Rick and Morty & Metamodernism: Always “both-neither,” Never “either-or”

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In examining any piece of science fiction, considering the context of the work, whether historical, cultural, philosophical, etc., is of the utmost importance. “Literature & the Future” is missing a text that accurately reflects the context of today; that is, a text should be included that is representative of the way that our society and culture presently thinks of futurity. The TV show Rick and Morty, specifically the episode “Rixty Minutes,” is the best candidate for a text of this nature. Humanity is now living in “the future” that the thinkers discussed in class speculated about in the past, so it is desirable to consider what the concept of futurity means in an age where humans are simultaneously more connected and isolated than ever before. In essence, “Rixty Minutes” should be included as a “missing text” for the class syllabus because it self-reflexively offers a metamodern, integrative worldview as a solution for the crisis of human existence as it presently exists in the age of technology.

What is Rick and Morty?

Rick and Morty follows the titular characters Rick Sanchez, an elderly, alcoholic, supergenius scientist, and Morty Smith, his naive but well-meaning grandson, on their adventures through the multiverse. The show appears to take place in the present or not-too-distant future (or at least on a version of Earth resembling our own, technologically and culturally), but the character of Rick serves as the bridge between present and future by nature of his unparalleled intelligence and scientific knowledge. The multiverse of Rick and Morty is rather uniquely constructed. There are an infinite number of realities/timelines/universes, all existing in parallel; it remains unclear whether the infinity of realities is due to some branching from the initial seeds of creation or whether they all have been always happening in parallel. Time travel apparently does not exist, and the progression of time seems fixed across universes (although relativity and its time-warping effects assumably still exist in each universe). Therefore, all of the alternate versions of Rick and Morty and other characters in the show encountered through interdimensional travel are the same age and have roughly the same appearance. Rick is the smartest being in the universe and the inventor and sole possessor of interdimensional travel. More precisely, each Rick is the smartest being in his universe and the sole possessor of interdimensional travel in that universe. The show primarily follows the Rick and Morty from dimension C-137, although some episodes, such as “Total Rickall,” showcase alternate Ricks and Mortys.

So much of the construction and even specific narratives of the show are directly in conversation with texts that have been examined in class. Rick and Morty’s multiverse, fundamental to the construction of the show and appearing in every episode in one form or another, already puts the show in conversation with texts from class such as Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Besides its construction of the multiverse and Rick’s unique ability to travel through it, classic topics in science fiction have been covered in various episodes, including simulated realities (“M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”), dreams (“Lawnmower Dog”), time (“A Rickle In Time”), and memory (“Morty’s Mind Blowers”). However, Rick and Morty is most significant not for the specific science fictional narratives it covers on an episode-to-episode basis, but instead for how those narratives highlight psychological and philosophical issues innate to the human condition and present an integrative worldview as a solution to these problems.

As discussed in class, science fiction has historically been more driven by setting than by character (although many works, some of which have been covered in class, have of course reversed this traditional dichotomy). In Rick and Morty, all realities are not only occurring simultaneously but also accessible by the protagonists, exponentiating the sense of isolation and meaninglessness increasingly apparent in the real world with greater scientific understanding of the universe and humanity’s place within it. The details of any setting encountered are secondary to the characters’ response to it. The construction of Rick and Morty thus inherently emphasizes character and psychology over setting. This emphasis has even been mentioned explicitly by the show’s creators, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, in an interview:

Dan Harmon: “That’s an interesting question. My philosophy with sci-fi is to focus more on the ‘fi’ than the ‘sci.’ I think people like it when it holds up a little bit to logical scrutiny. But that logic can often be pretty magically enforced…. I think what’s more important to sci-fi is that people recognize a mythologized version of something they have encountered in their lives….”

Justin Roiland: “Dan does a great job too, of taking a sci-fi concept and grounding it in a really awesome, structurally stable, narrative. It’s more character based. You’re really putting yourself in the shoes of somebody when you’re watching the show. You’re really relating and connecting with somebody’s decision or choice or adventure.”1

Additionally, the show particularly highlights the themes of mental illness and isolation, mirroring the obsession of science today with matters of mind. It seems to deny (or at least question) science’s ability to answer the deepest mysteries of mind and mental illness by giving Rick essentially infinite knowledge (and therefore abilities), thereby blurring the distinction between human and god, while constantly highlighting the uselessness of his knowledge or abilities in solving his existential burden and deep depression.

