The longer that “Rick and Morty” goes on, the more weight it carries. That often comes in the form of expectations (not the least of which goes hand in hand with singlehandedly propping up an entire, growing corner of pop culture’s fandom sector). It also now has almost six full seasons of ideas it’s already tried, one-off chips it’s already cashed in, and character layers that are a lot easier to take off than they are to add on.
It’s not like “Rick and Morty” is this sacrosanct bit of culture that can’t be toyed with. The show itself is quick to joke about the ways it’s fudged canon and reworked certain ideas over time. But as is inevitable for something as unwieldy and obsessed over as it is for a notable chunk of its audience, this show was always destined to fold in on itself. In its impressive Season 6 — on temporary hiatus until toward the end of next month — “Rick and Morty” has figured out how to do that and still preserve itself on its road to 100 episodes.
Step 1 was taking a big piece of the show’s iconography off the board. The portal gun that lets Rick and Morty (and Summer and Beth and Jerry) hop between dimensions got sidelined in the Season 6 premiere. Rather than write outward in the way the show often does, by stacking galaxies upon galaxies until there’s an entire planet populated by multiverse versions of two characters, finding portal gun-free adventures led the show back to its neighborhood family hijinks roots. Not all of the Season 6 episodes have been confined to Earth, but “Rick and Morty” is showing a willingness to let the universe come to it rather than the other way around.
Without those other worlds to escape to and distract, the next few Season 6 episodes forced Rick and the Smith family to work on themselves even more than the show usually makes them. A callback to one of the show’s best self-contained gags once again brought the two title characters face-to-face with mortality. Beth and her clone (neither of them still 100% sure which is which) went on an episode-length exploration of what made them each happy. When the family got caught in a consciousness tug-of-war with their sleeping selves, Summer got a chance to take the lead as the head of the “Night Family.”
Escalation is still one of the biggest tricks this show can conjure up. The giant conspiracy that spins out from a single fortune cookie in “Final DeSmithation” is right in line with what the show has done with turkeys and squirrels and brined veggies in the past. What Season 6 has largely stayed away from is the kind of “what if [x] but ‘Rick & Morty’” setups that have led to some of the more treading water episodes in recent years. The “Die Hard” riffs in “Rick: A Mort Well Lived” were more a complement to the existential crises happening elsewhere than the main attraction.
Part of being more self-contained has meant relying less on guest stars this season, too. There’s still room for a “Peter Dinklage as a Hans Gruber type” here, a “Lisa Kudrow as alien dinosaur envoy” there, but there’s less of a need to clear out the way for a high-profile voice to cut through the family dynamic. Ever since the point of no return of getting a “Game of Thrones” actor to voice a dragon in a high fantasy parody episode, these guest cast members have stayed away from being too on the nose, either.
That leaves the show’s main cast to show off the kind of range that Justin Roiland’s had the chance to show off since the show started. Sarah Chalke has really embraced her own dual roles when called upon, really anchoring that episode centered around the two Beths. As each half-hour swings the Jerry pendulum between being being the family doormat and finding some odd newfound confidence, Chris Parnell continues to pull off both with ease. And though she’s been doing great work for as long as Summer’s been becoming a bigger part of the team, Spencer Grammer really made the Night Person version of Summer someone worth being scared of.
The best part about all of these slight tweaks and adjustments is that the show hasn’t lost its taste for the outrageous. Any show that can end an episode like the Season 6 premiere does, with a new character named Mr. Frundles gobbling up an entire planet in mere seconds, isn’t exactly one that’s limiting itself. The one-liner deliveries are still there. (Jerry, to a naked Rick walking into the dining room on Thanksgiving: “Rick, put some pants on. Today has so few rules.”) Space dimensions measured in “Marmadukes,” exasperated references to “Black Mirror” episodes, and winking references to how expensive it is to animate certain sequences: None of that has left.
For a show that often gets parsed over for its writing, it’s sometimes easy to overlook how great the show looks. Whether or not these episodes ground those big swings in something that’s emotionally satisfying, they result in massive battles and underground factories and futuristic hellscapes that are almost impossible to fully appreciate on first view. When the chaos clears and a few characters take a moment to appreciate a final sunrise, it pokes some tiny holes of sincerity in a show that’s often powered by cynicism. Even if there wasn’t still plenty more for this show still left to do, it’s building a world that’s worth returning to instead of only escaping to other ones.
“Rick & Morty” Season 6 will return on November 20.