On October 7th, 2017, just over two months after The Doctor Falls, police were called to several McDonald’s locations following a disastrous promotion in which the fast food restaurant brought back an obscure McNuggets dipping sauce, “Szechuan sauce,” that had briefly been released nearly twenty years earlier to tie-in with the release of Disney’s Mulan. The limited amount of sauce released to select McDonald’s was wildly insufficient for the crowds that arrived, which consisted of hundreds of people lining up for hours only to discover that restaurants had as few as twenty sauce packets. The result was bedlam—young men (the crowds were almost exclusively male) hurling obscenities and venting their frustration on minimum wage workers. On Twitter, people seriously suggested class action lawsuits and claimed that any workers who had a bad day deserved it because of the company’s bad actions.
The key bit of context needed to understand this madness is why McDonald’s was bringing back an ancient dipping sauce that Eater described as having “the color and consistency of strawberry jelly” and tasting “mainly like corn syrup with maybe a tiny bit of Worcestershire thrown in.” The answer is that several months earlier, when the third season premiere of Rick and Morty dropped unannounced on April 1st (so two weeks before The Pilot), the episode had culminated in a monologue in which Rick Sanchez, one of the two title characters, declares that his only real motivation in life is to eat that sauce again.
Well. Sort of. The more accurate description of what happens is that Rick stands above his grandson (Morty, the other eponymous character) as he cowers, whimpers, and sobs, angrily telling him that he deliberately broke up his parents’ marriage out of spite and to become “the de facto patriarch of your family and your universe” before threatening him if he ever tells anyone about this conversation and revealing his end goal of Szechuan sauce. It’s a genuinely distressing scene, in ways that are difficult to quite get a handle on. The distress is clearly intentional—the scene makes an active point of focusing on Morty’s fear and anguish, and on making the horror of what Rick is saying clear. But it’s also clear that the scene is meant to be funny, complete with Rick making a fourth-wall breaking claim that he’ll get the sauce “if it takes nine seasons.”
This tension is not so much common for the show as the nominal point. If you assert that Rick and Morty is a bad television show on Twitter, you will quickly be assured by somebody that the show is in fact a critique of Rick’s nihilism. This is an interesting claim. Certainly the claim that Rick and Morty is a highly intelligent show that is routinely misunderstood is common enough that a chunk of copypasta beginning “to be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty” became a meme. And as the Szechuan sauce scene demonstrates, the show is open about the fact that Rick is a terrible person. That’s established in the first episode’s cold open, in which he drunkenly drags Morty out of his bed and begins to ramble incoherently about his plan to destroy all life on earth for him.
But before we go much further, it’s probably worth actually relating this to the topic of the blog. The reason that this show—which I should stress is the single least pleasant thing I have ever watched for this blog, and I include Heil Honey I’m Home! in that assessment—is of interest is that it is, among other things, a parody of Doctor Who. Rick’s character design is a riff on Doc Brown in Back to the Future, but the result clearly evokes Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as well. And the basic concept—that Rick has invented a portal gun that allows him to travel between dimensions and drags Morty along on adventures to them—is clearly a variation on the familiar Doctor Who infinitude of possible stories. (And, of course, series co-creator Dan Harmon has form on this point, having previously included a more direct Doctor Who parody in Community in the form of Inspector Spacetime.)
So what we have is a show that is openly serving as a dark and corrupted parody of Doctor Who in which the Doctor figure is subjected to at least some sort of sustained critique. So it’s worth looking at the substance of that critique. As noted, the usual phrasing is that Rick and Morty is a critique of Rick’s nihilism. But nihilism is a curiously specific charge, and not one that really applies to Doctor Who, where the main character, whatever he might be, is clearly not a nihilist. But frankly, it’s a weird critique for Rick and Morty too. Certainly Rick expresses a routinely bleak and cynical worldview that frequently features things like rejecting love as “a bunch of chemicals” (now that’s a familiar line…) but to suggest that the prevailing problem with Rick is that he’s cynical or a nihilist is strange. The problem is that he’s horrifyingly abusive. Episode after episode entails him being a callous, violent abuser to Morty and, indeed, to the rest of his family. This isn’t a show about the corrosive effects of nihilism—it’s a show about wanton cruelty.
This is not a small distinction. Nihilism is a philosophical position whose consequences can be traced out. There are critiques to be made of it, but there are also cases to be made in its favor. Brilliant nihilist art exists. Nihilism has been taken seriously and incorporated into interesting and insightful works. Maybe, when everything is taken into account, nihilism is still worth condemning, but there’s a discussion to be had on the matter.
