Friday, April 7, 2017

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "The Rickshank Rickdemption"

This is the fourth of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis 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. It's the "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.

If the last few years saw the rise of the surprise album release--the likes of BeyoncƩ and Drake have rewritten the rules of the music industry by dropping albums right and left without any warning--then Adult Swim is apparently taking a cue from Queen Bey and Drizzy by trying to bring about the rise of the surprise TV show episode premiere. They did it before when, without much fanfare, they debuted on Instagram the complete "Rixty Minutes" episode of Rick and Morty a few days before its broadcast premiere.

This April Fools Day, Adult Swim did it again. Without posting some sort of press release or promotional tweet in advance, Adult Swim's staff pretended to do their annual April Fools prank (three of those past pranks were simply broadcasts of The Room), but they used the appearance of a prank as a Trojan horse to show all of "The Rickshank Rickdemption"--the Rick and Morty third-season premiere in which an incarcerated Rick comes up with a very sci-fi way to both outsmart an alien interrogator (special guest star Nathan Fillion) and escape from intergalactic prison--in a loop for only a few hours on both the network and its site. Well-played, Adult Swim, well-played.

Adult Swim hasn't even set a date yet for the unveiling of the rest of Rick and Morty's new season. So far, they've said the season will resume some time in the summer, so the most impatient of Rick and Morty fans, who have been waiting since October 2015 for new episodes from Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, will just have to shut the fuck up like Jemaine Clement whenever he sings about moonmen and wait a little longer.

The April Fools loop was a nice little surprise stunt, but how does the episode--which I was lucky to stream in its entirety after returning home late from a party, right before Adult Swim deleted it from their site--fare as the return of an eagerly awaited animated show that hasn't been first-run in almost two years? "The Rickshank Rickdemption," which is credited to Rick and Morty staff writer Mike McMahan, is a much more focused and tautly written (as well as much more action-heavy) season premiere than last season's "A Rickle in Time," a season opener that Roiland and Harmon were reportedly unhappy with because, according to the duo in Rolling Stone, "We were so close to something amazing and we never really got there from a structural standpoint," and "It went off the deep end conceptually and got really over-complicated." The third-season premiere is satisfying and funny enough to get me to bring back this blog's "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week" feature after a long hiatus.

Reviewing new Rick and Morty episodes is one of the few things I'll miss about writing for this Blogspot blog. By the way, reviewing the show is completely different from recapping it, and I've always found the recapping of TV show episodes to be the dumbest, lowest and least challenging form of long-form writing about TV. Okay, maybe recaps are occasionally helpful in clarifying a confusing plot point or two that might have puzzled you while you watched an elaborately plotted show like Rick and Morty (but only occasionally). Otherwise, they're a pointless waste of space, and that's why I've never done recaps (also, you never see anybody recapping Get Out or, oh, I don't know, Moonlight, and why the fuck would anybody want to do that, so why do the same for a scripted TV show?). So before I begin discussing "The Rickshank Rickdemption," I want to further explain why "Brokedown" and this blog are approaching the end.

A year ago, I would have said this blog is one of the few things that keeps me happy while being unemployed. These days, I've found this blog to be a chore. It continually gets in the way of a novel I've been trying to write as a way to possibly get steady work somewhere again, even after I shortened the blog post schedule from weekly to monthly earlier this year.

Also, nobody reads this blog anymore. Barely anybody responds to it anymore. Meanwhile, my weekday posts over at Accidental Star Trek Cosplay, my Tumblr blog, as well as a blog that, unlike this one, isn't time-consuming at all, frequently receive one to three likes (and occasionally more than three). My Tumblr blog's much more responsive audience is also a lot more diverse than the same two guys who have posted the most comments in this blog's comments section in the last two years.

I'm a bit disappointed to be bowing out of long-form blogging at the end of the year. I feel like I lost in the battle to help keep long-form blogging alive. It's a lost art that's being eclipsed and destroyed by Twitter (as well as, to a lesser extent, by Tumblr and by any site that resorts to vapid listicles and pointless rankings of things as click-baity filler). I resent Twitter for that (oh yeah, and its inability to be tougher on Nazis and Fuckface Von Clownstick, the worst Twitter addict of them all, is an even bigger thing I resent about the site, but the role it played in the rise of Fuckface and his worshipers is a bunch of shit I don't want to get into right now). I also resent Twitter for being an ineffective tool for getting people to check out things I've worked on, so I've completely given up on posting links to this blog on Twitter, while over on Facebook, a site I dislike even more than Twitter, the regularity in which I would post links to this blog on the AFOS Facebook page's timeline has dwindled. I basically said, "Fuck it. People addicted to Twitter or Facebook can go find my shit on their own."

