The Cartoon That Captures the Damaged American Male

Rick and Morty is a dialectic of masculinity unmoored.

Katie Martin; Adult Swim

If the universe is indeed run—as users of cutting-edge psychedelic drugs will occasionally suggest—by nine-foot-tall interdimensional locusts with lawn-mower voices and glittering, loveless minds, who program our life patterns on cold locust computers and grind their forelegs appreciatively over our sweatier delusions and sentimentalities; and if (as I personally suspect) these giant locusts from time to time hack our entertainment systems in order to disseminate their confusing and inhuman values, like the Russians did with Facebook, then I know what they’re up to right now. Our insect overlords are busy writing the fourth season of Rick and Morty.

The animated sci-fi sitcom created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, which ran for three seasons on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim nighttime programming block, is officially on hiatus. But in the spring came the news—the daunting, locust-delighting news—that Adult Swim had commissioned an additional 70 episodes of the show. At the previous pace of 10 or so episodes a season, that’s seven more seasons. Seven more seasons of Rick and Morty? Jesus Christ. This show is already a kind of pop-cultural omega point, a metaphysical ultimatum, a slurping spoof spiral, an uncorked algorithm of chaos that produces chaos-ripples in the actual, non-TV world. If you know any 18-to-34-year-olds, they likely enjoy, or perhaps fearfully consume, Rick and Morty: It was the No. 1 comedy in America for that age bracket last year. Its fan base is fetishistic and wildly entitled. Last year, after a Rick and Morty episode referenced a certain long-discontinued Chicken McNuggets dipping sauce (Szechuan, not seen since it was a product tie-in with the Disney movie Mulan in 1998), McDonald’s tried to make friends with the fans by reissuing the sauce for a limited time. But—such foolishness!—it didn’t produce enough. The fans freaked out, roaring for their sauce packets and frightening McDonald’s workers. Pure, dizzying, late-capitalist entropy. Ice-creaks of astral mirth from the locusts.

What’s the show about? Well … somewhere in a dreaming suburban slab of Simpsons-esque tract housing lives the Smith family. Jerry is the hapless and bad-joke-making husband; Beth is his pissed-off veterinarian wife, thwarted by marriage, motherhood, the whole thing; Summer is their teenage-daughterish teenage daughter; and little 14-year-old Morty, quaking and pubescing and desiring and saying “Aw jeez,” is their son. And then there’s Rick—Rick Sanchez, Beth’s formerly estranged alcoholic father, now back in the nest. Rick is an old-school mad scientist: lab coat, pipe-cleaner legs, blue-gray corona of boffin hair. Out in the garage, he delivers lectures and harangues sideways while squinting into the circuitry of a time machine or unscrewing a ray gun. “The universe is basically an animal that grazes on the ordinary,” he explains. “It creates infinite idiots just to eat them.”

Rick started life, deep in the germinal phases of Rick and Morty, as a scabrous parody of “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future. But he’s evolved into something much stranger: Doctor Who crossed with Doctor Faustus crossed with Larry David crossed with William Burroughs crossed with my therapist. His view of existence—of which he has seen a supernatural amount, having traversed many universes—is desolate and bracing. He builds himself a tiny robot whose sole purpose is to stand on the kitchen table and pass him the butter. “What is my purpose?” asks the robot. “You pass butter,” says Rick. A pause. “Oh my God,” says the robot, head dropped, tiny tin hands hanging. “Yeah,” says Rick in his rancid, sardonic way. “Welcome to the club, pal.” His grandson, Morty, meanwhile, is constantly, stammeringly overwhelmed: “What the hell, Rick? What the hell?!”

