Sink or swim: How Rick and Morty jumped the shark

It once revitalised cartoons for grown-ups but its sinister snark and air of toxic masculinity is starting to feel like it’s of a bygone era and the series is stagnating. Time to move on after season 4, says Louis Chilton

Friday 29 May 2020 15:26
A laborious production schedule, a sexual harassment scandal and a virulent online fanbase have caused Rick and Morty’s limelight to dim
A laborious production schedule, a sexual harassment scandal and a virulent online fanbase have caused Rick and Morty’s limelight to dim

A couple of weeks ago, Rick and Morty’s star and co-creator Justin Roiland proposed a new way of bringing his hit cartoon to the masses. The proposal would reject both the traditional weekly broadcast model and the voguish whole-season drops favoured by Netflix, keeping the series alive and important year-round. “We should drop an episode each month,” he told Slash Film. “Just make it a big event.”

It’s clearly something that preys on Roiland’s mind: what to do once the spark is gone. When Rick and Morty first debuted in 2013 on Adult Swim – the grown-up version of American channel Cartoon Network – it certainly had the feel of event TV. Interest had long peaked in stalwart adult animations like The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park; the time was right for a new animated giant to emerge.

For a while, it seemed like Rick and Morty was that behemoth. Now, things aren’t so clear. A litany of problems both exterior and self inflicted – including a laborious production schedule, a sexual harassment scandal and a growing reputation for having a particularly virulent online fanbase – have caused Rick and Morty’s limelight to dim.

Originally conceived as a dark twist on the Marty McFly/Doc Brown dynamic from Back to the Future, Rick and Morty followed the interdimensional adventures of burping scientist Rick Sanchez and his credulous pubescent grandson Morty (both voiced by Roiland). The fact that it was co-created by Community’s Dan Harmon imbued it with no small amount of credibility among TV comedy fans, and the series’ mix of high-concept sci-fi storytelling and sardonic humour felt fresh.

But the series undeniably no longer attracts the attention it once did. Tonight, Rick and Morty will broadcast the final episode of its fourth season on Adult Swim, airing in the UK four days later on E4. This last stretch of episodes has been well-received by its fans, its run of inventive, memorable premises seen as a welcome improvement upon the slightly shaky third season, suggesting that Rick and Morty is as good as it ever was.

And yet, while the internet still abounds with fan theories and chatter, Rick and Morty is without the mainstream media acclaim or critical attention it once received. Worse than that, it is no longer cool to like. Viewing figures for this season have been the lowest since season one, with only one episode of the recent batch amassing more than 1.5 million US viewers (last season regularly rose above 2.5 million).

The rise of other recent animated series breaking new ground for the medium have not helped Rick and Morty’s position. Chief among these is BoJack Horseman, the Netflix-produced comedy that began in 2014, and ended its six-season run in January. BoJack was a landmark in adult animation, giving its anthropomorphic characters three-dimensional personalities and cutting pathos, while never compromising its surreal, rapid-fire humour.

BoJack’s influence on the medium can be felt in more recent western animation, not least in the superlative series created by BoJack’s own production alumni, Tuca & Bertie and Undone. Its legacy can even be felt in lesser shows like Netflix’s Bill Burr comedy F is for Family, which not-so-subtly reaches for BoJack’s gravitas, or HBO’s Animals, which tapped into a similar vein of animal-based humour.

Rick and Morty, on the other hand, almost feels like it belongs to a different era. Its worldview is one of abject nihilism: it imagines a universe of infinite possibilities and declares all of them meaningless. Rick, often described as “the smartest man in the universe”, is an aspirational figure to many of the show’s fans, but devoid of compassion or self-awareness. His behaviour – a domineering string of insults, put-downs and meta-commentary – became inextricable from the voice of the show itself.

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Rick and Morty season 4 trailer

In the early 2000s, shows such as Family Guy and South Park grew rich on callousness and irony, rejecting the sentimental underpinnings of cartoons like The Simpsons. But it is not the early 2000s anymore. Rick and Morty’s snark and compassionless cynicism feels disconnected from where the medium is heading. The series has grown old before its time.

Not helping matters is an unusually slow production schedule. Rick and Morty has produced fewer episodes in seven years than The Simpsons did in two. Animation is a lengthy process and Rick and Morty has never been working on a Simpsons budget, but there’s more to it than that: Dan Harmon explained the two-year gap between seasons three and four as being more to do with the writing side of things (a result of “tail-chasing”, “perfectionism” or “overthinking”, depending on how you perceive it).

The long inter-seasonal delays have a knock-on effect; when the first episode of season three, “The Rickshank Rickdemption”, was released as a surprise on April Fool’s Day 2017, the Rick and Morty fan base lit up with excitement. But the episode only reached 680,000 viewers on its premiere, less than a quarter of the audience that would tune in for episode two, which was aired as part of a conventional weekly schedule. As a bellwether for Roiland’s monthly “big event” idea, it seems to bode poorly.

The release schedule for season four has been even more disrupted, bifurcated into two sets of five episodes each. While this is a template adopted by several high-profile series before – including Mad Men and Breaking Bad – it usually comes with a slightly increased episode order (eg a 14-episode order spread over two lots of seven). As is, it just seems like they are rationing their product, spreading its fruits as thinly as possible.

Another indisputable factor in Rick and Morty’s stagnation is the merchandising. While Adult Swim have parted with new episodes as sparingly as if they were precious jewels, they have dropped Rick and Morty merchandise with all the rank abandon of Henry Kissinger carpet-bombing Cambodia. The market was saturated with tie-in merchandise – not just mugs and figurines but doormats, costumes, video games and bedsheets, among countless other examples.

Dan Harmon has a history of workplace misconduct (Getty Images)

Perhaps the nadir came in the form of the 2017 “Szechuan sauce” fiasco, when a defunct McDonalds dipping sauce – originally a promotional tie-in with the Disney movie Mulan – received an extended shout-out during “The Rickshank Rickdemption”. In response, McDonalds announced they would be bringing back the coveted sauce sachets for a limited time, only for demand to drastically exceed expectations. The consequences were both amusing and brainless, as Szechuan fever wreaked havoc in McDonalds outlets across the US. Queues formed of incredible lengths, McDonalds workers were recorded receiving abuse from empty-handed fans, and Rick and Morty was, for a short time, the wrong kind of laughing stock.

The incident did nothing to lift the reputation of the Rick and Morty fanbase, which has been tarnished in some corners through association with a particular kind of emotionally stunted, intellectually obnoxious male. Rick and Morty’s female writers became the target of online abuse from parts of the fanbase during season three, with new writing staff being blamed for the perceived decline in quality. Harmon disavowed the show’s subset of toxic fans, telling Entertainment Weekly: “I loathe these people.”

However, it turned out that Dan Harmon was part of the problem himself. His own history of workplace misconduct surfaced in 2018 and involved sexually harassing Community writer Megan Ganz. (Harmon since apologised on his podcast Harmontown, which Ganz herself deemed “a masterclass in how to apologise”.)

Insofar as someone can handle such a scandal well, Harmon has. But his apology is not the chance for a do-over – quite the opposite. It was an insistence that his transgressions be taken seriously, that he himself was aware of the severity of them. Rick and Morty, despite the presence of several female writers currently on its staff, has found the stink of toxic masculinity hard to live down.

Rick and Morty will run for a long time; a 70-episode contract agreed upon before the start of series four has all but guaranteed it. But unless the show finds a way to shake off its stigma and reclaim its place as event TV, it will end up becoming just another cartoon in a multiverse full of them.

‘Rick and Morty’ season 4 concludes on Thursday 4 June on E4 at 10pm

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