When I first saw ads for Rick and Morty on Adult Swim in 2013, the premise seemed pretty straightforward: Back to the Future, except Doc is an asshole (or a bigger one, depending on how you felt about him in the movie). Beyond the obvious similarities of the premise, Justin Roiland’s Morty voice seemed to be a clear impression of Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, not unlike the one David Spade did on Saturday Night Live. I was down for this idea, but it didn’t seem particularly ambitious, and I figured the show would be good for some laughs but probably not break any real new ground. I don’t think I can quite overstate how wrong I was.
After a pilot that did a fine job of introducing the characters, the second episode, “Lawnmower Dogs,” was where Rick and Morty first showed us how far it was capable of reaching. One plot featured a take on Inception that was quite possibly more ambitious than its source material. In an attempt to convince Morty’s math teacher to give him better grades (so they have more time for adventures), the titular characters go into dream after dream, eventually encountering Scary Terry, a parody of Freddy Krueger who is not quite as confident as he initially appears. Meanwhile, in the main plot, after Rick builds a helmet to make Snuffles, the family dog, more intelligent, it ultimately leads to dogs taking over the earth and getting revenge on humans for their years of cruel treatment (“Where are my testicles, Summer?!”). Each of these plots could’ve filled a single episode, but this show took them on both at once. In the following episode, Rick builds an amusement park inside a human body, with rides based on various parts of the anatomy (RIP Pirates of the Pancreas). It didn’t take long for Rick and Morty to make it clear it was willing to explore some very odd places.
After a first season that had already been groundbreaking, the question of what Rick and Morty could possibly do for an encore permeated the early months of 2015. Could they take this already ingenious, way-out-there show and somehow take it somewhere even further? Surprisingly, the answer was yes. In “Mortynight Run,” the second episode of season 2, we see Morty play a video game called Roy, which is a literal simulation of human life. Despite only taking a few minutes, it feels as long as, well, life itself. Morty is shocked to find out he’d been playing a game for what felt like 55 years, while Rick merely mocks him for his inferior play (“You beat cancer and then you went back to work at the carpet store? Boo!”). The episode itself was great, and gave us the wonderful song “Goodbye Moonmen,” but that three-minute sequence epitomized the brilliance that Rick and Morty has proven capable of. They can take plots ambitious enough to fill an entire season (or even be the premise for their own show) and handle them in a single episode. Here, they took an idea that was more than enough to be an episode-length plot and decided to handle it all in the span of a few minutes, because they had even bigger ideas to explore.
When I first saw BoJack Horseman appear on Netflix in the summer of 2014, it seemed like a mildly interesting premise – a washed-up sitcom actor who wallows in self-pity at his former glory, but oh, by the way, it’s a horse. There could be some laughs there, right? One episode in, it seemed like a funny enough show, but not much more. It’s often stated that the first few episodes of BoJack outright sucked. This is a bit of an exaggeration; they were well below the brilliance the show had later on, but there was already some quality humor, and Will Arnett did a great job bringing BoJack’s crankiness to life. That being said, moving through the first season, and watching this show become deeper and deeper, is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever felt as a viewer.
As we watched BoJack attempt and fail at writing his memoir – while also pining for his ghostwriter Diane, who was dating the infuriating Mr. Peanutbutter – it was hard not to feel for the poor guy, in spite what a jerk he could be. That said, the episode that really showed what this show was capable of was “The Telescope.” The eighth episode of the first season, this episode focused on BoJack’s falling out with Herb, a former comedian who worked with him on his show, Horsin’ Around. We find out that in the ‘90s, Herb was outed as gay, and all of his friends, including BoJack, abandoned him, and his career subsequently fell apart. BoJack wants to to make amends with him, but while it initially appears that things work out, Herb ultimately refuses to forgive him, noting that BoJack was the one friend he thought he could count on. The most devastating line in the episode: “You have to live with the shitty thing you did for the rest of your life.” It hits home because it unearths the harsh truth that everyone has to deal with: there are some fuck-ups we can’t take back. It was also an inversion on the typical TV premise of characters kissing and making up because it’s what the audience wants to see. At that moment, it was clear that BoJack Horseman was going to explore the harsh realities of existence in ways that even the most brutal episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama never quite approached.
As BoJack continued to evolve, we would see it experiment with ideas that lesser shows wouldn’t touch. One of season 3’s best episodes was “Fish Out of Water,” which took place entirely underwater, and it only about two and a half minutes worth of dialogue. Somehow, the show still managed to be incredibly emotional, as we watched BoJack attempt to reunite a baby seahorse with its father. With this episode, BoJack proved that it could operate entirely free of the boundaries of the conventional animated sitcom. It could be experimental and cathartic at the same time, while largely doing away with the typical tropes of the form.
Generally speaking, Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman are two pretty different shows. Rick and Morty’s innovations come in the form of what can be done in the span of an individual episode, while BoJack’s strength comes from doing more with a serial storyline than any animated sitcom has ever done before. And yet they share two essential characteristics: each show was a bit of a Trojan horse, looking like something that would be an enjoyable way to kill a half hour, but nothing that would join the pantheon of all-time great television shows. However, both shows managed to go far beyond what we saw in their initial promotional campaigns, and they’ve each raised the bar for what an adult animated comedy can and should be capable of. Let’s be honest; after The Simpsons, Futurama, and South Park, adult cartoons were in a bit of a tailspin. Sure, we still got great shows like Bob’s Burgers and the criminally underrated American Dad, but there were few new ideas. Rick and Morty and BoJack have blown the door wide open, raising the bar for what adult cartoons could be. The third season of Rick and Morty begins next Sunday, July 30th, while season 4 of BoJack will debut on Netflix on September 8th. These shows will already go down as two of the most important animated comedies of all time; now we’re left to see if they can blow our minds even more than they already have.