Friday, August 18, 2017

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of Last Week: Rick and Morty, "Pickle Rick"

This is the ninth of 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted until this blog's final post in December 2017. Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. The "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week hasn't been a weekly feature for a long time, but sometimes, I'll catch a really good piece of animated TV shortly after its original airdate, and I'll feel like devoting some paragraphs to it despite my lateness to the party. Hence the rare "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of Last Week. This is the 134th edition of "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week! Stream "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," my one-hour mix of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, right now.

The Monday after it premiered, I streamed on the Adult Swim site "Pickle Rick"--Rick and Morty's most violent episode so far, as well as the show's most damning indictment of Rick and his treatment of his family, as he mutates himself into a pickle/human hybrid as an excuse to avoid going along with Beth, Summer and Morty to see a family therapist (special guest voice Susan Sarandon)--but I wasn't able to write about "Pickle Rick" until now. I was busy resuming work on my prose novel manuscript and trying to finish marathoning Fargo's third season on FXNow right before FX deleted the entire season from FXNow.

Movie Pilot did such an astute review of "Pickle Rick" (it's entitled "'Pickle Rick' Proved Beyond a Squanch of a Doubt That Rick Is the Real Villain of Rick and Morty") that I'm not going to discuss and briefly summarize (instead of pointlessly recap scene-for-scene) "Pickle Rick" in a fashion similar to the Movie Pilot piece, which is the same kind of non-recappy approach I've done with previous Rick and Morty episodes. I'm just going to raise a couple of points I haven't seen in other reviews of "Pickle Rick."

Danny Trejo is an underrated voice actor. I had no idea Trejo voiced Jaguar, the racially ambiguous assassin Pickle Rick battles and then conspires with to get himself back home, until the end credits. I thought it was Clancy Brown the whole time. That's how effective Trejo is as a voice actor. Trejo really whitened up his voice in "Pickle Rick." He did an even better job as Enrique, Hank's not-too-bright co-worker, in my favorite later-season King of the Hill episode, "Lady and Gentrification," because he convincingly voiced a meek and non-confrontational character who's the complete opposite of all the ass-kickers he played in movies like Desperado, the Machete flicks and even A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, an atypical Trejo movie where Elias Koteas, not Trejo, is the one who's doing all the on-screen carnage. Speaking of King of the Hill, I'm not so excited over the rumors about Mike Judge reuniting with the King of the Hill crew to make new episodes. It's just wrong for King of the Hill to resume without the late Brittany Murphy. If King of the Hill is going to come back to TV now, it ought to kill off Luanne, Murphy's character, off-screen. And no, not even a terrific and versatile voice actor like Pamela Adlon, who juggled several roles on King of the Hill, including Bobby, would be a satisfactory enough replacement for Murphy as Luanne.

Trejo is always weirdly guest-starring in TV show episodes that make me emotional for some reason. "Lady and Gentrification" is a rare King of the Hill episode that angers me because of the things Enrique, his daughter Inez and their family are forced to experience due to the gentrification of Arlen (caused by Peggy, of course), even though a certain quotable grievance of Enrique's is played for laughs ("They put salmon in the fish tacos, Hank!"). The unexpected friendship between Hank and Inez, whom Hank has been asked by Enrique to give a speech for at her quinceañera even though Hank barely knows her, causes "Lady and Gentrification" to also be oddly affecting. Hank is understandably uncomfortable about being around Inez at first because the thought of a middle-aged man spending extra time talking to a teenage girl is never not creepy, but the friendship becomes kind of affecting when you realize Hank, after years of struggling to understand Bobby ("That boy ain't right") and not exactly getting along with the niece-in-law whom he and Peggy have to look after, has finally met a kid whom he could actually get along with. Trejo's guest shot on Monk had the same effect on me as Hank's quasi-parental bond with a surprisingly non-sullen Inez did in "Lady and Gentrification": his hardened lifer character's gradual sympathy for both his cellmate Monk, whom he doesn't get along with at first, and Monk's search for the murderer of his wife Trudy in "Mr. Monk Goes to Jail" is oddly affecting too, and I wished Monk brought back Trejo's character for another episode. In the Monk series finale about the revelation of Trudy's killer, Monk should have sent Trejo to kill Craig T. Nelson.

