Once upon a time in the 1980s, there existed two well-loved characters – a wacky scientist and his heartthrob teenage sidekick – who starred in a trilogy of blockbuster movies involving time travel, high-school drama and hover boards. Almost 30 years have passed since then, but “Back to The Future” (1985) still remains a nostalgic trip. In recent decades, the stock characters of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) have been parodied to various ends, the most recent of which is animated Adult Swim series “Rick and Morty” (2013-present). This newest project from “Community” (2009-present) creator Dan Harmon features two characters oddly familiar to the duo from the original Robert Zemeckis movie.
It goes without saying that “Rick and Morty” is a parody of “Back to the Future” at its most basic level, yet the show is so much more than that. Although it utilizes the stock profiles of the mad scientist and his sidekick, the tropes are reduced to their very core and then transformed into their own individual personalities. Rick (Justin Roiland), the mad scientist, is an alcoholic with a cold exterior – though perhaps somewhere deep on the inside he feels love. Morty (also Roiland) is an awkward 14-year-old that is probably as distant from Fox’s character as can be, even if they look similar. What “Rick and Morty” manages to do best is to take these two absurd characters into even wackier adventures: You’re never really quite sure what is going to happen next.
This unpredictability can, at times, make “Rick and Morty” a rip-roaringly funny show, as the show seems to take an almost a no-holds barred approach. Serious topics such as feminism, alcoholism and divorce are lampooned alongside more conventional sources of comedy, such as toilet humor and references to sexual acts. Some of the show’s best moments come from a bizarre combination of lowbrow and highbrow humor; parodies of both “Inception” (2010) and “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) have been particular highlights. The show even pokes fun at television itself, like in a recent episode, “Rixty Minutes” – an excellent and entirely self-referential installment.
Whenever “Rick and Morty” becomes meta – a concept that is starting to lose its originality in this postmodern era – it manages to do so in a way that, for the most part, avoids groan-inducing moments. Rather, “Rick and Morty” accomplishes self-reference more indirectly.
In “Rixty Minutes,” Rick gets bored of conventional Earth TV, so he invents a machine that allows the family to tune into the channels of every possible universe. When the channel surfing commences, Rick notes that television from other dimensions seems to have a much looser feel to it. The episode becomes more and more ridiculous, and we get a sense of the absurd, improvised nature of the short television bits.
However, not all of “Rick and Morty” reaches the same high notes. Throughout much of the season, the show endeavors to maintain a status quo: It seems that no matter what happens in the episode – much like other conventional cartoons – everything will be fine when the credits roll. This is a mechanism that detracts from the overall quality, especially when you consider how unconventional the rest of the series is. This grievance, though, is being addressed more frequently, as actions from earlier episodes are starting to have real consequences.
“Rick and Morty” is poised to leap headfirst into bold new territory, with two episodes remaining in the first season, and a second one in the works. It still hasn’t hit perfection, but if it is able to make certain adjustments, it might be on the right road – though where they’re going, they might not need roads.