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Tuesday, August 04, 2015 

"Where are my testicles, Summer?"

"Nobody exists on purpose.  Nobody belongs anywhere.  Everybody's going to die."

One of the lines doing the rounds following the government's green paper on the future of the BBC was, if the BBC's so great and worth the £145.50 every household must pay on pain of fines and even prison, why can't it make Game of Thrones?  The line, naturally, can be altered to be about your favourite non-BBC and probably not made by a British broadcaster at all show and still retain the point.  Why indeed can the BBC not make The Wire, Breaking Bad, or as some wag soon had it, House of Cards, despite its vast income?

This set me thinking on what British television as a whole has never been any good at.  Best answer I could come up with: adult animation.  With the exceptions of Stressed Eric and Monkey Dust (both BBC productions, natch), the attempts at adult animation from our main broadcasters have been fairly horrific.  You could say there's not much point in trying to compete with the Americans when their output is so good, and yet, if you take a proper look, it's not strictly true, is it?  Family Guy and the Simpsons are so past their best (if Family Guy had a best) it's painful, American Dad and the various spin-offs from Family Guy can be good and yet still don't really satisfy, which leaves you with, well what?  South Park, which was great when both political and funny, and now more often than not is just political?  Bob's Burgers?  It might as well not exist such is the time slot it gets over here.

Bearing that in mind, it doesn't necessarily say much that Rick and Morty has yet to be picked up by a broadcaster in this country.  A new show from the guys at Adult Swim, it'll just be the same old same old, won't it?  Robot Chicken never made much of an impact here, let alone Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  A bit too screwball for UK sensibilities seems to be the opinion.  We like our animation shows with families, where the father despite being fat/and or an idiot is in fact the hero of the piece, where the female characters are either stereotypes (Hayley) or ciphers (Meg, Lois, Francine, and despite the attempts to flesh her out, some of which have been great, Marge too) and where each week there's a new moral lesson on offer.

Which is precisely what makes Rick and Morty the kind of show so good you feel you have to proselytise about it.  It is that familiar set-up we all know, the mother and father, the two kids (we'll not count either Maggie or Meg, as the show's respective producers certainly don't) only in this instance with the addition of the mom's own father, returned after years away for reasons never properly explained.  Only it takes those conventions and in the space of a single season of 11 episodes manages to fundamentally subvert them, to define these 5 characters in a way that other series have failed to do in 10 seasons.  Yes, it remains the case that Beth, the mom, the horse surgeon, is still the most transparent of the 5, but 17-year-old Summer, the other child that it looks is set to be neglected just like those other female characters, rises up in the latter half of the series to play a role almost equal to that of Rick, the grandfather, and 14-year-old serial masturbator Morty.  Jerry, the dad, moreover, is an idiot and a loser, who just like Homer, Peter and Stan managed to marry out of his league, only he's played as an idiot and a loser on the apparent brink every episode of being ditched by Beth.

Oh, and Rick just happens to be an alcoholic genius scientist who has a portal gun that can transport anyone to another dimension or any of the infinite parallel universes that exist alongside our own particular version of reality in an instant.  He's the Doctor and Doc Brown, only he's also on the edge of insanity and mania, whether driven there by his trips into the unknown, his drinking or by the sheer scale of his intellect we can't quite tell.  And to be clear, Rick spends almost the entire opening half of the first season essentially abusing Morty through their adventures.  In the pilot episode Morty breaks his legs after Rick fails to tell him he needs to turn his special shoes on before descending down a sheer cliff, then Rick informs him he needs to stuff the huge seeds they're collecting up his butthole to get through alien customs as they're out of portal juice after Rick had to get a cure for Morty's busted legs.  Rick's own sphincter just can't handle it any more.  After Rick and Jerry get trapped in an alien simulation with a uncannily real Morty in another episode, Rick stumbles drunkenly into Morty's room and holds a knife to his throat, until he's convinced this Morty isn't a simulation.  When Morty finally does object to how Rick uses him and demands they go on an adventure of his choosing, Morty's reward is to be nearly raped by a anthropomorphic jellybean in the toilet of an olde worlde inn.

Doing a show as wildly inventive, some would say almost as tiresomely inventive as Rick and Morty justice in words is difficult in of itself.  In that first pilot episode there's a chase scene at the alien customs/airport that contains more ideas in a single minute than other shows have in entire episodes, one creature brought into existence by Morty going through its entire life-cycle in the space of five seconds.  Even properly cataloguing its influences and references is hard: the domestic tensions at work are nearly straight out of the Simpsons (indeed, most people will probably get their first dose of Rick and Morty from the incredible, extended couch gag co-creator Justin Roiland provided for the Simpsons' season finale), just as the science fiction backdrop owes a debt to Futurama.  At the same time the wackiness and instinct to break things reminds of the best episodes of American Dad, while the writers also acknowledge how many gags they've stolen from Douglas Adams.

What truly marks Rick and Morty out though is just how far the writers are willing to take things.  In Rick Potion #9 our two heroes completely wreck their Earth, transforming every other human except for Beth, Jerry and Summer into deformed, monstrous creatures Rick swiftly dubs "Cronenbergs".  Unable to fix it, Rick simply searches for an alternate universe/timeline where he both did fix it and he and Morty die almost immediately afterwards, our pair taking their place, burying their doubles' bodies in the backyard.  Morty, like the viewer, takes quite a while to get his head around this total mindfuck, which comes right in the middle of the season rather than as a finale as you might normally expect.  

Then there's Rixty Minutes, where Rick installs cable TV "from every conceivable reality" in response to being forced to watch the Bachelor, only the family catching sight of an alternate universe Jerry on Letterman soon makes Beth, Jerry and Summer far more interested in their alternate selves than infinite TV.  The episode plays out between Rick and Morty watching adverts and shows that Roiland for the most part ad-libbed and improvised, and Summer's distress at finding out that in most alternate realities she doesn't exist as Beth had an abortion and never married Jerry.  It's only when Morty tells Summer of the epiphany he's had, thanks to the events of Rick Potion #9, including the quotes at the top, that she retreats from running away and goes back downstairs to watch a trailer for a parody of Weekend at Bernie's 2, involving an dead woman being "operated" by her cats.

The one apparent problem, that when so many ideas are thrown into a single episode there's a risk creative burnout will be hit all the sooner, thankfully doesn't seem to be manifesting itself as yet.  The first episode of the second season doesn't quite hit the heights almost all the shows from the first did, but the next two are right up there again at the top.  This said, I can't help hoping that Rick and Morty doesn't turn into one of those shows that carries on for series after series, long after the point at which the creators themselves have often wanted to put their characters out of their misery.  Nor does it feel like that kind of show: it seems special, with writers and creators who'll know when they've taken it as far as they can.

To return to the BBC, one of the other complaints heard was that with so many other channels and sources of entertainment Auntie is nearly irrelevant.   They almost never take into account how many of those channels are reliant on old BBC programmes to fill their schedules, or had their origins in doing nothing but showing repeats.  The most watched channels on Sky, despite everything, remain the BBC ones.  The assumption that if only the BBC got out of the way the commercial broadcasters would be able to further innovate and grow rather falls down when they show no indication of doing the things the BBC already doesn't, or does badly.  If they can't see the worth in a show like Rick and Morty, or won't try and produce an equivalent, why believe things would be any different after the fact?

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