In the case of "Pickle Rick," the episode's final scene before the end credits was what made me emotional, but not emotional as in somewhat moved, like when I saw "Lady and Gentrification" or "Mr. Monk Goes to Jail." The final scene in Beth's car made me frustrated, as in "Goddammit, Morty, be more aggressive about this shit that's been eating you up inside."

That final scene--Morty tells Beth he likes their therapist's advice, but Beth (who hates how Dr. Wong astutely pointed out how unhealthy it is for her to keep enabling the selfish behavior of a parent who abandoned her as a kid) ignores her son, and he abandons the discussion--was more difficult to watch than any of the constant carnage in the "Pickle Rick" action scenes. Movie Pilot's reviewer nicely points out how Rick does not come off well in "Pickle Rick." Meanwhile, Polygon's reviewer interestingly thinks Rick and Beth are headed towards both redemption (but at a slow pace) and having a healthier parent/child relationship. That's not what I got out of the episode's conclusion.

Beth and her dad--when he's not badassly killing cockroaches, sewer rats and assassins, that is--are at their worst in "Pickle Rick." The episode illustrates that despite their intellects, Rick and Beth are incapable of growth as adults, and the breakthrough the Polygon reviewer thinks Rick and Beth are experiencing due to their first (and most likely only) visit to Dr. Wong isn't happening any time soon. Beth's petulant-looking disdain for therapy, which comes off as something she picked up from Rick simply because "my cool dad makes clapping back at shrinks look so cool," makes her look as dumb as any Scientologist who blindly parrots their cult's stance against therapy, while Rick's view of therapy is slightly more nuanced: he clearly knows that Dr. Wong is right about the negative effects his behavior has on his family, but he just won't openly say so because he never wants to look wrong in front of anybody. (The show has presented many times before what Rick's like when he's alone and not being macho: he's much more aware of his shortcomings when he's not acting out the persona he's constructed for himself as the multiverse's toughest genius/granddad.)

This goes back to my discussion of "The Rickshank Rickdemption," the third-season premiere from way back in April. I correctly predicted back then that Beth and Jerry's separation--orchestrated by Rick to get back at Jerry (who had a backbone for once when he pointed out to Beth, Summer and Morty the irrationality of doing what Rick wants, even though it ends up ruining their lives)--would take its toll on Morty and his sister, who, as "Pickle Rick" reveals, have acted out their discomfort with the separation by, respectively, peeing in the classroom and sniffing pottery enamel, a pair of actions that caused Morty and Summer's school to send the family to Dr. Wong. "Pickle Rick" further backs up my belief from the "Rickshank Rickdemption" discussion that Morty and Summer have got to get the fuck away from Rick and Beth.

I previously said, "'The Rickshank Rickdemption' leaves us with the implication that someday this season or maybe later, either Morty or Summer has got to find a way to break the cycle of misery that they're being dragged into in various ways by their elders." Morty had a perfect opportunity to break that cycle by encouraging his mom to continue seeing Dr. Wong, but after Beth ignores him, he stupidly allows that opportunity to slip away, and so he sits back and watches Beth and Rick once again do what they always do: resort to drinking to deal with life, instead of drinking in moderation.

Letting an opportunity like that slip away is something that rarely happens at the end of an animated comedy, but it happens so often in real life. That's why it's an infuriating scene! I don't see Rick and Beth's post-therapy trip to the bar as a lovely bonding moment for Rick and Beth like the Polygon writer does. I see the trip to the bar as a total dodge and another excuse for Rick and Beth to bury their problems in booze and not get those problems fixed.

