Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Rick & Morty's Dan Harmon gets some headlines for an ill-advised skit brought back to the spotlight ... which gives me an occasion to briefly discuss why Rick & Morty seems overhyped

While I'd venture to say the most over-hyped and over-discussed prestige TV shows in live-action in the last eight years would be Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead then if I had to pick animated shows that I think are competently made but overhyped relative to their merits Rick & Morty is probably one of the more overhyped animated shows that's come out in the last few years.



Which is not to say I didn't find "Lawnmower Dog" really, really funny. 

But why on earth anyone would think of Rick as anything but a sorcerer-thug rather than the trite "smartest guy in the room" super-scientist eludes me.  There's no good way Rick can know something about the anatomy of a girl Morty has a crush on in season 1. 

I've managed to catch up to the end of season 3 of the show thanks to library DVDs and the show seems overhyped.  I' enough of an animation fan I try to catch some things if enough friends mention things.  Or I may get around to something that never got a local release, like the French language adventure tale The Long Way North.  I try to keep at least some tabs on French language animation, too, so I own Persepolis, The Long Way North, and thanks to some younger relatives am now relatively up to speed on Ladybug & Cat Noir.

So when I say Rick & Morty seems overhyped it's because it seems overhyped to me. Rick may be a blunt atheist who insists no gods exists and that science is the way to go but he's not a scientist.  Traveling across dimensions on adventures is something Doctor Strange can do, with magic.  To touch upon another Adult Swim cartoon that's been around longer, The Venture Bros has a sad sack divorced Doctor Strange homage in the form of Byron Orpheus whose wife left him for another man and who is raising his daughter by himself.  Orpheus and Rick Sanchez differ in the formal means of breaking the laws of physics.  One uses magic and the other uses "science" but both old guys are magicians. 

I don't tend to watch a lot of Adult Swim as it is.  The last time I tuned into Adult Swim content was for the glorious return of Samurai Jack and keeping up with The Venture Bros.

Now season 3 of Rick & Morty introduced the idea that the alcoholic, verbally abusive title character may not be a villain but he shouldn't be anyone's hero.  But given the way the second season ended ,with Rick handing himself over to authorities and confessing that he was guilty of doing "everything" to cops because he felt he would do better by his daughter rand her family turning himself in, there was no real reason to have a season 3.  Rick figured out how bad he was and gave himself up to be imprisoned.

But the thing about a show created by guys who used to work on Futurama, perhaps, is that there's gotta be a "psyche!" and a rug-pull.  It has to transpire that Rick did everything because he knew he would be imprisoned in a particular facility at which he could stage a coup to dismantle a governing organization he disliked. 

That's how TV works in comedic terms, you can't have something "bigh" happen without themeans to immediately or eventually reverse it so the status quo can be established.

There are long-form arcs in place if you've seen the show.  The rise of evil Morty as the monster who embodies Rick's vices is still incubating. Whether or not the show lasts long enough to see that plotline through remains to be seen. 

The Cernovich catalyst for the James Gunn headline (fired from Disney, thus not looking to be working on Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3) may or may not be connected to what's happened with Harmon.  At CBR there are probably a few comments about how the right is focusing on sexual content without objecting to violence.  Possibly ... although there's a sense in which all of these sorts of things could be construed as a witch hunt ...

but can it be a witch hunt if people don't lose their jobs?  Harmon and company are still probably on track to make a season 4 for Rick & Morty while James Gunn has been fired fired. 

Rick is basically a depraved old wizard with a god complex and while he's presented as someone who shouldn't be your hero the writers by and large can't bring themselves to present hi as villainous on the one hand or as a tragic figure or as an antihero because, to keep thing simple, that's not how comedies work.  By necessity of the genre whatever Rick does has to not ultimately impact things. 

In season 1 Morty tells his sister Summer that nobody exists on purpose and things don't necessarily happen for reasons and to come watch TV.  There may be people who find that deep or insightful but that's not only more or less a nihilistic take on the human condition ...

it's also, arguably, othe kind of materialistic skepticism that is the luxury of moderately formally educated white guys. 

If there's an element of seriousness in criticisms of white privilege or white male privilege it could be applied to people who can write shows on the order of Rick & Morty.   It's not like the show presents women in the most positive or complementary light.  Sure, if you cast Sarah Chalke as Rick's desperately emotionally estranged daughter Beth then you've cast someone who has spent her career honing characters who say and do self-destructive things without realizing it.  Her lines as Beth to Summer (Beth's daughter) were the most memorable parts of season 3.  Summer asks "Mom, am I hot?" to which Beth replies that that's not a category she thinks about for her because she's her mother and then, finally, "Summer, I'm you're mother, not an issue of Cosmo. It's not my job to say whether you're `hot'."

