Friday, January 24, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "Meeseeks and Destroy"

The moment I saw that box, I thought the show was going to riff on 'Button, Button,' a.k.a. that Twilight Zone episode that became a Cameron Diaz movie, of all things.
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

"Meeseeks and Destroy" is a great turning point for Rick and Morty. It's where several of the regular characters evolve from being cartoon characters--and mere chess pawns in the writers' crazy and increasingly imaginative plots--to human beings with wants, desires, genuine sadness and occasional compassion, much like the characters on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's Community.

We learn that Beth (Sarah Chalke) is having regrets about her marriage to Jerry (Chris Parnell)--being pregnant with Summer (Spencer Grammer) at a young age, while putting herself through veterinarian school, was the main reason why she wedded Jerry--and she's beginning to feel stifled by her suburban existence. As for Morty (co-creator Justin Roiland), he's getting tired of being led around by Rick (also Roiland) through such dangerous adventures on other worlds. After some persuasion from Morty and agreeing to a bet with him, the cynical grandpa, who continually warns Morty that the universe is crazy and chaotic, lets his grandson be in charge of an adventure that's closer to his perception of adventure as simple and fun (somewhere on a Jack and the Beanstalk-like planet where medieval villagers are being subjugated by giants from a much more modernized section of the planet). That is until Morty realizes the hard way that Rick is right about the darkness and dangerousness of the universe, and his notion of adventure as simple and fun is destroyed in that unsettling scene every Rick and Morty viewer has been talking about on the Internet this week.

Yes, about that scene: Since episode one, Rick and Morty has been upfront about being dark-humored and adult, but never have I expected the show to go to such a dark place like it does when Morty is nearly raped by Mr. Jellybean, an anthropomorphic and seemingly benign jellybean, in the bathroom of a tavern inside a stairway on the giants' land. Nothing alters the mood of a comedy like sexual assault, and fortunately, unlike too many other adult animated shows, "Meeseeks and Destroy" doesn't play Morty's moments of terror and subsequent trauma for laughs.

"Edith's 50th Birthday," the infamous All in the Family episode where Edith escapes an attempted rape in her own home, was lauded for its treatment of sexual assault (and the late Jean Stapleton totally owned the episode), but it has also dated badly. That All in the Family episode was made at a time when all comedy on TV contained studio audience laughter or canned laughter, so you get these annoying and strange studio audience giggles during the serial rapist's attempted attack and the scenes where Edith is wracked with PTSD (I don't care for the TV version of M*A*S*H, partly because of the canned laughter, but I always liked how the M*A*S*H producers, who opposed the CBS execs' insistence on a laugh track, refused to add laughter during the surgery scenes). You wonder if maybe All in the Family would have been better off taping "Edith's 50th Birthday" without the studio audience due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but then without that live audience, you wouldn't have gotten that classic moment where the audience cheers and goes crazy when Edith smashes a burning cake into the rapist's face and escapes. The stupid laugh track is a common thing you have to put up with when rewatching all those terrible and awkward '70s and '80s Very Special Episodes (VSEs) All in the Family is responsible for unleashing. It served as a cushion of comfort for '70s and '80s viewers, reassuring them that this is a light comedy first and a drama second. There's no such audio of laughter to be found in "Meeseeks and Destroy," which is why I find it to be more effective about the horror of almost being sexually assaulted than "Edith's 50th Birthday."

The bathroom incident introduces a compassionate side of Rick, whose treatment of Morty has bordered on abusive, ever since he insisted to Morty in the premiere episode that he smuggle extraterrestrial plant seeds inside his butt as if he were a drug mule. Despite moments like that, we know Rick cares a bit for his grandson because he'd willingly blow up civilization if doing so would get Morty to score with the girl he's crushing on. That great moment where Rick sees Mr. Jellybean stumble out of the bathroom in bruises created by Morty, silently puts two and two together and gives Mr. Jellybean a steely-eyed stare is further proof that Rick cares for Morty, as is his hilarious final act in the medieval village immediately after he and Morty find out the identity of the villagers' king. Fuck with Rick's family, and you're eradicated from the universe, no matter what social standing you are.

