Before this weekend, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s cult animated sci-fi buddy comedy Rick and Morty hadn’t released new episodes since October 2015. Harmon promised the return of the series’ genius-sidekick tag team (Rick is the genius, Morty is his grandson) by the end of last year, but failed to deliver. The delay developed into a good-natured inside joke between audience and creator: An Adult Swim press release from January announcing the launch of a spinoff site ended with a curt “no, we don’t have a premiere date yet.”
And then, on April 1:
The page on Adult Swim’s website airing the livestream was winkingly labeled “April Fools,” but this was for real. The network showed the first episode of the new season in a constant loop until midnight on each coast. (There’s still no proper premiere date, though a commercial-break announcement said more will come this summer.) The stunt was an anti–April Fools’ joke, all the surprise with none of the forced dad humor: The joke was that we’d think it was a joke before realizing this was legit. The byzantine gag successfully channeled Rick and Morty’s head-spinning nonconformity into a release strategy.
This isn’t the first time Rick and Morty has experimented with nontraditional promo; Adult Swim used to put episodes on YouTube free of charge for a full week after their release, an approach that defied logic by successfully driving up viewership for the next week’s live broadcast. This event is, however, the first time the show has capitalized on the reach, devotion, and most importantly, demand of its now well-established base by converting them into an adrenaline-amped communal experience. I was in a movie theater waiting for the trailers to start when the tweets and texts started rolling in, and I instantly recognized the feeling: This was exactly — exactly — how it felt when Lemonade hit while I was at a Passover seder last year. Social media soon bore that impression out. For a very specific, very intense part of the internet, this was the television equivalent of a Beyoncé drop, with the hyperventilating to match.
Once I’d rushed home and tuned into the stream just as the episode was starting anew, I found a show that delivered something just for the diehards. Rick and Morty returned in the most Rick and Morty way possible: with 21 minutes as dense, prickly, and nihilistic as any that came before it — and what came before Rick and Morty’s third season included this uplifting closer to what, on this show, passes for a motivational speech: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
For those unfamiliar with Rick and Morty, the premise is a demented riff on a Back to the Future–esque setup: A mad scientist (Rick, voiced by Roiland) and his grandson (Morty, also voiced by Roiland) go on intergalactic adventures. But it takes that premise to an almost inconceivably dark place best described as “from the self-loathing, painfully self-aware mind that brought you Community taken off the network leash.” This is a show that asks questions like: How sociopathic, lonely, and bored would the smartest man in the universe actually be? What kind of abandonment issues would he then pass on to his daughter? How would his daughter take those issues out on the loser husband she got stuck with and the kids she had too early? It also answers them with shrewdly meta comic scenarios and absurdist gross-out humor that showcase the quickest, most caustic writing on TV that’s not by Tina Fey. But the line-for-line laugh frequency just makes Rick and Morty more twisted, not less bleak.
“The Rickshank Redemption” is dedicated to those larger themes and that long-term plot, resulting in an episode that’s hostile to newcomers but catnip to dedicated viewers who went out of their way to catch Saturday’s broadcast. Apparently recognizing the destruction and chaos he brings to his loved ones, Rick has turned himself in to intergalactic supermax prison; in his absence, Earth has been occupied by the generic, ripped-from–Star Trek Galactic Federation. Through various machinations that include telepathically generated farts, body-swapping, and an interdimensional consortium of Ricks, Rick and Morty eases itself back into something approaching a status quo. By the end of “Redemption,” Rick is free. The Federation is gone. Our dynamic duo (and sometimes Morty’s sister, and sometimes his mom) can start having fun again.
But this is Rick and Morty, where there is no status quo that isn’t the punch line of some sick, all-encompassing joke. Here, it’s the final revelation of Rick’s self-identified, extra-meta “series arc”: He’d rescued his grandkids from the Federation not out of obligation, or, God forbid, love, but so his daughter would choose him over her husband, upending Morty’s home life. And he’d done all that in pursuit of … hunting down a limited-edition McNugget sauce McDonald’s released as a Mulan promotion in 1998. What a hysterical, unhinged reveal. What a gut punch. What a commitment to the ever-deepening blackness at the heart of this show. Rick and Morty is starting Season 3 the most Rick and Morty it’s ever been.
On Rick and Morty, nothing has a higher purpose. There’s no hugging or learning, let alone growth. Nothing means anything. Come watch TV?