Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are the creators of the animated TV show, Rick and Morty, which appears during Adult Swim on Cartoon Network but is also available on Hulu and Netflix. Rick is Morty’s grandfather as well as an inebriated and self-absorbed genius scientist. Morty, a very anxious and not too swift kid, regularly accompanies Rick on adventures across different dimensions, visiting ridiculous planets, during which they alternatively endanger and save the entire universe. They live with Rick’s daughter (Morty’s mother) who is a horse surgeon, and her unemployed and chronically insecure husband, along with Morty’s older sister, Summer, who was born as the result of a prom night tryst, which resulted in the unhappy and unstable marriage of Morty and Summer’s parents. Got all that?
None of these details matter. In fact, the entire show is built on the idea that nothing really matters. It is an absurdist comedy reacting to our nihilistic times. Much of current popular culture is built on a nihilistic foundation, but unlike most of that other entertainment, Rick and Morty affirms love and compassion despite occupying a world in which nothing really matters. Rick and Morty offer a moral (and hilarious) nihilism in contrast to the amoral and dreary nihilism commonly found in current popular entertainment.
HBO, Netflix, and AMC, in particular, feed us a steady diet of anti-hero shows set in nihilistic universes — think of House of Cards, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, etc… In all of them we are invited to root for awful people, doing awful things because nothing matters. If there is no purpose to anything, these shows suggest, you might as well just impose your will and do whatever you want. The acquisition of power is an end in itself, so you might as well lie, cheat, kill, or engage in incest. The anti-heroes in these series will occasionally claim that they are acquiring power for some greater purpose, but they usually candidly concede that they were just doing horrible things because they like it. These shows also regularly feature people who attempt to stand for something good, but they almost always suffer a horrible fate just to prove to us that believing in anything other than the power to impose one’s will is for suckers. Very occasionally these shows will have a character who is genuinely attempting to do good and succeeds, but they almost always have to advance that good by doing something else horrible. If there is any good in these shows, it is the result of a cruel utilitarian calculus.
Popular entertainment is littered with these bleak, nihilistic shows and dystopian nightmares because they are a dark reflection of how many people perceive our modern era. Despite our incredible wealth and technological advancement, people feel adrift in a world without well-functioning social institutions or government and without the traditional values and religion that help give people purpose and meaning. Our entertainment is nihilistic because people feel nihilistic.
It might be nice if a show like Rick and Morty could directly challenge people’s nihilism and argue that people have wrongly fallen into despair, but that may be asking too much. Instead, Rick and Morty accepts the nihilistic premise audiences seem to expect, but nevertheless makes the case for love and compassion even when nothing seems to matter.
The best example of this in Rick and Morty is the “Rixty Minutes” episode. In that episode Rick has installed inter-dimensional cable on the TV so that the family can watch shows from any parallel universe. The parents, Beth and Jerry, discover that in some parallel universes they are movie stars and are eager to learn more about what their lives are like in those other universes. They are fascinated by how they achieved great success in those alternative realities because the accident of their prom-night conception of Summer never happened and they never get married. Summer also looks for herself in these alternative realities but she doesn’t exist because her conception was a fluke that didn’t happen in most universes. She despairs that her life is nothing more than an unhappy accident that prevented her parents from having more successful and happy lives.
As Summer prepares to run away, Morty tries to comfort her. As shown in the video clip at the top of this post, Morty points out her bedroom window to two graves in the back yard. He explains that in a previous adventure (which was in a previous episode) he and Rick had destroyed the universe in which they lived and had to find another one where they happened to have died at the same point in the timeline but where the world was not irretrievably messed up. He and Rick buried their own bodies in the back yard and just took the place of their dead selves to keep living in an alternative universe. He explains that he eats breakfast every morning 20 yards from his own rotting corpse. He then tells her: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
This is the essence of Rick and Morty. It embraces the nihilism that is common in popular entertainment but it does not lose love and compassion. Morty tells Summer his story to help her realize that there can be joy, goodness, and love even when nobody exists on purpose. He loves her even knowing that he could be dead and she is an accident. In our dark age, this is a happy, sweet, and hilarious story.
Meanwhile in the same episode, the parents come to realize that they belong together and were right to have gotten and stayed married despite how their lives might have turned out better had they not. They accept the reality of their lives and understand that one needs to behave decently given the circumstances. If this were one of the HBO/Netflix/AMC nihilistic shows, they would be suckers for accepting circumstances and making the best of it rather than attempting to impose their own will on circumstances regardless of the costs — in this case Summer wouldn’t exist.
Other shows praise The Triumph of the Will, as their ideological cousins put it, while Rick and Morty embrace a humanistic type of existentialism. Like Kurt Vonnegut or Albert Camus, Rick and Morty struggle to find purpose and order in the world, but they can’t help but care about people and strive to behave decently anyway.
For trying to turn our nihilistic age in a moral direction while being highly entertaining and funny, the creators of Rick and Morty, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, have done much to improve the human condition. This makes them very worthy nominees for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.
And so that you can enjoy inter-dimensional TV, here are some clips of what you could find on TV in alternative universes: