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METAMERICANA: RICK & MORTY: The Ballad of Abradolf Lincler

METAMERICANA: RICK & MORTY: The Ballad of Abradolf Lincler

The Back to the Future films gave us Doc and Marty, the former a catchphrase-spouting, drunk-seeming, AARP-eligible scientist who was equal parts madman and genius, and the latter a high-voiced square with an alternately plucky and anxious disposition. Rick & Morty,
Dan Harmon’s and Justin Roiland’s new animated series on the Cartoon Network, deviates from
that formula by giving us Rick and
Morty: the former a catchphrase-spouting, drunk-seeming, AARP-eligible
scientist who’s equal parts madman and genius, and the latter
a high-voiced square with an alternately plucky and anxious disposition.
If there’s another similarity between Bob Zemeckis’ 80s cult-classic
film series and Harmon’s latest instant classic, it’s that both share
an interest in exploring the vagaries of transdimensional travel. That,
and physical comedy.

Apart from its resemblance to the Back to the Future franchise, Rick & Morty seems deliberately calibrated to defy analogy. Is it Futurama meets Harmon’s earlier hit, Community? Men in Black
meets Picket Fences? The X-Files meets Brazil? While Rick & Morty
is certainly another entry in a long line of genre- and reality-bending
TV programs, none of these analogies will finally do, largely
because the creators’ interest in Rick & Morty
is not in creating an identifiably parodic mish-mash of styles, but
juxtaposing opposing principles to the point of irresolvable paradox.
It’s not merely that most episodes of Rick & Morty
take place in the fifth and sixth dimensions—in the fifth dimension,
humans are able to perceive all possible futures stemming from their
present timeline; in the sixth dimension, we perceive alternate
timelines entirely
divorced from our own past, present, and future—it’s that even within
these dimensions the plot and characters oscillate between sense and
nonsense, unidirectional and spiraling narratives, optimism and cynicism
for humankind’s ability to create order from chaos.

In short,
Harmon and Roiland want to deny us all of our comfortable psychosocial
poles—excessive sentimentality and excessive cynicism, for instance—by
forcing us to reside, as viewers, in the same sort of ambiguous
head-space the Internet and popular culture forces us to reside in
anyway. If Rick at one point describes the transdimensional
Intergalactic Council of Ricks (it’s a long
story) as a “who’s who of who’s you and me,” he could equally be
describing our own space-time continuum, in which we retain our sanity
not by establishing stable selves ever willing to betray their own prime
directives, but by
embracing plural selves who
exhibit an abiding fidelity to certain core principles. You and I are
always you and I, the transdimensional adventures of Rick & Morty imply, but surviving the Internet Age intact means knowing exactly which you and I we are at all times.

Rick & Morty
so defies generalization that one must resort to anecdotes and clips
from the show to even approach an understanding of the program’s
particulars. So, first, an anecdote: In the eighth episode of the first
season of Rick & Morty, Rick
chastises his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter for obsessing
over a pair of goggles that shows them their lives in alternate
dimensions rather than
watching Ball Fondlers, a
sixth-dimensional television program that has nothing to do with either
balls or fondling because those words mean something entirely different
in the sixth dimension. Seeing how miserable his relatives have been
made by visualizing how much better their lives would be in an alternate
reality, Rick says, “I don’t want to rub it in or anything, but you
guys clearly backed the wrong conceptual horse.” What Rick means is
that, in the context of a workaday reality so nonsensically
contradictory that it requires highly conceptualized forms of resistance
to survive, the choice between fetishizing stable selves and a stable
reality and accepting the intertextuality (juxtaposition of
data-streams) and intersubjectivity (juxtaposition of consciousnesses)
of our daily experiences should be an easy one. If we treat realities as
multiple and elective instead of stable and imposed from
without, it enables us to better navigate an online cultural sphere in
which multiple and elective realities are already the order of the day.
Every day, in fact.

This, in a nutshell, is why Rick & Morty is like no other television program before it, and why even comparing it to alternate-reality cult hits like The X-Files or Brazil
is inadequate. In simple terms, the program’s plot and characters move
so seamlessly between opposing poles of thought and feeling that calling
it “sci-fi” does it a disservice. Instead of “sci-fi,” Rick & Morty
is more appropriately termed “nonfi-fi”: a subgenre in which the
boundaries between the things we can readily understand and those we
cannot possibly relate to our own experience is crossed so rapidly and
with such regularity that we enter an entirely new space (indeed an
entirely new dimension) simply by consuming it. We see this tendency in Nathan for You, a Comedy Central program which is ambiguously either an actual documentary or a mockumentary; in IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!,
which is ambiguously either an actual late night interview program or a
parody of a late night interview program; and–well, you get the
picture. These programs never give viewers the comfort of either earnest
immersion in a genre or ironic distance from any genre; instead,
viewers subsist in a central space between all possible received
expectations–a place in which the
normal rules of physics, individual morality, and collective culture
are intermittently suspended.