However, the most salient justification for the inclusion of an episode of Rick and Morty in the class syllabus is not the actual science fictional concepts the show uses. Instead, it is that the show uses these concepts in an inherently metamodern way and therefore offers a conception of futurity and science fiction not covered by the syllabus—the current conception. Before analyzing the metamodernity of Rick and Morty, however, the concept of metamodernism must first be understood.

An Aside: Postmodernism and Metamodernism

While the term “metamodernism” is relatively new and possibly unfamiliar, postmodernism has long been prevalent, if ill-defined: “Defining postmodernism… is a notoriously difficult endeavor, and there are plenty of elitist guardians at the gate telling us we will never succeed.”2 Postmodernism arose as a departure from modernism, the dominant cultural philosophy of the first half of the twentieth century that emphasized innovation and reason. The difficulty in defining postmodernism is that it encompasses countless and often contradictory approaches, but Timeotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker highlight the similarities between these disparate approaches:

However, what these distinct phenomena share is an opposition to ‘‘the’’ modern—to utopism, to (linear) progress, to grand narratives, to Reason, to functionalism and formal purism, and so on. These positions can most appropriately be summarized, perhaps, by Jos de Mul’s distinction between postmodern irony (encompassing nihilism, sarcasm, and the distrust and deconstruction of grand narratives, the singular and the truth) and modern enthusiasm (encompassing everything from utopism to the unconditional belief in Reason).3

Most importantly, irony is central to postmodernism in every case: “‘More than anything else, postmodernism is an attitude, and that attitude is definitely ironic.’”4 Postmodernism became the dominant cultural practice of the second half of the twentieth century, but the postmodern era is now over. Its decline and demise has been described by “many academics, critics, and pundits.”5 Naturally, one might wonder what follows postmodernism, and Vermeulen and van den Akker have an answer: metamodernism.

Most succinctly, they describe metamodernism as being “characterized by the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment.”6 The notion of oscillation between the two poles of modernism and postmodernism is crucial, and Vermeulen and van den Akker elaborate further:

Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.7

This oscillation implies that metamodernism has a quintessentially “both-neither” dynamic; metamodernism is “at once modern and postmodern and neither of them.”8 This “both-neither” dynamic will prove extremely useful in analyzing “Rixty Minutes” as a metamodern text.

The Case for “Rixty Minutes”

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The opening to “Rixty Minutes” is undeniably postmodern. The tranquil scene of the Smiths watching The Bachelor is quickly interrupted by Rick’s nihilistic quip “none of it mattered, and the entire show was stupid.” The disruption of the metanarrative of the nuclear family is quintessentially postmodern and has been a common theme in postmodern television, especially in cartoon sitcoms like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Matthew Henry writes that these shows use “the traditional nuclear family construct (mom, dad, kids, dog and a house in the suburbs) in order to skewer its conventions,”10 and Rick and Morty is no different. As a cartoon sitcom, Rick and Morty takes many postmodern cues from these shows but draws different conclusions, as will be seen throughout the rest of the episode.

Another fixture of such postmodern shows is self-reflexivity.11 Self-reflexivity or self-referentiality allows television shows to paradoxically self-critique myth-traditions such as the nuclear family by engaging in them. Rick and Morty is also heavily self-referential, and, as the opening implies, “Rixty Minutes” is a self-reflexive examination of television, through television. It is one of very few episodes of the show set entirely at the Smith household and not involving interdimensional travel or adventures, and the futuristic technology used in the episode is little more than a slightly science fictionalized version of current technology (the cable box). For this reason, “Rixty Minutes” may seem a strange choice for a missing text, but the comparatively mundane construction of the episode facilitates even more emphasis on character over setting than usual. Essentially, it is television considering what television might look like in other universes in order to comment on television in our reality. Further, the show deprecates science fiction’s (and therefore its own) use of neologisms and “deploys pseudo-scientific babble self-reflexively:”12 “20% accurate, as usual, Morty.”

