Rick and Morty is at a crossroads. By almost every conceivable metric – viewership, social media engagement, Rotten Tomatoes audience score – the Adult Swim series is waning.
What was once a cornerstone of pop culture consciousness is in serious danger of fizzling out in remarkably low-key fashion. For a show that brought us insta-memes such as Pickle Rick and Szechuan sauce, it seems unthinkable. But Rick and Morty is now a shadow of its former self.
Why? The fifth season’s divisive outings reached a low point when a Giant Incest Baby was shot it into space. That’s not a typo: the fourth episode of the current run saw Morty’s sperm gain sentience, only to be halted in its tracks by a giant version of Summer’s eggs. It’s about as funny as it sounds.
Giant Incest Baby as shorthand for a dip in quality doesn’t roll off the tongue half as much as Happy Days’ infamous shark-jumping, but it’s indicative of the show’s worrying downward trend towards shock humor. Couple that with the creators second-guessing its audience by bringing the monstrosity back and it appears that Rick and Morty has turned into a show desperately clawing at relevancy. It’s almost as if they knew a backlash was coming.
Ironically, the Giant Incest Baby is actually a promising blueprint – but just not in the way it was used. To save itself, Rick and Morty needs to ease up on the meta, scattershot approach of its weekly adventures and instead lean into its previously out-of-reach canon.
A history lesson
Throughout its run, Rick and Morty has teased tragic backstories for much of its cast. The first season features Rick and Morty destroying one universe and having to live with the weight of that trauma. Then there was Space Beth, a premise that left fans unsure which Beth was a clone and which was the real deal. Even the fifth season hits some emotional high points with the reveal that Rick’s original Beth may have died when she was a child.
For many, Rick and Morty is at its best when it pulls at the heart strings and tickles your ribs. It’s no coincidence that those moments almost exclusively draw on references to untold histories and past events. The show, as much as it would like to do otherwise, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a multi-faceted family tree, with Rick at its centre and a whole host of connected tragedies lying at his feet.
These breadcrumbs have been scattered throughout the seasons but are very rarely picked up and inspected at any great length. That’s something that needs to change. After all, these ties that bind not only allow for some serious emotional heft but also offer up more of a reason for viewers to stick around week to week. Recently, premises have devolved into tired parodies (“Gotron Jerrysis Rickvangelion") or a tendency to show off how clever the writers are, at the expense of a fun story (the clone-heavy “Mortyplicity”).
Instead of puerile jokes and meta commentary that outright pokes fun at people who care about canon, future seasons should look towards giving us more reasons to care about these characters. If their disposability is a punchline, as it so often is, then viewers are likely to tune out.
Of course, as the show sketches its own canon, these scenes don’t all have to be big emotional moments set to brooding acoustic covers of peppy pop songs. Sometimes, the dots just need to connect. Just look at Evil Morty. The mysterious variant of Morty appeared during the first season and ended up murdering dozens of Ricks. He returned and became President of the Citadel in a later episode, but that’s where the trail runs cold. By positioning him as an overarching Big Bad, Evil Morty could help jumpstart the series and act as the nefarious yin to Rick’s assholish yang.
Ask any Rick and Morty fan what they want to see next and you will likely hear the same two answers: Interdimensional Cable (the show’s madcap answer to madlibs) and Evil Morty. Holding back from fans is rarely a recipe for success. While we’re not outright asking for a serialized season bringing Evil Morty and Rick on a collision course, it’s something that would go a long way to bringing back lapsed fans and presenting a more coherent set of characters.
So, is Beth a clone? Who was Diane? What’s Evil Morty getting up to, anyway? All good questions – and ones that Rick and Morty really should set about answering if it wants to recapture some of the schwifty magic that has eluded the series in recent times.