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‘Rick and Morty’ and the Rise of the ‘I’m a Piece of Shit’ Defense

Rick and Morty is a cartoon for adults that airs as part of the Cartoon Network’s after-dark Adult Swim lineup. If you have an incredibly high IQ, maybe you’ve watched it. Otherwise, you may have first heard about the series when a tantrum-prone subset of its hardcore fans rioted at McDonald’s locations that ran out of a limited-edition dipping sauce resurrected by popular demand after one episode featured a reference to it.

This week, those same well-adjusted folks are losing their shit because Adult Swim has yet to order a fourth season of the show, though such delays are exceedingly common and in no way indicate cancellation. A few have gone as far as attacking Rick and Morty’s co-creator, Dan Harmon, for being a lazy alcoholic who won’t get back to work.

https://twitter.com/danharmon/status/974823597301616641

https://twitter.com/danharmon/status/975453796686901248

Harmon is no stranger to diehard fandoms — he also created the cult sitcom Community — but he’s on the record as despising the contingent of Rick and Morty bros who have (to take another fun example) harassed the show’s women writers over what they consider sub-par plots and gags. Why does an admittedly dark but mostly gonzo sci-fi comedy attract this class of troll? It’s not, as they’d have you believe, a measure of the franchise’s intelligence; the outlandish physics are necessarily fudged, and the philosophy is entry-level. It is, more likely, the figure of Rick, a self-destructive scientist too smart for his own good, whom the vicious and unloved neckbeards gravitate toward.

Like many of prestige TV’s great male protagonists, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Walter White, Rick is a colossal asshole who drags a family down into a black hole of agony by embracing his own worst instincts. His drunken nihilism stems from a genius that is too great to bear — it alienates other people, leaving him alone, depressed, and sometimes suicidal. Moreover, his awareness of an infinitely expanding multiverse in which everything can, will, and has already happened leaves him to expound on the meaninglessness of it all. Clearly, this is catnip to the type of young man who perceives himself as a misfit due to excess brainpower and an unsentimental view of reality, yet Rick’s characterization goes further: He knows he’s an irredeemable piece of shit.

This is where you trace the schism in Rick and Morty’s viewership. There are fans who seem to think Rick’s horrible behavior is justified because he’s cognizant of the damage it does and the cycle of self-loathing that attends each bout of emotional abuse. A charitable read on the sitcom, however — and BoJack Horseman probably does this better — would find an argument against taking such dour satisfaction from one’s moral indifference. At their best, both BoJack and Rick and Morty attest that you don’t get points for merely acknowledging how you’re a bad person; you also have to try to change. Otherwise, you’re just blaming those who seek to get close to you for hurting themselves in a predictable way. Glibly copping to your assholery does not excuse it, nor does it meet the threshold of an apology. Harmon demonstrated the difference himself when accused of sexual harassment by Community writer Megan Ganz:

Whatever causes guys to romanticize Rick’s ongoing surrender to the monstrous version of himself leads as surely to the jettison of relationships by way of performative angst. How often have men, confronted by partners for a failure to meet the simplest of interpersonal expectations, thrown their hands up and been like, “You’re right, I suck, I’m garbage, bye.” It’s easier to act like a victim of their personality and vanish than to correct course or, god forbid, accept some help. Inward criticism is a kind of armor; it preempts outside analysis with a haughty question: “You think I don’t realize that?”

But brokenness is not an identity, and if you treat it as such, it hardens into the resentment that fuels Rick’s catastrophic binges — or, in those who empathize too closely with him, naked contempt for the very creatives who brought him to life. Piece-of-shit dudes feel equally entitled to uncomplicated sex and unlimited entertainment without the slightest modulation of their shittiness. They have gazed into the shitty abyss and said: “It me, but I don’t care, and that makes me woke, or something.” All negative outcomes are then deserved, which is to say not especially surprising or distressing, while flukish joy may be snatched at with a ruthless disregard for the casualties. You wait for something to pierce the boredom of your shitty, self-contained narrative. And nothing ever does, because what really could?

Rick is far from a role model, but I doubt his legion of toxic fans see him as one. Instead they’re familiar with a pain that runs parallel to his, and they like his reasons for suffering: his chaotic brilliance, his antisocial bile, and his fatal eagerness to prove that he’s always right. By taking up this mantle, they obscure or aggrandize the faults that truly plague them and miss out on the meta-commentary: were Rick to stop diagnosing himself long enough to reckon with these inner demons, there would be no show. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is exactly what they’re complaining about right now.