13

Perhaps the best example of the episode’s self-reflexive examination of television is shown in the above clip. After Rick comments to Morty that cable from other dimensions has “an almost improvisational tone,” they turn to watch a trailer which has clearly been fully improvised by Justin Roiland. Littered with pauses and hesitations, the voiceover goes through a completely nonsensical series of enlargements of the scope of the movie’s plot. At one point, Roiland does a 180-degree turn mid-sentence (“But let’s get back to the brothers, because they’re - they - have a strong bond - but - you don’t want to know about it here”) before changing the title of the movie from Alien Invasion Tomato Monster Mexican Armada Brothers Who Are Just Regular Brothers Running In A Van From An Asteroid And All Kinds Of Things: The Movie to “just Two Brothers” and ending the trailer laughing at the ridiculousness of his own dialogue. It soon becomes clear that nearly all of the interdimensional television clips shown in the episode have been improvised.

This improvised trailer for Two Brothers is clearly both inspired by and critical of bad trailers for bad action movies that are seen constantly in American pop culture, just like The Simpsons “incorporates into the sitcom format many of the techniques of postmodernism with the result of paradoxically both critiquing and creating American popular culture.”14 In the case of Rick and Morty, however, the fact that this is ostensibly a trailer from another dimension gives the show even more leeway to be completely ridiculous (everything possible exists in at least one universe) and (paradoxically) therefore even more biting in its satirization of not only television and media in general but also itself. Other interdimensional scenes shown in the episode touch upon and satirize commercialism, consumerism, advertising, and common television tropes and formats.

The episode’s self-reflexive examination of television is characteristically postmodern not only for its self-reflexivity but also because television itself is “the supreme medium of postmodernism.”15 Schneck argues that its rise to this position is connected to “the increasing pervasiveness of irony as the basic attitude of production and consumption in popular culture.”16 Thus, “Rixty Minutes” can be seen as doubly characteristically (keyword: characteristically) postmodern by nature of its medium as well as its self-reflexivity and irony.

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The B plot of “Rixty Minutes” is equally important to understanding the episode’s importance as a missing text from the syllabus. After Jerry discovers that he is a famous actor in another universe (seen in the opening to the episode), Jerry, Beth, and Summer decide that they would rather “narcissitically obsess”18 about themselves than watch random television shows from different dimensions, so Rick gives them a pair of goggles (resembling a virtual reality headset) that enables them to view their lives in other universes through the eyes of their alternate selves. As seen in the clip above, Jerry and Beth discover that their alternate selves have achieved their lifelong dreams (Jerry is an A-list celebrity; Beth is a human surgeon instead of a horse surgeon) by not getting married and having kids. Summer, on the other hand, sees that her alternative lives are as boring as her own in every reality in which her parents “bothered to have” her. However, Beth and Jerry’s immediate happiness and excitement quickly turns to sadness that their alternate selves’ lives are not their own and anger toward each other for apparently having prevented the fulfillment of the other’s aspirations. After it is revealed that Summer was almost aborted, Summer resolves to run away, and Beth and Jerry decide to separate.

The interdimensional goggles, like the interdimensional cable box, are only a slightly futurized version of existing technology (virtual reality) and further enable the episode to emphasize character over setting by reflecting the effects of current technology on the human psyche and existence. The goggles thus allow the episode to play upon the theme of alienation and technology’s role in its creation, common in sci-fi and postmodern texts alike. Further, the goggles highlight the difference between the shallow daily pleasures of the technological modern world and true fulfillment; while they allow Beth and Jerry to vicariously experience the successes of their alternate selves, they cannot replace actual experience, and they engender discontentment and disillusionment.

Everything discussed thus far contributes to a postmodern conception of “Rixty Minutes” and Rick and Morty. Indeed, the common conception of the show seems to be that it is postmodern and nihilistic (nihilism being encompassed by postmodern irony, as described in the above aside on the topic). Rhys Williams echoes this sentiment when he writes, “Much like Family Guy, the show is the product of an intelligent but disillusioned and ironic world-view. To laugh with Rick and Morty is to laugh at anything that presumes to provide meaning to the human experience.”19 In many senses, this is not an incorrect interpretation of the show, as the above analysis shows. Crucially, however, being postmodern does not mean being not metamodern. As Vermeulen and van den Akker write in their seminal paper on metamodernism, “We do not wish to suggest that all postmodern tendencies are over and done with. But we do believe many of them are taking another shape, and, more importantly a new sens, a new meaning and direction.”20 So it is with Rick and Morty. The show carries the postmodern construction of the ironic, self-referential, cartoon sitcom to metamodern conclusions, and this is the most compelling argument for why it best represents our present conception of futurity and related topics and therefore should be included as a missing text.

