Many people felt that NBC's Community lost something after series creator Dan Harmon got fired (he's since returned to the helm, of course, for the show’s upcoming season), but they were at a loss to describe precisely what that "something" was. Harmon's brand of controlled insanity was, and still is, a bit mysterious: sweet and dark, practiced and volatile. The new animated series Rick and Morty, about a hapless dork of a teenager and his alcoholic science wizard granddad, won't get us any closer to a workable definition of Harmon's genius, but at least it clarifies that the unhinged quality that Community once had wasn't accidental.
Rick and Morty, which debuts on Adult Swim at 10:30 tonight, is a team-up between Harmon and co-creator Justin Roiland, a voice actor, producer, writer, and director on quite a few animated shows, including Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, and Acceptable TV. If the first couple of episodes are any indication, this series will please fans of Harmon's Community and perhaps fill in the black hole left by the end of Futurama as well. Like the latter, a Matt Groening–David X. Cohen sci-fi spoof, Rick and Morty blends absurd slapstick, mild raunch, Mike Nichols–Elaine May–style deadpan blather, and detail-packed sci-fi panoramas that suggest that deep down, the people who made this show understand and truly adore the pop culture they're goofing on.
The core of the series is the relationship between Morty, a social, intellectual, and everything-else disaster, and his grandfather Rick, a madcap impresario-genius-rascal type who's always hatching crazy schemes to test the known limits of scientific knowledge. It's reminiscent of the relationship between Marty McFly and Doc in the Back to the Future films (note the only different vowel in the hero's name), except that Morty is as dorky and easily flustered as Marty was affably cool. Roiland does both characters' voices, though you'd never know without checking the credits, and there's equally fine voice work from the supporting cast, which includes Chris Parnell and Sarah Chalke as Morty's parents. The scripts, by Harmon and Roiland, have a keen sense of how far to push a gag before it becomes tiresome or excessive.
The show also roots some of the goofier flourishes in characters' psychology, rather than letting them hang there sans context while calling attention to their ridiculousness (a problem in so much of Seth MacFarlane's work). A lot of times when you're laughing at an almost-too-far moment, it's because it has revealed a curious or perverse aspect of a character, as when Morty zones out during class and has a sex fantasy about a schoolmate in which he's feeling her up; the scene cuts to a shot of Morty feeling up his brusque male schoolteacher, who says, "Five more minutes of this and I'm gonna get mad." A bully who terrorizes Morty in a school hallway has a very specific mania: Deep down, he's terrified that he's not an effective bully. ("You telling me how to bully now?")
The school satire and domestic comedy intertwine with Rick and Morty's journeys through time and space, which are dragging Morty's grade point average down and ruining his attendance record without yielding much in the way of notable discoveries. Rick seems mainly motivated by private demons — a lot of times his explanations for why they're going on an adventure are pure alkie babble, and his monologues are frequently interrupted by what sound like barely stifled belches.
It might sound odd to say this of a show that features flying saucers, talking insects, and inter-dimensional seed smuggling, but Rick and Morty is one of the more accurate portrayals of how charismatic alcoholics bamboozle meek family members into doing their nonsensical and often dangerous bidding. In the second episode, Rick proudly informs Morty that he's created a device that will let them enter a teacher's mind and "incept" the desire to give the kid all As so that grandfather and grandson can have more time together. "In the time it took you to make this thing, couldn't you have just, you know, helped me with my homework?" Morty asks. It's the wrong question. The right one is, "Where are we going now, grandpa?"