In Poking a Dead Frog, Mike Sacks’s 2014 interview collection about the process of comedy, the former Community writer Megan Ganz shares the most useful advice she ever got from the NBC sitcom’s creator, Dan Harmon: “[He] had us write these things called ‘spit drafts.’ …You write out the script scene by scene with dummy dialogue that you’ll later replace with actual jokes. … If you’re stuck and you feel like you have writer’s block, this is a really helpful method because it distinguishes between, ‘OK, do you have story problems or are you having a hard time writing the dialogue?’”
The concept of the spit draft may be solid, practical know-how from an industry veteran, but it’s also a telling insight into Harmon’s creative process and priorities. I can’t help but think of it whenever I watch Rick and Morty, the demented sci-fi cartoon Harmon cocreated with Justin Roiland, which returns to Adult Swim for its third season on Sunday night. For all of Rick and Morty’s proudly sophomoric fart jokes, intricate running gags, and cutting one-liners, everything, no matter how zany or absurd, is built on a far more prosaic, and far more affecting, foundation. Rick and Morty may take obvious delight in getting Werner Herzog to say “penis,” but at its core, it’s the most realistic portrayal of the enduring, cyclical nature of family dysfunction you’ll find on what is still technically Cartoon Network.
Rick and Morty’s identity as a dimension-hopping buddy comedy — swinging from a Purge spoof in one episode to a sitcom clip show in the next — is inextricable from its identity as a pitch-black family drama. The nihilism that undergirds the show’s most hysterical moments is fundamentally rooted in the broken dynamic among mad scientist Rick (Roiland); his teenage grandson Morty (also Roiland); Morty’s sister, Summer (Spencer Grammer); and their parents, Jerry (Chris Parnell) and Beth (Sarah Chalke). It’s not exactly laugh-out-loud on paper, but counterintuitively, Rick and Morty’s understanding and acceptance of what makes its characters tick — even if those issues are dark and occasionally off-putting — makes for a show that’s equal parts empathetic, insightful, and really, really funny. Catching people at their most vulnerable and unaware is a recipe for a belly laugh, it turns out, as well as a meltdown. So Season 3 leans further into the saga of the Smith/Sanchez clan; having plumbed what it could from chronic dissatisfaction, Rick and Morty is going all-in on … divorce!
Rick and Morty’s various intergalactic high jinks stem from the premise that Rick is the smartest living being in this or any universe. Such a concept enables delightfully wackadoo stories like Rick creating an entire self-contained universe to power his car battery or developing an interdimensional cable box because he’s bored of regular Earth TV. Rick’s intelligence also, however, opens the door to an almost alarmingly candid exploration of just how alienating the experience of having that kind of self-cannibalizing brain might be. Raw smarts is of neutral value; in the hands of a naturally cynical disposition, however, it quickly gets dangerous. Rick is constantly chasing the dragon of novelty, or rather evading boredom and the necessary introspection that comes with it. All the larger-than-life action that Rick’s hyperactive brain leads him into is thus grounded in psychosis — and one that gives Rick and Morty’s psychedelia, pop culture references, and meta moments a broader context than loopiness for loopiness’s sake.
All antihero character studies flirt with glamorizing their subjects, but Rick and Morty avoids putting Rick on a pedestal by honestly depicting his impact on others as much as, if not more than, Rick himself. Rick lives in the garage of his daughter, Beth, who he abandoned as a child, leaving her desperate for his approval and willing to forgive seemingly any transgression, including repeatedly endangering her children’s lives. (“Don’t deify the people that leave you,” she warns Summer in the season premiere. “You’ll end up a horse surgeon in a world controlled by aliens whose medicine keeps horses healthy forever.” Disarming bluntness, followed by a hairpin turn into the bizarre: Rick and Morty in a single line of dialogue.) Rick’s absence is part of why Beth settled for Jerry, the milquetoast dweeb who got her pregnant as a teenager and who may not accomplish much in life, but definitely won’t leave unannounced. Observing their parents’ disastrous relationship firsthand has left Summer jaded, Morty a bundle of neuroses, both doomed to repeat their mother’s mistake of getting drawn into Rick’s vortex despite their better impulses.
The new season ups the ante by having Rick, intentionally and decisively, break up the family for good. Still, Beth and Jerry’s long-brewing divorce is only the latest domino in the chain set off by allowing Rick into one’s life. Rick and Morty has been careful to sow the seeds of the couple’s discontent: Beth feels like she settled for domesticity and a subpar career; Jerry feels like a failure who can’t give his wife and kids what they deserve. Like Rick’s alienation, their strained marriage has its roots in utterly quotidian issues that just happen to be dramatized with alternate-reality goggles or alien-facilitated couples therapy. Rick and Morty can often come off as a finely wrought portrait of suburban ennui wrapped in a protective sheath of sarcastic irreverence. Harmon and Roiland give a character a transcendently silly name like “Mr. Poopybutthole” so they can use him as a mouthpiece for pointing out Beth’s dissatisfaction. Sometimes the show feels like it’s using absurdism to lighten the load; sometimes it feels like it’s using tone as a Trojan horse for the heavy stuff.
And just as Rick’s unhappiness directly led to his daughter’s, Beth and Jerry pass their problems on to their kids. In Season 3, Morty and Summer — who are, after all, children — start to deal with the fallout of their home life breaking apart in predictably unhealthy ways. No spoilers, but their coping mechanisms involve taking a page out of Rick’s handbook and wreaking havoc in the consequence-free environment (to them) of an alternate dimension. Rick and Morty’s multiverse contains infinite realities, and therefore infinite Ricks, Mortys, and Summers; one of the darkest aspects of the show’s cosmology is how its characters, particularly Rick, choose to apply that knowledge. When things get too gnarly in one dimension, Rick’s reasoning goes, he can always (and has) just abandon ship for another, nearly identical world, leaving everyone else to deal with the consequences of his irresponsibility. The premise can deepen Rick’s nihilism as well as the show’s. (“We have infinite grandkids,” Rick scoffs when an alternate version of himself threatens Summer. “You’re trying to use Disney bucks at a Caesars Palace here.”) Mostly, though, it simply gives his issues a broader canvas. Rick treats the cosmos like he treats his own family: expendable and insignificant. Morty and Summer simply learn by example.
The only people Rick can’t leave behind are his family (though even that rule can be broken: The universe in which Rick and Morty currently reside is a refuge from their “Cronenberg-ed” homeworld in which the original versions of themselves conveniently died in a freak lab accident.) Jerry, Beth, Morty, and Summer are the only people in the world who have to continually live with the aftereffects of Hurricane Rick, up to and including the dissolution of Jerry and Beth’s marriage. Using the divorce not just as a punch line — though it does make an effective one — but as an ongoing story allows Rick and Morty to double down on its central theme. Even if, by the standards of contemporary television, Rick and Morty is refreshingly structured around the individual episode and the carefully constructed joke, the show still has a unifying arc: Rick is a sociopath with a reverse Midas touch, and his fleeting moments of caring for his family members are typically outnumbered by the ways he makes their lives objectively worse, if more exciting. Like all tragic figures, Rick and Morty’s characters may not be fully aware of their own flaws or how they magnify each others’. But the show itself is, and that underlying order is what allows Rick and Morty to get away with occasional anarchy.