Image: Adult Swim

Rick And Morty may just be the perfect sci-fi show. It is certainly, with apologies to Westworld, currently TV’s most ambitious, taking a handful of long-running conceits (the infinite-universe theory) and extrapolating a set of narrative forces from them (the Citadel Of Ricks, the Galactic Federation). It occasionally delights in unveiling the power structures of its multiverse, but it also tends, much more, to explore the randomness that such vast scope facilitates. In so doing, it combines the fantastical, parable-filled episodic adventures of the first two Star Trek series, while also indulging the longer arcs of Ronald D. Moore’s Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica. These varying threads haven’t been woven so elegantly since, say, The Prisoner, but showrunners Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have updated their concerns to encompass not just the structure of reality but also the structure of their argument about reality. We are never not aware, in Rick And Morty, that we are watching a sci-fi television show, and that it has been lovingly constructed by sci-fi nerds, with references to Sandman and Dragon Ball Z and Zardoz and Paul Verhoeven flicks packed into every episode. These references do more than buttress the show’s cred—they build its entire cosmology, its intensely self-aware universe of sex-bots, species collectors, purges, and interdimensional reality TV.

If you are among the show’s adoring fans, in other words, congratulations: You are correct. But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that, right? Rick And Morty fans have slowly gained a reputation as some of the worst people on the internet, self-congratulating, smug, and, worst of all, mobilized. This trend culminated, recently, in a sustained campaign of harassment against the show’s writing staff, which in its latest season has come to include more female writers. Dan Harmon spoke at length recently about this, saying, among other things:

These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own—and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender. It’s offensive to me as someone who was born male and white, and still works way harder than them, that there’s some white male [fan out there] trying to further some creepy agenda by “protecting” my work. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I loathe these people.

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But their reputation for awfulness extends far beyond this campaign. The attacks on female writers are only the most risible, and visible, example of the fan base’s toxicity. These fans are notoriously quick to attack any perceived critic, and many of them have become notorious for an air of insufferable “true fan” pretension. Much of this is par for the course for pop culture, obviously—particularly for an animated TV show, which seems to attract an audience more predisposed than any other to infiltrate Twitter and Reddit and be obnoxious about it, even to its creators. But with Rick And Morty especially, there is a noticeable divide between fans of its “low” and “high” comedy—the latter of whom appreciate, like a fine cognac, the subtler scientific and philosophical ideas embedded within its scripts. And embedded in both parties is a constant reassurance, via the show’s various deep-cut references and in-universe in-jokes, that they are the ones who “get” it. They are the chosen few who grasp the nerd-dom it celebrates in the correct way.

This is part of what makes Rick such an appealing character to them. He, too, is the ultimate master of his nerdy domain, a self-aware avatar of the cultural adventurer omnivorously consuming and exploring new universes but making wise-cracking asides along the way. He’s seen everything, he knows everything, and he sort of thinks it sucks. One of the primary criticisms leveled against Rick And Morty fans is that they mistakenly valorize Rick as a sort of uber-nerd, a shit-talking asshole who’s too smart to abide by normal social rules. Rick is always right, and when he isn’t, he still comes out on top, probably with a catchphrase and an episode-ending laugh line. He also fucks space babes and smokes pot with monsters. To those fans, the fact that Rick is awesome offers justification for his—and their—self-absorption.

It’s a compelling argument, but I’m not sure the show bears it out. If we’re to believe Rick is admirable for being a cold, misanthropic know-it-all, the show doesn’t do a very good job of selling it. He’s too rich in his emotions, too human in his failings; the show repeatedly finds him dealing with moments of vague tenderness and regret that he then undermines, contributing to the overall tragic arc of his character. Harmon’s much-scrutinized writing ethos involves richly drawn emotional journeys for every character, and as he said, in the recent response to Entertainment Weekly, “I don’t want the show to have a political stance.” It doesn’t. Rick And Morty’s concern is ambiguous, flawed, relatable characters, slowly changing and slowly staying the same. To assume that Rick—or any of them—represents Harmon’s idea of some ethos to aspire to is to misread his intent.

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Nevertheless, because of those fans, the show is becoming easy to hate, derided by those who are sick of encountering them as some sort of bastard hybrid of South Park’s equal-opportunity offensiveness and Ready Player One’s nerd-culture wish fulfillment. Harmon’s pledge to keep things apolitical means he’ll have a hard time explicitly condemning these fans within the boundaries of the show. But ultimately, Rick And Morty is its own best argument against its most toxic fans. Its characters are imbued with a tangible humanity, creating jokes out of their dreams and failures that are as trenchantly character-based as anything since the original Office.

There’s a long tradition of sexism in sci-fi and “nerd” fandoms, of course, and there’s an equally long tradition of those fandoms being wrong. But it’s uniquely baffling—and regrettable—in the case of Rick And Morty, which in its third season is firing on all cylinders in a way few have in recent memory. What started as a sharply written, funny cartoon has unexpectedly turned into a monument to the power of science fiction. It’s only appropriate that a gang of leaderless, cackling trolls run along in its wake, dicks in hand, shouting its catchphrases. You cannot make a show this good without them—even if they don’t “get” it the way they think they do.