It’s hard to find a less likely cultural rallying point than Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty,” the weird, bleak, semi-psychedelic animated show about a misanthropic scientist and his below-average grandson whose world-inverting adventures tend to have an odd tinge of nihilism. But it’s the nihilism that makes the show such a relief to watch.“Rick and Morty” is often horrifyingly violent, and its family dynamics are a defiantly unpleasant reversal of the classic will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension: Instead, we root for characters to get divorced for their sakes and for their children. Thematically, suicide looms large.
And yet the show is not just a cult hit, but an astonishing financial success. Among young men, the show was higher-rated than anything running on broadcast TV during its first season. As the network begins its marketing push toward a third season, set for later this summer, the series has quietly become a big-enough deal that there is a traveling merch van shaped like Rick’s body touring the country, selling swag that fans wait in line for hours to buy.There are a lot of answers, none of them particularly satisfying, to the question of what makes a hit, but as so much in the world goes so wrong so quickly, a lot of previously good jokes seem to have expired, or retained only nostalgia value. “Rick and Morty,” with its queasy blend of high-minded brutality and unusual kindness, is something new.The show is the work of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, who often use old sci-fi cliches forced into different shapes to bizarre and hypnotic effect. Harmon’s casual mastery of the sitcom formula was a compelling reason to watch his under-loved live-action sitcom Community; Roiland is something between a protégé and a partner on “Rick and Morty,” having developed the title characters, both of whom he voices, in Harmon’s digital TV workshop, Channel 101.At full wattage, the show viciously smashes the world only to see it restored to its old, troubled state in some unsettling way, by hopping into a dimension where our heroes’ doppelgängers have just died in a grisly accident, or having nigh-omniscient house pets abandon their plans to enslave humanity for fear of becoming too much like us.
But for a show with a nonzero number of alien testicle monsters, the characters in “Rick and Morty” respond to unknowable cosmic tragedy in recognizable, even existential ways, sometimes with heartbreaking honesty. “WHAT IS MY PURPOSE?” asks a robot Rick invents to pass him some butter. “You pass butter,” Rick replies. The robot looks at its hands and finally sees them for what they are: butter passers. “OH MY GOD,” it replies. Rick and Morty’s dilemmas are hilarious and absurd, but its characters’ desperation is real, and that may help explain its appeal to a demographic that barely even have TVs anymore.Goldman Sachs christened millennials “the renter generation” in a recent report, observing that they’re simply not buying houses, cars, or durable goods such as refrigerators and washing machines at the rates their parents did. Since the recession, the median wage for every industry except health care, with its increasing demand from aging boomers, has fallen for people 34 and under. This is another reason it’s so remarkable to see a show on basic cable attract millennials: Far fewer of them subscribe to cable at all.“Greed has destroyed the [cable] value proposition,” wrote industry analyst Rich Greenfield in a research note last week. The target demo for “Rick and Morty” thinks twice about buying a TV, let alone a Time Warner subscription.This financial trend is actually visible within “Rick and Morty” episodes. Young people avoid ads, so companies trying to reach them often use product placement, and brands that can’t sell to young people simply abandon them (try to find a Lexus ad for people under 40). Thus, product placement in “Rick and Morty” is a handy index of brands that are OK with poor people: Wheat Thins, Cold Stone Creamery, Shoney’s, McDonald’s. No Whirlpool, no Infiniti, little financial services or real estate. That’s stuff for people who aren’t afraid of living under a bridge, and who don’t need an inoculation of despair with their dinnertime half-hour comedy.
When Rick tells his daughter that “emotionally speaking, honey, Shoney’s is my home,” we’re not just laughing at Rick; we’re laughing at Shoney’s, too. Who could be at home, emotionally speaking, in a restaurant you go to when Applebee’s is closed due to flood damage? A lot of us, actually.A few weeks ago, Adult Swim debuted one episode of season 3 on April Fools Day as a sort of anti-prank. The internet loved jokes about a discontinued McDonald’s menu item (yay, brand synergy) but in fact the show’s punchline was that Rick collapses the interstellar economy by hacking into the Galactic Federation’s central servers, recalling the financial crisis, which presumably means more jobs in food service on an interstellar level.Tragedy plus time equals comedy, but if you don’t have time, light-years will do.Though Rick is the show’s omniscient guru, it’s Morty who puts it best, when he tries to explain to his sister that he and Rick managed to destroy their entire universe with a botched love potion and had to hide out in hers because “her” Rick and Morty had just died. The moral?“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die,” he tells her. “Come watch TV.”Follow Sam Thielman on Twitter