Friday, August 21, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "Total Rickall"

Luckily, Hulk doesn't fall 20 feet to the theater floor during this musical.
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Has Rick and Morty tackled the Rashomon episode yet? I know Rick and Morty has done a bottle episode ("Rixty Minutes"), and this week's Rick and Morty episode, "Total Rickall," is a crazy hybrid of a bottle episode and that Community fan favorite of a clip show parody where none of the clips are actual clips. But even though the Rashomon episode has been done to death on TV, I would like to see Rick and Morty add its own offbeat sci-fi spin to it (but differently from how Star Trek: The Next Generation's "A Matter of Perspective" and the X-Files episodes "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "Bad Blood" previously tackled the Rashomon ep) and do a lot with it visually like "Total Rickall" does when it morphs from being a hybrid of a bottle episode and an anti-clip show and takes the shape of a John Carpenter's The Thing-style paranoid thriller where everyone's driven crazy by being unable to tell apart the real from the fake.



In "Total Rickall," alien parasites invade the Smiths' house, pretend to be relatives or family friends and telepathically implant into the Smiths' brains fake memories of wacky adventures with them, hence a bunch of flashbacks to adventures that never actually happened, like that time the family and Cousin Nicky from Brooklyn wound up on board a Nazi sub. I like how the shape-shifting parasites' objective isn't outlined by the parasites in some typical Star Trek alien leader speech. They aren't out to assimilate humanity like the Thing or the Borg (neither do they admit to being lonely and wanting companionship); they're simply on Earth to drive the humans insane (so that they lose control of the planet), and their first step is to infest the Smiths' house and multiply like ants at a picnic--or Tribbles on a starship. And that's where the episode's visual merits come in: thanks to animation, "Total Rickall" is able to take the bottle episode and do things with it a live-action show like Community would have needed extra FX money for or would have been unable to accomplish. The house becomes so overcrowded with parasites disguised as nonexistent characters that Rick pauses to address whatever parallel reality he (correctly) assumes is watching his life as if it's a TV show--a.k.a. breaking the fourth wall--and notes the coolness of standing in the middle of a shot that looks like a Where's Waldo? page.

"Total Rickall" is tons of fun, especially when the parasites, after Rick doesn't fall for their Uncle Steve/Cousin Nicky phase, experiment with a wacky ABC TGIF sitcom character phase and assume the forms of a Mr. Belvedere clone named Mr. Beauregard and a Herman Munster-style Frankenstein Frankenstein's monster (Kevin Michael Richardson). Then when Rick won't fall for the deceptions implanted by Phase 2 of the parasites, the forms the parasites take become even more absurd and desperate. They range from Reverse Giraffe (sixth-season Community star Keith David) to Hamurai (Richardson), a samurai whose armor is covered in ham (if only we all could be a fly on the wall in the writers' room on the day when credited "Total Rickall" writer Mike McMahan and the rest of the writing staff rattled off the names of fake buddies who would pop up in the Smiths' house).



The solution to defeating the parasites comes not from Rick but from Morty, when he notices all the fake memories implanted by the parasites are pleasant memories instead of the always painful and unpleasant memories the Smiths have experienced as a family. The real memories include Summer catching Morty masturbating in the kitchen at night (why the kitchen?: the excuse Morty gave for jerking off in the kitchen was that he was thinking about one of Summer's friends, but was it actually because he was masturbating to the lady on the Land O'Lakes box?); Jerry being too scared to protect Beth from a homeless guy who's trying to assault her (it's reminiscent of Jeff leaving his wife Hayley alone with a mugger who's sticking them up on American Dad); and perhaps the most fucked-up memory of them all, a drunk Beth accidentally hitting Summer in the eye with a wine bottle. Morty's pivotal role in getting rid of the parasites is a good example of how Rick and Morty has range in its writing and nicely avoids making only one character the same voice of reason every week by alternating between Summer as the voice of reason one week, Rick as that (stammery) voice the next week and Morty after that.