Yet Ricky & Morty
somehow takes even “nonfi-fi” to another level by being at once
meticulously written from a conceptual standpoint—its perspective on
the necessary flexibility of reality is unmistakable—and also
improvisational in its writing. Harmon’s and Roiland’s point, as seen in the episode “Rixty Minutes,” seems to be that while we can
conceptualize approaches to reality, whatever our approach may be,
reality is simultaneously being improvised and solidified at every
moment. This, then, is the reason for its daily absurdity: we’re all
winging it all the time, but we all have to accept the aggregation of
all our improvisations to survive. As Morty observes when Rick upgrades the family’s cable package with programming from
every
conceivable reality, “Seems like TV from other dimensions has a
somewhat looser feel to it” (to which observation Rick responds, “Yeah,
it’s got an almost improvisational tone”).

If there’s an iconic figure on Rick & Morty,
one whose composition best summarizes Harmon’s social and metaphysical
critique, it’s “Abradolf Lincler,” a genetically engineered creation of
Rick’s who’s half Adolf Hitler and half Abraham Lincoln. Rick describes
him as “a crazed maniac—just a misguided effort of mine to create
a morally neutral super-leader . . . turns out it just adds up to a lame,
weird loser.” Of course, that “lame, weird loser” is simply us—what
Lincler himself describes (in speaking of himself) as “an abomination,
tortured by the duality of its being”—and as much as the show may use
Lincler for comic relief, in fact his dilemma is our own. How do we
resolve our opposing inclinations without lapsing into a moral
neutrality that’s both uninteresting, perverse, and doomed to
self-destruction? In another several-minute stretch of Rick & Morty, its creators model for us how the fifth and sixth dimensions permit a
reconsideration of both the relationships between things and the
relationships between our selves and one another. In just a few minutes
of on-screen montage, we see all of the following
vignettes: (1) Two pizzas ordering humans on cell phones while sitting
on couches; (2) two cell phones
ordering couches on humans while sitting on pizzas; and (3) two couches
ordering cell phones on pizzas while sitting on humans.

In the
examples above, the point is not to create random permutations of
reality, but to render as equivalent all nouns (including pizzas,
humans, cell phones, and couches) in the fifth and sixth dimensions,
where the term “possible” is not limited by normative science or
psychology. Rick & Morty
doesn’t, however, contend that science is irrelevant, nor social
convention, nor human scruples—merely that all of these things are both
wholly integral and wholly context-dependent.

In parodies—a
postmodern art-form entirely divorced from Hamon’s twenty-first century
vision—we’re repeatedly reminded that certain social conventions are
integral to our lives by virtue of the fact that our lives
can’t function without them. In a show like Rick & Morty,
the takeaway is a very different one: that everything is always
integral within its own context. It’s for this reason that Rick’s
catchphrase in Season One of Rick & Morty
is a comically nonsensical string of syllables that’s only in the
season finale translated as “I am in great pain, please help me”; and
it’s for this reason that, at almost the same moment we discover this
translation, Rick switches his catchphrase to “I don’t give a f**k!” Of
course, Rick’s earlier pain is no less real because it’s completely
unintelligible to his family, nor is his subsequent happy-go-lucky
nihilism any less real because we find it sophomoric and banally
expressed.

By taking his “everyman” grandson Morty along on his
transdimensional adventures, Rick shows him
that anything which presently seems unreal or unintelligible either
can’t yet be translated or simply is not yet aligned with its proper
context. The lesson is an important one for all of us living in
twenty-first century America, where our reaction to online phenomena
that seem unreal or unintelligible is either to rail against them
ineffectually or to deconstruct them into tiny but largely irrelevant
parcels that briefly make sense to us but nevertheless leave us unhappy. The show’s creators would have us make neither of these mistakes: by forcing us to
watch the alternating harmony and disharmony of paradox, they ask us to
consider that paradox is our present state, and that our only remaining
action-step is to determine how we react to it. Perhaps the time for
microanalyzing the senselessness of popular culture is over, and the
time for somehow exploiting that senselessness to live better and richer
lives has begun. Rick and Morty are doing
it—and (spoiler alert) Abradolf Lincler dies doing it—so why can’t we?

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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