There was an ad for the new season of Squidbillies during tonight’s Rick And Morty. It surprised the hell out of me. Squidbillies was one of the first shows I reviewed for the AV Club, back when “everything that airs Sunday night on Adult Swim” was considered a legit coverage point for a single person, and even then, it felt pretty long in the tooth. I have no idea if it’s gotten better or worse since then, which means I have no idea if it’s a joy or a horror that it’s still on the air; all I know is that of all the Adult Swim shows I’ve seen, it was maybe the Adult Swimmiest. I mention it here because I think that’s what Rick And Morty has settled back into being: a pretty good Adult Swim show. There’s nothing wrong with that, exactly. The brand of humor is still with us, that goofy sneering surreal teen nihilism… thing, and Ricky And Morty, even now, even in its apparently diminished state, can tell coherent stories and even not completely give up on character relationships and themes. It’s just, it used to push for a bit more than that, and it’s sorry to see it stop trying.
Or is that unfair? Maybe everyone involved really does think that a half hour like “Gotron Jerrysis Rickvangelion” is up to the same standard as before. It’s not like the previous seasons were always perfect, and, given the post-”Mortyplicity” run of this season, “Rickvangelion” is solid enough. The premise is a lot more clever than last week’s turkey apocalypse, riffing on a pop culture nerd icon with a nifty spin, and while I have my problems with it, it doesn’t come across as lazy, exactly. I don’t think the writers working on it, or the animator or voice actors half-assed anything. (The “English dub on classic anime” voices of the original GoTron pilots is a case in point, a nice touch that shows everyone involved did their homework, so to speak.) I appreciated the attempts to make Morty and Summer’s giant incest space baby into something more than just a horrifying sight gag.
But the spark just isn’t there, and it’s a hell of a thing to try and pinpoint why. The story starts off strong enough, with Morty, Rick, and Summer all heading to Boob World; we get a hint of tensions to come when Summer says how excited she is to be part of the group, and Morty complains because the only reason she’s with them is because there were protests on Boob World, and the place has rebranded as “boob empowerment.” Rick getting excited at discovered a GoTron ferret (basically a Voltron lion), the last one he need to complete his collection, feels absolutely like quintessential Rick nerdy shit, and the “warring voiceover” gag between Morty and Summer that will run to the very end of the episode has the meta vibe we’ve come to expect from the series.
Hell, I haven’t even gotten to the real premise yet. Rick has finished his GoTron collection, Summer browbeats the rest of the family into taking them out for a spin (“We get the family we get, not the one we want.”), everyone has a great time; but when Morty tries to talk Rick down before he goes completely hogwild, Summer, having decided to make the play for preferred grandchild status, tells him to fuck off and convinces Rick to double down. So he brings in alternate universe Ricks, helps them complete their GoTron sets, and now he has a GoGoTron. But it’s still not enough. He wants more.
That is a terrific starting point for an episode. It takes something fundamental about Rick’s character and runs with it, turning a playground discussion (if you grew up watching Voltron, at some point, you must’ve talked with your weird friends about what would happen if you Voltroned Voltron) and letting it run to absurdist heights. There are even nice touches as things get out of hand, with Rick reverting back to the drooling, creepy mouthed weirdo of the show’s first season, losing whatever minimal progress he’s made as a person since then in his obsessive pursuit of a GoGoGoGoTron.
It’s just, the episode can’t quite get past the cleverness of the concept into something actually, really good. It’s more focused than the season’s worst episodes have been, but it’s still not focused enough. The mafia parody stuff that provides most of the color is cute, and works to justify the voiceover until the final twist (it’s bugs, the voiceover is bugs), but the gags all feel like echoes of jokes from earlier seasons, and it never truly escalates. Worse, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the anime stuff that takes over the back half; the anime makes sense, sure, since that’s where GoTron came from, but seeing Rick flying through space in pilot room made up to look like the inside of Tony Montoya’s mansion in Scarface isn’t particularly additive or sharp. It’s just the most obvious possible reference they could’ve made in context, and while that context is admirably ridiculous, it still doesn’t make the reference any more surprising or funny beyond a mild “heh.”
Honestly, what the hell happened to the third act here? There’s a fun runner of sibling rivalry between Summer and Morty for Rick’s affection that seems like it’s going to be the emotional backbone of the episode, and it sort of is, but it also sort of isn’t. Summer gets arrogant, pushes Morty aside, and then pays for her arrogance almost immediately when Rick gets fooled by the original GoTron pilots and fires her. So then she goes home and tells her parents and Morty that the reason she cares so much about family is that the army brought her in to train the giant incest space baby made from her egg and Morty’s sperm, but she connected with the baby and he escaped, and now she’s scared the government is going to come after her… I guess?
Sorry, that is actually what happens, it’s just even as I write this, I find myself getting more annoyed with the episode. Nothing about it lands the way it should, there’s no sense of the real darkness that made the show so gripping at its best; gripping and funny, yes, because the humor doesn’t work as well without that edge to it, that feeling that somehow, on some level, the damage these people are doing to themselves and each other actually matters. The climax of this episode features a giant incest space baby, and it barely registered. It was almost cute.
This isn’t a story about Rick losing control. Rick does darker shit making breakfast. (Remember the butter robot?) And if it’s supposed to be about the Smith family coming together, it doesn’t land at all. If it’s supposed to be making fun of trite family sitcoms, it still doesn’t really land, because the show has done that shtick before, and when it did, it was meaner and sadder and funnier. “Rickvangelion” has some good laugh lines, solid pacing, and a fun concept. For now, I’m going to do my damnedest to pretend that’s enough. Squidbillies, right? They’re rednecks, who are squids. Funny stuff. Funny, funny stuff.
- “That’s it? I was honestly prepared to blow someone.” -Jerry
- The whole idea of turning the alternate universe Ricks into a Mafia-like organization is cute, it’s just, how is this not just a less creative version of the Council of Ricks? So much of this season feels like diminished returns. It was always a concern that the show would burn itself out, given the sheer number of concepts it burned through each episode, but I’d hoped it would last longer than this.
- That said, Yo-Yo Rick is cool, because he’s lame and he owns it. (Was that a Jerry’s corpse on the bed later on when Summer had to frame him for murder? Weird Godfather II nod, anyway.)
- Summer doesn’t even really have an arc here. There’s some hand-waving towards it, but the whole thing goes off the rails in the third act.
- Could’ve used more of the anime pilots. The whole giant incest space baby thing felt so much like a shrug of an ending—hell, we don’t even see the GoGoGoGoTron reach the ridiculous heights it so clearly should have.
- “Say hello to my little me.” -Rick. Then he fires a gun that looks like a puppet version of him. It says “pew pew” while it shoots. What even is this joke?
- “What the hell is wrong with you people? You just have a giant incest space baby in your back pocket?” -Kendra
- “I never thought I’d be the one to say this, but you need to watch more anime, Mom.” -Summer
- The post credit joke, which reveals the giant insects plaguing the universe were actually normal sized intelligent insects sent to universes full of tiny people to share the cure for AIDS, is decent, although I feel like we get a variation on this gag in every other episode now.