Had he only been Reverse Giraffe, Keith David could still have had a decent claim to being the best guest voice in the run of “Rick & Morty.” Add in a planet-saving dance of raised-up posteriors and his case has only grown with each passing season. It’s his particular blend of instant gravitas and ability to cut through any surrounding nonsense that makes him an ideal asset for a series that can often use both.
Enter “Rick and Morty’s Thanksploitation Spectacular,” an episode that begins as a battle of wits and eventually segues into something with potentially more sinister consequences. To the extent that each half works, David’s The President is the key in a way that few people outside the show’s main family get to be. If there was ever a question of who The Fifth Beatle of “Rick & Morty” was, this likely put that to rest.
Things start, as they tend to do, with a battle of egos. After a disastrous, “National Treasure”-style attempt to rob the Constitution from an underground bunker, Rick is in sudden need of a Presidential pardon. Sensing a harebrained scheme in the offing, The President (whose official last name is apparently Curtis, but may he always be identifiable by a single article) is one step ahead. Rick’s idea is to turn himself into a turkey to get a Thanksgiving pardon; The President counters by sending a team of commandos undercover, also as turkeys, to neutralize the threat and ensure his pardon goes to a non-human entity.
There’s something satisfying about “Rick & Morty” giving Rick a relative equal that he doesn’t have to vanquish. Not only is The President so attuned to Rick’s strategizing, he’s also taken on Rick’s one-track mind for staring down foes. He seems not to care that the mechanized assassin housed inside what used to be the Statue of Liberty is busy laying siege to New York City somewhere off-screen. (Quick pause to say it’s impossible for these plot recap paragraphs to sound anything less than unhinged. Even before you get to “an alien race is laying dormant underneath the National Mall,” this is one of the season’s more deranged writers’ room adventures.)
Before long, Rick has foiled The President’s counterattack, sending the leader of the free world to take matters into some bio-engineered wings and a waddle. Shrinking down to turkey form, he tries to ensure that his “pardoning pipeline” remains unspoiled. These dueling plans hit a snag when a switch-up leads to an ordinary turkey being taken back to the White House and re-transformed. The gobbler, with a sudden command of English and a desire to take control of society from humans, wins over Congress and begins a plan to create a mass turkey soldier coup.
This is not the first Season 5 episode to reveal a secret subterranean society. Nor is it the first to feature The President as part of a mission to spare a major American city from a threatening outside force. Per usual, the show knows how to handle orchestrated mayhem, sending the Washington Monument into space and slicing up a few columns on the Lincoln Memorial. That technical execution goes a long way to distract from the fact that the “Thanksploitation Spectacular” is veering onto well-worn ground, but between the wide-scale destruction and the switching bodies gambit, the wilder parts of the episode feel tamer than they otherwise would.
It doesn’t help that the show is also going back to the “inject DNA into an unlikely target” well again. Though it’s a story idea that certainly gives an opportunity for the animation team to go wild — how unsettling are those quick inter-species transformation sequences? — this is a premise that can’t help but feel at least a little repetitive.
With Season 5 of “Rick and Morty” doubling up, David’s contributions stand out even more. Just as Justin Roiland manages to do with some of the more significant variations of the show’s two title characters, it’s fascinating to hear what details David seizes on to differentiate President from Turkey President. Some are subtle. (One of the best choices is to not make Turkey President’s lines as robotic as you might expect. It’s straddling a fine line between a character learning how to speak for the first time and getting more confident with each new convincing sentence he’s able to get out.) And then by the time the climactic sequence comes and he’s rousing the turkey soldier battalion with a war gobble, it’s hard to imagine wanting much more from a performance.
It’s also to the advantage of this “Thanksploitation Spectacular” that the episode doesn’t just let The President become Rick in another voice and body. Maybe you could imagine Rick taking down a mutant hybrid FDR clone with a well-timed “I’m sick of hearing how iconic you are!” But at his best, The President is a way to rein in Rick before he becomes a parody of himself. When Rick dismisses the idea of allegiance to any country and launches into a self-righteous anarchic screed, his new counterpart is there to wave him away with a “OK, Fight Club.”
Maybe it’s the show having a half-dozen episodes of President cameos under its belt, but by contrast the Timothy Olyphant-voiced turkey recruit just seems limp by comparison. Even if this is a two-level takedown of the way that war/action movies treat characters from The Heartland, it comes across as overly reductive. When you’ve got a character about to be turned into a turkey to help track down a genius scientist, nothing in those quick bar scenes can really match up to what’s happening elsewhere.
In the grand scheme of “Rick and Morty” episodes, this is destined to become “The Turkey One,” a swirl of self-aware body swap gags and the latest in a season bent on annihilating nearly everything in its path. But Birdperson aside, this is the show’s biggest try yet at bringing in a recurring character and ceding control of an episode to someone outside of Rick and the Smith family. Paired with the season premiere that gave Jessica more to do than be an object of affection, it’s a possible window into “Rick and Morty” becoming aware that, for its own longevity, it needs to become more than a collection of one-offs centered around the same core.
It’s a little gutsy to lean so much into the body-changing element that you effectively go without seeing most of the main characters for long stretches. (Though, giving the turkey versions of Rick and Morty their respective hairdos is a delightful little touch.) Given that The President is now making an appearance in a majority of the Season 5 episodes so far (don’t forget the quick “Mortyplicity” scene), there’s of course a potential trap in delivering too much of a good thing. But when you’ve got someone this strong waiting in the wings to be the Commander in Chief of an episode, it only makes sense to call on him when you can.
“Rick & Morty” airs Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.