Tumblr is the kind of online community I need right now. It doesn't have comments sections. Tumblr was wise to do away with them. Comments sections are magnets for the worst of humanity. Those forums are outdated, unwieldy-looking, pointless and lame. Sometimes the lamest kinds of comments, other than racist ones from trolls, are either comments where the commenter doesn't engage with the material you wrote and just wants to hear himself talk or comments where you can tell how terrible the commenter's reading comprehension is because he or she reiterates a point you made as if you never said it at all in the post (that's why the only frequent commenter whose comments I enjoy reading below my posts in the last two years is Bryant Burnette, who runs a very good Blogspot blog about the work of Stephen King; I can often tell that Bryant had thoroughly read everything above the blog post labels).

Also, on Tumblr, if someone dislikes a post you did, they don't say something racist to you or threaten to assault you. They simply don't click "Like" on it and move on to the next thing to read. Okay, maybe they might drag you during a post on their Tumblr, but luckily, that has happened to me only once.

Because Accidental Star Trek Cosplay is focused only on, well, accidental Star Trek cosplay, there won't be any room over there for "Brokedown" to continue. I know "Brokedown" was one of the few features on this blog that some readers looked forward to with regularity, but I don't have time anymore to write at length about made-for-TV animation like I used to before. The most disappointing part of having to leave behind "Brokedown" will be not being able to discuss Rick and Morty anymore because I really love the show, and "The Rickshank Rickdemption" is full of many of the things I've enjoyed the most about discussing Rick and his grandson's ultraviolent and wildly funny trips all over the multiverse.

Those things range from the brief and juicy glimpses into various alternate realities (I'm kind of curious about the reality where their Rick has a Jew-fro) to the surprising moments of depth involving Morty and his growing ambivalence about the actions of his misanthropic (and privately self-loathing) scientist grandpa, who's blindly idealized by his mother and his big sister. Morty's a character who started out as a cipher with an uninteresting personality, and he could have turned into an A.J. Soprano-style black hole of one-note teen angst, but he has unexpectedly become, like Dean Venture over on a certain other Adult Swim show, the one character you root for to someday pull himself and his sister Summer away from the destructive influence of their ingenious but fucked-up grandpa and their similarly fucked-up parents.

Two seasons into its run, Rick and Morty has plenty to explore storytelling-wise, thanks mostly to a sci-fi premise that's sustainable for hundreds of episodes (a.k.a. more than 10 seasons), even though in the second season, I started to get a little impatient with the B-stories that centered on Beth and Jerry's crumbling marriage. At its worst, Beth's intense hatred of her husband, whom she finds to be dull and unsatisfying, is to this show what Pierce's uselessness as a member of the study group was to the middle seasons of Community: the only component of the show that, after the first season, hasn't really been treading much new ground.

"The Rickshank Rickdemption" finds a way for the show to write itself out of a potential rut, even while restoring the status quo: Beth's decision to finally divorce Jerry. She makes that choice after Rick's climactic return to the Smiths' house causes Jerry to give her an ultimatum--either he bounces or Rick bounces--and it's the culmination of an elaborate plan hatched by Rick to get back at his son-in-law for trying to kick him out of the household in "The Wedding Squanchers," last season's finale. In that episode, Jerry's observation of Beth's irrational need to keep her dad around in her life--as Dan Harmon once noted in an interview, Beth is so in awe of her dad's talents as the smartest man in the multiverse that she's unable to notice that he was a shitty dad who abandoned her for most of her childhood--was a rare moment where Jerry was actually being smarter than his heart surgeon wife, who thinks of Jerry, a former advertising agent, as intellectually inferior to her.

Divorce is going to suck for Morty and Summer, but the split will hopefully bring some new life to the domestic stories half of Rick and Morty (Harmon fans who are weirdly obsessed with the details of Harmon's personal life--I'm not one of those fans--are bound to be especially interested in how Harmon will work his recent experiences with divorce into Rick and Morty's storylines). Get ready for a lot of shots this season of Jerry's pathetic face pressed up against the Smiths' living room window from outside the house.

