed? A killer robot time-travels backwards to destroy humanity: Can anything stop him? Some Star Wars are happening: Will the good guys win?
Predictability is not a crime. Popular expensive things don’t have to be bold. Still: Anybody who saw Jurassic World knew those dinosaurs were getting free. Anyone who saw Avengers knew the Avengers were winning. Maybe one person would die, though? (Spoiler alert: He did; you didn’t care.) The very few Americans (and many, many Chinese people) who saw Terminator: Genisys knew that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was going to be a nice Terminator. (But how nice?) Star Wars: The Force Awakens promises to introduce a whole new chapter in the never-ending battle between good and evil. Nobody seriously thinks evil will win — but maybe one person will die?
Two of those movies were successful; one was a flop; one will potentially reinvent our conception of financial success. Who knows what The Force Awakens will be; those other movies are symptomatic of popular culture right now. It’s a strange time to be a geek. Or rather, it’s a strange time to be someone who self-defined as a geek in the long-ago days when geek-derived properties weren’t grossing $1 billion. There’s the intrinsic coolness of seeing something you love go viral — they’re making a Doctor Strange movie! And there is also the bizarre necessity of watching that thing you love reboot itself backwards.
Like, I read maybe a couple dozen Doctor Strange adventures when I was a kid — a mere smattering of the character’s long comics history. When I started reading, Doctor Strange had been around for decades. When the Doctor Strange movie arrives next year, it will need to introduce him as a brand-new character. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange will never have the pure narrative real estate of the comic book Doctor Strange. He will have to meet Dormammu for the first time — he will feel the need to overexplain what a Dormammu is.
This is what happens when something niche becomes something popular. You can’t expect a franchise-starting superhero movie to feel like issue #112 of a long-running comic book. This is fine in microcosm, but kind of boring when applied to our cultural macrocosm. We’ve arrived at the moment when “Last Batman Story” is a popular subgenre, with its own series of clichés and tropes. We had to spend three years putting the words “spoiler alert” in big bold type whenever we talked about Gwen Stacy, who died when Nixon was president. Mockingjay is a book that came out five years ago. Nine million people have bought the book: Do they need to pretend to wonder how Mockingjay—Part 2 will end?
Comic-Con Fatigue is real, though it isn’t necessarily about Comic-Con. As an actual event, Comic-Con is indisputable. You can’t comfortably argue against the fact of so many people meeting to celebrate things they love. I guess you could argue that it’s all about advertising. Or you could act concerned that most of the biggest Comic-Con franchises are child-targeted narratives that adults have forgotten how to grow out of. Or you could complain that corporations have weaponized heartfelt fandom into shameless capitalism. But that’s all the tip of a rabbithole into the dark heart of human nature. (And srsly guys it was really cool seeing so many people dressed as Agent Carter this year, and I don’t even like Agent Carter very much.)
But as a cultural concern, Comic-Con can feel dangerously all-expansive. The tropes of the Comic-Con panel — plot-tease quotes, pictures from the set, preview-for-a-preview clips — have become the tropes of social media, which is to say the tropes of popular consumption among whatever Millennials are. And the further we get into this era, the more we keep hitting up against a basic problem. Call it the Thanos Conundrum: The people who are making the Avengers movies know Thanos is important, and the people who care the most about Avengers movies know Thanos is important, and even casual moviegoers who don’t do reddit know that the big purple guy is definitely up to something crazy, and so we all spend years watching characters onscreen slowly slowly realize that Thanos is probably a thing they should care about.
Which, whatever: We’re all paying for this. And I guess there’s always the argument that, for some people, this is all brand new. Don’t the kids of today deserve their own Cinderella? Somewhere there’s a 9-year-old who never got to see Jurassic Park in the theater: Isn’t it so great that she gets to experience a brand-new adventure where the dinosaurs escape the way dinosaurs always escape?
But, counterargument: Who cares what kids think? They weren’t even alive five minutes ago; four minutes ago, they thought shapes were funny and smells were sad. And it’s starting to feel like that whole argument — the need to reintroduce everything, over and over again, in origins and formulas that are exalted but never defied— is just an epidemic of creative laziness.
