There were riots in McDonalds restaurants across America this weekend when fans of an adult cartoon failed to acquire a limited edition sauce. It all got a bit out of hand:
Rick and Morty is a show created by Dan Harmon that airs on Adult Swim — Cartoon Network’s late night grown up offering. Now on it’s third season, the animated show follows the adventures of an alcoholic scientist and his young grandson as they attempt to hit on women and avoid responsibility in the process.
The show is written by and for stoned middle aged men. It riffs on pop culture — specifically nerdy pop culture — to form 20 minutes of high-energy low-meaning hijinks. I quite like it. The titular characters are caricatures of the alpha male nerd. It seems, however, some fans missed the satire memo. Recently the fandom has become insufferable — a lot of nerdy men declaring the show as theirs because you’d have to be ‘quite smart’ to understand the subtleties of animated slapstick.
Harmon is a master of storytelling — a skill he previously perfected with the sitcom Community. Following a clock face, his shows hit the plot points at 3, 6, and 9. Harmon has created resources explaining his storytelling formula, it made up a large portion of my dissertation. Rick and Morty is a well crafted romp — but it’s intelligence starts and ends with the story. Just because a show is about science, it isn’t automatically a ‘smart’ show (look at Big Bang Theory for example). It’s worrying that so many young men are becoming obsessed with this show on a superficial level because, essentially, the characters are not good people.
The main character in the show is Rick, an older gentlemen who is forced through circumstance to move in with his grown daughter and her teenage children. Rick is a scientist, although he has never achieved commercial success. He spends most of his time locked in the families garage doing experiments and drinking. He’s an alcoholic and has never learnt healthy coping mechanisms which severely effects his relationships. Moving him in is a huge strain on his daughters marriage, the family often argues about his presence. He regularly takes his grandson, Morty, out of school to accompany him on ‘adventures’. He has very little regard for authority — whether school, police, or enforced family rules.
He refuses to acknowledge emotions — his or his families. In one notable episode he turns himself into a pickle to avoid going to family therapy — causing great distress to his daughter who is trying to deal with her attachment issues (due to having been abandoned by her father at a young age).
Harmon writes this character type well. In Community the character was Pierce, a rotten old man who was desperately lonely at the core, but whose family issues meant he was unable to create meaningful connections and he pushed people away. His character was almost universally hated, he was seen as the ‘evil’ and unlikeable one in the group. Sure some of this could be due to Harmon’s dislike of Chevy Chase, who played Pierce, but it seems deeper than that. Perhaps it’s because for Community’s Pierce, there was a loveable Abed or an endearing Troy. The show was much more ensemble than Rick and Morty — there were redeeming characters.
Exclusion and elitism in the nerdsphere are massive issues. We all know the stereotype of the middle aged man relentlessly quizzing younger fans about their interest. For a subculture formed of the self proclaimed ‘outcasts’ they are very judgemental. This is particularly problematic if you happen to be a women, of colour, or both. With Rick and Morty, Harmon has created a great satire of the Alpha Male Nerd. The type who declares you aren’t a real fan because you didn’t manage to get a limited edition packet of sauce from McDonalds. They see the fandom as ‘their’ territory.
Rick and Morty are constantly on a mission to fulfil their sexual desires with new pretty unobtainable women whilst ignoring the very real human connections right in front of them. So it’s worrying that these young men are identifying with this deeply flawed character.
For the third series, Harmon made a conscious effort to employ more female writers. The fans responded by threatening, harassing, and DOXing the new female writers. Harmon, who has a long history of writing well rounded and 3d female characters, snapped back aggressively:
“These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own — and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender…a testosterone-based subculture patting themselves on the back.” Dan Harmon — source
Rick and Morty is a funny show if you take it on the nose. It’s a knowing show that started as a piss take out of nerd culture, but ended up attracting exactly those sorts of people it was previously mocking. And it’s worrying that more impressionable fans could be swept up in this. Exactly as Harmon says — they feel like they own the content and want to protect it. But when you take the content at face value you run the risk of becoming a bitter and lonely old man, unable to form human connections or treat women as people. Who knows, being that detached from reality might even lead to you rioting at McDonalds because you failed to acquire a promotional sauce.