The popular misconception of the show as nihilistic is most likely a result of mistaking Rick’s worldview for the worldview of the show itself. Rick is undeniably nihilistic, constantly proclaiming the meaningless of existence and the multiverse. Indeed, his nihilism was reflected in his first line in “Rixty Minutes” (in reference to The Bachelor but applicable to his view on everything): “none of it mattered.” Because Rick is “blessed” with the gifts of near-omniscience and near-omnipotence, it would be easy to believe that he is as right about his nihilistic outlook as he is about everything else. However, Rick and Morty also constantly reminds the viewer that Rick’s intelligence is as much a curse as it is a blessing, that all the scientific and rational knowledge in the universe cannot and will not solve Rick’s deepest and most existential psychological problems.

“Rixty Minutes” is the episode most indicative of Rick and Morty’s metamodern alternative to a completely nihilistic or postmodern outlook. It is no coincidence that it also features Rick less than almost any other episode. Rick simply provides the technologies the episode uses to highlight the crises of his family members and remains on the couch watching interdimensional television for the rest of the episode. Instead, the show’s metamodernity is highlighted through the resolutions it presents to the dilemmas of Summer, Jerry, and Beth.

21

The above scene is one of the most popularly recognizable passages of the show. It also appears to be one of the most misunderstood. Lucas Miranda describes it as Morty presenting “Rick’s bleak worldview,”22 while Thomas Evans believes it “sums up the show’s philosophy” by depicting “the universe as meaningless.”23 Neither is entirely incorrect but both almost entirely miss the point. Morty makes a nihilistic-sounding argument in pursuit of a very non-nihilistic goal–convincing his sister to stay and easing her existential burden. That is, he admits the inherent meaninglessness of existence (“nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die”) but nonetheless implicitly acknowledges that meaning is something to be created by oneself, for oneself. Harmon and Roiland are declaring the universe is at once both meaningless and meaningful and neither of them (“both-neither”). This is why Rick and Morty is metamodern at its core. It refuses nihilism as the final solution but recognizes its merits. It reaches for an ideal it knows to be impossible; “Metamodernism moves for the sake of moving, attempts in spite of its inevitable failure; it seeks forever for a truth that it never expects to find.”24

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The show’s metamodernity is again reinforced with the resolution to Beth and Jerry’s problems. After they decide to separate, Jerry watches his alternate, celebrity self lead police on a slow-speed pursuit after suffering an apparent mental breakdown, while Beth uses the goggles to observe her alternate, “successful” self drunk and alone (with the exception of her countless birds) at home. Incredibly, celebrity Jerry leads the police to alternate Beth’s home, where he professes his love to her and declares, “I’ve never stopped thinking about what might have been.” Back in C-137, the two reunite and share a tender moment. This “happy ending” is decidedly not postmodern but instead metamodern. Achieving their goals (or anything, really) would not have made them happy; instead, fulfillment and contentment are achieved through awareness and appreciation of things as they are. Finally, as if the episode became aware of itself becoming too optimistic, the camera cuts back to an indifferent Summer, Morty, and Rick, who continue watching “Ball Fondlers”—“Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony.”26

If the above analysis of “Rixty Minutes” is not sufficient proof of the metamodernity of Rick and Morty, perhaps what Harmon and Roiland themselves have to say about the episode will suffice. In response to a question about balancing comedy and sincerity, specifically with regard to “Rixty Minutes,” they replied:

Dan Harmon: “Well that was sort of like an example of balancing it at a seasonal level. Justin was like ‘Let’s do one episode where we don’t try to win people over with our…sincerity,’ as you call it. Justin is going to go into the VO booth and improvise. He’s going to be crazy and just do ridiculous things and then we’re going to animate to them without breaking a story for those things. So we cautiously paired it with a B-story that would be very emotional and sincere and grounded. So far we’ve been very chicken about giving you too much…”

Justin Roiland: “…for Season 2, yeah…”

Dan Harmon: “…silliness without any sincerity. I suppose that’s a good kind of chicken to stay for a while.”27

By infusing postmodern irony with (typically modern) sincerity, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have created a truly unique take on science fiction and futurity—today’s take, the metamodern take, the take most sorely missing from the syllabus.


