Friday, October 9, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week and Last Week: Rick and Morty, "The Wedding Squanchers" and "Look Who's Purging Now"

Look, it's that baby sun from Teletubbies, 40 years and six kids later.
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. Jemaine Clement and Rick and Morty series composer Ryan Elder's "Goodbye Moonmen," the original song from Rick and Morty's "Mortynight Run" earlier this season, is now in rotation during "Brokedown."

Last week's "Look Who's Purging Now," the penultimate episode of Rick and Morty's second season, and this week's "The Wedding Squanchers," the Red Wedding-inspired second-season finale, aren't intended to be viewed as a two-part story. But they have a lot in common, so they could have been packaged together as one big finale, which would have been nice to experience because I can never get enough of this often brilliant show. The purging episode is a final statement on Morty before the long break between seasons, just as "The Wedding Squanchers," which doesn't pay as much attention to Morty, is a final statement on Rick, and a couple of threads tie both episodes together.

One of those threads is the way the smartest man in the multiverse continually puts on a tough and macho exterior to never let anybody--whether it's Evil Rick last season or, in these last two episodes, any of the Smiths or even his friend and occasional criminal accomplice Birdperson (Dan Harmon)--see him at his most vulnerable, afraid or emotionally open, like when he pretends that he doesn't get sickened by the violence he witnesses in "Look Who's Purging Now," even as he's puking over how gory the carnage gets. The other thread is Rick's unspoken love for the family that, because of that tough exterior of his, will never be able to know of the grand gestures he makes to protect them.

The funniest moment in "Look Who's Purging Now," the first Rick and Morty episode where Harmon, his showrunning partner Justin Roiland and frequent Rick and Morty writer Ryan Ridley ("Meeseeks and Destroy") all share writing credit, has little to do with the episode's comedic and ultra-gory take on the "ordinary law-abiding citizens are given an hour or 12 hours to wile out and unleash their repressed rage on people" trope from Star Trek's "The Return of the Archons" and more recently, The Purge. Instead, the funniest moment is a scene that takes a pause from the bloodshed to revisit Harmon's frustrations about one of the most overused storytelling devices in screenwriting in recent years.

The tired device known as in medias res, a staple of Alias and Arrow or any network TV pilot of the last 10 years, gets another tongue-lashing from Harmon, this time in the form of Morty. Rick and Morty are trapped on an Amish-like cat people planet where the laws appear to have been modeled after the totalitarian society in The Purge ("That movie sucked," says Summer in a line that was perhaps contributed by Ridley, who reportedly found the concept of a Purge-inspired story to be hacky). Carjacked by a teen named Arthrisha (Baby Daddy star Chelsea Kane, an old castmate of Roiland's from his Disney/Fish Hooks days who clearly relishes being allowed to curse on this show), Rick and Morty are forced to seek refuge from the temporarily trigger-happy participants of the nighttime "Festival" by hiding out in the home of an old lighthouse keeper who refuses to participate in any of the purging. The kindly lighthouse keeper tells Rick and Morty, "I will let you use my lighthouse for shelter and beacon-sending on the condition that you listen to my tale." But instead of regaling Morty with a captivating story about an adventure on the sea, his tale turns out to be a clichéd rom-com screenplay he's been writing. The moment he read aloud to Morty the words "TITLE: THREE WEEKS EARLIER," I knew where the scene was headed and laughed my head off.

"I'm not a huge fan, personally, of the whole 'three weeks earlier' teaser thing," says Morty as he gives a critique to the lighthouse keeper about his screenplay. "I feel like, you know, we should start our stories where they begin, not start them where they get interesting."

I'm with you on that, Harmon, er, I mean, Morty.

Jesus, Dutch Wagenbach, take it fucking easy. It's just a cat.

Morty's argument with the old man over screenwriting and bad manners triggers a rage that Morty, who's initially appalled by the ways of the purge planet, is in denial about. Once that murderous rage is unleashed, Morty, like any other hormonal teenager, is unable to shut it off, and that leads to the show's most enjoyable use of an existing song this season, Tony! Toni! Toné!'s 1990 new jack hit "Feels Good."