But Beth takes after her father, sneering contemptuously at anyone who she thinks isn't as smart as she is in professional fields.  She's also taking up her father's approach to alcohol while her children are aghast that she decides to divorce her husband Jerry (Chris Parnell, playing Cyril in another context) because she won't, as the old saying goes, leave and cleave on the marriage thing.  But by the end of season 3 Beth has somewhat implausibly changed her mind and decided she'd like her family back together and is apparently not going to complete the divorce process.  What makes it implausible is not just the mechanics of how the final episode was written but that nature of the season 3 opening ultimatum and Beth's response.  Jerry and Beth were presented through the two previous seasons as frustrated by each other but committed to each other; it may be that unplanned teen pregnancy led to Summer being born and the two kids getting married but Rick's resentment that Jerry ruined his daughter's chances at being a scientist are offset by the way that Beth, with all her vices, seems to in some ways like being a wife and mother.  Rick views marriage and the allures of erotic attachment mainly with contempt and tells Morty he should be into science. 

Not that Rick ever actually talks about science.  He keeps using his portal gun and tech to travel to other dimensions and alternate universes to have adventures.  I'm told that a fan anti-favorite from season 3 was an episode in which a psychologist is counseling the Sanchez family and explains to Rick and his daughter Beth and her children Summer and Morty that there's nothing adventurous about the maintenance work of relationships or daily life.  It's not an adventure to wipe your butt and wash your hands after you take a dump and the work required to cultivate and sustain interpersonal relationships and a stable role in society is more or less the same way.  Rick and his daughter Beth view that kind of work with contempt whereas Beth's kids (Rick's grandkids) aspire to those things. So does Jerry, and that is where there's a probably insoluable double standard in Rick & Morty as a show. They can't condone Jerry because, dude, he's voiced by Rick Parnell.  Jerry has to be the stupid conformist "normal" person that Rick resents as too stupid to ever be Rick.  But the writing does not go very far in showing how it's equally true that Jerry is the only one of the formally adult people in the show who IS willing to do the boring custodial work of cultivating and sustaining relationships.  If Morty has anything like a working moral compass (not that he does but if he did ... ) he got it from Jerry rather than Beth or, least of all, his grandpa Rick.

That may all seem abstract or fuzzy as a frame in which to discuss recent headlines about Harmon, but I'm suggesting that it's a fairly natural set of connections.  If Harmon thought that satirizing Dexter by inventing a guy who is supposed to prevent serial killers from killing by going back in time to sexually molest them as babies would be funny it's not clear why it should be funny, even if we grant the viability of a joke at the expense of a show like Dexter where a serial killer focuses on hunting down other serial killers.  I never watched the show.  I don't plan to. 

Now maybe the right-wing types who are incensed about this kind of humor just never watched Adult Swim anything. Maybe they haven't seen how consistently sexual humor and often of a deliberately overboard style permeates AS programming, whether Rick & Morty or Robot Chicken.

I'm not sure I care that the forces at working in bringing Harmon's skit back into the spotlight are described as far right or alt right.  For all we don't know these days there's enough depraved humor and conduct across the entire spectrum that double standards as to who gets to get away with saying or doing what seems moot. 

I admit to having never joined Twitter and having little to no interest in Twitter.  It seems that it's best to never be on Twitter than to say something for the record that you can't escape.  If James Gunn had never even been on Twitter to begin with would he have been fired?  Probably not? 

With this blog's history and range of focus I can tell you that back when mars Hill PR was trying to keep a lid on things with the Andrew disciplinary situation it was precisely through Noriega twitter feeds that I managed to connect enough dots to establish that Andrew Lamb was connected to the Noriega family at the Ballard campus of Mars Hill by dint of blogs by James Noriega and his stepdaughter's blog, as well as James Noriega's Twitter feed.  Why?  Because having attended the church for years and having been connected in some way or other to the church scene for a decade I knew this was a community o people that used social media prolifically.  The first person industrial complex content was strong at Mars Hill.  In short, I knew that the odds were pretty high that the people that MH PR said were needing privacy protected might have actually spilled the beans on social media with enough information to establish who, what, where, when and why months before Andrew Lamb's disciplinary situation garnered national headlines. I turned out to be right.  You can't call it doxxing if everything is already on the internet as a matter of public record, let alone if the information was volunteered by parties when they got interviewed by the Seattle P I or Mars Hill people.  But we live in an era that, as Terry Teachout has put it, has people struggling to have their practice catch up with the reality of consequences in social media use.

Since I think Rick & Morty should have ended at the close of season 2 I'm not going to feel heartbroken if the show doesn't come back for a while.  The way the show got from the end of season 2 to the start of season 3 was how I figured it was going to go, it amounts to psyche! 

Which is why the end o season 2 felt like a cheap con as it was.  Playing the pre-Cash version of "Hurt" as Rick turns himself in wasn't pathos so much as bathos.  It wasn't the kind of "moment" that could last if the show went on to have a season 3.  If, however, the series had ended then it would have had some actual weight to the thing. 

But that's not how American TV works.   

In an era in which entertainers get caught having made jokes about pedophilia while having publicly criticized other public figures the question that emerges may be implicit--if it's wrong to do something is it okay to joke about doing it?  If so on what basis is it okay to make jokes about things that, if done, would be considered evil?  For those who reject altogether the idea that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks then, well, you could say just about anything and until you do X talking about X doesn't mean anything yet. 