What if the Avengers met Thanos right away, two minutes into Avengers 1? What if it didn’t take an hour for the dinosaurs to escape? What if everyone inside of a Terminator movie knew as much about Terminators as the audience? What if you steered right into the skid of all the freakiest High Nerd concepts — alternate realities, time travel, an impossibly large multiverse of exotic alien races — and then threw in all the sex, violence, swearing, and genuine moral ambiguity that no PG-13 rating will ever allow? What if everyone — the creators, the characters, the audience — stops acting like we haven’t seen all these stories before?
Rick and Morty finishes its second season this Sunday. At this specific point in our nation’s history, there are 20 episodes that run approximately 22 minutes each. You could watch the entire run of the show in a little over 7 hours — which means it will take only 7 hours to become a better, weirder, more complete human being. The show kickstarted with the buddy-adventure genre premise that powers Doctor Who and Back to the Future and kind of Calvin and Hobbes and initially Adventure Time: a wacky person and a normal person do crazy things in crazy places. Rick is the mad scientist with an invention for five kinds of everything; Morty is his painfully teenaged grandson.
The show often expands to include a sitcom full family ensemble — cosmically banal dad Jerry, desperately unhappy mom Beth, understandably cynical sister Summer — and each episode features at least one standout guest-star performance: Patton Oswalt, Key and Peele, Keith David, Stephen Colbert, even Werner Herzog.
There is no typical Rick and Morty episode — they could go to a far-flung planet, or an alternate reality, or they could just hang out in the family’s suburban house — but there is an emerging Ricky and Morty style. The episode introduces a recognizable genre concept: A planet taken over by a Body Snatcher-ish hive mind, say, or miniature universe, or a brain-parasite that makes reality untrustworthy. The show’s homages are self-aware, even explicit. On this past Sunday’s episode, Rick and Morty land on a planet that looked like 18th century Earth populated by cat-people. (Rick is looking for wiper fluid.) A local informs them, happily, that their planet has been happy and peaceful for untold millenia.
“Oh! I know what this is!” says Rick….
“You’ve been able to sustain world peace because you have one night a year where you all run around, robbing and murdering each other without consequence! It’s like The Purge, Morty! That movie, The Purge? I’ve been to a few planets with the same gimmick. Sometimes it’s called The Cleansing, or the Red Time. There was this one world that called it just “Murder Night.” It’s a Purge planet! They’re peaceful, and then, y’know, they just Purge!”
The reference points aren’t always so precise. Sometimes the show just puts its own spin on a a Campbell-ian monomyth. (Mysterious aliens appear in the sky and bring the whole world to a halt!) Sometimes they go in the other direction, refracting a typical sitcom plot through a genre lens. (Intergalactic marriage counseling!) Without fail, though, the core Rick and Morty experence remains: The episode quickly introduces an obvious concept, and then aggressively pushes that concept in a dozen different directions.
Sometimes literally: In the season premiere, a hiccup in the time-space continuum creates two different timelines. The screen splits in two, and we see two versions of Rick, Morty, and Summer onscreen. And then the screen keeps splitting, until there are dozens of Ricks, chattering in unison.
The screen eventually starts to resemble Andy Warhol’s soupcans. “Andy Warhol’s soupcans” is a pretty good description of the show’s perspective on the human condition. Rick and Morty dives deep into the multiverse concept, with endless variations of its main characters. Comic books love a good multiverse — Marvel is currently drowning in one — but Rick and Morty keeps pushing the concept of alternate lives past the breaking point. One episode’s subplot stranded Jerry at an interdimensional daycare specifically built for the Jerrys of every reality: a kind of bespoke Disneyland for the most boring man in the universe. (You can watch Midnight Run with director’s commentary on — but first, you have to find the TV’s aux input!)