I'm not so fond of the clunky way "Feels Good" has been looped and re-edited by the show's music editor (it's been shorn of the classic sample of a girl's orgasmic moans from "When Boys Talk" by Indeep of "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life!" fame). But I love how the episode first uses "Feels Good" non-diegetically and then changes it to diegetic after Rick--who sedates the mech-suited Morty with electric shocks because even he's had enough of Morty's killing spree--hands over Morty's mech suit to Arthrisha to allow her to go after the rich assholes who have created the Festival just to get the planet's lower-class citizens to kill each other off.

In "Look Who's Purging Now," Morty becomes even more of a monster than Rick at his most cold-blooded. It's a really dark way to close out this season's arc of Morty becoming desensitized to the madness around him--is this also how Evil Morty originated in that other dimension we haven't heard from since "Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind"?--but when you look back at the many different kinds of mayhem Morty has encountered since the very first episode, his repressed rage makes a lot of sense.

But as IGN points out in its review of "Look Who's Purging Now," a tiny light emerges at the end of this darkness, and it comes from a surprising source: Rick. "Several times in the past we've seen Rick show a genuine affection for Morty and even go out of his way to spare his grandson from emotional suffering. That trend repeated here as Rick led Morty to believe that the boy's murderous behavior was the result of a drugged candy bar rather than latent emotional trauma and teenage hormones," said IGN. Rick's act of deception to make Morty feel better is an interesting way to foreshadow the sacrifice Rick makes at the end of "The Wedding Squanchers."

Had Rick and Morty not been renewed by Adult Swim for a third season (and had Mr. Poopybutthole--fully recovered from the gun wounds Beth gave him at the end of "Total Rickall"--not shown up after the end credits to break the fourth wall and acknowledge both the renewal and his excitement over how Rick will get out of his latest predicament), "The Wedding Squanchers" could have functioned as a perfect series finale. Rick's decision to abandon Morty, Summer, Beth and even his least favorite family member, Jerry--while at the same time, protecting them from the interdimensional mayhem he's brought into their lives by allowing himself to get caught by the intergalactic government that wants him captured, to the tune of Nine Inch Nails' original 1995 version of "Hurt"--is a downbeat way to end things. But it would have been an intriguing and fitting coda for a flawed and privately troubled character like Rick.

I've always wondered how Rick and Morty will end its run, and since this show is darker than Harmon's previous show Community and it puts its characters through the kinds of horrors that would mentally and emotionally shatter the likes of Jeff, Annie and Troy, I have a feeling Rick and Morty isn't going to end on a completely sunny note like Community did earlier this year (#AndAMovie). "The Wedding Squanchers," which is credited solely to staff writer Tom Kauffman, gives us a glimpse of how Rick and Morty would have ended had this been the darkest timeline--in this timeline, Rick and Morty wasn't so popular and Adult Swim didn't believe in the show at all--as well as a glimpse of how the show will probably conclude its run years from now. The anarchic kind of life Rick has led is bound to not end with him being victorious.

I said earlier that I can't get enough of this show. But I'm also starting to grow weary of the show's "Beth has another quarrel with Jerry" B-stories, even though they're part of a formula that, for the most part, has worked and is a storytelling template Harmon said he enjoys working from and he considers sustainable for hundreds of episodes. "We can have Rick and Morty go on these adventures together as grandfather and grandson," said Harmon to Alan Sepinwall last season about what he and Roiland agreed upon when they first formed the show's storytelling structure. "And then we can intercut it with these Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen-esque petty domestic squabbles that are happening. That will be the formula of the show."

After Rick forced his unhappily married daughter and her pathetic and still-unemployed husband to see an alien marriage counselor in "Big Trouble in Little Sanchez," I've started to think, "Beth and Jerry have been like this for, what, over 15 years now? They fight and make up and fight again and make up again and so on. Why doesn't she just leave Jerry?" It's the same kind of criticism some Community fans used to have about the study group's interactions with Pierce before Chevy Chase quit the show and Harmon killed off his character: why does the group still keep Pierce around even though he's been nothing but selfish and mean?