I'm making it sound like the near-rape scene brings "Meeseeks and Destroy" to a screeching VSE halt. Fortunately, "Meeseeks and Destroy" doesn't awkwardly turn into a VSE after the incident or end with Rick and Morty breaking the fourth wall to give the number of a counseling hotline like so many VSEs would do (although it does end with Rick breaking the fourth wall, not for PSA reasons but to put a button on an intentionally lame one-liner with what he mistakenly thinks is an old Arsenio catchphrase). It just treats the near-rape like the unsettling and horrible thing it is, doesn't try to preach about the horribleness of it and moves on. It's a grown-up and sophisticated way of handling such a subject, compared to how the VSEs would poorly stitch together their serious subjects with bits of comic relief or reassuring messages.

And I haven't even talked yet about the brilliance of the B-story. The B-stories on Rick and Morty have gotten increasingly ingenious, ever since the superintelligent dogs' conquest of Earth in "Lawnmower Dog." To keep Beth, Jerry and Summer from constantly turning to him for solving their problems, Rick presents them with a Meeseeks box, which, when its button is pressed, summons a Meeseeks ("I'm Mr. Meeseeks! Look at me!"), a jolly, genie-like blue creature whose purpose in life is to solve someone else's problem, and it's their only purpose because the Meeseekses wink out of existence immediately after accomplishing their tasks. Summer's Meeseeks helps her to become the most popular girl in school, while Beth's Meeseeks helps her to become a more perfect and pretty woman, as we see in an amusing restaurant scene where, over lunch, he drops some motivational advice to Beth as if he were every single magical gay BFF in every crappy rom-com. But when relentlessly mediocre Jerry asks his Meeseeks to help him take two strokes off his golf swing, Jerry fails to fix his swing, which keeps the Meeseeks in existence longer than he expected and causes him to push the button to summon another Meeseeks to help him help Jerry. When neither of them can help Jerry, they call on more and more Meeseekses to appear until all the Meeseekses go insane and agree that the only way they can disappear is to kill Jerry.

The last Dirty Harry movie had a scene at a restaurant like this, where Dirty Harry gunned down a bunch of robbers with blue skin and tufts of orange hair.
"Existence is pain to a Meeseeks, Jerry, and we will do anything to alleviate that pain!," shouts one of the Meeseekses while holding hostage at gunpoint the customers and waiters at a restaurant where Jerry and Beth are dining. Jerry has had a rough last few episodes, from seeing his mom make out with her new and much younger lover at Christmas dinner--while his dad's bizarrely okay with it--to having what he thinks is the best sex he's ever had with Beth when he unknowingly bangs an inanimate digital clone of her. So seeing Jerry rise to the occasion for once during the hostage situation--instead of the advice of a Meeseeks, a boost of confidence from Beth is what helps him to finally perfect his swing and send all the Meeseekses away--is a nice break from his spiral of patheticness.

Jerry's triumph is also a nice break from the dark examples throughout "Meeseeks and Destroy" of why the universe is, in Rick's words, a crazy and chaotic place. Yet another dark example pops up in the post-credits tag when the village chooses to sweep Mr. Jellybean's pedophilia under the rug, which is both comedically pathetic and, as we've seen from headlines like Joe Paterno's decision to keep quiet about Jerry Sandusky, sadly all too common in this crazy and chaotic universe. The tag is one of several dark touches that have elevated Rick and Morty from a solid Adult Swim show to one of the 2013-14 season's best new comedies, live-action or animated.

Memorable quotes:
* "Hey Rick, you got some kind of hand-shaped device that can open this mayonnaise jar?"

* Attorney: "Your Honor, I'm from a tiny person's advocacy group, and I have here in my hand a motion to dismiss! These little men were never read their giant rights and are therefore, free fi to fo home." Rick: "What the hell is he talking about?" Attorney: "They're free to go is what I meant. I-I'm deconstructing o-our thing we say. For giants. Nobody got that? Whatever."

* "I can't take it anymore! I just want to die!" "We all want to die! We're Meeseeks!" "Why did you even rope me into this?" "'Cause he roped me into this!" "Well, him over there, he roped me into this!" "Well, he roped me into this!"

* "Jerry, maybe it's time I take that trip I always talk about." "Where would you go?" "I don't know, man. Italy, Greece, Argentina..." Jerry, doing a half-assed Carnac impression: "Countries known for their sexually aggressive men."

* "Wait. Destroy it. Our people will get more from the idea he represented than from the jellybean he actually was."

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