Besides, I always thought it was unhealthy for Beth and Jerry to continue being under the same roof. "Meeseeks and Destroy" revealed that Beth and Jerry got married not out of love but because Beth became pregnant with Summer. That early episode was the point in the show's run when I said, "Yeah, this couple stays together for the dumbest reasons. They need to separate or divorce someday."

"The Rickshank Rickdemption" is a rare episode where this domestic side of Rick and Morty is actually more compelling than the sci-fi comedy side, even though that side is highlighted by a return to the Cronenberged reality our Rick and Morty, a.k.a. C-137 Rick and Morty, left behind in "Rick Potion #9," a complicated prison break that really has to be watched twice in order to fully understand it (this is where watching the season premiere on a loop really helped) and a badass, large-scale teleportation scene. The season premiere's sci-fi comedy side is also full of clever and quotable "Rick the asshole handing intellectually inferior assholes their asses on a platter" moments (including a certain moment that has gone viral). But the domestic scenes are what really stand out for me in this episode.

Rick and Morty's domestic side is thankfully more than just the squabbles between Beth and Jerry. It also includes Summer's ongoing jealousy of the amount of time her brother has gotten to spend all over the multiverse with a grandpa she wants to get to know more. At the start of "The Rickshank Rickdemption," Morty resents Rick for leaving behind his family when they needed him the most. In the most intriguing scene between Morty and Summer since the non-comedic "Nobody exists on purpose" scene in "Rixty Minutes," Morty warns Summer--who's attempting to rescue Rick from prison so that he could use his science to fix the world (which has been taken over by an intergalactic totalitarian regime that tries to pacify the populace with pills, and it's a sucky world that the mediocre Jerry, of course, finds to be appealing)--that their grandpa doesn't care about anybody and he can't be trusted.

Summer seems to have inherited Beth's bizarre idolization of Rick, whereas Morty, who's now so jaded from the amount of chaos Rick has brought into his life, is able to step back and view Rick as a burden. Rick and Morty has been described by some as a darker Back to the Future (but without the time machine, and I wouldn't be surprised if Roiland and Harmon are staying away from time travel stories because they can be such a pain in the ass to plot out). I once said in the first season that it was more like Evil Doctor Who, a comparison I'm starting to see a few other writers make as well. But after "The Rickshank Rickdemption," it's becoming more clear to me now that if you take away the sci-fi tropes, Rick and Morty is basically a darker Auntie Mame. That old movie (based on a novel that was turned into a hit Broadway play) was about a kid who's taken under the wing of an older relative who lives life to the fullest and is a force of nature. Rick lives life to the fullest and is a force of nature too, but unlike Auntie Mame, Roiland and Harmon's show is able to step back, like Morty himself these days, and view its main life-of-the-party figure critically and skeptically.

Sure, the show gets us to root for Rick whenever he does badass things like assassinating a pedophilic alien king who tried to sexually assault Morty, single-handedly ruining the economy or beaming the entire Citadel of Ricks right smack dab into the location of the prison that's run by the Galactic Federation (by the way, making the Federation one of the show's villains instead of the organization that's represented by the heroes is a move straight out of Blake's 7, and I wouldn't be surprised if the name choice was Roiland and Harmon's shout-out to that old show). But the show's writing is also savvy enough to question many of Rick's other actions and raise the possibility that Rick may not even be the hero of this show at the end of the day. It might ultimately be Morty.

In 2014, I said, "I don't want to see Rick, seven or eight years from now, becoming as repetitive and tiresome an asshole genius as Gregory House became about seven seasons into House. I want to see him change a little, just like how the similarly abrasive Jeff Winger did over the course of Community's run." "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" and now "The Rickshank Rickdemption" have made me realize Rick's never going to change. Instead, Morty is the half of the duo who's doing all the changing, evolving and growing.

It has also become clear to me that Rick and Morty is increasingly sympathizing with Morty and Summer (it started out as a bit contemptuous of them, especially Summer and her very teenage shallowness) and implying that if the siblings don't ever get away from Rick, Beth and Jerry, they will turn into their miserable and fucked-up elders. Of course, Morty and Summer haven't realized it yet (in "Rixty Minutes," he was trying to get her to stay with the family instead of running away when she couldn't stand their parents anymore, and now that I think about it, running away may not have been as bad an idea as Morty thought it would be). Distancing themselves from Rick and the rest just might be the best thing they could ever do for themselves.