When the other family members follow Morty's example and no longer become gullible to the parasites' illusions, it's as if McMahan, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are commenting on TV from the past: old sitcoms from the '80s and '90s (and in Summer's case, the cartoons she grew up on) may be nice to revisit once in a while, but to live in that world for real--and forever--is its own form of hell (this is why Republicans are so insufferable: they want to keep America similarly frozen in the sanitized, colorless and all-white Father Knows Best/Ozzie and Harriet vision of America in the '50s and '60s). The parasites have basically transformed themselves into old sitcom characters in their attempt to subjugate the Smiths, and the family discovers the way to fight the parasites is to accept their less-than-ideal reality--it's the same kind of road to acceptance the equally miserable characters on Community had to undertake as they learned to make the best of a shitty place like Greendale--and then use that reality to block the illusions. "Total Rickall" is like a battle--for the soul of modern-day TV--between the bland kind of TV that's epitomized by Nick at Nite or Antenna TV reruns (as well as a few present-day multi-cam sitcoms that could easily fit in with the programming on those channels) and the much less idealized TV that Harmon and now Roiland have become known for, and the latter wins.

Structurally, "Total Rickall" is my favorite Rick and Morty episode of the season so far because although Rick and Morty is one of the most inventive and subversive sitcoms around, it can also be blandly conventional in one or two respects, like whenever it deploys the A-story/B-story structure that's prevalent on other sitcoms or half-hour animated shows, and "Total Rickall" actually breaks away from that structure. I've been starting to get tired of Rick and Morty being off on their own adventure while Beth and Jerry have an unrelated subplot of their own (or Rick dealing with Summer while Jerry and Morty are busy with their own shit). Even "Rixty Minutes" wasn't immune from this divide when it separated Rick and Morty from the drama between Beth, Jerry and Summer for most of the story. Involving Beth and Jerry in the same plot with Rick, Morty and Summer is a welcome change of pace.

Speaking of "Rixty Minutes," I prefer "Total Rickall" as a bottle episode over "Rixty Minutes" because the Smiths are doing things that are much more visually busy than sitting around watching TV. Plus it's got a crazy twist, and it's a more surprising twist than Beth and Jerry reconciling after discovering their parallel counterparts would find their way back to each other: the little family friend known as Mr. Poopybutthole--whom the episode tricks us into thinking is a parasite by adding him to the Rick and Morty opening titles a la a pre-Empire-co-creating Danny Strong as dorky Jonathan getting tacked on to the alternate-universe Buffy opening titles at the start of "Superstar"--is actually not a parasite. He's just an off-screen family friend we've never seen before, and when a paranoid Beth shoots Mr. Poopybutthole and is shocked to discover he's bleeding instead of reverting back to a parasite, it's a funny "milquetoast character we didn't expect to get badly wounded" moment that's up there with Forrest MacNeil getting shot by a stranger he tried to goad into a bare-knuckle brawl a few weeks ago on Review and Chad's dad getting stabbed by Charlie Murphy on The Mad Real World.

Beth's shaky grab for the nearest wine bottle she can find--a terrifically animated moment of stress--right after she shoots Mr. Poopybutthole and the incident where she drunkenly gave Summer a black eye both reintroduce Beth's alcoholism, which was hinted at in "Rixty Minutes" and a few other episodes last season. Her alcoholism could potentially be more of a problem than her dad's alcoholism because she's a horse surgeon. What if her impaired judgment during surgery causes a mistake that injures a horse, it throws the rider off the saddle due to the pain it's experiencing and the rider winds up crippled like Christopher Reeve? Or what if some other mistakes due to Beth's impaired judgment lead to malpractice suits that cost Beth her job?

Because Jerry has been unemployed since before the start of the first season, Beth and Summer have been the sole providers for the Smiths. I don't know if Roiland and Harmon would have enough time on the show to turn Beth's alcoholism into a major storyline later this season or next season, but I would be interested in seeing how two unemployed parents would affect the rest of the family, in addition to all the interdimensional mayhem Rick has brought into their lives. Whatever way this drinking problem storyline goes, at least Beth, the Smith family member with the least screen time, is getting some more scenes--and a little more to do than just argue with Jerry. Plus it would allow Sarah Chalke to demonstrate more of her ability to burp on cue. That skill is why Roiland and Harmon hired her in the first place. Or is that a fake memory as well?

Tonz o' gunz, broh. Just like that Gang Starr joint, broh.

Memorable quotes:
* "Get off the high road, Summer! We all got pinkeye because you won't stop texting on the toilet."

* "All I have are pictures of me and my friends from school. [Awkward silence from everyone else.] What? What teenage girl has pictures of her family? It's not like we're Mormon or dying."

* "Shut up, Hamurai! Shut up, Amish Cyborg! What is this? '90s Conan?"

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