Abuse is not like that. Abuse is simply a ragged, scarring wrongness. I mean, sure, there are people who actually and in all seriousness defend corporal punishment or make arguments that children can consent to sex, but these viewpoints are widely recognized as monstrous, and anyway only amount to trying to redefine the boundaries of abuse. More to the point, Rick and Morty makes no real effort to suggest that Rick is not an abusive monster to Morty and the rest of his family. This isn’t subtext. The show very much cares that we look at the abuse being perpetrated and recognize it as such. This is not hard. When I say that this si the worst thing I have ever watched for the blog, I mean that it is viscerally upsetting. There are multiple, prolonged scenes of child abuse. The dynamic in which Rick furiously berates a Morty while he cowers and stammers feeble, useless protests is utterly commonplace. And that’s on top of things like the frequency with which, for instance, adult sexualization of minors is casually dropped in—the first two episodes I watched (the pilot and “Rick Potion #9”) both had jokes about school officials being sexually attracted to Morty.
Actually, this gets at the far larger problem, which is that for all that the show is aware of the very obvious fact that abuse is bad, it’s also repeatedly mining abuse for humor. Those scenes where Morty is cowering away from his grandfather are generally the occasions for series co-creator and primary voice actor Justin Roiland to do one of the semi-improvised monologues, typically delivered while actually drunk, that are one of the show’s trademarks. I mean, look at the example we started with—the Szechuan sauce monologue. Yes, it’s a scene of horrific and upsetting child abuse, but it’s clearly being played for laughs.
All of this rather undermines any claim that Rick and Morty is engaged in critique. Abuse isn’t really something you can critique in the first place. You can show the political and social systems that help perpetuate it, you can demonstrate the psychology of it, and you can document the trauma and anguish that it leaves in its wake, but there’s not really anything to critique about furiously berating a crying child about how you broke up his parents’ marriage to gain power over him. It’s kinda like locking children in concentration camps that way. And when you couple the abuse with laugh lines about quixotic obsessions with late 90s McDonald’s promotions, frankly, you’re falling so profoundly far below the minimum standards of basic human decency that you should probably just stop talking, preferably forever.
It’s worth comparing to Doctor Who when Steven Moffat is offering a critique of a character or narrative premise. Look at Hell Bent, where the Doctor’s furious attempts to save Clara turn baleful with Clara’s dumbfounded, horrified expression at the explanation that he did all of this because of a “duty of care.” There is a specific turning point—a moment where what had been exciting and edgy suddenly turns sour and is explicitly, unequivocally wrong. Or, to go back to his biggest and most defiant narrative substitution, A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler, a pair of stories in which the Doctor wielding his manpain in the name of glorious and brilliant vengeance actually leads to horrific and destructive consequences, and where that story is actively replaced with one about the healing effects of female spaces. This is what critique looks like, and has always been at the heart of Moffat’s narrative substitutions. If you want to condemn a mode of storytelling or of thinking, you can’t do it by endlessly repeating it, and certainly not by endlessly mining it as a source of comedy.
No, Rick and Morty isnt a critique of nihilism or anything else. It’s a sniggering bit of juvenile edgelording. And the fact that it’s so convinced that it’s doing something substantive like critiquing Rick when it blatantly thinks its drunken abuser of a main character is fucking hilarious is a damning indictment of the pathetic pretensions that surround the setup. Which, let’s be perfectly honest, basically amounts to the pathetic pretensions that animate the basic idea that troubled white men who lash out are actually an interesting subject. (There is some debate to be had over whether Rick is intended to be white, but given that Justin Roiland, when asked about this on a panel, actively declined to confirm it, saying that he doesn’t see race and doesn’t care about Rick’s heritage, leading Dan Harmon to crack “way to see race, bigot” at the person who asked the question, well, fuck them both.)
Indeed, if we are to take the conceptual similarities between Rick and Morty and Doctor Who seriously at all, this is where to do it. The twilight of the Capaldi era marks ten consecutive series over which the show has been invested in colliding every genre imaginable with a tempestuous white man haunted by the terrible things in his past. And in 2017 it was on year 54 of eccentric and tempestuous white men in the general case. The show has always been about white men.
Rick and Morty is not why this needs to stop. In 2017, as Brexit careens onwards to its inevitable conclusion of calamitous farce, as Trump marches the United States towards the single stupidest fascism in history, and as rampant and unchecked capitalism pushes the planet ever further along the line to a mass extinction that may well take us out with it, with all of this, whoever else might be involved, fundamentally the antics of white men with delusions of grandeur and importance. All of this would be true regardless of a shitty cartoon whose fans abuse minimum wage workers when they can’t have their Szechuan sauce, and all of it would make the idea that we need stories about something—anything—else.
But Rick and Morty is a demonstration of how the anxieties and turmoils of white men aren’t merely creatively overrepresented, but something whose centering threatens to become deeply and inherently toxic. My point in saying this is maniestly not that there is nothing interesting about tortured white men; the Capaldi era alone shows how that’s simply not true. But Rick and Morty shows that in 2017, it was at last clearly played out. Moffat was as good a last creatie hurrah as white dudes could possibly have wished for, clever and full of ways for white heterosexual masculinity to do better. But the claim that we need diverse stories is not merely an observation that the diversity of real world audiences demands a diversity of content, nor is it simply a description of the ways in which diversity in both creative teams and content can invigorat tired genres. It is a brutally accurate response to the fact that egotistical white men who think their angst is deep, left unchecked, turn out things like Rick and Morty.