What’s wrong with this year’s season of Rick And Morty?
It can be summed up in six words.
Never mess with the dramaturgical dyad.
Or, to put it another way: the “Poochie Syndrome” strikes again.
Set the wayback machine, Sherman, to that classic episode of The Simpsons where the creators of subversive cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy And Scratchy are grappling with the malaise affecting the show. Lisa Simpson gives the best insight where she says that after so many episodes, it’s hard to have the same effect on viewers. The show has simply lost its novelty value.
But the creators decide to tweak with the formula – to tweak, as it were, the “dramaturgical dyad” behind Itchy And Scratchy.
Enter Poochie: the skateboarding dog with attitude. He’s extreme. He’s edgy. He’s whatever buzzwords the focus groups behind capturing the younger demographic want him to be.
Poochie proves to be a disaster and is soon written out of the show (much to Homer’s chagrin).
Yet I can’t help but think that some of the problems of Poochie’s brief stardom also plague the story of Rick And Morty.
Was season three a good season? Yes.
Is R&M still one of the best shows on TV and the best animated comedy, exceeding even Archer and Bojack Horseman in their prime? Yes.
Was S3 as good as the past two seasons? No.
Are we as disappointed as those loyal fans who flocked to McDonald’s outlets to sample the legendary Mulan Szechuan sauce, only to discover that outlets had only stocked a few dozen samples rather than enough rations to feed a Roman legion? Yes.
Why? For a start, the dramaturgical dyad at the heart of the show has been messed with. There are fewer typical adventures with Rick and Morty alone and more ensemble pieces. Some are excellent (Pickle Rick!!!). Some are simply great. And some make us yearn for the good old days when it was just Rick and Morty taking on the universe’s infinite dimensions.
It is here that I must quote writer and comedy expert Steve Kaplan’s straight line/wavy line theory of comedy: “It arises from one person being blind in regard to their own actions, and the other seeing, but having no idea what to do with that knowledge. One is struggling to understand, while the other is blithely ignorant.”
Rick is the one blind or oblivious (or, more likely, just doesn’t care) about the results of his actions.
Morty can see that what Rick is doing is morally wrong but lacks the knowledge (in this instance, the genius-level scientific IQ) to fix the problem. Plus he’s the kid in the relationship. He can’t tell the adult what to do.
Together they form the straight line-wavy line dynamic.
I remember Kaplan quoting during his excellent class in Sydney a particular adventure comedy where both characters were essentially the same person: devil-may-care heroes who were too similar to bounce off of each other. You can’t have two straight lines or two wavy lines for comedy to work.
Rick and Morty, the scientific sociopath and his anxious teen grandson, are the most dissimilar people on the show, the real Abbott and Costello act.
Beth has inherited her father’s brains (and, as one episode suggests, some of his ruthless amorality): Summer, though a worthy sidekick, is too knowing and less willing to put up with grandpop’s shit: while Jerry is just everyone’s punching bag, more beta than even Morty.
The other thing I want to add is that Rick shows disturbing signs of having learnt valuable moral lessons this season – in particular, during the oddly unsatisfying finale.
That doesn’t gel with the Rick we’ve grown to love over the past two seasons. He’s a world wrecker who doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions. He’ll build a world just to power his spaceship battery. He’ll kill versions of himself from other galaxies. He even exiled his own son-in-law because he crossed him.
At heart, we want Rick to remain the magnificent amoral bastard he has always been. We want him always on the verge of being thrown out of the family home due to his asshole actions. We want the smartest mammal in the universe to remain unwilling or unable to figure out how his actions threaten his family and even Earth itself.
Rick’s world is a world where “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere and everybody’s gonna die”.
We want the Seinfeld rule to remain in effect. No one every learns anything. No one becomes a better person.
The genius of Seinfeld is that it clove true to its own dramaturgical quartet. At any given time and in any given situation, we knew how Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer would react. By the end of the show, none of them had learned enough to know that it was wrong to laugh at a portly man being mugged, let alone not intervene. (In today’s world, they would have filmed it on their iPhones and uploaded it onto YouTube).
So yes, give us more of our classic dramaturgical dyad, please.
And more Szechuan sauce.
My new military thriller Game Of Killers: The Spartan is out now as an ebook and paperback.