The third season of Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s surreal and absurd animated sitcom, recently completed its run. One of the most anticipated shows of the past season, it ran the gamut from brilliant to tedious. Some episodes represented the best of what the show has to offer while others offer glimpses into the creative minds behind the show—Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland—and what seems a conscious attempt to transition the series, to move it forward, to keep it from outliving its expiration date. Every television series takes risks at some point but for a show such as Rick and Morty, a show built on risk-taking, too many risks can turn formulaic. So far, they’ve avoided falling flat. But can they obfuscate the inevitable and keep it fresh throughout its life?
Blinking transitions you from moment to moment. The brief slip into darkness renders the transfer perceptible in the strobe-like shift from sight to darkness to sight again. In that fraction of a second, as time continues to pass, you shift from the present to the present—without noting or detecting a shift. Only your memory implies one. The world and universe functions as usual in that moment of darkness. Billions of people around the world go on with their lives. But if you focus on the shift, using the darkness of the blink as a reference point, you’ll glimpse the eternity of the moment when you open your eyes again.
Following the adventures of Rick, the smartest man in every conceivable universe, and his less-than-bright grandson, Morty, the show acts as a surreal and absurd twist on conventional science fiction. It usually subverts or inverts traditional SF tropes while injecting the show with bizarre moments and clever and innovative situations. At times, the imagination fueling the show is staggering.
From teenyverses within miniverses within microverses, where each is used to power the other, a sort of multi-dimensional critique of capitalism, to psychological trips where the cleansing of “toxic” aspects of Rick’s personality assumes the form of another Rick, this one embodying the worst proclivities of narcissism—and human nature in general—the show’s creativity rarely ceases to amaze. And amuse.
We can only ever obtain in the present. Retrieving a memory might make us feel as though we’re in the past, fantasizing about tomorrow might make us feel as though we’re in the future, but as far as the meat on our bones goes, we’re stuck right here. In the moment. We’re always stuck in the moment, trapped in the ever-present—this is even true of death: our experiences end but our meat and bones remain, trapped in the eternity of the moment.
Depression haunts me. It lingers, always lingers. Sometimes it rears its head and cripples me. At other times, awareness of its lingering presence threatens to cripple me. I take meds for my bipolar disorder and anxiety but they’re not always effective. As a former alcoholic, I crave booze on a more or less daily basis. The cravings ebb and flow to correspond with the intensity of my mania, anxiety, or depression. I’ll catch myself fantasizing about devouring as much booze as possible. Those fantasies help me consciously escape the totalitarianism of the moment but they hinder me in every conceivable way: in the end, the fantasies darken or worsen my mood.
Life is one state of Being. Death is another state of Being. Consciousness divides the two, creating an awareness of Being while death destroys such an awareness. Conscious of the moment, it’s easy to realize our imprisonment in the moment is only irrevocable w/r/t to our meat. Our imprisonment eventually ends when the universe blinks out of existence on our deaths. Then—
A combination of highbrow and lowbrow, Rick and Morty shifts between both poles as frequently as the titular characters bounce between realities. It’s not uncommon for juvenile humor—a fart or dick joke—to precede or follow commentary on human nature or the nature of reality. On some shows, the juvenile humor would undercut the higher elements but both work in tandem within the context of the universe established by Harmon and Roiland. The juvenile humor and intelligence works here the way it did with Monty Python. In fact, if you haven’t seen the show, imagine what might happen if the cast of Python smoked salvia after dropping acid then ad-libbed while reading a Discworld novel.
Whether the moment brings excitement or tedium depends on a variety of factors. We won’t get into all of them here, but we will cite two: our engagement with the moment and our interactions with our minds—i.e., whether we’re conscious of the external world or whether we’re conscious of consciousness. What presents itself as the object for us—the world outside or our consciousness—and how we interact with the moment defines our actions in the present, at least on an emotional level.
Here’s the thing about depression—and I don’t pretend to speak for everyone: I don’t always realize it’s consumed me. Some perceived internal flaw or external catastrophe usually serves as the focus of my attention. And I dwell on those flaws or possible catastrophes, blaming them on my state. Sometimes “depression” simply doesn’t occur to me. To my mind, in those moments, depression rarely serves as a valid—or even possible—explanation. At other times, when I’m not fully consumed, depression expresses itself as a sense of melancholy or ennui, lingering—always lingering—in the back of my mind. I note its presence even if I don’t consciously dwell on it.
In a spatial-temporal sense, we obtain in the moment, always in the moment. Consciously, however, we might free ourselves from the shackles of this meat to escape—at least in our heads—to other places. Realities bloom and wither in our minds. Sometimes in quick succession. Some of us conscious of the oppression of the moment might extrapolate our imagined realities to encompass sub-realities, multi-dimensional fantasy worlds between which we can travel. Call them daydreams, call them fantasies, call them whatever you like—the point is this: if you linger too long in the same imagined world, those realities lose their magic or feel repetitive or they no longer amuse or entertain. I experienced this as a child. As an adult, I still experience it. Sometimes I’ll cultivate imagined worlds for so long that they lose their magic. So I destroy them by relegating them to the past while creating new realities in which to escape the tedium of the moment.
Family dynamics constitute another dimension of Rick and Morty. The show tracks the lives of Rick’s and Morty’s immediate family—Beth, Rick’s daughter and Morty’s mother; Jerry, Morty’s father; and Summer, Morty’s sister. While Rick and Morty usually take center stage, every episode incorporates a B-line following a different combination of family members. Beth and Jerry married young and for much of the series live a loveless marriage. Summer usually serves as foil or sidekick. Her presence, unfortunately, isn’t as strong, her character not as developed, as other characters in the show. But when she’s central to a storyline, she’s often the best character in the show.
Rick and Morty derives its pathos largely from its family dynamics. Although not every character is fully developed, each plays his or her part in binding the show’s emotional core. Without the family, without their turmoil and conflict, their passion and humor, the show would lose its human grounding. Such a loss would render it emotionally impotent, a farce without a soul.
Flawed but at times brilliant, Rick and Morty is one of the best shows on television. Period. The dialogue is often clever as the show bounces from low to high culture. Its creativity sometimes astounds and sometimes falls flat. You can use many words to describe Rick and Morty but “boring” isn’t one of them. Its weakest episodes are often better than the best of what other shows offer.
Throughout the series, the characters bounce from reality to reality, wreaking havoc along the way. They destroy planets, people, creatures of all shapes and sizes. Rick is a ruthless bastard who takes down entire guilds or governments who harass him or impede his desires and adventures. For Rick, desire and adventure go hand in hand. Is he a hedonist, addicted to experience, or does something linger in him, something he escapes by bouncing from reality to reality?
It’s probably a mixture of both. In one episode, we learn that Rick’s nonsensical catchphrase—wub-a-lub-a-dub-dub—is a cry for help in an alien language, an acknowledgment of suffering. Like so many of us, Rick seems all too conscious of the tedium and oppression of the moment. Melancholy, ennui, or depression lingers—always lingers—in the back of his mind. So he creates and destroys reality, each of which is fully and beautifully imagined by Harmon, Roiland, and company, as he transitions from moment to moment.
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Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.