At the end of that episode, it’s strongly implied that the wrong Jerry goes home with Rick and Morty. This doesn’t really matter, since — back in season 1 — our Rick and Morty left behind a ruined Earth and body-swapped into a reality where their counterparts died. Rick and Morty moves so quickly, and the show can shift on a dime from high-speed lysergic farce into upper-level philosophy mania. In that same episode, while Jerry is hanging out with the infinite variations of himself, Rick takes Morty to a video arcade, and puts something like an Oculus Rift helmet on Morty’s head. We cut, suddenly, to a young boy named Roy, waking up from a nightmare — and then see half a century of Roy’s life pass by in 90 seconds:
It’s like the show suddenly tangented into its own version of the Up montage. It’s all a good, of course: Morty has just been playing Roy, a game that adds a points system to the experience of living a single human life. (“55 years! Not bad, Morty!”) On Rick and Morty, there are endless worlds within worlds. Rick invents a micro-verse, and then the most brilliant scientist in that micro-verse creates a mini-verse, and the most brilliant scientist in the mini-verse creates a teeny-verse, down, down, all the way down…
If Rick and Morty were just a hilarious, outrageous, gorgeously over-animated and batcrap crazy riff on genre conventions, it would still be worth watching. But what makes the show so good — and what makes it a great corrective to our weird new era, where there is a Batman TV show about Batman gradually becoming Batman — is how it can push even the most tired science-fiction conventions into new territory. This is the kind of show where a bodysnatching hivemind named Unity is actually Rick’s crazy ex-girlfriend (voiced by Christina Hendricks!) Except that’s not right: We quickly learn that Rick is Unity’s bad ex-boyfriend, a horrible influence who sends her on an immediate downward spiral.
By the end of the episode, the Unity has left Rick; Rick tries to commit suicide, but passes out from drinking too much. This is played as a ha-ha visual gag, but it’s also a magnificently depressing Jason Katims-worthy end-of-episode montage, complete with Chaos Chaos’ mournful pop song “Do You Feel It” on the soundtrack.
Rick and Morty was co-created by Dan Harmon, and the show a recognizable expansion of the ethos that defined the maybe-gone-forever Community. Both shows operate in the realm of meta self-awareness, composing their worlds out of the landscape of pop culture’s past. But neither show settles for self-awareness as an end to itself. On Community, Abed knew everything about pop culture and nothing at all about human beings — so, as a kind of stopgap solution, he defined human interaction in pop culture terms. (This should sound crazy, but a reality TV star is currently the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.)
Community brought the cosmos into a study room. Rick and Morty is similar but different: No matter how far the characters go, no matter how fantastical their adventures are, their everyday human problems follow them. The genre tropes hyperbolize their own problems. When Jerry and Beth seek help from the best marriage counselors in the universe, a machine peers into their brain, finds out how they see each other, and creates actual flesh-and-blood creatures that reflect those visions. (Jerry sees Beth as a monstrous Giger-ian insect being; Beth sees Jerry as a measly limbless slug-man.)
Co-creator Justin Roiland voices both of the titular leads, and has a long background in sub-culty weirdness like House of Cosbys and Acceptable TV, plus a stint doing animated webisodes for The Sarah Silverman Program. Roiland’s vision feels darker than Harmon’s. Community was a show about how people were terrible, but it was better if they were terrible together: Not exactly heartwarming, but oddly optimistic in its all-encompassing nihilism. The defining line on Rick and Morty comes late in the first season, when Morty tries to convince his sister not to run away from home. You’re expecting him to say something hopeful, and he kind of does:
Morty: “On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world, so we bailed on that reality and we came to this one. Because in this one, the world wasn’t destroyed and in this one, we were dead. So we came here, and we buried ourselves, and we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast 20 yards away from my own rotting corpse.”
Summer: “So you’re not my brother?”
Morty: “I’m better than your brother! I’m a version of your brother you can trust when he says, ‘Don’t run.’ Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
So many geek franchises now have the explicit mission statement of humanizing the fantastical. This is true of good things and bad things: Christopher Nolan spending so much time on Batman’s origin story; J.J. Abrams transforming Kirk and Spock into orphans on a vengeance kick; transforming M from James Bond’s fussy boss into James Bond’s metaphor-mom (and giving him his own orphan-backstory Wayne Manor).
For anyone growing tired of all the self-seriousness — the careful curation, bordering on calcification, that makes everything feel like bargain versions of Frank Miller reboots — Rick and Morty is the fast, funny, wild antidote. Every episode of the show rolls up the entire history of post-H.G. Wells imagination and sets it on fire. The central joy of Rick and Morty is that the show knows you know how these stories should end. It zigs. It zags. With great storytelling dexterity and sparkling animation, it creates an impossible huge universe where anything can happen.
Well, almost anything. In the end, everybody’s gonna die… but in the meantime, come watch TV.
Wubadubadubdub! Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.