It may be that the gap between public grandstanding on an issue and documentable statements is less easily overlooked in our era.  It could well be that Harmon shouldn't feel any heat for stuff he did a decade ago.  Mark Driscoll had allies in 2014 who were willing to suggest that what he wrote as William Wallace II shouldn't be construed as how he felt in 2014.  That wasn't all there was to the public criticism of Mark Driscoll having written that stuff to begin with.  Again, for people who take seriously the saying that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks what WW2 was ranting about showed us what was in his heart and that gave at least some people reason to wonder how or why this guy was "still" a pastor or, more crucially, was ever thought fit to be a pastor to begin with.  The thing about a pseudonym is that in the age of the internet you cannot assume your identity will never come to light.  If you want to blog try to keep in mind that you're contributing to a mass medium.  Consider that if you put something up it could potentially be up there for "all time".  The more scandals (real or fabricated) come up about how people use Twitter the more it seems that it might be best to be willing to apologize for stuff, to make retractions and make them sooner rather than latter when things blow up.  That's arguably just a solid journalistic convention which may need to be brought back to go by the rarity with which retractions and corrections seem to get attention.


Cal of Chelcice said...

I've generally liked Rick and Morty, but in a way that it is used to shine uncomfortable light on general behaviors or thoughts. Of course, the show is totally insane and to take Rick seriously is perhaps one track you could go down. Now, given that I think Rick is really designed to be a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist paragon, it might be intended that he be venerated, unlike the strange reverence for Scarface's Tony Montana despite the film's clear message (i.e. Montana's death symbolizes the brutality of 80's Reaganomics, corporate financial capitalism, America). Rick's bromides about science are, as you say, just appeals to magic. It's an unnatural and unrealistic control of all things through secret knowledge (plus how does an old man know how to fight so well?).

But that's my appeal. While it's not the whole picture, Rick's character is raising uncomfortable questions. Yes, he's a nihilist, but not in a way substantially different than any of the other characters who don't want to phrase the problems he does. And yet even Rick suffers from loneliness, bitterness, etc. even if those emotional plot turns are seemingly swept up too neatly. If there's nothing underpinning a world of chaotic flux (which utilizes all the various pop-science theories about multiple dimensions, pan-spermia, etc.), then there's no reason to not be Rick.

Which is all to basically say: if Billy Nye, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, DeGrasse Tyson, et al. are right with their scientist philosophy and how they understand the world, why isn't Rick the proper response? I take the cartoon to be a kind of mirror for pop-science, running an almost Ecclesiastes vein. Plus, I like all the funny/subtle references to phenomena like Wall Street, govt corruption, and 9/11.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Not 100% sure that Rick is intended to be a satire as much as a creator mouthpiece but it does seem possible.

There are several tells in favor of your take on Rick at the end of season 1 where Rick gets teary-eyed reviewing the birth of his grandson and time spent with his daughter but he can't let himself think of himself as being seen as weak for that before a member of the council of Rick's. Rick pits science against love, particularly erotic attachment, and yet he keeps coming back to his family and increasingly adds them to his adventures. By season 3 he's even recruiting Jerry for a fake-adventure that gives them a moment to bond. They may loathe each other but they both, in their very different ways, love Beth and the kids.

when you put it that way about Rick as a satire, it reminds me of something one of my friends in college said about another cartoon about boys behaving badly twenty years ago. He said, "The best thing about Beavis & Butthead is that the guys who enjoy the show the most understand that it's satirizing them."

I like the show enough to watch it, but I tend to wait for it to hit the library rather than watching it on "official" TV, or I catch episodes at the Adult Swim website.

Cal of Chelcice said...

I'm not saying that Rick is satire by intention, but the context of the show leaves that as pretty valid interpretation. The show weaves together all the biggest fads in pop-science that people like Michio Kakuk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Carl Sagan et al. have popularized. But, with Rick's anarcho-capitalist, Randian, ethics, it flips the script. The pop-scientists all promote saccharine liberal sentiments that gel well with bourgeois, late modern, society. If Science is all that there is, the fount of not only ethics but how to design social policy, it's hard to argue against becoming a libertarian terrorist who excessively drinks, does drugs, works for contract killers, has orgies with a Hivemind that enslaves planets. Even an episode in season 3 applies the same criteria to super-hero tropes.

While Rick may be a mouthpiece for Harmon, it's turning the guns on scientism. There's nothing in science that says we should be straight-laced liberal do-gooders. In fact, all of these people fail their own criteria. The super hero episode is pretty enlightening, besides the pointed barb about Israel's occupation of Gaza, you see that all of the heroes cause lots of suffering. Rick's rejoinder, as it is in almost every episode: you're just as bad as me, but at least I don't have to justify it behind BS higher principles. If Harmon is an anarcho-capitalist atheist who buys into scientism (and I suspect he is) then the whole thing ultimately shows how scientism is basically suicidal. It only works when it basically confirms nice bourgeois ethics, not when it could justify a Rick lifestyle. Rick is even against Rick, as even if all of society were Rick, it would be just as bad (and hence Rick destroys the Rick Council, being the "Rickest of them all").

You get sheer nihilism, but one that, in the process, humiliates all the just-so stories that the cult of Science fronts. It's iconoclastic that shows up the irrationality behind any cult of reason.