My partner got into Rick and Morty before I did, and at first, to the half-attention I paid it as I was cooking or scrolling through Twitter or doing other things, it seemed like just another one of the dozen cartoons-for-grown-ups on TV with an irreverent, puerile sense of humor. I didn’t get hooked until he put on “Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate.” The show’s premise is that grandfather/amoral-genius-scientist Rick Sanchez has invented technology that affords him access to an infinite number of alternate universes. This discovery allows Rick and his grandchildren Morty and Summer to bounce from universe to universe, having adventures—or, sometimes, as in the episode that first captivated me, to sit on the couch and watch hours of the interdimensional television that Rick has hacked.
There are two episodes featuring interdimensional cable, and each is a love letter to television itself, warts and annoying commercials and genre clichés and all. (There are echoes here of showrunner Dan Harmon’s last major project, Community—I’m reminded of Abed’s passion for TV, reflected in the show’s loving enactment of sitcom staples like the bottle episode, the mockumentary form, and the flashback episode.) Interdimensional TV has “a somewhat looser feel to it,” observes Morty, to which Rick responds, “Yeah, it’s got an almost improvisational tone”—the main improviser being co-creator and voice actor Justin Roiland, who plays both Rick and Morty.
The snippets of IDTV we see are too absurd for summary—you have to watch it to get it. My favorites are the trailer for Jan Quadrant Vincent 16 and the nonsensical, vaguely dirty How It’s Made-style show on the plumbus. Rick and Morty’s TV pastiche is just the kind of silly humor I like, and its parody is laced with knowing affection, not venom, for the genres it mimics.
The other thing that draws me to Rick and Morty, besides its self-reflexive TV-philia, is its embrace of all the possibilities of animation. In principle, the promise of animation over live action is the capacity to illustrate anything that you can imagine, without being limited by the laws of physics or biology. Cartoons are dreamscapes where literally anything that can be pictured can be realized—spaces of fluidity, metamorphosis, and animism, where even objects come to life. Sergei Eisenstein called it “plasmatic”—animation constitutes a “rejection of once-and-forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form.”
It’s not that often that contemporary cartoons for adults actually flesh out this plasmatic capability, though—more often they follow the same conventions that govern live-action realisms. I see a bit of it in American Dad!’s Roger the alien, whose protean costume changes and enactments of various “characters” he’s invented contrast with the stolid forms of the human characters. And I see a bit more of it in Bojack Horseman, whose vaunted psychological realism plays out in an imaginary world where humans and anthropomorphized animals of all sorts—horses, pink cats, golden retrievers, sexy dolphins—live in a kind of multispecies democracy.
Rick and Morty is perhaps the most plasmatic, though, and it takes the most joy in colors and styles and transformations for their own sake. In “Total Rickall,” the family is invaded by a host of alien parasites who can alter human memories to make it seem like they have been part of the family all along. It’s a transparent excuse to invent and draw a bunch of weird, goofy new characters, who populate the background and multiply themselves in a free-for-all of color and form.
Eisenstein saw something liberatory in animation, an escape from the grey, rigid, mechanical modern world. Maybe that’s why the improvisational, multiplicitous, plasmatic world of Rick and Morty appeals to me. There’s a Walter Benjamin quote about film that I wanted to put in a recent essay I wrote, but I couldn’t fit it in:
Our bars and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris.
One might say the same thing of a good cartoon. When the world seems ossified into something mean and small-minded and unhospitable, and when the cinema seems unable to do much other than rehash its own past in a feeble attempt at the comforts of nostalgia, animation blows up the walls that hemmed in our imaginations. It says: annihilate realism; forget what you’ve been told is possible; imagine a different, freer universe.