Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Animation Deviation: Rick and Morty's Awful Fanbase

Well, this happened.

Rick and Morty, one of the most popular animated shows aimed at adults in recent memory, telling dark sci-fi stories full of absurd jokes and cosmic inanity, has officially garnered a fanbase that basically terrorized a limited number of fast-food restaurants across the country in ravenous entitled droves all in a bid... to get their hands on a limited run McNugget dipping sauce. There are rants on Youtube, accusations of harrassment of employees, and a crapload of maniacs on eBay selling gallons of the sauce for hundreds of dollars.

But first let's rewind. Partially because I like me some bizarre cold opens and also because I want to make this column as accessible as possible for those out there with no direct access to cable or have been blissfully ignorant of this animated craze.

Premiering in 2013, Rick and Morty was the dual creation of underground animation talent Justin Roiland and Community creator Dan Harmon and revolves around the adventures of Rick Sanchez, a mad scientist who has returned to live with his daughter's family, and his teenage grandson Morty. It was originally conceived as an off-brand parody of Back to the Future with Rick as Doc Brown and Morty as Marty McFly but with the roles and dynamic changed from close friends to Grandfather and Grandson.

And for most of the show's first season that was essentially the schtick. Rick and Morty would get into crazy adventures involving aliens, building an amusement park inside a human body in a hilarious mash-up of Fantastic Voyage and Jurassic Park, and hyperintelligent dogs trying to overthrow the human race, all while a more grounded B-plot unravels involving Morty's parents dealing with Christmas stress, marriage woes, or work. It was funny, it was cleverly written, and it had just the right mix of silly, dark, ridiculous and pisstaking going on under the skin.

That is until an episode called Rick Potion No. 9 where Morty begs his grandfather to use his super science to make a love potion to use on his love interest Jessica at a school dance. Things snowball when the potion attaches to a flu virus and infects the entire school, leading to the entire planet mutating into horrifying monsters. But since this is a cartoon made on television, the status quo is god so Rick has everything go back to opening a portal to an alternate universe where everything was normal but that world's version of Rick and Morty had died horribly in an experiment a few seconds ago, burying their bodies and then continuing life like nothing happened. Leaving an entire world to burn, a grandson traumatized by burying his own corpse and dealing with the existential dread of what just happened along with the terrifying implication that this isn't the first time Rick has done this.

It is here that Rick and Morty plants its flag about what its central theme and idea is or at least what central theme it will explore with a straight face when it isn't taking the piss out of everything else: what happens when someone has access to the literal infinite. Easy access to a multiverse where literally anything and everything has happened, will happen, and is happening right now with every conceivable variation imaginable. The answer they settle on is pretty depressing. Rick Sanchez is a gassy alcoholic with an almost sociopathic non-existent moral compass. Save for his instinct to protect his family, Rick basically does whatever he wants to mess with people, a jaded Bugs Bunny with an arsenal of sci-fi gadgets.

The rest of Season 1 and 2 lean in to this... in between other one-off episodes like Rick beating up The Devil in a riff on the Stephen King story Needful Things or an episode long parody and satire of The Purge movies. Stuff like a clipshow episode made up of a bunch of random sketches and bits that look and sound like they were improvised on the spot called Interdimensional Cable, and the introduction of the Citadel of Ricks, a pocket dimension full of thousands of variations of Rick and Morty that the show's lead actively despises due to his hatred for organized government and his desire to a genuine Rick.

All of this with a mantra repeated over and over: nothing you do matters, nothing is sacred, and life is meaningless.

This leads to probably the greatest absurd joke ever in the show's run between its Season 2 finale and the Season 3 premiere. After the Galactic Federation actively hunts after Rick and his family for his multiple crimes against humanity, murdering friends Rick had accrued fighting in a Resistance movement (keep that in the back of your head by the way), and leaving the group on the lam, Rick willingly turns himself in on the condition that his family will not be harmed.

Cut to a year and a half later when Season 3 premieres and the Galactic Federation try to probe Rick's mind to figure out interdimensional travel, which leads to them seeing what looks like Rick's origin. Him discovering how to travel the infinite, refusing to despite being egged on by the Citadel of Ricks, then losing his family in a tragic accident, a trite anti-hero background meant to make him more sympathetic. It's all a crock of shit though, a ploy used by Rick that sets off an audacious chain of events leading to the total destruction of the Federation, the Citadel of Ricks, and Morty's parents getting a divorce.

