Too long for one post, we’re looking at the advent of the “sadcom,” a unique TV comedy developed over recent years. Sadcoms are shows that find humor in the debauched and dysfunctional lives of lead characters, punctuating that wildness with sincere moments of sympathy. For a longer breakdown, check out part 1, with a review of BoJack Horseman‘s season four.

It’s worth asking how we got to this place, where alcoholic horses and mad-scientist grandpas become critically acclaimed television for adults. It’s a question that Elizabeth Bruenig’s write-up “Why is Millennial humor so weird?” worked to answer last August in the Washington Post. Her diagnosis for why we have sadcoms? A crisis of meaning:

When it comes to doubting the essential meaningfulness of the world, millennials have their reasons. Studies show that traditional sources of meaning, such as religion and family formation, are less relevant to the lives of young people than they were to our parents. The moral structure they produced has been vastly loosened and replaced with a soft, untheorized tendency toward niceness — smarminess, really, as journalist Tom Scocca put it in 2013. Long-lasting careers seem out of reach; millennials are told to go to college so they can make money, but mostly they just amass debt and then job-hop in hopes of paying it off. In the meantime, they put off getting married, having kids, buying houses and so on. And waiting feels like — well, waiting… Millennials aren’t strictly pessimistic by any means, but the occasional tussle with feelings of emptiness and despair seems de rigueur for my generation.

And so, Bruening suggests, we get shows like Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, memes depicting Winnie the Pooh as a 9/11 truther, that creepy Skittles-pox commercial, and of course, BoJack Horseman, and Rick and Morty. These are cultural artifacts created by and for a jaded generation looking for some sort of meaning and good news.

That meaninglessness provides the emotional backdrop for Rick and Morty‘s first two seasons. Super-intelligent grandpa Rick, able to use science to control the material universe, flies headlong into that black hole of nihilism, bringing his family along for the ride. “There is no god…gotta rip that band-aid off now. You’ll thank me later,” says Rick in the pilot episode. Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. We’re all going to die. Come watch TV,” says a cynical Morty to his sister Summer after two seasons of mind-bending sci-fi adventures with his grandpa. For a generation that’s struggling with the existential- meaning, purpose, impending death—the harsh backdrop that envelops this family is equally as honest as BoJack’s addiction and repeated failures.

Catching up with Rick and Morty’s new season, we find a house divided. Even though Grandpa Rick successfully escaped from his season 2 cliffhanger prison, Morty’s parents Beth and Jerry have separated over the emotional toll of Rick’s misadventures. Much of this new season revolves around Rick’s attempts to control the family. He humiliates Morty’s heroes, admits to sabotaging Beth and Jerry’s marriage, and turns himself into a pickle to avoid going to family therapy. How can a family exist in any sense of peace when god-like super-intelligent Rick repeatedly ropes them back into life threatening, trauma inducing, intergalactic mayhem?

To understand the family dysfunction, we have to understand how Rick ticks. Show runner Dan Harmon describes him this way:

Rick always knows more than the audience, and always knows more than everybody in the room. Everyone watching has been in that position. When you’re standing in line at that bank sometimes, you always feel like, none of these people understand what a hurry I’m in, how much crap I have to do today, what I’m up against. We’ve all been Rick. But Rick really does have bigger fish to fry than anybody. He understands everything better than us. So you give him the right to be jaded and dismissive and narcissistic and sociopathic.

While we, the viewers, may understand this, we don’t have to live with Rick. His jaded, dismissive, narcissistic, sociopathic personality is tearing the family apart. It’s a struggle that plays out most prominently for Beth, Morty’s mother and Rick’s daughter. At the season’s outset, husband Jerry delivers an ultimatum: it’s either her father or her marriage. She chooses her father, and Jerry leaves. As Beth works to keep her family together with Rick as the patriarch, things don’t go well. Therapy sessions don’t continue after they probe too deep, Beth is unable to handle Rick’s wacky sci-fi inventions. She even discovers her own capacity to act as sociopathic and jaded as her father.

As Rick and Morty’s season concludes, we find the Smith family reunited against Rick. Beth has a breakdown when she realizes Rick’s embrace of a meaningless existence is impossible to maintain. While Rick’s intelligence may make him omniscient, Beth can’t figure out if she’s really herself or a clone that Rick made of her to oversee domestic life while the real Beth went out to find herself in the universe. She returns to her husband Jerry because he can actually give love, be honest, and not cause her to doubt the very nature of her existence. In the show, Jerry is the not-so-bright foil to Rick’s omniscience, and he wins the day because he’s actually capable of giving love in a way that Rick can’t. In an interview on Adult Swim, Harmon breaks down that relationship between Jerry and Rick: “The knowledge that nothing matters, while accurate, gets you nowhere…we have this fleeting chance to participate in the illusion of ‘I love my girlfriend. I love my dog.’ How is that not better?”

It’s remarkable that an all powerful man like Grandpa Rick, a mad scientist who could do or have anything he wants, can’t control his drinking, can’t control his family’s respect, and is incapable of properly loving his grandkids. Despite the internet’s greatest longings, Rick is the embodiment of all our projected desires for control over the universe, and he is completely miserable.

Moreover, Rick’s repeated insistence that life is meaningless and futile is undercut by his imperfect love for his family. One of the show’s unanswered questions is why Rick returned to live with the family in the first place. The show insists that Rick does love his family, albeit imperfectly, and he chafes at his inability to control his loved ones as he controls the material world. Love is “just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed,” says Rick in Season 1’s “Rick Potion #9”, but we have yet to hear Rick suggest that familial love is “just a chemical reaction that compels animals to stay in a herd for protection.”

It’s remarkable that in two of the year’s best sadcoms, we find the same old song as the solution to deep and uncomfortable problems. The new season of BoJack Horseman finds a happy ending in a relationship built apart from law, a relationship where love is not related to performance. This new season of Rick and Morty suggests that love is a challenge to materialism, and that control (especially over people) is not a solution. Thankfully, as we arrive these conclusions through the cringeworthy antics of our dysfunctional protagonists, we get to laugh along the way.

Strays:

  • Top Rick and Morty episodes: “Pickle Rick” is the fan favorite, and the episode’s family therapy scene has to be seen to be believed. The awards season candidate is “The Ricklantis Mix Up,” which somehow manages to get Stand By Me, Training Day, and The Wire all jumbled up into a look into life in The Citadel of Ricks. “Rest and Ricklaxation” dives deep with the questions of what makes us human, as Rick and Morty have every toxic aspect removed from their being at an intergalactic spa.
  • “My generation eats trauma for breakfast” – Summer to her mother Beth in The ABC’s of Beth, a credit to Bruenig’s essay quoted above.
  • Much has been made on the internet of Rick and Morty‘s fanbase. Given the national spotlight of the Szechuan Sauce joke and the sexism of some fans, it seems as if the show’s key premise—Rick’s life is sad—has missed its mark. Or maybe it hasn’t. If the idea is that life is meaningless and so we stick to the illusions of love, it seems counterintuitive to lay that groundwork and judge fans for loving the show too much and imperfectly.
  • See also the Rick and Morty fans meme, an exercise in justification by nerddom.
  • Also, it should be noted that Morty’s growth into a more discerning and jaded adventurer is a big part of this season too. His revenge on Summer’s Boyfriend Ethan, his complicated relationship with his dad, and his beefy arm murder look like they’re laying the framework for an interesting season 4.