Why popular animated show Rick and Morty’s toxic fans are its biggest problem


The worst of the fans completely miss the point about the main character, Rick, and worship him un-ironically

The worst of the fans completely miss the point about the main character, Rick, and worship him un-ironically

Toxic fandoms are now an unfortunate reality of the film/ TV world, especially in the binge-watching era, where online outrage can be easily and effectively amplified in no time at all.

Zack Snyder fans essentially bullied Warner Bros. into releasing the ‘Snyder cut’, an extended version of the movie  Justice League. The theatrical version had removed a lot of Snyder’s darker, grittier scenes and replaced them with comedic sequences shot by Joss Whedon, who Warner Bros. had hired to make the film more light-hearted.

‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ (2021) is the director’s cut of the 2017 American superhero film ‘Justice League’.

Similarly, Marvel fans went on a tweet-rampage after Martin Scorsese criticised Marvel’s market dominance — he said (correctly, I might add) that Marvel’s chokehold on screen allocation was making it difficult for independent filmmakers to get their projects financed. Johnny Depp fans put together a massive online petition to DC/ Warner Bros., insisting that they fire Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard from the upcoming  Aquaman sequel (they have not succeeded yet, but Heard’s role has been reduced significantly, as the actress claimed in a  Hollywood Reporter interview earlier this year).

Bringing out the worst

Currently, one of the most toxic fandoms in the world belongs to Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s  Rick and Morty, an adult animated show streaming on Netflix.  Rick and Morty is and always has been a well-written, funny show with plenty of irony, pop culture commentary and an outrageous visual style that borrows from several different animation traditions.

The show also has a surprisingly rich emotional landscape, following scientist Rick Sanchez and his teenage grandson Morty Smith (both voiced by Roiland) as they go on intergalactic adventures, usually guided by Rick’s whims and fancies. Through its cartoonishly cynical characters,  Rick and Morty encourages audiences to go in the opposite direction and work on their empathy, listening skills and so on.

However, it cannot be denied that  Rick and Morty also has a hyper-aggressive fanbase, a lot of whose members worship Rick un-ironically. They completely miss the point about his character and see him as an aspirational figure, even though Harmon has made it clear in several interviews that Rick is a critique of his own worst tendencies. Imagine if  Harry Potter fans suddenly started worshipping Lord Voldemort. The toxicity of the  Rick and Morty fandom peaked during Season 3, when Harmon hired female writers for the first time.

Screenwriter Jessica Gao at San Diego Comic-Con 2022.

Screenwriter Jessica Gao at San Diego Comic-Con 2022.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

Among these newly-hired writers was Jessica Gao — now better known as the creator of Marvel’s  She-Hulk. Gao wrote an episode called ‘Pickle Rick’, where Rick turns himself into a sentient pickle in order to avoid group therapy with his family. Towards the end of the episode, a therapist tells Pickle Rick some hard truths: “Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness.” This enraged young, male fans of the show and a bunch of them (on the famously incel-heavy forum  4chan) released the address and phone numbers of Gao and a few other female writers.

Course correction

I get the feeling that  Rick and Morty, after five-and-a-half seasons, understands the toxic fandom aspect of its own success. In its most recent episode, ‘Juricksick Mort’, Rick references the American writer David Foster Wallace, author of the landmark 90s’ novel  Infinite Jest (a 1,100-page postmodernist doorstopper). Rick stops the newly-reincarnated race of dinosaurs from killing themselves, saying, “There’s no David Foster Wallace-ing in my galaxy!” (Wallace took his own life in 2008.)

Because Wallace, it has to be said, is the epitome of the annoying-fandom phenomenon. His almost theological writings about attention and boredom and un-ironic sincerity fed into the neuroses of a young, male, college-educated and predominantly white American fandom, often bringing out the worst and most cringeworthy sides of these people. A 2015 article in  The New Republic said, “Wallace is the lingua franca of a certain subset of overeducated, usually wealthy, extremely self-serious (mostly) men” — and this is a harsh but largely true assessment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Wallace’s books myself. But I also see the point being made here in terms of the description of the average Wallace fan.

I wish more people watched  Rick and Morty as an exercise in escapism rather than as a lifestyle or an ideology. As Morty himself once said on the show, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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