The sci-fi show features Rick, an unhinged scientist, and his fretful grandson.TWITTER/MSYANNA2018

In anticipation of its fifth season premiere later this year, I recently rewatched all four seasons of the animated TV show Rick and Morty. Best known for its outstanding animation, which takes the sci-fi genre to new heights of aestheticism and inventiveness, as well as its offbeat and dark humour, the show follows the antics of a grandfather and his adolescent grandson as they embark on adventures across the universe.

Rick and Morty has been met with critical and commercial acclaim for its imaginative storylines and the way in which it self-consciously pokes fun at both the animated and sci-fi genres. However, I believe that the show’s endearing popularity and status as arguably one of the best TV series of all time owes a lot to its navigation of difficult family dynamics, as well as complex existential crises in an age where science and technology can seemingly provide the answers and solutions to anything.

Dan Harmon is the show's co-creator and executive producer.TWITTER/NERDIST

Created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon (Community), Rick and Morty centres on the adventures of the adolescent Morty and his grandfather Rick, who also happens to be an unstable scientific genius. The show is well rooted in the science fiction genre, with its depiction of the mad scientist (physically modelled on Albert Einstein, as is acknowledged in one episode), and the characters’ adventures through the universe, as they embark on treacherous journeys and meet strange new life forces from different planets. As much as Rick and Morty draws on the rich tradition of sci-fi TV, such as Doctor Who and Star Trek, the show’s writers are also careful to distinguish itself from this canon. The show notably refrains from venturing into time travel – or, as Rick calls it, ‘time travel stuff’ – and it is also more foul-mouthed than its predecessors.

“The show probes deeper into crises afflicting the human condition than any other sci-fi show before.”

Rick and Morty is also unique in its ability to use the sci-fi genre to probe deeper into crises afflicting the human condition than any other sci-fi show before it. Whereas series like Doctor Who are built on a premise of wonder – the Doctor and their companion’s discoveries enhance their appreciation of existence – Rick and Morty almost seem dulled by their adventures and exploits. Instead of exposing them to the wonders of life across the universe, the characters seem at best apathetic and at worst irked by their adventures, causing them to doubt the value of existence.

By the time the series has begun, Rick has already gained his status as the universe’s greatest genius, and Morty is already peeved with his grandfather’s adventures. There is little to discover or wonder about, and new discoveries temporarily alleviate the characters’ apathy before their novelties wear off. The show’s habitual conversion of ordinary objects and situations into sci-fi narratives – whether it is a pet dog or Rick turning himself into a pickle – conveys the character’s urgency to create adventures out of seemingly unremarkable things, as if the universe has bored them out so much that they rely on pursuing excitement through the quotidian.

The pair frequently clash over the course of their adventures. TWITTER/NFTYBAZAAR

Rick’s immense knowledge of the universe and his many technological feats also allow for him to overcome any struggle with ease. Whether it is an extra arm, a fake vat of acid, or a booby trap proof boiler suit, Rick rarely faces hardship in the show because he seems impenetrable and invincible. His lack of vulnerability in this sense undermines the sense of discovery at the heart of a lot of sci-fi shows, and pushes the show in an absurdist direction that instead probes the value of the human experience when nothing is insurmountable.

“They rely on pursuing excitement through the quotidian.”

It is perhaps their over-exposure to the universe that also dulls the characters’ receptiveness to tragedy and suffering. Rick and Morty is well known for its abundant comic violence and the way that the show easily dispels with various life forms. At times, the characters seem impervious to the suffering that they cause or endure, but in some episodes, the writers take time to show how this violence affects their psyches.

In one episode, Rick and Morty are being pursued by murderous clones of their family. When Morty is forced to murder these clones, he ends up breaking down and questioning his own reality. In another episode, Rick and Morty save a planet from destruction and are awarded a hero’s celebration, but when they numbly return to their car, they break down, unable to deal with the burden of witnessing such brutal violence.

Season 3, episode one" 'The Rickshank Rickdemption'TWITTER/BETTERCALLCRIS

The show veers between portraying the characters’ apathy to violence and portraying the suffering that they experience through bearing witness to violence. The tension between these two states contributes to the strain of existential angst felt throughout the series, as the characters negotiate between their own humanity and the emptiness that they feel about human existence.

The way in which the show easily subsidises the characters, for example when Rick clones his daughter and when Rick’s consciousness leaves his real body and goes through the bodies of others in the season 3 premiere, exacerbates this pre-existing anxiety that human identity is not special and is easily replaceable. However, the evident pain that the characters endure when these changes are felt and registered, as seen when Rick and Morty are forced to travel to an alternate dimension after wrecking their original earth and bury the dead versions of themselves there, suggests that identity does matter to some degree.

The absurdist plots and comic devices in Rick and Morty also contribute to the relentless tragedy of the series because it rarely feels as if the characters are facing real obstacles. Rick, the self-proclaimed genius of the universe, seems to have a solution for every problem, and even when he does die, in the first episode of series 4, the viewer discovers that Rick has set up a series of ‘back-up’ Ricks in alternate universes that ensure his longevity.

Season 5 airs on June 20thTWITTER/SPIKEYBITS

The show plays with existential angst in the sci-fi genre in a way that few others have. It is for this reason that it has been commended for being a revelatory show that will redefine what the sci-fi genre will mean and look like in the future. The central themes that the show explore regarding existentialism and human suffering could easily tire out, yet the show and its characters continue, finding new adventures even when it does not do anything to temper the tragedy that is the human condition.


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The way that it bristles against certain sentimental tropes associated with the sci-fi genre while adopting its other tenets, such as incredible sci-fi effects and playful depictions of technological ideas, makes Rick and Morty a remarkable and imaginative series that further expands our own idea of the sci-fi universe.