Bibliography

Bishop, Wendy, and David Starkey. “Postmodernism.” In Keywords in Creative Writing, 131-34. University Press of Colorado, 2006. doi:10.2307/j.ctt4cgr61.30.

Evans, Thomas. “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub! : The Pursuit of Happiness in Rick and Morty.” Under Construction @ Keele 2, no. 1 (March 24, 2016): 10-17.

Henry, Matthew. “The Triumph of Popular Culture: Situation Comedy, Postmodernism and ‘The Simpsons’.” Studies in Popular Culture 17, no. 1 (1994): 85-99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23413793.

Miranda, Lucas. “The Self Is Dead – Alienation and Nihilism in Rick and Morty.” Class Race Corporate Power 5, no. 3 (2017). doi:10.25148/crcp.5.3.006513.

Rick and Morty. “Rixty Minutes.” Directed by Bryan Newton and Pete Michels. Written by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. Cartoon Network, March 17, 2014.

Schneck, Peter. “Image Fictions: Literature, Television, and the End(s) of Irony.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 46, no. 3 (2001): 409-28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41157666.

Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2, no. 1 (2010). doi:10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677.

Williams, Rhys. “Rick and Morty: Season 1 by Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland (review).” Science Fiction Film and Television 9, no. 1 (2016): 147-150. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed December 15, 2018).

Wilson, Kyle. “Interview: ‘Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland Get Intergalactic.” The Nerd Repository. August 05, 2014. Accessed December 15, 2018. http://nerdrepository.com/interview-ricky-mortys-dan-harmon-justin-roiland-intergalactic/.

  1. Kyle Wilson, “Interview: ‘Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland Get Intergalactic,” The Nerd Repository, August 05, 2014, accessed December 15, 2018, http://nerdrepository.com/interview-ricky-mortys-dan-harmon-justin-roiland-intergalactic/. 

  2. Wendy Bishop and David Starkey, “Postmodernism,” In Keywords in Creative Writing (University Press of Colorado, 2006), 131. 

  3. Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2, no. 1 (2010): 4. 

  4. Bishop and Starkey, “Postmodernism,” 132. 

  5. Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes on metamodernism,” 2. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid, 5-6. 

  8. Ibid, 6. 

  9. Rick and Morty, “Rixty Minutes,” Directed by Bryan Newton and Pete Michels, Written by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, Cartoon Network, March 17, 2014. 

  10. Matthew Henry, “The Triumph of Popular Culture: Situation Comedy, Postmodernism and ‘The Simpsons,’’” Studies in Popular Culture 17, no. 1 (1994): 89. 

  11. Ibid, 95. 

  12. Rhys Williams, “Rick and Morty: Season 1 by Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland (review),” Science Fiction Film and Television 9, no. 1 (2016): 148. 

  13. Rick and Morty, “Rixty Minutes.” 

  14. Henry, “Postmoderism and ‘The Simpsons,’” 86. 

  15. Peter Schneck, “Image Fictions: Literature, Television, and the End(s) of Irony,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 46, no. 3 (2001): 409. 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Rick and Morty, “Rixty Minutes.” 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. Williams, “Rick and Morty: Season 1,” 149. 

  20. Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes on metamodernism,” 4. 

  21. Rick and Morty, “Rixty Minutes.” 

  22. Lucas Miranda, “The Self Is Dead – Alienation and Nihilism in Rick and Morty,” Class Race Corporate Power 5, no. 3 (2017). 

  23. Thomas Evans, “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub! : The Pursuit of Happiness in Rick and Morty,” Under Construction @ Keele 2, no. 1 (March 24, 2016): 11. 

  24. Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes on metamodernism,” 5. 

  25. Rick and Morty, “Rixty Minutes.” 

  26. Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes on metamodernism,” 5. 

  27. Wilson, “Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland Get Intergalactic.”