Rick and Morty go on adventures, a boy and his grandfather, leaping through a sputum-green portal and riding the wicked rainbows of the multiverse. Little Morty quivers and repines, making fear-noises and doubt-noises like Shaggy in Scooby-Doo. Rick, anesthetizing himself against his own omnipotence, glugs on a hip flask and burps a lot. Booze-spittle decorates his chin. Rarely is he conspicuously or flat-out wasted, but always is he unfiltered, crabby, pestilential. The story lines, relentlessly time-twiddled and dimensionally proliferating, are of stroke-inducing complexity: In one episode, the screen splits into 64 pieces, like a hellish Hollywood Squares. Sometimes Summer goes with Rick; sometimes Beth; sometimes even Jerry. But they always return to the household, to the family. It’s the show’s bitter master gag: Here they go, traipsing through infinite realities; and there they are, back again, condemned to one another’s company by the iron laws of sitcom. No exit.

I was about to write, critical tweezers clicking, that Rick and Morty is “not without insight.” But why be coy? It’s stuffed with insight, gel-injected with insight. In one episode, or in one strand of one episode, Rick books Beth and Jerry for a “two-day intensive” at Nuptia 4, an extraterrestrial couples-counseling institute. “They can save the marriage of a dog and a bar of dark chocolate,” rants Rick. “They can save the marriage of a porn star and a porn star!” At Nuptia 4, technicians are able to “isolate the parts of the subject’s brain containing all perceptions of its romantic partner” and then materialize those perceptions in the form of a “mythologue”—a biological representation of how each partner sees the other. A lever is thrown, an electro-whoosh is heard. Behold! Jerry’s mythologue of Beth, his wife-imago: a towering, punitive Giger-esque horror-mantis with homicidal talons. More whooshing. Beth’s mythologue of Jerry: a shuffling, perspiring worm-blob; when threatened, it tearfully presents its rear.

I have wept with laughter at Rick and Morty; I have flinched in repulsion. The humor oscillates between an ingrown bro-ness, a cackling in the man cave, and something so emancipated and post-everything that it is nearly transcendent. Nearly, but not. “Nobody exists on purpose,” says Morty to his sister. “Nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” Rick, burping warlock of the spaceways, puts it differently: “When you know nothing matters, the universe is yours.”

If you’ve been wondering why Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian professor, guru of modern masculinity, and author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has been selling so many books and filling so many theaters, this is why. Rick and Morty is why. It’s no surprise, really, that a small and well-documented subset of the Rick and Morty fan base exhibits terrible, snickering, alienated-white-male troll behavior. The female writers who were hired for the show’s third season were infamously harassed and abused by this mob. “I loathe these people,” co-creator Harmon commented at the time. “It fucking sucks.” But it makes sense: Rick Sanchez himself is a time-troll, a transgressive brain, an avatar of barbed aloneness and free-floating male scorn.

Everywhere he goes, on every plane and platform, Rick leaves comments. On the planet Gazorpazorp, where women rule and men are enslaved, he lets rip a rending, endless, wholly chauvinistic fart. Dragged cursing to family therapy in the Emmy-nominated episode “Pickle Rick,” he is asked by the therapist why he doesn’t want to be there. “Because I don’t respect therapy!” he says. “Because I’m a scientist. Because I invent, transform, create, and destroy for a living. And when I don’t like something about the world, I change it.” (“All things that move between the quiet poles,” declares Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, “shall be at my command.”) Quavering, dithering Morty, with his vestigial concern for other beings and his pangs of this and that, is Rick’s split-off other half. A dialectic of damaged maleness, you might call the pair. Together they form one futuristically fucked-up man. (Both characters, incidentally, are voiced by the same person: Roiland, the show’s other co-creator.)

So, in this massively popular cartoon show, along with all the snorts we have howling despair, a kind of sorcerous materialism, and the American-male psyche cracked right down the middle. Harmon, Roiland, and their team are very good writers, and with very good writers many things are possible. Perhaps the next 70 episodes of Rick and Morty will be soaring works of the spirit, enlarged by compassion or conversion. For now, though, here’s the health warning: Watch your intake, young person, of this hilarious toxicity. Be not the sport of psychedelic locusts.

This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “The Cartoon That Captures the Damaged American Male.”