Sure, it'd be boring if Beth and Jerry got along all the time, but I also want a little more variation in the ways their rocky marriage plays out, like maybe a B-story where they don't speak to each other at all and take their aggressions out on each other silently. One of the reasons why "The Wedding Squanchers" succeeds as a finale--and this is where it's a more satisfying finale than last season's "Ricksy Business," in which Jerry dragged a surly Beth along with him on a weekend trip to a cheesy reenactment of James Cameron's Titanic--is the seamless way it integrates Beth and Jerry's problems with each other into the A-story and doesn't seal them off in some lesser and repetitive subplot. In fact, some of the best line deliveries during "The Wedding Squanchers" belong to Sarah Chalke when her character reacts exasperatedly to Jerry's embarrassing behavior while they're guests at the wedding of Birdperson and his human girlfriend Tammy (Cassie Steele) on the planet Squanch.

If this were a destination wedding, I wonder how much Birdperson and Tammy would be squanching all the guests, expenses-wise.

"The Wedding Squanchers" is actually a story about Beth and Rick rather than Morty and Rick. Another thing that makes this one of the most worthwhile episodes of the season is that it finally delves into a backstory Harmon has mentioned at length to Sepinwall but hasn't addressed on the show: Beth's bizarre worship of her dad, even though he was absent for most of her life and has never really been that great of a dad, which Jerry points out to Beth in a rare moment where he's not talking nonsense. Jerry's discussion of Rick's self-centeredness ends up shaking an eavesdropping Rick to the core (and Rick's not the only one who's showing a different side of himself, which is another thing that makes this finale worthwhile).

"Kids can sometimes idolize their worst parent and blame their supportive parent for chasing off the dad with the guts to leave," explained Harmon to Sepinwall about this elaborate backstory he kept off-screen at the time of the interview. "And [Beth] fetishizes exceptionality. She believes that Rick, as crazy as he is, is the better of her two parents even though she was raised by her mother and she blames her mother's unremarkability on her father's departure and will do anything to keep her father back in her life. And if Morty needs to risk his life traipsing across the galaxy with her insane alcoholic father, it's better than Morty growing up in safety and ending up like her mother or her husband Jerry who she considers to be unremarkable and unredemptive and therefore undeserving of her affections."

I was hoping Roiland and Harmon would address in the finale some more of the drinking problem Beth has inherited from Rick, but this first-time exploration of her bizarre need to have more time with her dad and keep him from leaving again is even better. Beth's scenes in "The Wedding Squanchers" also cause the occasionally frustrating thread of her attachment to Jerry (despite how often she bickers with him) to make a little more sense. Perhaps she hasn't split yet because she doesn't want to become another deadbeat parent like Rick and end up breaking the hearts of Summer and Morty like Rick did to her heart when she was a kid. Part of me wishes this show would be a bit clearer about this side of Beth and that she'd get more screen time, which is funny because Harmon has said she's one of his favorite characters to write for on the show. On second thought, maybe Harmon has kept Beth on the sidelines because he's so concerned about getting her character right and doesn't want to totally fuck it up.

You haven't fucked anything up yet, Harmon. Roiland and Harmon's already interesting show is just starting to get even more interesting.

Rick's gonna love being a prison telemarketer.

Other memorable quotes:
* "The trick to cereal is keeping 70 percent of it above the milk."
Beth: "Jerry, get a job."

* Rick: "Oh shit! It looks like an egg-vite from Birdperson. Must be time for his annual Oscar party. And by the way, our TV signals take light years to reach his planet. Nobody tell him that Braveheart wins."

* Jerry to Beth: "I was transported here against my will in a meatball, alright? So take your attitude to the men's section of Kmart 'cause you need to cut me some slack... s."

* Tammy: "[Whistle noise] That's his last name."
Summer: "Are you hyphenating it?"

This is also what Colin Mochrie's speech notes will look like at his son's wedding reception.

* Rick: "Take it easy. This is a blessing in disguise. Fuck Earth. You realize our planet's name means dirt, right?"

* Alien news anchor: "The plucky little ball of water and dirt, which is where it gets its name, is dominated by seven billion primate-descended natives who love to eat spaghetti and pray to kangaroos."

* Rick, getting back at Jerry one last time while turning himself in before his arrest: "I'm Jerry Smith, and I loooove sucking biiiig, sweaty cocks and licking disgusting, furry testicle sacks."

Mr. Poopybutthole would be one hell of a name for a substitute teacher.

* Mr. Poopybutthole: "Tune in to Rick and Morty season 3 in like a year and a half--or longer--to see how we unravel this mess! Ooh wee!"

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