But all anybody on the Internet wants to talk about when bringing up Rick and Morty's surprise season premiere is that fucking McDonald's Mulan Szechuan Sauce. Never mind that Morty's newfound assertiveness could be the most interesting arc during what Rick warns will be the darkest year ever or that Beth has finally wised up after 16 or 17 years and chosen to divorce Jerry. And never mind that Birdperson is coming back to life as a cyborg or that Rick's mind tricks while trying to keep Nathan Fillion's character from getting his hands on the secrets of his portal gun inside the episode's equivalent of the Matrix are so clever they make the nifty mind tricks inside Legion's astral plane look like trash. They just want McDonald's to bring back that McNuggets Szechuan sauce!

Sure, Rick's joke that his series arc is his quest for the discontinued Mulan Szechuan Sauce from 1998 is the funniest line in "The Rickshank Rickdemption." But goddamn, the meme that Rick and Morty's nerdiest fans have made viral after hearing Rick obsess over that dipping sauce twice in the episode is out of control.

The Mulan Sauce meme has gotten so crazy that Rick and Morty fans are petitioning McDonald's to put it back on the menu when Disney releases that live-action Mulan remake Whale Rider director Niki Caro is currently attached to. Meanwhile, a YouTube chef who doesn't even remember how the sauce tasted (I don't remember how it tasted either) has actually conducted sauce-mixing experiments and taken things a step further than Rick.

Look, that sauce might be fucking amazing, but there's this little thing that's bothering me about the meme, and no one else has pointed this out. Whenever 1998's Mulan is brought up around most of us Asian Americans, especially woke Chinese American women, the first thing they think of regarding that animated Disney flick is how special and empowering it was for them to see during the film an Asian heroine who, for once, was neither exoticized and objectified nor dependent on a white man (maybe she, like the Once Upon a Time version of her, isn't even dependent on any man) for sex.

Meanwhile, whenever Mulan is brought up around wypipo, the first thing they think of is a sauce for McNuggets. That is peak caucasity right there. Shout-out to Desus & Mero.

I wonder if those Rick and Morty fans realize that Rick's dependence on an overly sugary sauce for a bunch of meat (as chef Andrew Rea notes in his instructional video about recreating the Szechuan sauce, McDonald's overdoes the sugar content on everything) is the most Trumpian thing he's ever done. Rapey McBigot likes to slather his (stupidly) well-done steaks in overly sugary, steak-flavor-masking ketchup, which is such an overgrown man-child thing to do.

I take it that both Rick and Chicken McBigot aren't exactly fans of the Saturday morning "Don't Drown Your Food" PSA from the '70s. That PSA is partly why whenever I see my parents dumping ketchup all over a delicious omelet they cooked, I say to them, "That's disgusting. The ketchup ruins the flavor."

Enough about strange memes and overbearing sauces. While promoting Rick and Morty, Harmon once said he admired the British for their willingness to do dark-humored stories for kids, particularly the "kids vs. corrupt adults" novels of Roald Dahl (is Harmon aware that Dahl was also a Fuckfaceian anti-Semite?), and that country's taste for those kinds of tales has clearly been an influence on Roiland and Harmon's show. "The Rickshank Rickdemption" amusingly reinforces Rick and Morty's Time Bandits-esque view of adults as the worst, especially when those adults are parents who are unworthy of being idealized or idolized by their kids. Fortunately, that view is far from an overly broad Nickelodeon sitcom take on adults at their worst. It's ironic that an animated show is much less cartoonish about its flawed and mostly unlikable adult characters than most of the live-action '80s and '90s kid sitcoms that used to be produced for Nick.

Right after the speech Rick gives to Morty at the end of "The Rickshank Rickdemption" to assert his role as the new patriarch of the Smith household (that conclusion is, by the way, a nice mirroring of the garage lab scene at the end of the very first episode, except a horrified Morty is trying to crawl away from Rick instead of writhing in pain on the floor because of the side effects of an intelligence-boosting drug Rick gave him), I feel like the increasingly disgruntled Morty should just steal one of Rick's inventions, use it to devise an escape from Rick and Beth and never come back. But we wouldn't have a show anymore if Morty did the logical thing and went off on his own.

"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. If they don't ever do something drastic about it, it's just going to repeat and repeat like, well, a certain Adult Swim April Fools loop.

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