"Pickle Rick" is not just a sharply funny and outstanding glimpse into the foolish sides of Rick and Beth. It also happens to be the second Rick and Morty episode solely credited to a female writer (as well as what I'm going to assume is the first-ever Rick and Morty episode credited to a writer of color): Jessica Gao, best known for writing for Silicon Valley, a show I've never watched (unless it's a caper flick about a crew of Asian American thieves stealing shit from a Silicon Valley techbro who wronged them, I'm not really interested in watching any movie or show about a part of Northern California I reluctantly had a past with). But I've seen Gao speak at length as part of an Asian American TV writer's panel in L.A., and I'm a fan of several of her tweets. I don't know which parts of "Pickle Rick" are actually Gao's writing (like with most other half-hour comedies, some of the jokes or wisecracks in each episode of Rick and Morty are contributions from uncredited staff writers like co-creator Justin Roiland). I'm just going to assume Gao, due to her past ties to both Annoying Orange, a show about fruit stand items that can talk, and Robot Chicken, was behind all the talking pickle material and all the ultraviolent action cliché parody scenes, while much of Dr. Wong's dialogue must have come from Dan Harmon.

Rick and Morty hasn't exactly been known for its diversity in the writers' room, but that's changing this season with the addition of Gao and three other female writers to Roiland and Harmon's staff to transform the staff into 50 percent women, 50 percent men. It's a nice sign of progress on an Adult Swim show that the rest of the network, which has been criticized for its lack of female showrunners, has yet to emulate, aside from the Robot Chicken writers' room (the same room where Rachel Bloom once worked).

The hiring of Gao, Jane Becker and the writing duo of Sarah Carbiener and Erica Rosbe is also terrific for the future of Rick and Morty. This show's lone weak spot has most often been the one-note writing for Beth, which is something even Carbiener indicates in the Hollywood Reporter when she says to THR that "now that there are women in the room we can vet [Summer and Beth's stories] and make them better." I don't want to say Beth's previously repetitive subplots are the kind of problem that can only be solved by female writers, but a feminine perspective would help to bring a bit more nuance and color to her subplots. Thanks to both the input of the new female writers and the migration of Jerry from Beth's house to a fleabag motel surrounded by hookers, I'm relieved that the third season has been, so far, not another season of "Beth yells at Jerry again and complains some more about being a horse surgeon."

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the third season. Carbiener scripted with Rosbe this week's Jerry-less "Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender." (By the way, "Vindicators 3" is a bottle episode that basically traps Rick inside a Marvel Studios movie and lets him wreak havoc on the members of a seemingly upright but privately dysfunctional superteam led by Gillian Jacobs, who's perfectly cast as an alien heroine who's like a mash-up of Starfire, Star Sapphire and Captain Marvel, and her vocal performance in "Vindicators 3" is making me long for an alternate reality where Jacobs beat out Brie Larson for the role of Captain Marvel. If you're getting tired of some of the MCU's clichés like I am, "Vindicators 3" is the episode for you.) And in the Hollywood Reporter piece about the new staff writers, Carbiener recalls that about more than six months before the premiere of the third season, "There was a Reddit post that called us the social justice warriors that Dan had to hire that ruined season three."

Wait a minute, they actually said that about the female writers, before they even saw any of the episodes that were scripted by those writers? Those fans from Reddit can go fuck themselves.

An inane negative review of "Pickle Rick" I refuse to link to complains that Beth and Jerry's separation and its aftermath are dragging the show down. Fans like that impatient reviewer and the Reddit fuckboys are missing the point of Rick and Morty. (They're just like those irate male Doctor Who fans whose objections to the casting of actress Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor signify how much they've failed to notice the progressive ethos of a show they claim to love.) Rick and Morty has always been a show that's mainly about how one man's ways of handling his thirst for adventure and his inability to re-examine his ego are alienating his grandson and tearing apart his family instead of keeping the fam together.

The domestic side of Rick and Morty, even though it hasn't always been perfectly executed, is what primarily distinguishes the show from other sci-fi sitcoms. Without that domestic side, Rick and Morty would be nothing more than "Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon do their version of Futurama." Sure, it would still be a good show, but it wouldn't be as brilliant or bold as the dysfunctional character study Rick and Morty has morphed into, like a madman transforming into a pickle, during a standout half-hour like "Pickle Rick."

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