A spoof is only a spoof until a character you care about gets hurt. I don’t mean slapstick-hurt. Emotionally hurt. After that, everything that happens has weight. You care. The outcome of the story isn’t of purely sporting interest anymore. Suddenly, you care nearly as much as you would if this were a “real” movie. You cheer for the heroes not just to beat the bad guys, but also to deal with their personal issues, whatever they are.
Wes Anderson gets this. Sometimes Mel Brooks seemed to get it, too: The moment in Young Frankenstein where the creator embraces his hounded, terrified creature has some of the same melodramatic power as the films it sends up. Hurt is the reason I have to remind myself, when making a list of the best Star Trek movies, that Galaxy Quest isn’t technically one of them. That story is essentially Star Trek meets Three Amigos, but when the faux-Enterprise crew realizes that the aliens who asked for their help are victims of genocidal persecution and get a glimpse of suffering so harrowing that the film itself won’t dare let us see it, it’s as if the movie slaps the smile off of our faces.
I’m not sure exactly when Adult Swim’s science-fiction comedy Rick and Morty, which returns for its third season on Sunday, gave viewers the back of its hand. It might’ve been the episode in season one where teenage Morty Smith — by which I mean the One True Morty, a.k.a. the Morty of C-137, grandson and assistant to boozing scientist and interdimensional troublemaker Rick Sanchez — had to bury the corpse of one of his alternate-reality doppelgängers in his backyard. Then again, maybe it was the episode where Morty fathered a child via an alien sex robot and watched it grow to adulthood overnight and embrace its genetic predisposition toward violence and cruelty. The first half of that episode, “Raising Gazorpazorp,” was a queasily effective look at the consequences of cultural and capitalist exploitation (yes, really), filled with sight gags that tightrope-walked the line between highbrow clever and lowbrow brilliant in classic Rick and Morty fashion. The rest of it was a backwards-ass version of a family drama about an intellectual father who loved his brutal mook of a son but was horrified by how different they were, and was unable to stop him from hurting himself and others and bringing shame upon the bloodline.
The series is shockingly funny, even when it goes into dark/disturbing mode, but moments like these confirmed that there was more going on than a bawdy, violent, nihilistically hilarious riff on science-fiction clichés and scientific principles, built around a character who’s like the Doctor reimagined by Armando Iannucci. Rick and Morty is executive-produced by Justin Roiland (who voices both title characters) and Dan Harmon; their writing staff has points of crossover with Harmon’s live-action sitcom, Community, which likewise managed to make you feel for characters who kept reminding you that they were characters and that everything happening onscreen was some kind of construct. In season two, Rick and Morty doubled down on serialized storytelling and allowed the consequences of Rick and Morty’s misadventures and indulgences to accumulate from week to week, in the manner of a straight-faced, science-fiction drama like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, or Westworld. By the end of the season, Rick had to surrender himself to alien jailers and accept punishment for crimes against the universe. Rick’s actions and Morty’s complicity in them had consequences for their family as well, deepening tensions between Morty’s older sister Summer (Spencer Grammer) and the kids’ parents, the levelheaded horse surgeon Beth (Sarah Chalke) and their posturing, insecure, incompetent father Jerry (Chris Parnell).
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the first two episodes of season three push the idea of actions having consequences even further. Like Futurama, another spoofy, animated, science-fiction comedy that staged episodes as sad as they were funny, Rick and Morty raids countless prior classics for visual and narrative inspiration: The second episode leans pretty hard on Mad Max: Fury Road, while the season premiere (which aired months ago as an April Fool’s Day surprise) mines the classic original Star Trek two-parter “The Cage,” but as it delves into Rick’s simultaneously liberating and destructive impact on his children and grandchildren, it becomes nearly as melancholy as BoJack Horseman.
The idea of Rick and Morty as a dark fantasia about the collateral damage of substance abuse has never gotten its due. The subject is front-and-center at the start of season three, even when Rick, Morty, and Summer are escaping to yet another alternate dimension and riding with post-apocalyptic mutant nomads in souped-up junkmobiles. (“I’m going to what used to be Seattle to hunt what used to be humans,” Summer informs Rick. “Stay hydrated,” he replies.) All the characters, but Rick especially, prove to have complex and often self-negating motivations once you think about why they’re doing things and not just what they’re doing. The pickled old scientist is a serial abandoner of families as well as a particular kind of brilliant screwup: the kind whose chaotic lifestyle makes his rare moments of heroism, many of them byproducts of selfishness, stand out more. “No union based on running from your problems lasts more than five years — seven, tops,” he announces, with unsettling authority. “Nobody’s special to him, Summer,” Morty whines to his sister, trying to disabuse her of any illusions she still has about her grandfather, “not even himself!”
Along the way, the series makes smart observations about the way money drives politics, the circumstances under which violence is justified as patriotism, and the tendency of humans to substitute gadgets for love and self-medicate instead of dealing with the roots of their troubles. Rick and Morty has always been one of wildest shows on TV. It’s time to admit that it’s also one of the best.
*A version of this article appears in the August 7, 2017, issue of New YorkMagazine.