Yep, it was all an elaborate scheme by Rick Sanchez to take over the family without the simple human mediocrity and constant series punchline, Morty's dad, Jerry, in the picture. As for his true origin, the real thing that drives him to act like a mad god that creates and destroys whatever he wants? Because he utterly craves a limited run of szechuan dipping sauce created by McDonald's to promote the Mulan movie back in 1996, and he has yet to find a version of Earth to have replicated the sauce exactly as he remembers it. It was a throwaway gag in the beginning of the episode as part of his planted backstory and the result of me almost passing out from laughter.

Now, originally for Animation Deviation I was going to talk about Season 3 at length and how it went into more serialized storytelling, analyzing how much Rick's antics have actually damaged and changed Morty and his sister Summer, how Jerry actually grows as a character, and the legitimately tragic and complex interactions between Rick and his daughter Beth. For a show that goes out of its way to keep things simple and quick to grasp, especially with the main cast, there was a lot of layers to peel back.

That and the brilliance that came from an episode premise as bonkers as Rick turning himself into a pickle.

But, once again, look at the opening. Much like Fight Club, the fanbase surrounding Rick and Morty has gravitated towards and began identifying not with the human characters like Morty or Jerry, but the psychotic asshole who “has it all figured out.” Just swap out Tyler Durden's anarchic toxic masculine nihilism with Rick Sanchez's self-destructive nihilism and you still have a bunch of fans who take it as an excuse to abandon personal growth or personal ambition in favor of wallowing in the absurd and the nothing.

Hence a bunch of manchildren issuing death threats to some poor fast-food employees to get some expired foodstuffs.

It's a trope that some have called The Asshole Philosophy or The Asshole Effect. A singular character that acts like a completely unlikable jerk, actively demeaning and berating the entire cast while flaunting how smarter, sharper, or more capable he/she is, and ultimately gets away with it because their intelligence helps solve the problem of the week or because they're (allegedly) so goshdarn likeable. Peter Griffin gets to do whatever the heck he wants like terrorize his family, kill people, steal, do stuff in terrible taste, and will ultimately get away with it because the status quo is maintained and it amounts to nothing. It's read as a power fantasy for the smartest guy in the room to be entitled to impunity. And if there's a group of people that want to embody that power fantasy more than anyone, it's the psuedo-intellectuals on the internet.

But here's the rub. In recent history, there have been shows that have pushed back against this characterization, using serialized storytelling to let consequences play out. Bojack Horseman is a fantastic example of this. A show that starts with a well-off Hollywood celebrity in a furnished apartment with friends, an agent getting him work, and an affable roommate, and through his selfish manipulative actions, actions that would otherwise be swept under the rug, ends with the apartment in shambles, all of his peers hating his guts, leading to the lead having to deal with his self-destructive tendencies and deepseated self-loathing.

But while Bojack is a human drama wearing the skin of a goofy comedy, Rick and Morty is mostly a comedy with dark drama below the surface. As mentioned before, Rick Sanchez has been held up as some sort of ideal guy, and on the very surface he is quite appealing – once again he turned himself into a pickle on a goof and still somehow MacGuyver'd himself some doomsday weapons to fight off a threat in an office building – but the show has also made it clear that Rick Sanchez is both miserable and terrifying to his own family.

He has been seen wanting to kill himself on multiple occasions. The one serious relationship he has with an alien hive mind falls apart because a literal collective infection of millions of men and women find him to be a dangerous influence on their existence. He actively fought for a cause that was only hinted at before, meaning he does have something resembling a moral center, or at the very least an ideal he'll fight for.

It's a message the show implicitly says: Rick coping with the infinite possibilities of the multiverse actively makes him miserable, and his coping mechanisms are actively hurting him and everyone around him.

A message that becomes blatantly explicit in the Season 3 finale where Beth gets back together with Jerry, finding his earnest and grounded simplicity a much needed balm for Rick's chaotic actions and tendencies, ending with Rick now seen as the lowest status character in the family dynamic.

Despite him repeating that nothing matters and that God is dead and that Thanksgiving is about killing Indians and other “edgy” dark revelations, the family moves on and lets him dwell in this dour mood.

This is not to say that I hate Rick and Morty. I love this demented show. I love the cast. I love the jokes. I love the rapid-fire sci-fi parodies, deconstructions, and inversions it throws at you one after the other. I love the writing, I love the performances. I love how it can go back and forth between being smart and stupid in equal measure with sci-fi concepts.

I just find it maddening that a community that will tell you “you need to have a large IQ to understand the true depth and complexity” of the show have a complete lack of self-awareness to not recognize that their idealized paragon of awesomeness actively uses his intelligence to justify his sickness and promotes self-harm, leading to an ultimately unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle.

And that's not just me saying it, the show itself says it too!

Digital Desperado out!!

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