Rick and Morty: Season 4 REVIEW – Slow Growth

As a show which was an instant hit from the start moves into its fourth season, where does it have to go?

Rick and Morty Season 4
Rick and Morty Season 4

Rick and Morty has always, always, been at its strongest when it’s actively pushing the boundaries and experimenting with the limits of what animated comedy is. Hence the strongest episode of this season, by far, is the new interdimensional cable-equivalent, which is straightforwardly playing around with story structure from start to finish – not just its own story structure but the whole idea of story structure.

Both now and from the start, one of the show’s strengths has been its self-awareness – the awareness of Rick and Morty as a robust and recognisable character duo, the fourth-wall-bending meta-commentary. Even at its most puerile, like here, very pointedly not making a 9/11 joke, there’s often a self-awareness to it.

So it’s remarkable that it could then abruptly be so lacking in self-awareness as to launch a twenty-minute complaint about Netflix’s commissioning policies. Such a plot could only come from people who are part of the industry landscape, which Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland now definitely are. There’s an old saying that you should write what you know, but this is how we got a million novels about English professors contemplating having affairs, and Krusty the Klown’s immortal joke about ‘when your lazy butler washes your sock garters and they’re still covered with schmutz’.

To be entirely fair, this is more a lapse than a recurring problem. Rick and Morty is no stranger to the occasional moment of misfiring self-indulgence, most notably the Szechuan sauce debacle, the slightly reluctant second installment of Interdimensional Cable, and the Tiny Rick episode (something that the Pickle Rick phenomenon seemed to be mocking, but which too many fans took at face value). Nonetheless that evens out to around one a season. As hits and misses go, Rick and Morty has managed to stay slanted towards the former.

Rick has always been part of that distinct class of characters who are the horrible id unleashed, like Eric Cartman before him, but as the show’s rolled on this has gone through some evolution. Initially his amoral super-genius was tempered by being a classically Doc Brown-style absent-minded scientist (“sometimes science is more art than science”), but quickly moved into a stage where – and this was reflected in the more toxic side of the fanbase – both he and the wider narrative started buying into his own hype.

Here, the show’s lengthy, strung-out schedule becomes an advantage, as it’s given the staff time to incorporate this kind of feedback and bring things back from the brink. Even as early as the Pickle Rick episode, the family therapist was accurately pinpointing Rick’s obvious problems (Harmon himself noted that there was a time when he would have given Rick the last word).

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But this hasn’t quite revived the obviously flawed alcoholic Doctor Who that Rick began as, and this is because any undercutting Rick suffered was now coming from outside sources, rather than being either internal or coming from Morty, the Dionysus to Rick’s Apollo. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still a little too clearly the writers needing to put their thumb on the scales to keep their embodied id in line, rather than an organic process stemming from Rick’s own hubris.

As for Morty himself, no matter what he goes through his character tends towards stagnation. He has, due to the limits of the narrative, remained vaguely 14 years old for six years now, but that’s not why character growth has passed him by. Rick’s status as fan-favourite gravity-distorting centre of the show has changed the dynamic from ‘Rick and Morty’ to ‘Rick and whichever of the Smith family serves as put-upon sidekick this week’, leaving Morty little more than the first among equals. There’s even an episode in the first half of this run where Rick cheerfully replaces him with a guest star – though thankfully not the episode where the guest was Elon Musk, seemingly in a world-beating fit of trying to be down with the kids.

For whatever changes and evolution it’s gone through, the show is far from moving on from its familiar adventure-of-the-week format. Now, it’s unfair to expect the show to reinvent the wheel every single time, and obviously it’s never going to be as original six years in as it was on its first outing. However, Rick and Morty became the cultural monstrosity it did because of its sheer freshness, the delightful childish invention it brought to its use of familiar sci-fi tropes – and the occasional moment that cut through all the lasers and burping and lent what was going on some serious emotional weight.

This last point is a bit lacking in Season 4. There’s one very good montage of love and loss, and the ending is a properly climatic one, but nothing that could make you stop and think like Morty’s existential angst did. Granted these more serious parts are in even more danger of losing their flavour from overuse, but without any moments of pathos and reflection it would be just another adventure-of-the-week sitcom – in which some things happen, and yes, it might include more burps and lasers than usual, but then the twenty-two minutes are up and it doesn’t really matter.

The rest of it’s still there, although this too is showing some strain. There’s no clear dud in terms of the high-concept sci-fi rigmarole presented, but there’s nothing as immediately iconic as a giant head bellowing ‘show me what you got’. Worse yet, there’s a bit of what I hesitate to call repetition. Rick has relationship drama with another superbeing, and two separate, admittedly strong, episodes revolve around doohickeys which let you screw with causality and wriggle out of consequences. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s similar enough to notice.

But, even if the show’s running into some of the same ideas, it is still playing about with those ideas, and having fun with the way it presents them – which is exactly the kind of sci-fi stuff that people want from it. And if there is strain on show, it’s little more than you might expect from an incredibly popular show with an incredibly vocal and capricious fanbase. Pick through it for errors as I might, there’s nothing flawed enough to sour the opinions of the public. With a tall order like that, small wonder there’s a good long time between seasons – and it’s not as if another six months (or more) could have ironed out every fault.

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Rick and Morty Season 4
It’s settled into its own odd niche, it’s no longer the freshest item on the menu, but Rick And Morty’s still got it.